Category Archives: San Francisco

The Package

Those years when I lived one floor above Haight Street, my bed in a bay window over the intersection and a payphone, 2am screaming 3am crying 4am police sirens, housemate and I throwing beer bottles and shot glasses down at slumming interlopers from tonier neighborhoods, I prayed for a silent room in which to sleep. Now I have that room and a bed as big as an ocean and the silence, pocked only by the occasional chatty owl or pack of coyotes, swallows me. I descend into the maw of a moonless night and visit quietly with all the sins I’ve ever committed, one by one by one, like demon versions of the fence-jumping sheep that allegedly will lead me into the arms of Morpheus.

The thunk of the icemaker pulling water through the house’s pipes compels me up from the expensive sheets (courtesy of a homegirl who works in a bedding shop and is good at finding things that have fallen off trucks – we may carry good purses we paid full price for now, but scratch the surface and we’re still little street hustlers) and in front the white behemoth’s open door. The cold light spills out across the floor as I wince in the fluorescent glare and confirm that nothing has changed – inside is still cranberry cocktail, wine I never drink, chocolates I don’t eat, mineral water. Leafy vegetables bought with optimism and the best of intentions.

I open the freezer, for the sake of finishing the job, and on the fourth shelf down sits a butcher-wrapped package of Cajun red-hots I brought home a year and half ago, bought with hope and visions of a pleasant Sunday afternoon barbecue, smoke from the grill and lemonade and maybe a movie, all phantom projections of an afternoon that never happened. Hot tears sting at the corner of my eyes, I let the freezer door close itself and I sink to the floor, fist to the back of my lashes, wondering why it had to be this way, and think of the other package, more tightly wrapped, more cleverly hidden in the back, behind the frozen cubes of fresh-squeezed lemon juice I made in ice trays before I moved from the last house.

Trio No. 3 (daily prompt)

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The Smell Of Rich Hippie

lavBack in my salad days as a scrappy, bespectacled, sex-positive feminist Mills College undergrad, I dated an older man I call Mr. Big. During the week he was a Hollywood music-business attorney baller-about-town, but every other weekend he flew up north to fulfull his most important role – that of doting single Dad in pastoral Marin County. We shared LA nights eating steak at Morton’s in LA, me in party clothes made of synthetic fabric (and not much of it) and him in nice suits, and sunny summer days barbecuing halibut for fish tacos next to the pool in the bucolic burg of Fairfax, me in my then-ubiquitous 90s-rave/grunge  overalls and him in the Tevas and Dead t-shirts that belied his Bay Area Boomer roots. We drank wheatgrass shots at the Newsroom and scotch at the Redwood Room. They were the best of times.

I once sneered to him about ‘Kiehl’s-wearing’ yuppies, unaware of the fact that I, too, would eventually succumb to the deceptively seductive, plain black-and-white packaging of the almost-clinical looking skin care line. I was by turns fascinated and slightly intimidated when he took me into Bristol Farms, the quaint precursor to Whole Foods which sits elegantly and unobtrustively on Sunset and Fairfax (no relation to the town of Fairfax) in West Hollywood. Accustomed to the flourescent hells of Safeway and Canned Foods (now reincarnated as Grocery Outlet) in dense urban neighborhoods, looking back I think it was the soft lighting that induced cognitive dissoance. Since Mr. Big was paying for my broke student ass, I was saved the sticker shock that always accompanies these charming, incandescently-lit bastions of all that is organic.

And some months later, as I stood in the clawfoot tub of his newly rented flat in Sausalito, showering beneath the sloped ceiling and its clever skylight, I dipped into his supply of toiletries and decided right then and there that lavender was the Official Smell of Rich Hippies. Sure, they may have all doused themselves with patchouli when young, unwashed, and skint, but as soon as they got a bit of a portfolio or a postage stamp of real estate, in comes the lavender, to stay. Now, I have been living in Marin County for nearly three years, and visiting it for much longer than that, so I know of what I speak. Southern Marin is the capital of Rich Hippies, the apex of anti-consumerist consumerism, the mecca of self-conscious conspicuous consumption, and the bastion of all that is organic, local, natural, and otherwise worthy of a tribe that, while largely rejecting such obvious excesses as Hummers and blood diamonds, still likes nice shit. Enter a cascade of ideologically pure, environmentally-friendly bath, body, and food products that will enrapture your senses and decimate your wallet.

And now that I’m two years older than Mr. Big was when he was dating me, I’ll be goddamned if I didn’t stop by Whole Foods last night for fresh bucatini and greens and if the aromatherapy spray on my office desk isn’t……….lavender.

