Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Debased Nature of Speed Cops

I'm trying to find parking at Fort Mason on a Friday night in 2003.  Have you ever been to Fort Mason on a busy Friday night?  And tried to find parking?

I'd been asked to sell books during Word for Word's production of Upton Sinclair's Oil!  Parking was an issue because I needed a spot near the theater's entrance because of all the boxes I was schlepping.


I made one last pass up close when, right outside Building D, I spot a zebra-striped space, unoccupied.  I don't know what they're for, not exactly.  Not for parking, that's clear, otherwise this one wouldn't be empty.

What could it be for?  Fire engine access?

I convince myself that there will be no fires tonight and so snag the spot.  I mean, fighting fires is noble, but helping to spread the word of Upton Sinclair is noble, too.

These are the lies booksellers tell themselves.

At the beginning of the performance inside the Magic Theatre I worry about getting a ticket because of my illegal parking.  Getting a ticket - or worse, getting towed.  But watching the genius of Oil! unfold soon makes me forget all those outside troubles, and everything that matters is happening inside, on that miracle stage.

Do you know Word for Word?  They take a short story and perform it just like you'd expect - Word for Word.  That night, transported from Sinclair's world, a father and son travel on a California highway in a roadster like nothing you've ever seen.  This auto's got wheels made of chrome pipes, pistons shooting up down up down, crazy shiny grillwork, and it's breathing - I'm telling you, that automobile breathed.  Was brought to life by two actors.  One playing the engine and the other - well, you might not think that a woman in grease-monkey overalls holding a stick that vibrates as Dad accelerates could accurately represent a speedometer on a automobile from 1912, but trust me.

As the speedometer quivered like mad, fasterfaster, the stage receded and we were all right there, on a hot strip of California blacktop, watching a father and son enjoying the sun, reveling in the roar of the engine, when over the roar they hear - oh the injustice! - a siren.  That just sets Dad off, incites him to assail speed cops and their debased natures.

Dad berates and castigates, grouses to Buddy, his son, that the speed cop "chose a spot where it was perfectly safe to go fast, where he knew everyone would be impatient having been held in so long by the curves up in the mountains!  That was how much they cared for fair play, those speed cops!"

Traffic signs?  They were for people who didn't know how to drive.

But of course the reference to speed cops brought to mind the meter maids lurking out in the dark, so I'm bedeviled again by the ticket that's no doubt tucked under one of my Honda's windshield wipers.

The performance ends - too soon, too soon - and I'm left with the packing up, with the hauling to my car, with the dread of seeing that nasty little paper reprimand.  So imagine my surprise when I discover it's not there - there's nary a ticket in sight.  In fact, there's nothing in sight.  It's now after eleven and Fort Mason, bustling just a few hours before what with the performance and the reservations at Greens and lord knows what other manner of fun, but now the parking lot at Fort Mason is quiet, empty.  The only thing I think I see through the mist is a raccoon investigating a styrofoam cup.

I button my coat as waves lap against boats rocking side to side in the marina.

As I pull away from my illegal parking spot, I cut across the desolate lot and think that I still have time to get to the store before midnight, before closing.  But then I see in my rearview that I'm being followed by a van.

It creeps closer as I continue across empty parking spaces.  Suddenly, in the dark of the parking lot, bright lights shoot from the top of the van and I'm lit up like Buddy was on stage.

Great, a meter maid working overtime.

I stop and roll down my window.  A shadowy figure approaches the car.  As he gets close, he calls out, Do you know why I stopped you?

I forget if you're supposed to be truthful or not.  I know there was a study somewhere that came down on the side of the truth - or not - in these situations.  I just forget which.  He isn't interested, not really, because he asks for my driver's license.

My license?  Since when do meter maids ask for your license?  Then the guy tells me - I still can't make him out because he's back lit by all those lights atop his ride - that he followed me as I rolled through two stop signs.

