Memories Blackened Like Catfish

California is on fire again, but you probably already knew that. The ones burning now are comparable in size to the October fires in Napa and Sonoma counties, but with a much smaller body count. As of this writing, the Thomas Fire  (the largest of the SoCal wildfires) has two people confirmed killed (it was only one prior to Thursday). That’s comparatively good news unless you happen to be the two people.

When I blogged in October about the fires burning then, I trivialized the tragedy with a fart joke so I could reduce it to mere window dressing so I could focus the attention of my writing on myself. I think that backfired. Even though I wisely refrained from making fun of that one fat kid who couldn’t waddle fast enough to avoid getting engulfed in flames, some readers might still have thought I was being insensitive.

Live and learn. This time around, it’ll be different because I won’t be focusing on myself. Instead, I shall look to the fire and think about how it can best be leveraged to improve my personal brand. Unfortunately, I am unable to offer any material assistance to those in need because money does not multitask. Cash cannot simultaneously be a charitable donation and pay for my next drink. Thoughtful commentary, on the other hand, doesn’t cost any money and is worth every penny.

The fire is getting close to Santa Barbara and my friends living there are alternating between wheezing from the smoke and being scared shitless. Photos are going up on Facebook that show my home town, so lovely they named a soap opera after it, in stark contrast to the backdrop fiery glow in the hills. Maybe the fire will be contained in time or maybe it’ll roll on through Santa Barbara, sneering “You ain’t so pretty now, are you bitch?” before setting its sights on Goleta.

That’s some heavy Irwin Allen shit right there and quite frankly, I have no desire to be upstaged by it. Instead, I prefer it to be the opening act where I am the headliner. The connection is that the fire and I share a piece of real estate, albeit at different times. Since I also don’t wish to be upstaged by Santa Barbara, I am choosing the more modest Ventura as my location. My father and stepmother used to live there and it is where I spent the summer of 1981. It’s a nice town other than the parts that are burned to a crisp.

Imagine the story I’m going to tell you, my trip down memory lane, as a painting with a disaster from decades later serving as its frame. Or better yet, think of the story as a piece of catfish blackened by the fire. The blackening enhances the experience, but it’s the catfish you want. A plate of nothing but soot does not make the mouth water.

Now I have to pick what memory I would like to share. I can’t just drone on about everything that happened over the summer. That would be dull. I need to narrow it down to a single topic and run with that. The girl I had a crush on? Not reciprocal, nothing happened, so a nonstarter. My first LSD experience? Transformative as all get out, but disqualified because it happened during a weekend up in Santa Barbara.

There was one incident that happened toward the end of the summer that seemed like the perfect thing to write about. It was the closest I’ve come to having a #metoo moment (as a victim, I mean *wink*). I ran into some guy while I was hiking around the riverbed. I climbed a hill near the freeway and stared at the traffic for a bit. When I turned around, I saw the guy looking up at me and yanking his pud. He blew his load and I bolted like a gazelle.

Brave victims are very in this year so you’d think I should take this and run with it, but here’s the thing. People don’t really like victims. What they like is being wrathful and victims provide the means to justify that wrath.

It’s not like becoming a victim is any great achievement. Let’s say I write a novel. Good on ya, Dave, folks would say. If I write a second novel, even a lesser work, it will add to my total worth as a novelist. Now let’s say I am a college coed who gets raped at a frat party. Right-thinking people will thank me for my courage and demand the rapists be held accountable. If, however, it happens again and again all the way down fraternity row, people would start to wonder what the hell is wrong with me.

However, there is a larger reason why the incident at the riverbed simply will not work. Just before I ran like hell from my personal Louis CK, I saw an unfathomable sadness in his eyes. It didn’t soften my heart and make want to stick around, but it was there. It is quite intriguing in retrospect. It’s far more interesting than my part of the encounter. I saw what I saw and hauled ass. Big whoop. But that guy, was he so broken that was the only way he could meaningfully reach out to another person? Wow.

Sorry proto Louis. As I said, I don’t like to be upstaged.