When You Leave

This time I wasn’t deep into The Ugly Cry before I even hit the freeway onramp out of the airport – I managed to save that until I was safely behind locked doors. This time there were just a couple of pretty tears as I piloted my car through the British fog that enveloped San Francisco, foot to the floor, aiming towards the deep heat of Marin. I kept it all at bay as I went shopping at World Market to cheer myself up – a few new votive holders, a bag of interesting-looking pasta, drawer liners. Anything to keep me from thinking of how you’re gone now.

 

When you leave, the earth tilts beneath my feet and there’s no compass here, no way to know which way is up. North, south, our eternal question (now that east and west has been solved). Straight forward or ass-backwards, it’s hard to say. The fountain you set up this morning is gurgling away in a lovely melody, but all I hear is your absence. The rancho, this petite little treehouse in the middle of a place we’d never otherwise come if time and circumstance hadn’t dropped me here on my head, is too big. The Arabic-looking bedspread is gone, stripped and sent to a better room, one with more life.

 

In these hours after you go back to your real life and I to mine, it’s always the same. The quiet – not the kind I like and strive so hard for – the trail of pretty things you always leave, too much food in the fridge we didn’t end up eating. Your bottled water on the counter, the ghost of Egyptian musk that will dissipate within hours.

 

Thank God for the dogs. They bark, bringing life to the house, and they require me to be present, to not slip into the miasma of  self-pity and ennui that always follow your departure, to leave the tequila and the medicine cabinet alone.  I’ll go through the motions – feed them, water the garden, wash the dishes, get things ready for work tomorrow – all the while walking around with a ragged hole blown through me, since the other half of my soul has landed four hundred long miles away, alone in its own house, but not yet at home.  

Original Sin

I’m a very bad Catholic. I’m very lackadaisical about going to Mass and figure The Great Muhawumba must understand that lounging around drinking two cups of very strong coffee while devouring the entire Sunday paper is a form of religious ritual. I am pro-choice and a major fag-hag. I distrust hierarchies and if the Church isn’t the Grandaddy of those, I don’t know what is.

But still. I like being a Catholic. I appreciate that the Church is adamantly anti-death penalty and constantly agitates on behalf of the poor, voiceless, imprisoned, and weak (unless they’re gay. Kidding.) I’m a classic ‘cafeteria Catholic’ and am happy to belly up to the bar and order all the frankincense, holy water, and Hail Marys (though I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get the Rosary down) I can get.

There are a few days in the ecclesiastical calendar that I try not to miss, and yesterday, Ash Wednesday, was one of them. It’s the first day of Lent and a day of repentance and atonement (not unlike the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur), when one is encouraged to leave one’s past and sins ‘in the ashes’ and prepare one’s heart for Easter. One is reminded that ‘from dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,’ reminding us (in a very Buddhist-like way) that our existence is transient, our troubles similarly ephemeral.

So I was, you know, a little pensive. I expected some dry, uptight priest to emerge for the Mass, but instead got this great, deep-voiced brother whom, even on this solemn day, exuded joy. As he made the cross of ashes on my forehead he said, ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.’ When I sat back down to meditate upon that, I arrived at this: the greatest sin is that which you commit against yourself; the lies you tell yourself, the addictions you allow to enslave you, the way you sometimes have to harden your heart just to get through the day.

Later that day I stumbled across the story of Pogo, a little three-legged pit bull puppy that had been dumped at the pound, had a vet donate surgery to remove his bum leg, was flourishing in a foster home and was expected to make a great recovery and live and long and fulfilling life. Last July, on a night when I was packing up and preparing to leave the City after 18 years, Pogo was taken for a walk with his foster guardian on Ocean Beach, a block from my house. He ran behind a sand dune and was not seen again until ten days later, when his stabbed corpse was found miles away in the Bayview District.

Reading that, I felt like I had been punched in the face. What does it take, I wonder, what darkness of the human heart has to exist to take a wiggly, three-legged puppy who obviously already had the odds stacked again him and stick a knife into his flesh, again and again and again, while he yelped and struggled and screamed? What kind of person does it take to do that? It’s the same thing I had when I first heard about the Michael Vick case. There are few things in this world that make me feel truly violent, but sick people who hurt weak animals are one of them.

