We heard sonic booms all the time. No doubt they were nerve-shattering for many, but to my young ears they were exciting. And there were things even more exciting than booms. On at least one occasion we spent much of an evening outside our North Bay Area home looking east toward Nevada, my martial-inspired father thinking we might be able to see the sky illuminated by a nuclear test which, of course, failed to live up to its promise.
Like so many houses built in the post-war decades, our two-car garage was the dominant feature, the rest of it sitting farther back from the street. A short walk along the garage would bring you to the front door and into the living room, which shared its major wall with the garage. About the only light coming in was from the window along the side of the house, largely blocked by the fence and the neighbor's home. Well, there was some light coming from the dining room--that area being just large enough for a table--a room that was not really a room in and of itself as it opened directly into the kitchen, as well as into the living room. It had the requisite double sliding glass door, the source of the only real light coming into the house. Not enough, though, to properly illuminate the cavern-like living room.
I have several memories of my mother in that front room. Sitting there, she seems distant and uninvolved and about as gloomy as the room itself. But I do remember her smiling in the sunny dining room. I don't recall meals in that home but I remember spending afternoons with her at the table. It was there that Mom taught me how to tell time. (I think it had been discussed earlier that day in school but I was confused: If the small hand was on the 12 and the big hand on the 1 why wasn't it one minute past 12?) Her explanation is now lost more than 50 years later but I understood what she told me. It's funny I should remember that. In the presence of a doorway to sun, air and open space, youth's universal playground, I learned about the cadence of a dimension I had virtually no notion of. Time, I learned, was measured not in just years (a half year, as in being 5-1/2 years old, seemed to have enough specificity to satisfy a growing child). Sure, there were mornings and nights and schooltime and they had distinct qualities of their own. But I was now being taught that time moved rhythmically in hours, minutes and seconds--simple, cold, uncaring units.
Actually, I found it fascinating and understand only now that the concepts I learned that afternoon may have formed the basis for much of what I was to think about throughout my life. But looking back, irrespective of the primal excitement over sonic booms and atomic bombs, which in fact are artifacts of our Einsteinian interpretations of time, this may have been my first understanding of an artificial system used to describe a product of nature, my first awakening into an adult human world dominated by abstractions and devices intended, they say, to improve and protect our lives. To be sure, the clock has not facilitated my life a whit. Like booms and bombs, it's the height of danger itself, an ever-present bugaboo, chronically ticking and making demands, transforming our lives in ways we never would have imagined. In response, I find that I frequently withdraw into the darkness of the living room and watch my mother rock my new-born sister. I think I'll stay here awhile and reflect on the meaning of life.
It was the first homework assignment in Kathy Cowan's creative writing class: Select and write about three points we enjoyed from the introduction to Judith Barrington's textbook. I wrote the following.
Frankly, there was nothing from the introduction to Writing the Memoir that I particularly enjoyed. I simply didn't like it.
I'm frequently denigrating my own sex, and take pleasure in it, but I'd think that while writing an introduction to a how-to, the writer would be a little bit more opened-minded about who it is she is writing for. For example, she states that she cherishes the "increasing number of memoirs written by a wide range of women," and she specifies some of the qualities of those women, but then adds, almost parenthetically, "and also by men of good will." Huh, what does she mean by that? Is "good will" a component that women are not expected to have in order to write? Or can only those men possessing good will (to hell with other characteristics) write memoirs--all others simply being incapable of it? If so, then from what criteria are we to judge a male as having good will? Barrington acknowledges the wealth of feminine humanity but seems very narrowly focused outside of it. Certainly, she's a feminist but that doesn't mean that she should also be a sexist. Judging from the introduction she is both.
I had a little conversation with myself after writing this, one that I've frequently had: "Okay, this is not what I was instructed to do. God, why am I always doing this? Can't I just follow instructions and do what I'm told? Why do I always need to turn something into something else? I can do this. Think, damn it. Just find three points. I'm sure they're there. I can fake it, maybe even to the point of impressing the teacher. Just do it." So I reread the several pages. And I struggled. I tried to open up my mind to the positive aspects of the piece but I'd been waylayed. Try as I might, I just could not get "men of good will" expunged from my head. "Ah, to the hell with it," I thought. "I'm done. It's written and I'm happy. Get on with your day." So I turned it in as is.
I arrived to class a week later and sat down just as the Kathy was writing out the evening's agenda items on the board.
Number 2: Cooley's crit
Shit. I've done it to myself again. I'm going to be publicly humiliated for going "outside the box," for "marching to the beat of a different drummer," for not "being part of the team" or not "of the familia," for not following "the paradigm," ignoring protocol, or for just being a "bad egg." Why do I do this? Why can't I just be a good boy and worry more about pleasing people. Maybe I'd be better liked. Life could be so much easier.
"I have a surprise for the class," the teacher said after finishing up the first agenda item, "but I don't see that Michael Cooley is here tonight." I feebly raised my hand. "Ah! He's sitting right in front of me and I didn't see him!" She looked toward another location in the room. Back at me. "I guess I got a little confused as to who is who." That's good, I thought. I'm not who she thinks I am. Maybe she doesn't like my face and she'll just drop the whole thing and everyone will forget about it. "Do you mind if I read it?" Ugh. What am I to say? I've already been exposed. I'm a sitting duck. No point in evading punishment. I don't need to slit my throat, she's going to do it for me.
I turned my belly skyward, offering it to the gods, and acquiesced. "Go ahead."
She read with great relish and paused at the right moments for effect. I was wholly surprised. The words rolled trippingly off her tongue. Damn! It sounded pretty good! "I really like this!" she says to the class when finished. "And do you know why? It shows critical thinking--a class I also teach, by the way. I didn't notice it myself but I think it's an important point. It should be sent to the publisher! They need to know about this! I like your courage, Michael. It's gutsy to write like this. And, of course, it's not an easy issue to point out to a classroom full of women!...You write well."
I walked back to my car in total amazement: I was sure that I had stepped out of bounds and yet I hadn't been "fired." I was unable to remember the last time I had received so much support for such insubordination. In the last decade? in the last four decades? and for something that I considered a throw away item! something that I had not given much thought to at all! My chest swelled and my eyes actually teared. I tried to shrug it off and drove back home to my cat; to the cat who doesn't need dramatic soliloquies to be impressed. Instead, he sits on my lap and purrs. I purred too.