Fortunately, I am not out of options. There is one left that fits the bill perfectly. It has quirky characters. It has slumming dressed up as character building so 36 years later, you can be suitably impressed by my false humility. Read on.

The Great Central Steak & Hoagie was my first experience with the Philadelphia cheesesteak. They were served with pizza sauce. Even today, that is how I believe it should be done. During the summer of 1981 after my first year of college, I had a job there. The pay was minimum wage plus all the cheesesteaks I could eat. I was in heaven.

The owner introduced himself to me as Mac, but everyone else called him George. Maybe he was trying out a new moniker and nobody was going for it. I wasn’t either and started calling him George as well. George liked dealing with the public so he usually ran the register, both his cigarettes and his gun within easy reach on the shelf underneath.

George’s wife Muse (pronounced “moose”) trained me on my first day. She was not very mooselike. She hailed from Singapore originally and had a no-nonsense demeanor peppered with eccentricities. While showing me how to work the meat slicer, she told me you could kill a person with a piece of meat and not leave a mark.

And then, wait, who the fuck am I kidding? For this story to tie in at all, the Great Central Steak & Hoagie needs to burn to the ground. Maybe it will someday, but not from the Thomas Fire, which never got within a half mile of the place.

It’s a pity too, because George provided plenty of choice anecdotes like how he hated “that hard-rock shit” so we were all treated to a country station during the time when  The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Elvira” was in heavy rotation. Then there was that time heshaved off his Michael Rooker curls when the weather got hot and ran out into the parking lot to compare bald heads with Lou Gossett when the actor was a customer. And how could I forget how he playfully called my buxom coworker “Nipples.” That was a hoot and a half.

Now his story probably never be told nor shall I be able to strut my writerly stuff telling it, all because of a fire that couldn’t see fit to burn for six more goddamn blocks.

Fuck you, Thomas Fire. Fuck you in the ear.

Future Poo 2: Electric Boogaloo

Chad Grogan popped his collar and stared out across the Miami skyline. It was January in the year 1984. The TV show that would forever epitomize this city in this decade was over half a year from making its debut, but Chad was sporting the look right now. He had the Sonny Crockett linen jacket. He had the Sonny Crockett hair. A lot of guys were still taking their fashion tips from Scarface, but not Chad. He came from the future. He knew of things to come.

“I don’t see why you have to take the boat out tonight,” Claire St. Clair said while clinging to his arm. Claire did not come from the future so her sartorial choices were derived from already extant pop culture. In her case, this meant Flashdance and aerobics videos. She wore knit leggings and a sweatshirt with a cutaway collar that hung off one shoulder. A knotted headband cinched her hair, once silky tresses now teased into a tumbleweed of Aqua Net and split ends.

“Duty calls, babe,” Chad said, his gaze still fixed upon the skyline. Asserting dominance over the listeners by not looking at them when he spoke was one of Chad’s people skills.

“Promise me you aren’t getting involved with loser drug lords,” Claire said.

“You know me better than that.”

Indeed she did. Chad was not one to consort with disreputable characters. He was also not one to promise Claire anything so he packed two truths in the space of just one. She regretted what she said, but kept talking anyway.

“But why tonight? The guy from the Olympics is going to be at the studio at 10 tomorrow morning.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be there. Besides, Bobby is the star. If they pick anybody, it’ll be him.”

“Bobby’s a jerk.”

“Maybe so, but he’s also got the best moves.”

This was true. Nobody liked Bobby Street, but they tolerated him because he was the best breakdancer in the studio. If he could make it through his routine without mouthing off, he stood a good chance of getting chosen.

Breakdancing was not yet an official Olympic sport. That wouldn’t happen until the 2080 Summer Games in New Bakersfield. This year, the dancers would simply serve as entertainment during the closing ceremonies in Los Angeles.

Still, it would be great publicity for the studio if one of its dancers were selected. Since Chad owned the dance studio, he had the most to gain and if that meant propelling the loathsome Bobby Street to stardom, so be it.

Chad was nearly as good a breakdancer as Bobby, except he could not do a shoulder spin to save his life. Every time he attempted one, he came to a complete halt. He vowed to master that move one day, but it wasn’t going to happen by tomorrow morning.

