AUGUST 29, 2010

It's been a cooling week of overhead fog on the Island our hometown set here in California on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. Javier has started plowing down the hapless stunted stalks of what never bloomed this disappointing summer in the garden out back of the House. The first red potatoes have already swum up from the loose sand that calls itself soil on the Island. Late garlic clumps are being pulled only now from the loam before they decide, well, if not this year might as well try again the next.

Its now the eleventh summer of reporting in Island-Life on things happening around the Bay and if this is the first time you read this sentence, we congratulate you for spending your time wisely out living the events on which we report instead of hulking in front of that darn computer screen. Life is short and its a long, long time to be gone.

As for us, our wheels bump against the desktop if we forget the chocks, and for that reason the dance floor is not a region where our limited abilities can perform well. Ah well, there are some born without noses who cannot smell the broken rosemary; everybody has their limits. We do not have the choices you have; life is what you are doing so that we can report it and live vicariously through it. Along with a number of others. So by all means, Carpe Diem. If you must imagine us as we look, imagine a bearded Cutter John sitting in his chair on a Bloom County hilltop gazing out over the fields of dandylions and mist. If you cannot dance, then smell and look. But always do.

The Staff has been preparing for the Annual Mountain Sabbatical with a different attitude this year. No one knows what is going to happen. No one knows if this is the last trip to the High Country or if this is just another period of trouble leading to yet another year of the same. Nights the Editor sits among scales and bags of carefully measured foodstuffs and bear cans while running about the usual tasks. Maps up on the wall display the treeless and trackless alpine slopes and mountain tarns of the High Country. James McMurtry plays over the PA.

"The wolves howl all night long
they won't stop and they won't go home
It'll probably be alright if I wait until daylight comes . . .".

The Editor notes that McMurtry will be appearing at this October's HSBF in Golden Gate Park. Something for which to look forward.

The Editor comes from a stern people. They were retrograde Catholics who had joined the offshoots of sects which had always regretted the modernization of Vatican II way back thenm, which meant that they were medievalists. They would have been heartened by current events and trends in the Church in which a sort of regression to a past time seems to be going on. But such people tend to knaw inwardly until the heart stops far earlier than expected and the Editor had long since fled that clan for the warmer and more congenial Unitarian air of California. There he had fought on the front lines at the clinic barricades against the Lifers and the Mad-eyed Theologians. This had resulted in a number of excommunications and any number of threats added to the ominous warning, "You best not come back here!" Punctuated with a nice burning cross on the lawn and a shotgun blast through the windows. And so for the Editor, there was no going back to the Sunny South. Nope. Here he had taken root.

Over at the House on Otis, the place is filled with melons. Probably some kind of harvest came in along with extraordinary deals on eggs, which seem to suddenly available at less than a penny a piece nowadays. Perhaps the salmonella had something to do with that. But the melons are a mystery, a sudden exhuberance of fruit that appeared quite suddenly and with abundance. Nearly every cushion and chair sports a melon which arrived from the Food Bank, via friendly strangers and from any number of well-wishers who know how desperate the straits are at the House until the place began to resemble a Buckaroo Banzai spaceship. Somebody had fashioned together a sort of tableaux made of a mannikin and clothes found on the beach and placed in the figure's arms a large ovoid honeydew with an infant's chapeau. The title, scrawled in magic marker on cardboard read, "Madonna et Melon".

Meanwhile, surrounded by melons, Xavier longs for a good old-fashioned hamburger. He, Xavier, Martini, Denby, Jose, Rolf, Marsha and Tipitina took one down to the beach and played touch football with it while Bonkers and Wickiwup ran back and forth providing interference and Tipitina's McFrugle's player blasted songs from her OK GO CD until Marlene yelled at them to bring back the food she was planning to make into melon soup.

Can't stop those kids from dancing but why would you want to
Especially when you are already getting good?
'Cause when your mind don't move then your knees don't bend
But don't go blaming the kids again
When the Morning comes . . . .

Mr. Howitzer, walking past the Post Office, was accosted by a real woman with child, both dirty and dressed in rags. The woman held up a small sign and called out to the real estate magnate, "Sir! Sir!", but Mr. Howitzer snarled "Go back home!"

The woman, taken aback by this tone, muttered, "Soy Californio!"

At that moment Eisenhower, Mr. Howitzer's dog, broke loose to chase after a rolling grapefruit which had escaped the shopping cart from Waifsay across the lot. A truck coming out of the PO, making the usual illegal left turn there bumped the dog abruptly before the driver slammed on his brakes.

Eisenhower sort of flew back a few feet and staggered a big with a bemused expression -- the dog was a chunky Weimariner similar to Mr. Howitzer's previous dog which had gone missing a couple Thanksgivings ago.
The driver opened his door to get out, but Mr. Howitzer had words for him and speak them he did at great volume. The driver got back into his cab and rejoined in kind about dogs running loose off the leash.

The blow did not kill the dog, but after that day Eisenhower's coat began to develop a yellowish tinge. His behavior changed as well. In the dog park, he lost his aggressive territoriality, and started sharing his toys with other dogs and protecting the smaller ones from bullies. He started taking chewsticks out to the racoons and leaving kibble for the neighbor's cat. Furthermore, all around the house, everywhere there was a portrait of one of the Bushes or of the Great Confabulator who had brought Conservatism in from the American wilderness a distinct odor of pet pee emanated. He started perking up and listening with interest on Sundays when music swelled from the Lutheran church across the way.