Phebe peered with itty-bitty eyes from behind her thick, bulging wire-rimmed eyeglasses. She was a sweet, slight, wizened old lady with a thin, high-pitched voice that sputtered in a hacker's cough after every three or four words. I flunked her English class. After all, I was an insomniac and it was an opportunity to sleep. After two failed attempts to pass, drama teacher Miss Koob managed to get the approval I needed to take creative writing instead. Mrs Theis didn't want me but later she and Beth, who told me that her boyfriend and gone off to college and that she was free to date, praised my writing. (Beth played the deaf-mute in the Spiral Staircase. I scared her half out of her wits, she later admitted, each time I tried to strangle her.) The junior year history teacher learned I was a senior and demanded I get all my past-due homework in tomorrow or I would not graduate. Instead, I wrote a new poem for Mrs Theis's class. My sister wouldn't let me read the draft to her—she hated me, she thought—and that led to a fight and I went to the movies to cool off. When that didn't help I hitch-hiked to Des Moines in the middle of a snow storm:
The barking dog in the middle of the street, I named Pancho. He huddled under my sweater and jacket as we walked and shivered. We tried sleeping on the straw underneath a house that had been moved and was still without its skirt, but it was too cold. We found a warm Laundromat and at about six a.m. a middle-aged black woman asked what I was doing there. Shouldn't I be at home, she inquired. Where did I live, she wondered. Could she help, she offered. I was running away from home, going to live with my grandmother in California but I didn't know what to do with the dog, I told her. I had less than $4 in my pocket. How long would it take to get there? I had to feed myself. I can't feed the dog. What do I do? She called the pound and a few minutes later the dog was loaded into a crate. Pancho—small and sweet with bulging eyes—was crying. The old lady and I cried. The sun was up and I was on my way.
Just where in Des Moines had my friend Dennis moved to? I'll find his new school. He'll be there. I fell asleep in—and was kicked out of—the public library but I found Dennis that afternoon and spent a week with him and his mother. She didn't want to get stuck with a dog so Pancho stayed, as far as I know, at the pound. I didn't know Mrs Brown had telephoned my mother, but what did I expect? Back to Newton (the home of Maytag washers, incidentally) for a day or two to collect my things at home and at school, then a plane flight to Long Beach to be with my grandparents. (Grandpa was becoming senile and tried to light his cigarettes by striking them against the pack. It seemed funny at first and then I worried.)
I went to Woodrow Wilson High School for three months. I played the forlorn, suicidal Jerry in The Zoo Story with its twenty minute monologue he called "The Story of Jerry and the Dog." I've been to the zoo, he said to Peter. My grandfather found the play upsetting but there was a fabulous write-up in the Press-Telegram. I won the Best Actor award. My girlfriend exclaimed, "You are Jerry!" and I graduated.
That was a long time ago. I sometimes wonder what happened to Phebe. It was mean of me to fall asleep in her class. She deserved better. Pancho deserved better. Miss Koob spent 444 days in Iran as "A Guest of the Revolution."1 I became best actor. But that was then.
I doubt I was her first boyfriend. After all, she was 15 and beautiful: blonde-haired, blue-eyed and pink-lipped. I was 14 and was having my first adventure in love.
Sarah and I met at school--not as students but as colleagues of sorts. I was in the school play and the teacher had enlisted her daughter's services. Sarah was, in fact, attending another school in another city but she'd come to our school and do our makeup every evening. Once the play's run came to an end I assumed I'd never see her again. But at the beginning of Monday's class Mrs Ward said, "Sarah misses everyone...especially you, Michael."
Well, as they say, one thing led to another...
...and then one evening, following three months of romantic bliss, we took a casual, after-movie stroll, hand-in-hand, while waiting for Lou, my step-father, to pick us up. Walking ahead and across the street from us was another couple, perhaps 10 years older, also hand-in-hand, also obviously enamored of one another.
Sarah commented: "Gosh, I hope they don't have any children."
"Why?" I asked.
"Can you imagine what they'd have to go through?"
"Don't you see?" Sarah asked. "He's black and she's Chinese."
"My parents have always taught me that's wrong."
"We're very religious, you know," Sarah continued. "And, besides, my dad believes that all Chinese are condemned to hell because they're non-believers."
"I'm a non-believer," I told her.
"Because believers believe that those who do not believe, or even if they're just biologically different, are condemned to hell--and that they should not be allowed to marry outside their group, no matter the love that may exist."
We hadn't had much time to talk about it when Lou pulled up. But I had made myself clear. I was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist--and not because I was brought up that way (quite to the contrary) but because my observations and reflections led me to certain conclusions. We sat quietly in the back seat, still hand-in-hand and perhaps with our heads lowered a bit--much as if in prayer, I guess, as Lou drove us back to her home.
Only a day or two passed before she called. She was breaking up with me. Not because she wanted to but because her mother, my teacher, insisted. It was at the very end of the school year so I was not to have any uncomfortable classes with Mrs Ward. And, as it turned out, we moved to Iowa that summer. There was nothing that could be done and I had to learn live with it...
...and then one afternoon, four years later and back in California, I found myself driving with a friend in the neighborhood of the high school. "Steve," I asked, "would you mind if I stopped in at the school? I'd like to see an old teacher." We walked in just as class ended. Mrs Ward didn't recognize me at first, I had long hair and the beginnings of a beard. And she didn't even recognize my name because I was no longer using Lou's last name. But soon the confusion was settled and we sat ourselves down into some student desks and talked. I'm sure that not much time passed before I asked about Sarah. Mrs Ward would have had no idea that I was still carrying her daughter's photograph in my wallet but she certainly had anticipated my question.
"She's fine--now. She had a very difficult time for awhile. Her father and I have learned a great deal. It was a very trying time for all of us."
Now about 20, Sarah had already been married for some years. Her husband, I'll call him Juan, was of Hispanic descent and that didn't sit well with the family. Indeed, they virtually disowned her and had little to do with the couple. In time, Juan was drafted and sent to Viet Nam and Sarah moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved with the scene there, drugs and all. She filed for divorce. Juan, not willing to lose his precious Sarah, was granted leave, came home and did everything one would expect a good husband to do. He not only won Sarah back but also won her family's gratitude and respect. Sarah was saved from her downward spiral and things were better. Her parents, Mrs Ward admitted, now adored Juan. The message was not lost on the family.