In my tenderhearted moments, in those hours when my body feels like one raw, exposed nerve, I sometimes wonder how one can stand to go on living in a world where puppies are stabbed, where children are abandoned and hit and worse, where fathers grind down their sons and women are commodified and pimped, where wounded deer lie by the side of the freeway dying and none of the thousands of motorists driving by at 75 MPH can be bothered to pick up their cell phone so someone can come put it out of its pain.

If there is such a thing as Original Sin, it is this: we are born with a selfishness beyond that inherent in our simple animal biology; a selfishness and a cruelty that surpasses that of any other species, one so ugly and dark and irredeemable and impossible to beat, breed, or perhaps even love out of us, that at times I believe we really are lost, that we really are ‘The Virus,’ that the sooner we die out – and that means our beauty as well as our bottomless ugliness – the better.

Christmas Tree Story

Christmas 1996 and my housemates Hippie Princess, Snow Hostess, and I (Moody Poet) pile into Snow Hostess’ minivan with Zags The Dog and drive down to the shabby discount grocery outlet Canned Foods, where we’ve sussed out that they have the best tree prices in town – all of ’em $16, no matter the size.

Driving down Division Street, beneath the stump of the Central Freeway, the DJ on Live 105 says, ‘And now a blast from the past, a golden oldie, a classic from Jane’s Addiction, Jane Says,’ and the three of us scream in horror (golden oldie?! a classic?!) at the notion of Jane’s Addiction as an oldie and dissolve into tears of laughter over the opening bassline.

We get to Canned Foods, pile out of the van, and start performing a tree search with almost military precision. Hippie Princess is easy to please and soon tires of Snow Hostess and I, in full Christmas-Nazi mode, examining and rejecting tree after tree after tree. She soon retires to a concrete curb with Zags, who takes off and starts frolicking with a 10-year-old boy who’s rolled in with his parents.

Snow Hostess sees her dog and looks at me and says, ‘Zags needs a boy,’ so matter-of-factly it imprints on my memory forever. She and I continue to mow through trees, standing them up, fluffing them, spinning them around and checking each side for gaps, dorky branches, or other flaws, unable to find The Tree worthy of our classy monochromatic palette. This goes on for an hour until Hippie Princess dissolves into a puddle of resignation over on the curb and Snow Hostess and I eventually stop, sweaty and grouchy with frustration, and pick a random tree on its side, still all bound up, branches unviewable, and say screw it, we’ll take our chances, completely exhausted by our unquenchable thirst for The Perfect Christmas Tree and ready to deal with whatever retarded specimen we get.

We fork over our sixteen bucks, load the tied up tree into the van, and drive home. We drag it up the stairs, set it upright in the living room, and snip the twine that binds it. The tree, as if in in a movie, magically opens and unfurls its green branches and the three of us are left standing there looking at the most picture-perfect, ideal Christmas tree you’ve ever seen. ‘My God,’ one of us said, ‘it looks like a Macy’s tree,’ and we all stood there, breathless, elated, completely under its spell.

Behind The Green Wall

tamalpaisJust about five years ago and at my wit’s end, I sent my ex-husband packing back to Ireland, duffel bag in hand, hoping that some quality time at home would help him sort himself out. With incredible naïveté, I booked him a flight on Virgin Air, a British carrier, rather than on Aer Lingus, the Irish national airline. Alcoholic Paddy + Nordie accent + heartbreak + uptight British fellow passengers + free booze = all bad. Calling his brother the next morning to see if he’d landed in Dublin safely, I instead learned that he’d gotten drunk, mouthed off to an old lady and told a London peeler to go fuck himself. On the plane. Shortly after September 11th. Yeah. I know. Obviously, he didn’t make the connecting flight at Heathrow, and instead was led off the plane in handcuffs and given a two-week stay at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs, where the guards were actually kind enough to let me speak with him by phone (you have to give it to the English, they are just unfailingly polite).

Ever the optimist, a few months later I packed my own bag and headed off to Ireland – on Aer Lingus, natch – for the purposes of seeing whether a potential reconciliation and a possible move overseas might be in order. I had never met his family nor seen his wee village, Castlefinn, which rode the border of the Republic and Northern Ireland with uneasiness. All I knew was that he’d helped his Da plant 80 trees around the perimeter of their property (‘Eighty?!’ I had asked incredulously, ‘do you mean eight?’) and that he came from a village of about 700 people. Seven. Hundred. People.