I look past him at the mist swirling through the emptiness surrounding us, and I'm all, Isn't this a parking lot?  That, of course, is when it starts to dawn on me that Buford T. Justice here ain't no meter maid.  He stands up, straight, and informs me that we're on federal property and those were stop signs, two stop signs, that I just blew through.

I can't prevent myself - it's late, the store's going to be closed soon - and so there's just a hint of laughter in my voice when I say, No really, isn't this just a parking lot?  I didn't know the Federales had jurisdiction.

That was a rookie move.  I hear my Dad's voice come to me - Never laugh at guys with guns - just as the silhouette of this guy places a dark hand on a dark holster.

Right then, a big Shadow walks by the car - walks by, then slows, then stops.

In the middle of the big Shadow?  I can make out Dad, and Buddy.  The Speedometer and the Engine.  The whole cast from Oil!

I scootch down in my seat, I don't want to be recognized, not when Buford is headed back to his vehicle to "run this license."  But a small Shadow disengages from the big Shadow, and that Shadow takes form as Susan Harloe, one of the founders of Word for Word.

Susan peers into my car, all lit up because Buford said, Let there be light!  Susan looks in - Nick? she asks.  And I say, Um, yeah.  And she says, Are you ok?

By this time the Shadow - the actors, the director, and God knows who all else - has shuffled over to the car, so I say, Oh, I'm fine.  Just got pulled over by a Speed Cop.

Everyone laughs.

Susan says, Do you know the Buchanan Grill?  I nod, so she says, What do you drink?  I say, Scotch.  She says, With or without?  I say, With.  And she says, We're headed there - I'll have one waiting for you.

If Buford gives me a ticket, I'll just go to the bookstore.  But if he lets me go - a scotch on the rocks sounds mighty fine.  The Shadow moves off, still laughing, as Buford returns.  We both don't say anything.  As he hands back my license, I'm dying to say, These aren't the droids you're looking for.

It takes every ounce of sober concentration to keep quiet.

A fog horn goes off.  The air coming through my open window is cold, wet.

Buford puts shadowy hands on shadowy hips.  I'm letting you off with a warning, he says - and honestly, the rest of his little speech fades away like the call of the fog horn because I can already hear the ice chinking into my glass at the Buchanan Grill.  I've never had drinks with actors after a show, but tonight?  Tonight I'm going to.

And Susan?  Second round's on me.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Saddest Sound

I'm thinking it was 2002.  Karen traveled a lot that year - making it easy, say, on a Sunday night, if she wasn't home, to head to Delaney's after work before driving back across a couple bridges to an empty house in Alameda.

For a nightcap.  Or two.

That night, Paulina was pouring.  She'd just introduced me to Oban, back when, if I was consuming an adult beverage, it was Scotch whisky - almost exclusively.  Before my conversion to good American spirits.  To bourbon, to rye.

Oban's a delight.  Not super-smokey.  Not too sweet.  It really dances on the tongue.  If you haven't tried it, do.  Paulina shared the 14-year-old with me that night.  She knew another bartender, somewhere South of Market, a bartender who was letting flow with Oban's Manager's Choice.  Apparently they even introduced a 32-year-old that year - but that sweet dame would've set you back a grand.  So for Paulina's purposes?  The 14 was plenty good.

Late on a Sunday could be slow at Delaney's.  Slow there in the dark.  Brass fixtures barely glowing in the dim light.  All the Young Dudes playing on the jukebox.  I sat at the end of the long, shellacked bar, at the end nearest the windows.  The windows were closed because the fog was coming in off the bay that night.  There were just a few of us inside, drinking.  Paulina keeping some regulars happy - and introducing me to that wee, fine whisky.

We weren't talking about anything - you know how you do in a bar.  Maybe some baseball.  The Giants were on their way to the World Series - but of that, we shall not speak.

At some point, a guy horned into the bar, horned into our conversation.  We were awfully accommodating, I thought.  Even though the guy was a goof, we all acted nice.  Paulina may have been grumpy - but she did that a lot just to test you, to see if you could hack it or not.  Pretty bartenders can get away with that.