One day, right on the piano, right in front of Nancy's signed photograph, a steaming heap was found.

Yes, it was as Mr. Howitzer had feared. The absolute worst: Eisenhower had turned into a Yellow Dog Democrat.

O the anguish.

This is a time of year that is all preparation for leavetaking. The changes are subtle and the summer continues to sway like a woman dancing with her eyes closed in a hot sweaty bar filled with saxophone and memories. But the students are all packing up to go off and do what they never have done before -- leave home and enter a brave new world of learning things your mother didn't tell you anything about. Back to School sales are blathering their annual blather on the radio, in the newspaper, in the letterbox. And even here in California, here on the Island, wild birds form chevrons, practicing their leavetaking for Buenos Aires. Something about the light as it cuts through the window panes in the late afternoon looks a little different and something about sudden gusts of wind outside sound a little more insistent. Something is about to happen and a wind is due to come down from the North. All the butterflies have vanished; you saw the last one about a week ago.

Somerset sits on a stool in the Old Same Place Bar, drinking his last drink there on the Island. He is leaving and taking his family with him to go back to Terra Haute, even though it does not look like things are going to be any better there than here. A lot of families are leaving, going to stay with relatives, with friends, with any old situation. Folks are even returning to the ruins of New Orleans, for ruins in one place are just as good as ruins in another and might as well be in some place you know as miserable in some place you don't.

Need to get rid of any things, Padraic asks, hoping for some kind of windfall.

Somerset shakes his head. The trouble has lasted so long all the things that were are broken, torn up and useless. All has been badly mended and its off to the junkyard for the cracked dishes, the shattered and torn furniture, the broken electrics long out of date and everything else. He had come to the Bay Area on the tails of an insurance job offer and had done well for a long while. Then the Great Recession had hit and despite every effort, despite superhuman struggle and long nights and scrimping and saving and arguments about spending twelve dollars for a movie luxury or a case of beer their best had not been good enough. The house had been foreclosed and the car repossessed and they were down to the last dollar from the last garage sale. In the morning, they would toss a few things into the used wagon they had got from a neighbor and join the reverse wave of Okies washing backwards toward a sullen and inhospitable shore of dust. Where at least the rents were more reasonable.

All across the Island one sees these piles of shelves, boxes of books and clothing, dishes, lone sofas standing like Edith Piaf singing quiet songs of abandonment. Eventually, these piles erode as if by stop-action photography to nothing, for there always remain a few still fighting on who can use that pan with half of its teflon scratched away or those picture frames and the inevitable baby stroller.

Then again, there are those who drop a dishwasher or a microwave on the curb and angrily slice the power cord, as if to say, "I am going but the fighter still remains. You vultures shall not profit by my dismay and by leaving I shall leave you poorer than before. Pay yourselves for disposal, you scum." And so the world is indeed poorer for the loss of not only a useful thing but also good will. When those people recall their stay in California it shall be of a sullen and inhospitable people who welcomed them not and their anger shall abide.

At the other end of the bar sits Ng, who came in walking with stiff legs. Years ago, fleeing with his family the NVA advance, captured and pushed against a wall, a young captain of the North, barely a teenager, had shot him in both knees before blowing off the head of his sister beside him. The young NVA captain stood there looking at him, holding the pistol with an expression that declared to the world that this was his first atrocity, the first of probably what would be many more, and he dared Ng with his eyes the way teenagers do all the time around the world before leaving them there. The body of his sister fell down in front of him, twitched and was still while his parents wept. Eventually they made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand, but it had taken several more days. Because of that experience he walked with a limp as he went about his work as a mechanic at Blanding Automotive Works. Beside him sat Roman, a former Croatian who had tried to return to his native village Kortzyn near Split on the seacoast, only to find that not only the house, but the street, the neighborhood and most of the town had been obliterated by raids and subsequent bombs and most of his neighbors lay in shallow graves a few miles away and the name of the town would soon be erased from all the maps. He also worked in the garage on Blanding Avenue.

For these two there was no going back. Roman had always dreamed of owning a fruit orchard beside the ocean, and here on the Island the backyard sported a plum tree he had rescued from blight, to the eternal gratitude of his landlord, as well as some sunlight soil, where he planted grapes and other produce. And so he was able to make his own homegrown slivovitz in the old way and had become content, for his friend Ng owned a boat and the two often went out fishing together. Nothing he could do could ever bring back his neighbors or his family or his house. Not the girl with corn-silk braids next door, nor his murdered grandmother with her eyes, nor the water silo or the vanished well could ever be restored to the way they had been. What he had for now was enough.

Up on the bar telly, the news was showing a clip of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, the anniversary of which had passed this weekend. The camera cut away from the clip excerpt to show the florid face of a demigogue who had chosen the anniversary and the location to hold a rally of fascist brownshirts in Washington D.C. Several people threw celery stalks from their bloody marys at the screen so Padraic changed the channel to HBO and movie which showed a man digging a hole with a hunchback in a graveyard. The man cursed the work (What a filthy job!) until the hunchback, played by the bug-eyed comic actor Marty Feldman said, "Could be worse."

"How!" shouted the other actor.

"Could be raining . . . ".

Right then the long wail of the throughpassing train ululated across the laughing waters of the estuary as the locomotive wended its way from the gantries of the Port past the dark and shuttered doors and windows of the Jack London Waterfront, headed off to parts unknown.