We probably spent more no than 20 minutes together. I left and never heard another word from or about any of them. But Sarah was married and happy and my heart was mended.
We often try to connect the dots in our lives, take disparate events and weave a meaningful narrative from them. Was it coincidence that my last real conversation with Sarah was about racism and that a major rift erupted years later between her and her parents over that very subject? Perhaps. It was the 60s and issues of that nature seemed to be tearing the entire nation apart, let alone individual families. But I'd like to think that I planted a seed, that I was in some small way responsible, not for the pain of course, but for a wee bit of the healing.
I have no idea how this story might have ended. Hopefully Sarah, Juan and her parents are still alive and able to reflect over the events of their lives. And it's okay that I don't know. After all, some endings are divulged only on a need-to-know basis. It was another time, another life and we've all moved on.
My great-grandfather, who died 29 years before I was born, was said to have shaken the hand of Abraham Lincoln. I can say this: on May 7, 1976, a century, a decade and a year later, I rolled a joint for Grace Slick. Not quite as honorable a deed but that's the story I'd like to tell.
I was living and working at a downtown Santa Cruz hotel, one of those places "of character" where poets liked to go for the ambiance. Indeed, Lawrence Ferlinghetti would visit for a week every year. And we found a dusty, decades-old guest register, along with a $20 gold piece, hidden far back on a lower shelf in the office. Ken Kesey and William Burroughs are the only names that I remember from the old register. But among our current and regular guests were indigents, mental patients, artists, rapists and rape victims, bitter old ladies, grizzled child molesters, students who were looking forward to moving up in the world and people who had been up there but were steadily, quietly, sliding into obscurity and poverty.
For instance, there was John Wallace, who had been a reporter for the Associated Press, had been to White House briefings during FDR's later years, and had been arrested by Peron's regime while stationed in Argentina. He had studied painting with George Grosz and had interviewed the likes of Louis Armstrong. There's a photograph of him with Eisenhower, heart surgeon Dr Gorelick and the young Greek boy John had saved from a life of heart disease. But now, long retired and disenheartened by the breakup of his third marriage, and having lost everything except his pension, John proudly strolled, as was his way, into the lobby of the St George Hotel with nothing but a typewriter and the clothes on his back.
But this is not a story about John.
David1 had been a writer for the Rolling Stone during the height of San Francisco's cultural renaissance. He'd became ensnared in alcoholism and drug addiction but was now back in the Bay Area after the long ordeal of recovery in Santa Monica. He now situated himself into the heart of The George and was trying to rebuild his life. This was to be a time of healing for him. To my surprise this is, in part, a story about David.
And then there were those of us who found ourselves in a place in between places. The hotel was a temporary lay-over, somewhere to while away a few years in what turned out to be an unexpectedly stable, enriching and supportive environment. Like David, some of us, we later realized, had come there to heal. And some of us did. In the meantime, there was hardly a dull moment for a person who took some interest in the Human Comedy--in the state of the human condition. It was a very existential place and time and the perfect spot for a Eugene O'Neill fan.
One rainy and humid afternoon I sat in the popular and crowded downstairs cafe. It was the start of the disco years but you wouldn't know that by the clientele. There was hair everywhere--long hair and beards and unshaven legs and armpits. Everyone was drinking their mega-strength brewed coffee, smoking their rolled cigarettes, playing chess and darts, and talking. All of us, I'm sure, were sweating in this dank, rank and packed room.
The chair next to me may have been the only unoccupied seat in the place, a situation which lent itself to one of those rare, chance encounters. Cynthia sat down and introduced herself. She was cute and despite the layers of clothing, I could see there was a rich, supple and sensuous world waiting underneath. She was smart, too, but I don't remember our conversation. In fact, it was brief. Indeed, my room was practically right above from where we sat.
She had come down from San Francisco and stopped in for some tea before going to a gig, playing her conga drums for a dance class. She did this every so often in the weeks coming but I soon found myself taking the bus to spend weekends in The City with her. We liked one another and she was always very accommodating, even once setting up an easel and oils so that I could start a new painting. (Never mind that it came out as a gray mass of nothingness. Perhaps it was an accurate reflection of my emotional state.) But this particular weekend, about which I shall speak, would not be the usual affair. After all, I ended up rolling a joint for Grace Slick.
Cynthia was terribly excited. The conga player for Hot Tuna was sick and the musicians' local had called her in. It was the opportunity she'd been waiting for. Friday afternoon was spent having her long, straight hair permed and a special outfit put together. I don't remember anything about our arrival at the Winterland, only that I was amazed at the ease by which we were led backstage, already a hubbub of activity. Preparations were being made for the three-act show: the Jefferson Starship, Country Joe (perhaps without the Fish) and the newly reconstituted Hot Tuna band. It was also Bill Graham's tenth anniversary in the business and a party atmosphere quickly developed. Hors d'oeuvres and other what-nots were present and famous people were soon bounding everywhere.
I was standing in the middle of the room, taking in the spectacle, when I turned to find myself practically nose-to-nose with Graham. I froze as he looked intently back at me, coal black eyes topped by thick, unruly black eyebrows, in a glare that today would make one think of a Donald Trump firing. I immediately withdrew to the long table near the wall and its catered fixings where Grace was serving. "There's a lot of people in this room I don't know," she said, while serving me hot beans, or whatever it was. What a great opportunity to introduce myself and explain my presence. But I was standing before a goddess, and one who had the humility to serve me beans. I merely lowered my head in deference, thanked her and walked away.
I sat, ate and later rolled a cigarette. Sitting on the floor near me were Country Joe, barefoot and clad in overalls, his legs gathered up in front of him, and his pregnant, barefoot wife, her legs extended straight out in front of her body. Again, I was too shy to manage any more than "Hi. How are you?" And that was the best he could do, too. Perhaps he was also shy. Certainly, he seemed to be the gentlest man in the room and I'll never forget his kind, calm, country aura and the sweet smile in his eyes. And Grace sat at the other end of the room with a small group of friends. We occasionally exchanged glances. Actually, I was staring. She was beautiful, a legend, and I couldn't keep my eyes off her. Then suddenly I felt discovered and exposed as one of her group got up and ambled toward me. Had I been staring too hard? Was he going to tell me that I was being very rude? Was he a jealous boyfriend? Should I think about protecting myself?