Now. I have grown up in an urban environment my whole life. I was born in Berkeley and always lived either around there, in San Diego, or in San Francisco. There have pretty much always been 700 people on my block. I cannot even imagine a village of so few, but I was willing to, you know, check it out. And man, it was green. Emerald Hills all around. And fields, lot of fields. And a pretty river with a gorgeous bridge, and plenty of cows and sheep and ravens and…….pubs. One shop, one post office, one police station, and three bars. And not much else. The nearest ATM was 10 miles away, in Ballybofey, and the bus to Letterkenny, the main town in County Donegal, came once in the morning and once at night.

I knew from the minute I arrived that the spell between us was broken, I wasn’t going to live there, and that we were probably going to break up, even if I didn’t want to admit it to myself or anyone else. My visit just happened to coincide with the wettest summer ever on record in Ireland and the dampness matched my mood. We tried to make the best of it, taking slow walks in the forest and dells, playing the child’s game of ‘soldiers’ with reeds plucked from the ground, putting foxglove flowers on our fingers and pretending to have a good time. On the second or third day, I finally broke down outside the abandoned train station in Castlefinn and cried so hard – in big, wracking gasps – that I was snotty and had nothing to wipe my nose on – a total spiritual low. I knew then it was over, but I spent the next month running around the island anyway, hellbent on visiting the northernmost (Malin Head, so completely awesome) and southernmost (Cape Clear) points in the country. We had some good times, definitely, but it was my third extended visit to Ireland and the first where I sensed the dark side of Irish life – the passivity, depression, fatalism, isolation, and brokenness that you don’t see on cutesy postcards or while wilding away the weekend in Dublin. I had this deep sense of the country as a damp, torpid green prison, and for the first time I could not wait to get back to my own loud, hectic, obnoxious country – freeways! Strong coffee! Carne asada! Black people!

Fast forward several years and the man I’m with now is from Bolinas, a mythical small town down an unmarked (because the locals tear the signs down) road way the hell on the other side of Mount Tamalpais. His family has a house there and he and his brothers are attached, by history and spiritual orientation, to the town. It’s a place known for its attempt at being a hippie utopia (gone wrong, but that, again, is another day, another blog) and as a haven for outlaws and renegades; fiercely insular, sketchy for outsiders, and achingly beautiful. There are few vistas as gorgeous as the edge of the mesa above Duxbury Reef, and a childhood spent surfing on Bolinas Beach seems idyllic. Still, when I’m there, the huge green wall that is Mount Tam spooks me, makes me feel cut off from the world, and when I window shop life there, imagining living behind that massive ridgeline, I shiver (ironically, the spot on the beach where locals pass their weekends in a beery haze is called The Green Wall, and no, I’m not linking to any photos of it, damn it, as I don’t want the Bolinas Border Patrol to come looking for me).

‘Babylon,’ the Bolinas locals are fond of calling the City, with a tone of derision and mistrust, safe in their cozy green pocket wedged between the ocean and the mountain, where my town looks like a distant, glowing grid when it’s not shrouded in fog. But I like the City. I love anonymity. I like people minding their own damn business. I revel in the facelessness of urban life, the ability to blend into the river of people and be as known or unknown as you wish to be. I like the way one can disappear in a city, where no one on the bus or the street knows you or your dirty laundry, where you could be anyone, anything, and the only time someone knows your business is when you let them. In the City you develop relationships, of course, little bonds that fuse during one’s daily life – with your barista, neighbor, Steve at Naked Eye video, whatever………..but it’s because you choose to, not by default or simply due to proximity.

At the same time, City life gets to you – the endless jockeying for parking, the astronomical rents, its growing function as a playground for the white and Asian affluent, the political correctness – and there are days when I long for the mythical Simple Life: a man and a dog and a baby on the beach, no bloodthirsty landlords and no fistfights over the last spot on the street. A yard to grow vegetables in, lots of room for my dogs to frolic, and no telephone wires outside the living room window. If only I had the cojones to give up the nail shacks, the plentiful cafes and vast supermarkets, the blessed anonymity and autonomy and give in to the seductive call of life behind the green wall, where the passion flower vines climb over the houses and time moves thick and slow like molasses.

Mr. Big

MrBigHe was the only man in my life who had a vocabulary better than mine. He was also the only one who was ever content to just lie in bed with his yap shut and read his own book while I read mine, an endearing quality I still yearn for yet have found elusive in the slew of cute but spottily-read immigrants that have peopled my Booty Roster for the last few years.