Now it's Rupert Holmes coming out of the juke, and with this guy wanting to talk with us, the conversation starts to lag.  More Rupert, less talk.  Which is saying something.

I don't know - have you been there?  In a quiet bar?  Just talking with some people you know?  Not friends or anything - just a few guys you see around the neighborhood.

I miss that about living in San Francisco.   We don't have a neighborhood bar in Alameda.  I mean, do I want one of those black satin jackets from the Lemon Tree Lounge?  Hell yes.  But they don't know me there.

The reason Cheers was such a great show is because sometimes you do want to go where everybody knows your name.

So anyway - you've been there, right?  Sitting in your quiet bar, looking at the people in the cold outside, while they look at you, cozy inside?  Those people, hands in their pockets for warmth, captured in the green neon of the light spelling out Delaney's, the green neon above the windows?  Those people decide - nah, not enough happening here.  They head off.  Heck, they're thinking, maybe the Paragon's still open.

In your bar, only a few of the tables have a few drinkers, and you're just talking with those couple other guys.  Two bartenders who've already closed down their joints because it's a quiet Sunday in the Marina.  And here's this goof of a guy who wants to talk to all of you?  Maybe his shirt is a little too starched.  His hair a little too short.  He's trying to ingratiate himself with a lot of fake camaraderie bullshit.  But you let it happen, what are you going to do?

I mean, sure, maybe you're not jumping to answer his gambits.  But you do, eventually.  Until he gets the hint.  He gets the hint, eventually, and stands up to go.  He offers to buy the round that everyone's drinking, but Jesus, you can't let that happen.  You don't want him getting the wrong idea.  It hasn't exactly been fun, trying to accommodate this guy, letting this unknown guy wheedle his way inside the smarmy little cocoon you've all spun on this cold, wet, quiet Sunday night.

By this time, it's Neil Diamond on the juke.  Girl, You'll be a Woman Soon.  A good song.  A song you just want to listen to for a minute without having to come up with some fake chitchat to send the guy out the door.  But go he eventually does, thanking you all with a wave, and as soon as he steps outside - finally, finally - the group of you let out a laugh.  Just you, and Paulina behind the bar filling up a glass she holds at an angle, filling that angled glass nice and slow with some Anchor Steam for one of the tables - just you, Paulina, and the two bartenders sitting there on their round stools.  You all just laugh, what the heck was that about?

But you stop laughing when Paulina catches your eye, and you notice two things fast:  number one, she's not laughing, and she should be.  She hates Dobie Gray and now he's on the juke singing Drift Away--

Give me the beat boys and free my soul
I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away

--so she should be laughing at that.  But she's not.  And number two?  Number two is she's indicating with a couple slight head-tilts that you should look behind you, at the door.

And you do, and when you do, you see - standing in the doorway - the goof.  He's running a hand through his too-short hair, kinda squaring back his shoulders like he's going to talk.

And then he does.


Know what the saddest sound is? he says.

All of a sudden, you and the jerks that you're drinking with are looking everywhere but at him.  Trying to focus on the bottles of whisky against the mirrored wall behind the bar.  Maybe at the table in the back, the table with the young couple waiting on the fresh-poured Anchor.  Yeah, you and the jerks are hoping that this man in the doorway is speaking to them.  But of course that ain't happening.  He's speaking to you.  Just you.

The saddest sound, he says, is laughter that a guy hears coming from a bar.  The guy?  He's not the best looking guy - sure, he knows that.  He's got an ok job, though - right in the heart of downtown.  But even though he's been working there for a while, he hasn't made any friends.  So when this guy leaves a bar after spending time with some new people, he thinks - he hopes - that the half hour pleased them as much as it pleased him.  But then, he hears laughter?  Coming from that bar, right as he left?  That laughter's the saddest sound because it lets him know how ridiculous his idea was - the idea that he'd finally met some people who had enjoyed his company.