"We noticed that you're an expert at rolling cigarettes," he said. "None of us can manage to get this damn joint rolled. Will you do it for us?"
Imagine my surprise. After all, you'd think the Starship would know how to do such things! Of course, without a moment's thought, I obliged them and found myself again in Grace's company. But I had to apologetically decline the offer of a hit. I'd given up all drugs, including weed, some years earlier, which was a potentially dangerous thing to admit in those days. (I'd been thrown out of a party once for not smoking--the idea being that only a narc would turn it down.) But they seemed to understand and took it in stride. Nevertheless, I'd accomplished the task they'd requested of me and returned to my spot on the floor on the other side of the room. I didn't know then what I know now, that I could have said "No thanks, I've given it up but I'd be happy to sit and talk with you and enjoy it vicariously." And I also didn't know that I had passed up on an opportunity to exchange genetic material with Grace, something that can sometimes happen with simple physical contact. Sometimes, they now believe, foreign genetic bits can even work themselves into the host's own genes. If I had taken even just one toke, there's the slightest chance that I would now be walking around with some Grace hidden deep inside of me.
Naturally, I watched Cynthia's performance from the auditorium. She looked great. Her knockout body gyrating in rhythm, her calloused hands, the only unsoft thing about her, smashing down on drum skins, her frizzed hair sparkling under the colored lights--and all of it framed by projected, psychedelic patterns. "What a trip," I probably would have said to myself.
I'm back at Cynthia's for another weekend, in a dark mood, overcome by my ongoing depression. Not even her prancing around in the nude could revive me. I never saw her again and I don't know to what extent she had been able to experience her Rock 'n' Roll dreams. She'll always have Hot Tuna.
John, the old newsman, and I became very close. He died of cancer in 1982, seven years in to our friendship. It was only then that I learned that some of the hotel's tenants believed he was full of shit, that the only thing he had accomplished in life was the development of a creative mind that spun great but untrue stories. I knew better and later did some research and collected material for an exhibit of his paintings at the library. John had, in fact, lived the dream.
Of course, I never saw Grace again. But I did get news several months later through an unusual grapevine. I was still working the graveyard shift at the hotel when the phone rang at about 2:00 a.m. "Is David there?" He's probably asleep in his room. "Would you go up and get him?" It would have to be something very important for me to do that. Who's calling? "Jerry Garcia." The absurdity seems laughable to me today but it did cause a moment's reflection at the time. Anybody else would probably have just hung up but I'd gotten to know David and was as sure of his sincerity as I had been of John's. So I chose to rouse him. Grace, he later explained, had broken up with bandmate Kantner and was inconsolable. David, Jerry thought, could help.
It was some days, weeks or months later that David and I were out drinking and having Chinese dinner with friends. I suddenly became tired of his old glory-day stories and to his utmost embarrassment, I'm sure, in front of our friends, told him so. An argument ensued and I tore in half the three or fours dollar bills he had contributed to the tip. "I don't need your money!" I said. Later that night, stumbling about in my drunkenness, I found David sitting on a curb, the torn bills in hand, crying. I sat down next to him for a moment and apologized but it seemed hollow. I had unreasonably and inexcusably inflicted great hurt on a friend. I'd have to wait for a better time, better circumstances--and first ask myself some serious questions. That time never came.
Before he could collect and put back together the pieces of his life, and still living at the St George Hotel in downtown Santa Cruz, David was struck and killed by a car while hitch-hiking on Highway 9. His Rock 'n' Roll dreams came to an end and I chalked up yet another regret too late to act upon.
And I have no more Rock 'n' Roll stories to tell.
Recently after telling a friend several cat stories, she remarked that she had had her cats for 16 years but could not offer up one single story about them. The cats just seemed to "be cats." They just sat, ate, sunned or slept. But the fact is, I have come to learn, domestic cats very much become a reflection of one's degree of engagement with them. Any domestic animal will do remarkable things if you allow yourself to pay attention and become an integral part of its life. How a house cat becomes a cat very much depends on one's definition of a cat. But this is not a concept well-received by those who are anthropomorphophobic.
How does someone detail the 16 years of a feline life? Can all the cat antics become threaded into a single and seamless narrative? It certainly can't be done from the cat's perspective, unless you're a cartoonist and work for Disney. There is so much that is unknown to me about Boney's life that I cannot possibly offer up those critical, realistic nuances of his day-to-day cat living.
I can tell some tales, provide some brief vignettes in order to show what a unique creature he was--what a unique creature any pet is. I can talk, for instance, about how my dear cat Bajor loves to be thrown into the bean bag, about how he loves it when I toss something into it and he dives head-first and works his long nose into the bag until he manages to retrieve the item. And I can explain how he loves to play fetch with hazelnuts, that they were difficult for him to hold on to at first and they'd come back to me loaded with cat slobber. But he has since taught himself how to deftly pick up a nut with his lips and gently hold onto it as he prances back to me, dropping it, dry as a bone, at my feet. I can talk about the time he undressed a hard-boiled egg, leaving its unscathed and unmolested flesh in the pot and virtually the entirety of its shell, in shattered but connected pieces, dangling from his lips.
I can tell you about the tiny, speckled, tri-colored girl named Birdie, the girl with a stubborn will but enormous heart who'd look up from your arms with huge, round eyes as if awe-stricken by the visage of God and about how she'd raise her right arm and gently rest her clawless paw on your cheek.
I could spend hours detailing the several months during which Zoey had emerged from her lifelong depression. It began the night she realized that something was actually happening inside the television set. Easily three hours were spent in that initial investigation. Just as many cats would do, she attempted to capture the little creatures by trying to reach inside the screen. But after many failed attempts--long after most cats would simply give up--she carefully studied each side of the TV, moving back and forth with an enthusiasm I'd never seem from her before. She finally worked her way around to the back of the television, sniffed and poked and then examined the opened window. Was this how the animals were getting in? You could see her little mind working as she studied the window then, again, the back of the television. Finally, she gave up and planted herself a couple of feet from the set and quietly watched the spectacle. I'd come home every night and turn on Animal Planet then walk to the store, coming back to find her still watching. One evening sitting at my computer in the office I became aware that she'd take breaks during commercials, go into the kitchen and snack from her bowl. We watched an entire hour-long PBS documentary about Japanese snow monkeys. She sat in her spot, absorbed the whole time. There were no commercials. This kept up until I lost my job in 2001 and had to have the TV cable turned off.