He was 13 years my senior and suddenly I was the ‘younger woman,’ feeling like a stereotypical bimbo when the valet would hold the door of his 525i open for me. But it just wasn’t *like that*, damn it! It was a true intellectual soul connection! Even as I smoothed down my polyester miniskirt and teetered down Sunset Boulevard in platform slides, I was secure in the knowledge that Mr. Big knew the Real Me – I might look like a Hollywood ho on Saturday night in LA, but come Monday morning in the Bay Area I was back cracking the books at Mills College with my horn-rims on, even if half the time I was penning him steamy missives instead of taking notes.

A few short years later, I was suddenly the ‘older woman,’ playing Mama to an adorable but infantile puppy of a man, forced to grow up fast by circumstance and just, time. Now I’m careening towards middle age (but 40 is the new 30, right?) and in a few short years I’ll be the same age as he was when we were dating. His girls are both in college. I have a retirement account (paltry though it is) and dogs. The age of post-grunge power pop and heroin overdoses seems quaint and nostalgic.

It all started one sticky summer night (doesn’t it always?) at one of those music showcase weeks so popular in the 90s. There was another woman, several shots of Southern Comfort, some straight mackin’ in the back of a cab, an Alice-In-Wonderland hotel room, a cigar (this was long before Monica), and all of a sudden I was hooking up with Mr. Big.

Big was a Man. Man with a capital M. He had an ex-wife, kids, a high-pressure job, a cute ride, a frightening amount of frequent flyer miles, and a shitload of charisma that had, and still has, chicks shimmying out of their knickers at the merest hint of his Mona Lisa smile and understated laugh. That and his crazy patchwork hazel eyes had my 26-year-old knees weak (and frequently in contact with a solid surface) and my heart thumping.

At the time he worked in LA and flew up to the Bay every other weekend to see his two daughters; tawny, dappled pre-teens so haloed by gold light that they fairly floated. Those girls made me want to be a stepmom, which I still consider one my life’s ambitions. We spent time at his modernist bachelor pad in West Hollywood, my shabby-chic low-rent flat in the Lower Haight, and his ex-wife’s spread with the pool in Marin (she was in India on yoga retreat and was real cool about these things).

He talked me out of going to law school. He gave me one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is just keep your mouth shut and listen,” although I have a harder time applying that advice than I do treasuring it. He had a fantastic bathroom in LA, with a full length window in the shower and a painting of the ocean that I *still* want, all these years later. He made me gross Echinacea-laced smoothies when I was sick. I fell asleep on a dirty couch in a rehearsal studio while he jammed with his friends as the rain pounded down on LA (rain! LA! I know!). I hated the way he drove – typical BMW driver – accelerate & brake, accelerate & brake.

We ate steaks at Morton’s, romped through the pumpkin patch with his daughters at Halloween, had Thanksgiving with his parents, and spotted otters in Monterey Bay on a very wet New Year’s Day. We barbecued, went to see The Who, The Stones, and Medeski Martin & Wood. We watched The X-Files while his daughters squealed with delight and fear, and we argued with his youngest about how, yes, she did have to wear socks with those pleather sandals. He took me to yoga somewhere in west LA, and laughed at how the Ashtanga made me sweat, and taught me that it was OK come out of pose if it hurt too much. We also got it on everywhere, from his ex’s hot tub to the back of her SUV to the viewing platform of his friend’s yacht to right between his expensive sheets.

I loved his Manness – his ‘established’-ness, his endless stories (like going into his frat house’s sauna with an 8-ball and a 6-pack the night before a big paper was due, or nailing his au pair), his solidity and intelligence, the effortless, alpha-male machismo that exuded from him like pheromones. He loved my ass, I’m sure, my mind, I know, and that my life, from his eyes, was so free, open, as-yet-unwritten.

I have a picture of Big that represents his quintessential je ne sais quoi – that afternoon on the yacht, in the candy-floss pink sunset light, kicking back in the deck chair like a king on the throne, Scotch in one hand, cigar in the other, with a smug, cat-that-ate-the-canary postcoital glow illuminating his expression. King of the Hill. Top of the Food Chain. Alpha Male. My Hero.

I got so much joy from Big. He made me really happy. For six months I was over the moon, and my writing output was phenomenal – he still has a hatbox with about 90 letters and cards I wrote in those six months, and he says every once in a while, he pulls one out and enjoys that moment in time and space. I remember it as a golden age, a brief period when everything fell into place and all the planets lined up and the angels sang Ave Maria or some shit – that is, before things do what they always do, which is shift under your feet and list like the Titanic and you grab onto the railing and hang on and wonder when the lifeboat’s arriving to carry you back to shore, where you shake the water out of your hair and look around, stunned, wondering if it was all in your imagination.