And then he was gone.  Just gone into the dark of Chestnut Street.  And when no one says anything, it's Paulina who finally breaks the silence with the question, One last round?

And you're left there thinking, One last round?  Or call it a night?  You and all the other jerks in the world.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me - and then a Devil Dies in Pakistan

I was going to write about my birthday.  About Karen rallying the troops this morning, and getting kisses and birthday wishes from my girls.  About all of us going to the Alameda Point Antiques Fair.  About how it was a glorious day by the San Francisco Bay.  About how the girls each had five dollars of their own to spend at the Fair (can you say Barbies?)  About how I found a terrific Zippo, one that looked brand new but one that was made in 1966.  You know, the year of my birth.  Stamped on the side with the words Pacific Telephone.  Or the other find I made - you can find anything at Michaan's Antiques on the point.  Even stuff you didn't know you were looking for.

Case in point?  I've got a collection of small, antique bottles collecting on our front porch.  Little bottles that can hold a single, slim stem from one of the flowers blooming in our yard.  The largest of the bottles can hold a rose, but most are so small they can only accommodate something like a lavender bloom.  Maybe a flower from one of our azaleas.  And today I found a great addition to that cluster of bottles.  This one?  Square, about two inches high.  Amber glass with raised letters on one side - BOERICKE & SCHRECK SAN FRANCISCO.  Perfect to hold a delicate flower for Karen.

I want the bottle because it's so old - the pharmacy, Boericke and Schreck, originated in 1882 - but also because it's just so pretty glinting in the afternoon sun.  The amber glass has a rainbow sheen when the light hits it.

But while I'm looking at that bottle, I see another.  Round like the moon, but flat.  The glass is beautifully pebbled with air pockets trapped like insects in amber.

That's a pumpkin-seed flask, the dealer tells me.

A flask? I repeat.  The dealer's a little guy in blue sneakers, blue jeans.  Yes, he says.  That would have been sold in a saloon to a customer who was headed out the door but wanted a little nip to go.  See how this side - and he takes the bottle from my hand - see how it has a slight curve to it?  Perfect to fit in your pocket.

This - I say - this is a hip flask?  Sold on the Barbary Coast?  And the dealer in blue just smiles at me.

Suddenly, not only do I want this flask - suddenly, I need this flask.  And on my birthday, I'm going to buy it, and the teeny bottle for Karen.  My bottle?  I'll wash it this afternoon, my hands wet with suds and hot water.  I'll buy a bag full of corks at the craft store, the bag holding four corks each of four different sizes.  I'll pour some whiskey, or some mash, into that beautifully pebbled glass flask, stopper it with one of my new corks.  Hold the glass up to the light.  Watch how that light plays with the whiskey inside.

So that's what I was going to write about.  But that was before President Barack Obama announced tonight that Justice has been done.  Those are the words - Justice has been done - that we'll remember from the speech because those are the words that struck strongest as he said them - Justice has been done - that registered most emphatically when he finished.

Do you remember September 11th?  Do you remember how you felt?  How the world felt?  I was at work.  Paulina was setting up early at the bar next door, at Delaney's.  She had the tv's going.  People were stupefied.  Dumbstruck.  I didn't know what to do about the bookstore.  Should I close for the day?  It seemed - at first blush - crass to stay open.  I decided, though, not to close the doors.

No one much came into the store at first, so we were all just talking to each other.  Running next door to catch the images - those horrible images - on the televisions high on the walls in Delaney's.  But then slowly.  Slowly but surely.  People started coming into the store.  Not customers.  These were neighbors.  Friends.  Not exchanging money for books.  But Americans sharing time - spending time with other Americans.  Remember how proud, how angry and proud we all were to call ourselves Americans?