If you had the inclination to listen, I would talk to you about the 10 years in the life of the athletic Lily, who'd scamper up the twisted arms of the avocado tree or shoot 15 feet straight up a redwood tree, looking over her shoulder to be sure that she was being watched. She wouldn't come down until she'd been properly and fully praised.
I'd love to talk about the night that, while I worked in my office at the end of the darkened hallway, I heard Boney crash through the small opening in the screen door. He'd usually march down the hall, tail proudly shot straight up in the air, his chaps, as Diane called the fur that flanked his hind legs, swaying to the rhythm of his John Wayne stride while he'd announce his arrival with a voice that was reminiscent of trumpets declaring that all rise in the presence of the King! But this time there was silence and after a few moments I became concerned. Had he been in another fight? Was he lying bleeding in the hallway? I got up and walked over, looked out into the darkened home and saw not Boney but a black and white fully grown mallard duck sitting in the middle of the living room. As I walked in, the duck limped across the room, shitting all the way. I found Boney, hunched low by the screen door, his eyes wild, the fluffy tips of white feathers poking out from between his lips.
But I'd most like to talk about the quiet moments, even about Boney's daily pillings during the last eight years of his long life. About how he'd gotten so used to them that as soon as he heard the rattle of the bottle, he'd walk to the middle of the room and lay on his side. I'd straddle him, lift his jaw, massage his throat then quickly stuff the pill deep inside his mouth. I'd tell him what a big beautiful boy he was and then lean over and kiss him between the eyes. It became our special moment, one that was repeated every day.
I'd also like to tell you about the mornings I'd wake up to see Boney sitting at the foot of my bed, motionless, his eyes fixed on me and how, once he saw that I was awake, he'd walk over and lick the top of my head.
But the best I can do to elicit the proper emotion from you is to ask that you recall the life, times and death of your favorite pet, the fun early years, the sometimes frustrating middle years and the sad but touching geriatric years. If that doesn't work, then think of your mother or best friend. I know, some think it absurd, even sick, that an animal can be held in such reverence but you must trust me when I say that it is true.
By the year 2000, my 17-pound, big beautiful boy with the extra vertebra was becoming frail. With this came the inevitable sadness. He was now the retired Gentleman Warrior, the proud old samurai, and I worried daily for his health, grieved over the loss of his youth. Even 18 mile runs could not distract me and I'd find myself weeping at 7 miles an hour in the solitude of mountainous trails.
In May of the next year, he stopped purring. I had to encourage him to eat and would sit next to him, petting him the whole time. I put a harness on him and began taking him outside. He'd quietly walk around, taking in the intimate sounds and smells that can only be fully enjoyed from the proper side of a screened window. And he began to request these outings. Perhaps, I thought, things will turn around. I just need to keep him interested. And then his requests became frequent and one Sunday evening I said, "Not tonight, Boney. We'll go out tomorrow," and with the reservation found only among the defeated, he quietly withdrew his request.
I was at my computer and logged into work by 8:00 am the next morning. It was 10:00 before I realized that I hadn't seen Boney yet. Although he often slept in he had usually asked for breakfast by that time. I walked into the bedroom and found he was not on the bed. Then I saw what appeared to be a small puddle of used, black oil in the middle of the carpet. Was it diarrhea? I looked under the bed. He wasn't there. Only Zoey was on the blanket in the closet. I looked throughout the house and called out for him. Nothing. After several minutes, I found him at the side of the closet he never frequented, the side I kept closed. His mouth was dripping with the same black gunk I had found on the floor. This was something he threw up. I became frightened and wiped off his mouth. I petted him. "Please purr, Boney," I pleaded. I picked him up--perhaps if he ate, I thought, he'd feel better--and carried him to the kitchen. I sat out a fresh bowl of food and to my relief he walked over and ate the whole thing, something he hadn't done for a month. Then he reeled back, lost his footing and collapsed onto his side and began hyperventilating.
The dreaded moment had arrived. Today I was to lose Boney. I made the necessary phone calls over the next few minutes. By the time I'd finished, he had made his way into the living room and sat in a corner that I'd never seen him in before. Zoey meandered in and sat in the middle of the room and looked at him. Boney said "Hi" to her, the last thing that magnificent voice ever said. I gathered him up into a large towel and walked out the door, down the back alley and onto the street. A man driving by in a pickup truck did a double take as he looked back at an anguished man carrying a large bundle in his arms. I took a brief detour into the park and stood on the bridge atop a creek that Boney had never had the opportunity to know. A small spark briefly flashed across his face as his nose twitched, much as did Lily's ten years earlier in the last hour of her life, as he took in the sweet, ripened spring-time smells. His shoulders struggled in a weak gesture to dismount from my arms but he gave up just as quickly. We continued down the street and into the waiting clinic. Diane was already there. A large dog fiercely barked and jumped up into Boney's face but he didn't flinch. We were quickly motioned into the examination room, Dr Sarah, waiting. There were a few words of explanation and I cradled Boney's near limp head in my hand and told him how much I loved him. He looked straight ahead with the patience and dignity of a grand old man. No more than 60 seconds later Sarah walked out and I looked at Diane bewildered. "How will we know when he has died?" I asked. "He's gone, Michael" and I noticed that the shine was gone from his eyes. It was just as they say. The light simply goes out.
The rest of the day is impossible to describe. I cried. I had a splinting headache. Diane and I spent a bit of time on the cliffs, Boney safely in his box in her car. I don't remember if it was two hours later, three hours later or more but back at home I opened the box and carried Boney to where Zoey was lying. I hoped that she would understand. She looked at him and then slowly, cautiously, with her body close to the ground, walked over to him and sniffed. And then, just as carefully, slowly stepped backwards. She didn't turn around, she stepped backwards, one paw behind the other, her eyes fixed on his body. I packed him and drove him to Diane's house where he was to be buried. I brought him inside. His sister Faye, still pissed at us for moving out more than a year earlier, ran into the bedroom. But sister Birdie sat there. I removed Boney from his temporary casket and laid him on the floor in front of her just as I had done for Zoey. She looked, slowly crept forward, sniffed and then, without turning around, slowly withdrew back underneath the table still gazing at Boney's lifeless body.
