Seeing Ghosts

“Scooby Doo” lied to us, but don’t bother telling your cat about it. It will neither comprehend nor care. That’s how cats are about most things, but here it is truer than ever.

If you’ve seen even one episode of the cartoon, you know how it always goes down. Scooby and his human friends arrive in the Mystery Machine (their rape van) to investigate a haunted amusement park, carnival, or whatever. They pursue the case with Velma providing the brains, Shaggy and Scooby the drug-addled slapstick, and the other two the bland good looks.

In the end, the villain is unmasked as a disgruntled caretaker who would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. There never were any ghosts, everyone’s fears were unfounded, and the little urchins watching the show are spared any risk of nightmares beyond what their childhoods already provide.

To a child’s mind, it all makes perfect sense. It takes many years on this planet before you realize that the message is bullshit. Ghosts are real. They’re just different from what you thought they were. You might not even call them ghosts, opting for the word “memories” instead. That doesn’t mean they can’t haunt you.

Cats have no concept of ghosts or even haunting. Everything that scares them exists  in the here and now because they live entirely in the moment. What little memory they have comes through recognition, not recall. They do not remember what happened yesterday. They have no idea what yesterday means.

I was more catlike in my youth. I think a lot of people were. My memory was far better being a human and all, but it was not an active narrative to compete with what was going on around me at the time. I was far more concerned with the creation of new memories than reflecting upon the ones I already had. Being young, the only way I knew to be noteworthy was to do things that were foolish and regrettable. Realizing regrets are no fun, I poured liquor down my throat so I would be too drunk to remember anything unpleasant. This is how I lived in the moment. It made a lot of sense at the time.

Alas, blackout drunk is never guaranteed even for the absolutely shitfaced. With the exception of a few nights involving copious amounts of Night Train, this has been particularly true in my case. The memories were a little cloudy when I first woke up, but over the next hour or two they would reveal themselves in a striptease of shame. As a result, the log books in my gray matter have grown over time with both the good and bad, the affirming and the embarrassing.

Now that I’ve reached the point where more of my life is behind me than ahead of me, the here and now often gets outvoted in what gets my immediate attention. I’ve lived in the same apartment for 20 years and in the same neighborhood for 27. Most of the places I go are places I’ve been to countless times before.

Walking up Valencia Street after my pre-coffee coffee at Trash Muddy’s, most of the storefronts are different than they were 20 years ago, but that doesn’t keep the memories away. My then wife Laura and I used to have weekend breakfasts at The Pork Store on 16th Street. My usual fare was the heart-healthy chicken-fried steak covered in creamy sausage gravy and washed down with a lot of coffee.

I can see myself in some shop or another while Laura looked around.  I would try to be patient, but the need to get to a toilet would increase with every passing minute. Finally I would say “Ooh.” No other words were needed to let her know that the time was nigh and we would be on our way.

Both Laura and the poo are gone from my life now, as are many familiar parts of Valencia Street. There was Val 21 and their heavenly habanero jelly on cornbread. There was Leather Tongue Video with the great cult-film selection and the owner, whom I had a crush on even though I doubted she was into boys. There was the bald, fat man who punched me in the middle of the afternoon because he was angry, drunk, and needed someone to punch.

I see myself in all those intersections of time and space, longer hair with less gray in it, more determined to live up to the attitude-heavy persona I had crafted for myself. I was a shit, but I was a younger shit, and I envied my previous self for that. Also, I was never truly wretched on Valencia Street so catching a few reruns of the Dave show should be pretty harmless.

Unless it’s not. One of the less attractive things about reality is that it’s a real attention whore. This is a lesson I learned in 1982 when I was riding my moped back to the frat house from a tailgate at what was once called Jack Murphy Stadium. I had just gotten into some kind of tiff with my ex-girlfriend and while I was reliving it in my head, I went off the road and crashed. My attention skills have never been stellar and I was completely stoned at the time. Though even without weed, I need to keep an eye on myself. I can totally see myself ducking into the past while my present self on autopilot steps off a curb and into the path of an oncoming car.

There is less chance of this happening in bars I used to frequent of course. When you’re sitting with a drink in front of you, the rest of the world can go fuck itself. It’s a constitutional right guaranteed by the 21st Amendment.

The memories  are more intriguing as well, though not always as pleasant. If another person were to step into the past to watch me perched upon a barstool, they probably wouldn’t see what the big deal was. Early on, I  knew to behave well enough to continue to be served. It doesn’t take much, but it’s the one skill you need if you’re a drunk who doesn’t want to drink at home. I played my creepy, entitlement, and self-pity close to the chest to remain outwardly tolerable. Inside I was a burning latrine.

I remember this all too well as I picture an earlier me, perhaps from the era of my unfortunate affinity for Hawaiian shirts, sitting in quiet desperation and waiting for that magical event that would whisk me away on a one-way trip to Awesome Town, knowing deep down even then that it was never going to happen. Watching this makes me feel exasperated. My life has been pretty easy in the greater scheme of things. Why couldn’t I just realize that and appreciate what I had, borrow a page from a cat’s playbook, and enjoy living in the moment?

It is at those times that out of the corner of my eye I notice that I’m being watched. When I turn to look, he’s gone. I can’t quite make out who it was. He looked a little like me, but older, grayer, and more displeased.

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