That was the best day and night we ever had at the bookstore there on Chestnut Street in San Francisco.  Not because of the money we made.  I don't think we made any money, really, that day.  But because that day, as the shock sunk in, people sought out a place to gather.  A place to talk.  To share.  And we were there for that.  To become a nexus.  To become a core of Americans - even the couple from France were Americans that day.  We are Americans today, the woman said in her beautiful French accent.  Hugging me as she cried.  She smelled of dusty lilacs - such an old perfume for such a young Frenchwoman, a Frenchwoman in black tights and a clingy top.  A Frenchwoman who had come into the store to buy a copy of L'Equipe for her husband who was drinking espresso across the street at the Grove.

We are Americans today, she said.  All of us.  And it didn't sound foolish or silly or wrong.  Because, that day, we were all Americans.

And then tonight - tonight.  Almost ten years later.  How many wars and lives later?  I saw a banner online.  Clicked through.  Walked out onto the floor of the bookstore and said, in my outside voice, Folks - it's just been announced that Osama bin Laden has been killed by the United States.  We're in possession of his body and the President will address the nation in a few minutes.

Oh God, oh God, someone said.

Chills, Jerry said.  I've got chills.  Are you serious?  It's like hearing that they killed Hitler.

Wait, what else are they saying? this guy called out, a guy sitting on the bench in front of our magazines.

You know everything I know, I said.  I'll keep you updated if I hear anything more - like the rumors the radio started broadcasting in those few minutes before the President spoke.  The operation took place last week, we were told.  The body of bin Laden buried at sea days ago, they reported.

None true, none true.

But once again, ten years later, the bookstore became a gathering place, a place to share incredulity and shock.  The reactions were tempered this time - tempered by ten years of attacks.  Ten years of killings.  Ten years of feelings that swung from We are Americans today to -

- to.


Feelings have swung from those united feelings of anguish and anger to something often uglier.  Often directed towards us.  Some say we squandered the good will we had garnered, squandered it with American arrogance and American violence.  Others said and continue to say that we did not seek out the violence, but that when it was visited upon us we had no choice but to respond.  And that when your opponent pulls a knife you should of course pull a gun.

I wouldn't have thought that it was going to take ten years.  Ten years?  I lived in San Francisco ten years ago.  Didn't have either of my daughters ten years ago.  But did have my dad - hearty and healthy ten years ago.

Ten years.  Long time to stay mad.  But I'm Greek - I know all about grudges.

So if you ask me, right now, is it just or right to have killed bin Laden?  To have hunted him, pinpointed his whereabouts,  ordered his execution?

Right now?  Right now I'm thinking about my thoughts ten years ago.  My disbelief.  The numbness.  Then outrage.  The knowledge that the hunted man, ten years ago, wept with joy as each plane hit the Towers and exulted - after each impact - God is great.  The Devil may even have danced.  Do you remember that?  Some even said the Devil danced that day.

I'll think about that Tuesday, think about New York City firefighters rushing up those towers as everyone else rushed down.  Men and women fearlessly doing their jobs on September 11th, 2001.

Want to know the image that sticks with me?  Not the plane hitting the second tower.  Not the ash-covered denizens of New York fleeing Ground Zero.  It's the picture of two people, forever unknown,  hands clasped, jumping together from the North Tower.  Jumping out of a window 100 floors up.  Holding hands, touching another human for just ten more seconds - forced to make a harrowing decision.  Not whether to die, but how.  Two people holding each other, fingers entwined - seeking brief comfort there - before taking that awful step away from the heat and into oblivion.  So tonight, right now, when you ask if justice was done?

My answer is yes.

It might be different tomorrow.  Hell, before I had children, I had convinced myself that capital punishment was wrong.  So maybe the rational Nick talks me out of my feelings tonight.  But tonight?  Tonight I'm going to go home.  I'm going to lift a flask that I bought, cleaned and filled this afternoon and I'm going to drink.  Mainly, I'm going to drink because it's my birthday and I'll toast myself and my good fortune.  I'll think of my wife and my daughters, my family and friends.  Those here, and those who have passed.  Because this is what I do on my birthday.