Returning home, I turned on the car stereo and Leon Redbone sang
Out of a blue sky
A dark cloud came rolling,
Breaking my heart in two.
Don't leave me alone, I love you.
You're the one rose that's left in my heart.
I managed enough composure by the next day to sit in my office and do some work. As the morning wore on, I stopped and turned, curious about what Zoey was doing, and found her on the floor only a few feet away from me. For the first time ever, she was lying on her back, her four curled paws pointing upward, large almond shaped eyes looking right at me. "Poppa Boney is gone," she said. "You can be my daddy now."
Penicillin may have saved my young life in 1957 but modern medicine didn't do much for my grandfather several months later. Open heart surgery was cutting-edge technology in those days and wasn't available to the average guy. Instead, he was silenced by a massive heart attack late one night while confronting a stranger standing alongside his house. The guy was just taking a leak. My grandfather died with the sensation of another man's piss clinging to his pants.
Grandpa Cooley should have had the opportunity to retire and enjoy a few quiet years. By all accounts, he was a good and gregarious man. He liked people and they liked him. And his had been a reasonably successful life. He managed a couple of movie theaters. He married and had two sons who produced a slew of grandchildren. But it certainly wasn't a picture-perfect life. His first wife divorced him. His brother was blown to bits while running alongside him during the Argonne offensive in 1918. His mother died sixteen years earlier. Her obituary begins
Mrs. J. W. Cooley committed suicide Wednesday about 1 o'clock p.m., by shooting herself through the head with a revolver. Death was almost instantaneous. Four of her children were at home at the time.
My grandfather was named McCabe. No one knows why. His family called him Cabe. His friends called him Mac. Mac was a hard-drinking and sometimes brawling kind of guy, and very proud of his Irish heritage. My father liked to tell the story about the night in 1932 when Mac came home drunk. He woke Dad up, sat at the edge of his bed and showed him his broken hand. He had been at a wrestling match, probably in Oakland, when one of the combatants pulled something dirty that incensed the whole audience. Mac shot up out of his seat, stepped into the ring and punched the guy out. The next morning the papers exclaimed, "Mystery Man K.O.'s Wrestler!"
Mac seems to have been the kind of person who was comfortable in his own skin. I'm not. Perhaps something died in me back in 1957 when my pneumonia-racked body shot up to a core temperature of 106 degrees. Perhaps something more died when my grandfather died. I don't know. But I do know that I've always felt like the proverbial round peg in a square hole. Of course, that's not so unusual. Many of us do. I blame it on civilization, not just modern civilization or western civilization as others would claim, just plain old civilization. We exist outside of nature and have forgotten how to converse with the gods. There's just no connectedness. Believers try to make it simple by saying "it's in the hands of God" when the evidence clearly suggests that he's palmed it all back unto us. How can you believe in a god that would do such a thing?
Many of us believe that art is the way out of the morass. But the fact is, modern artists are just as intent on the ancient Christian symbology. The bleeding anointed one has seeped into the fabric of our blood-lust culture. Rather than attempt to heal our wounds, we pick, poke and prod at them, causing further infliction and pain. The very notion of sacrifice and death hangs like a clouded halo over every western-bred writer and painter.
I tried my hand at the canvas for ten years. My favorite painting is really quite ugly, with its gray mass of road kill exed out in crimson blood. Scribbled in pencil lightly across the surface are the letters W-A-S. Although it wasn't my intent at the time, it seems to me it serves well as a representation of the western artist. It's what we do, the god-fearing and the otherwise: hoist ourselves up and nail our extremities to a cross, then stay put while we slowly and mercilessly bleed to death.
I've been reading about Ishi, the so-called last wild Indian of North America. He was born into a large tribe in Northern California that had been relentlessly pursued by white settlers who often massacred them by the score. While Ishi was still a boy, there were only about fifty Yahi tribespeople left. White civilization believed they'd been fully exterminated. By the time he was a young man, there were twenty. As Ishi matured, the whole group numbered merely five. And then in 1911 Ishi, alone, emaciated, depressed and exhausted, walked out of the woods and stood next to a slaughterhouse near Oroville and waited to be delivered into the hands of his people's tormentors. He had never before stood face to face with a white man. He had never spoken English.
Ishi resided at the San Francisco Museum of Anthropology for the remaining five years of his life. He once lived in round huts. He now lived in a square room. Within a month he caught the first cold he'd ever had. As he lay dying of TB in 1916, his friend, the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, begged the authorities to leave his body intact, that they not perform an autopsy, that they not cremate it, but dispose of the remains as dictated by Yahi custom. "Science can go to hell," Kroeber protested. But they did cremate him—and only after first removing his brain. To the scientists, a pile of dead neurons was Ishi's legacy. Kroeber knew better.
Ishi and his people understood that a tree isn't a single entity, that its roots live deep in the earth and its arms reach well into the sky. Its limbs aren't fixed into place by nails. The Yahi understood the symbiotic nature of natural networking. Civilization wants to pigeon-hole everything. If it doesn't fit, we'll simply shatter and rearrange the peg into the needed dimensions. We want to categorize and arrange all of life, as well as all material things, into a neat, hierarchical structure. It's our myth: God, who ruminates like The Thinker from the top, is great. Man, being a notch below, is divine. Everything else, base and ungodly, must yield to the power of the greater good. That's our legacy.
My grandfather left sufficient progeny but otherwise not much of a legacy. His house was torn down a few years after his death to make room for a freeway. The theaters he operated in Oakland no longer stand. His Y chromosome, in fact, will die with his grandsons. To my knowledge, not a single letter he wrote survives. Dad said that his father rarely spoke about his family. But we can know something about his anguish over his brother's death from a 1920 letter written by their Army chaplain. And we know something about his father's anguish, having lost his wife to suicide and his son to war. Cabe's sister found their dad one night sitting in front of the fireplace, inconsolable, tossing the documents of his life—family photographs and letters and who-knows-what—into the flames.
My mother married, of course, into the Cooleys. She'd grown very fond of my grandfather and called him Dad Cooley. I still remember the day in 1958 when our small family gathered on my parents' bed and listened to the radio news account about his death. My mother lived another thirty-seven years. She died of cancer in 1995. This very Western of diseases had spread from her lungs to her brain. Her four children gathered around her hospital bed a few days before she died. Somehow she had come to believe she was there to have a baby. "It's going to be a boy," she said. "I'm going to name him Michael."
Frankly, I have no wish to be born again. A quote from John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley comes to mind: "I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found." To tell you the truth, I'd just as soon crawl into a nice, snug, round hole. But there's no use. On the day I die, they'll stuff me down a square one.
It was the kind of sunlight that twinkled off every surface. I was sitting with her on top of the dam that retains the city's reservoir; its concrete slopes slid precariously into a recreational lake. It wasn't a straight drop, of course; a four-year old girl was walking up, down and along it. We muttered about her dad to one another, "He shouldn't allow his child to do that." A small child could easily lose her balance and tumble the twenty or more feet into the water, perhaps even bump her head, lose consciousness and drown. How could a father be so reckless?
Only moments later my date dropped her cell phone. We sat there, stunned, our legs dangling over the edge, our attention suddenly diverted from the man and his daughter as we watched the tiny marvel of technology slide down the precarious and dangerous slope and into the water. The man and child looked at us like the idiots we felt we were. Attempting to be the gentleman I suppose I should have always tried to be, I struggled to get to my feet (the irony of the sure-footed little girl not lost on me) and walked, shoulders rolling á la John Wayne, toward the water, feeling much like a tot myself about to teeter with every step. I reached the shore, kneeled over the pond and peered. There it was, just inches away. Gurgling. Tiny bubbles rising. Blurp and a-blurp and a-blurp.
"It's dead," I said.
"Yes, it drowned." I reached down and nabbed it, feeling a bit guilty that I hadn't dived headlong for it as soon as it fell from her hands. It was, after all, a cute phone and had the same smooth and sensuous curves possessed by my date—hers, admittedly, were a bit more, though deliciously, ample.
Ah...the considerate curves of, I soon learned, a passionate, and often head-strong, green-eyed Persian, vigorous, determined and frequently defiant, her coal-black hair cut just below her ears, bobbed much like a jazz-age flapper. When feeling romantic, her chin turned downward and her large radiant eyes slyly and softly fixed on my face. She looked very much like a beautiful and exotic Hindic princess—charming and mildly lustful. But cross her in any way and those same eyes became tremendous orbs of white and green fire, her chin rose toward the sky, her lips pursed and the dimples on either side of her mouth became caverns so deep that one would never dare peer into them. Bambi had inelegantly transformed into Godzilla.
But now, as I handed the water-logged phone tp her, her shoulders slumped. She looked defeated and naked in the face of fickle technology. We dispassionately got up. She caressed her phone and tried, cooingly, to elicit a response, but her abundant charms failed her. We walked to the car as if in procession to the long-strided meter of a funeral dirge.
"No matter," she said. "I'll get another one." And we drove away.
Tony Randall and Jack Klugman taught us that not all bachelors are created equal. But I imagine that I'm much like the average untied male, situated somewhere between the two extremes of the Odd Couple. I'd not have anything on my apartment walls if I didn't already possess the appropriate fixtures. Nearly all my meals are eaten out. If meat were part of my diet, my staple would be hamburgers and I'd boil a hot dog or two for the occasional evening in. But now it's rice, beans and Dos Equis every evening at the local taqueria.
Generally, my apartment is much like my diet. Utilitarian. I have the same pine dresser my grandfather assembled and finished for me in 1955. My dining table is an old iron-pedestaled cafe table I bought from a housemate 25 years ago. I do have a somewhat antiquish dresser of some quality which serves as storage for my nearly two hundred t-shirts, many emblazoned with the name of a race I had run. I did replace my 25-year-old double-bed mattress with an inexpensive twin bed after my back first screamed for better care and I bought a nice chair after my surgery. I have taken my lifestyle, streamlined to singlehood, to the point of removing the passenger seat from my car. After all, I was on my own again. Besides, the car weight saved from removing the chair, I thought, would increase the gas mileage, and I now had a better place to put my groceries—the weekly $5 bottle of wine and sackful of Cliff Bars I frequently dined on.
Mine is a life designed for one.
But things began to change on that fateful Friday two weeks before the demise of the cell phone. I spent that entire afternoon washing and cleaning my scrawny, 1988 four-cylinder hatchback. I carefully vacuumed the passenger seat, which had been collecting dust in the garage, and repositioned it. All of this, I thought, was a modest diversion from my usual lifestyle. But things quickly became far more serious than I could have imagined. Only days after this first date, expensive wine began to appear on the kitchen counter—wine that was now sipped out of crystal rather than brown-stained teacups. Food appeared on every shelf of the refrigerator. I now had a microwave oven and no longer reached for a Cliff Bar and a cup of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt for meals. Instead, I selected from any number of several air tight containers filled to the brim with authentic home-cooked Persian food. And, if I felt ambitious enough, I would even heat it in the microwave—as soon as I had gotten the directions for its use over the telephone.
A pink blanket showed up one day on my bed. There were flowered towels in the bathroom and a florescent-orange washcloth mitten-thingy, something I had never, ever previously dreamed existed, hung in the shower stall. Makeup remover now lived in the medicine cabinet. My cat was nervous and tense. And I began to feel insecure. I was experiencing, as I now reflect on it, a home invasion. But it's okay, I told myself. My horizons are expanding. There's room in my life for someone else. Really. It's even somewhat amusing. Besides, all my things are still intact and in place. My life isn't disturbed a bit. It's enhanced.
There's little point in writing down the specifics of what happened during the next several weeks. In fact, I'm not even sure what the specifics were and I find I'm simply unable to explain any of it. Any attempt to do so comes off as hopelessly boring and mundane. But as I sift through it, I am reminded about the one thing that makes men particularly male and is probably our single most important failing as human beings: not understanding why we're getting the silent treatment. It's a comprehension that seems to be beyond the ability of even the best educated and most sensitive in our ranks. Solving the mystery of the origin of the universe doesn't pale in complexity and subtlety. And it's useless, I've learned, to plead for initiation into this dark realm inhabited only, it appears, by women. The absurd notion that a man could even understand this complaint against us—that we do not understand what is intrinsically, even genetically, foreign to us—is a wide-eyed, jaw-dropping, arm-flapping suggestion to those who would teach us and better us in our ways. In fact, I could not stand having someone mad at me for something I did or did not do—I never knew which—and I was unable to bear the idea of it hanging over my life, like a damp rag in everlasting readiness to be flung at my head at any moment. So I did the only thing any experienced, self-respecting, time-honored bachelor would do: I called it off.
It's pertinent now to briefly describe how we met: I'd been hired into a temporary position with the county's Department of Elections. Although we were in the same office we didn't work together and I had little opportunity to talk to her. It was the last day before I made my awkward move: a note slipped into her hand. But now, two months had passed and the circumstances described above had transpired. Only the dry, cold ashes remained.
But stop. Barely a week after the breakup, we were both called back to work.
I rarely saw her during the next three uncomfortable weeks, but we did talk a bit occasionally. Then election day arrived. I worked the hotline from six in the morning. About mid-afternoon, she gathered her things and said goodbye to everyone.
I'd been assigned to supervise a ballot collection point beginning at six in the evening. When I arrived, I found a half dozen women gathered in a nervous group in front of the building. She was among them: eager, bright-eyed, in her full bosomy glory. Her skin gleamed like a chocolate-caramel treat. I was to be their "boss" and the person who'd instruct them in their duties. Little did they know that I had only a checklist and an hour of instruction under my belt. But I wasn't worried. I had managed a four-screen movie theater and two tech support departments. I could handle a few thousands ballots.
The gals gathered around as I faked my way through handing out assignments. A young woman from France volunteered to work with the cute hand-held computing device programmed for a billion life-essential functions all commanded by itsy-bitsy keys that only the tiniest of fingers could access. (Never mind that we needed this marvel of the 21st century for only one function: scanning the security tags affixed to the arriving elections equipment.) La Françoise seemed to have a passion for such things, and I was happy to hand it off to her.
I answered a lot of questions over the next hour and generally ran around in circles over the large staging area, making a few phone calls to headquarters to get some of my own questions answered. In time, a couple of precinct workers pulled up to the curb where we were waiting, their cars loaded with ballots and equipment. La Françoise and I struggled with the microscopic keys on the six-trillion-functioned chunk of plastic junk but managed to get the first few pieces of equipment logged in and the data beamed to election headquarters. I went inside and spent several minutes answering more questions. Ballot boxes were being logged in and stacked against the wall.
La Françoise soon interrupted, "It's not working!"
The cars were lined up about twelve deep. Angry precinct inspectors approached us: "What's going on! We've been working since six a.m.! Get this line moving!" We abandoned the scanner (never mind what it cost the taxpayer) and began using pencil and paper. By the time I got back inside, one of the workers was crying from the abuse she'd received from one of the inspectors. The ballots and the stupendous number of election paraphernalia, including the security tags that secured security bags that secured the inspected and signed-off security documents—each needing to be logged and signed off—were flying everywhere. All eyes were on me. There was a good chance, I considered, that I wouldn't survive. But La Françoise managed to keep her cool out on the curb and the Persian Princess rolled up her shirtsleeves, took command over the gals inside, and handled herself like an experienced dock-side boss.
And thus the night went, saved from a crisis by two talented, foreign-born gals, neither of whom were allowed to vote. And that's why I love America.
It was past midnight by the time the two of us walked out of the darkened building. We located the outdoor electric socket and both tugged at the stubborn, fat orange chord until the flood lights that had illuminated the building went out. She reached for my hand and slipped my apartment key into it. We looked briefly into one another's eyes, warmly pressing our hands together.
"It'll take just a few minutes for me kto finish up," I said. "I'll be okay. There's not much more to do."
And we parted.
And so ended a work day that began eighteen hours earlier. I was exhausted, frustrated, hungry and in need of a drink. Refreshments were found at a local bar—a bag of potato chips chased by whiskey. Back home, still feeling anxious, I took an Ambien chased by a teacupful of wine, then a second cup. I found my way to bed by one in the morning but was unable to sleep. At two I swallowed another Ambien. I slept deeply but soon came screamingly awake with a severe charley horse in both legs. I hadn't been in this much pain since my back surgery. I quickly stood up and straightened both legs. The pain subsided and I relaxed enough to crawl back into bed. Within half an hour I awoke again with an upset stomach. It was three in the morning. I headed toward the bathroom but before I could get far I became light-headed. The darkened room started to spin and I lost my balance, collapsed, and smashed my lip against the bookcase, which jerked my head violently backward. Something poked into my ribs as I fell to the floor. And then, in what seemed to be the very next moment, I awoke to find myself slumped over the bed, my knees on the floor, my arms sprawled across the bed in Christ-like fashion. My cat sat peaceably but vigilant and wide-eyed at my head. A pool of blood had gathered on the pink blanket and the clock informed me that two hours had passed. I struggled to my feet, walked into the bathroom and peered into the mirror at a haggard face—mine but not that familiar—gray hair streaming everywhere; blood-shot eyes and a bloodied lip that felt fatter than the whole of my head. I pulled the lower lip down and found another of those caverns so deep that one dare not peer into it. The contours of the fleshy inner wound seemed to match the gash on the front side. I was too exhausted and wretched and poor to even consider going to the emergency room, and I was too afraid to pull at the lip to see if, in fact, it was cut clean through. My teeth ached but none were loose.
I sat down on the toilet—elbows on knees, face in hands—and reflected. I had no job to return to in the morning. I had no girlfriend. I had a numb lip that probably needed stitches but was more likely to become a permanent reminder of an awful night. The floral towels, still hanging against the wall, seemed to be having a good laugh at my expense. "Don't stick your petals out at me," I muttered. And there I sat on the stool, butt-naked except for the huge black slippers that contrasted sharply against the stark white tiled floor, my gray hair probably glistening under the harsh, artificial light.
And then, as though looking for divine inspiration, I raised my head upward and looked at my bathroom-weathered poster and into the face of John Coltrane. He's always sitting there quietly on the wall like a Buddha statue, peering toward the toilet in his familiar contemplative state, his forefinger poised atop his lower lip. And the Great Jazz God-Savior spoke: "Hey, man. Git some dignity."