“Can I at least come with you?” Claire asked.

This made Chad smile. If she saw what he was on his way to see, he would have to kill her. No witnesses, the rules were very clear about that. While he would idly fantasize about murdering Claire from time to time, he had no real desire to do it anytime soon.

In fact, Chad was happy to have her around. She was easy on the eyes, provided sex on demand, and even showed some real promise as a dancer. Breakdancing wasn’t her thing. Her specialty was the kind of slow, choreographed workout shown late at night on Showtime that made horny young boys and sad old men beat off until they were red and raw. Claire had a real future ahead of her if her public-access television show and those private parties with conventioneers were any indication. If she only learned to keep her mouth shut she might have actual relationship potential as well.

“Sorry babe, but this is business, not drug business, but business all the same. I’m doing it for the studio,” Chad said.

Chad was not lying. One of the perks of his assignment as an operative was that he could settle into an existence of his choosing and his expenses would be covered. This was a good thing as Chad was no businessman and the dance studio he ran absolutely hemorrhaged cash. The money came from a financial team, also from the future, whose investing savvy came from knowing how the stock market was going to behave ahead of time.

It was a pretty sweet deal. All that asked in return was when Chad was called upon to perform some duty, he would do so without hesitation or question. Tonight was the night for him to earn his keep. The timing was not perfect, but he more than willing to carry out his orders. Disobedience was punishable by death so there was that as well.

“Do I at least get a kiss?” she said with a pout.

“Of course,” he replied then shoved his tongue down her throat and gave her cooter a playful pinch.

An hour later, he was on his 19-foot aluminum fishing boat heading southeast on the open ocean. He had plenty of fuel and his equipment locker held what he needed to remedy a situation should one occur. The water was calm, bordering on glassy, and the moon was almost full. All in all, it was a near-perfect night to watch countless tons of future poo pour down from the heavens.

Chad learned about the scheduled dumping from a decoded obituary. He had been monitoring the obits since his 1984, always on the lookout for a Mr. Brown who drowned in a log ride. When he finally came across a notice matching those criteria, he applied a cipher to its contents to get the date, time, latitude, and longitude of when it would. After reading the obituary, Chad flipped to the crime section of the newspaper and sure enough, there was a man named Brown found drowned in the log ride at a nearby amusement park.

Good ol’ HQ, Chad thought with a smile. They are nothing if not thorough.

He cut the engine just shy of the event’s exact location, making sure he was not directly under it. He turned on the radio and tuned it a spot on the dial where there was nothing but static. He opened the equipment locker and pulled out an RPG launcher and the first of six grenades he brought on the trip. This was not 1984 technology. A computerized field sight in the launcher gave instructions to the target-acquisition program in the grenade. Once launched, the grenade would pilot itself, navigating around all obstacles to reach its target. The grenade carried a micronuke warhead that would vaporize everything within a 200-meter radius and left no radioactive footprint.

There weren’t going to be any witnesses. As for a ship and its people gone missing, this was the Bermuda Triangle. Things like that happened all the time.

Chad sat and waited, unaware that this scheduled large-volume dump need not have happened at all. All offloading channels from 2017 onward were suspended pending a confirmed resolution of the Homeless Bob incident. Meanwhile, sewage containers were filling to the brim so an emergency dump plan was hastily drafted.

Homeless Bob died in police custody after tripping and falling down a flight of stairs 17 times, according to the official. If people knew that, there would have been no need to panic. Alas, the public-records database went offline so there was no way to verify that the threat to the operation had been neutralized.

Back in 1984, Chad continued to wait. The scheduled time came and went with nary a single butt nugget plopping from the firmament. He checked his watch. Something was clearly wrong.

It was possible that the mission was scrubbed, but if that were the case he would have been notified via the radio station he was tuned to. The cancellation announcement would come in the form of a custom-made radio ad that began with someone who sounded like George C. Scott saying “Turn it off! Turn it off!” followed by a voice that sounded like Don Pardo saying “When your diarrhea is hard core, you need Pepto-Bismol.”

The radio just hissed static.

Chad looked around at the night sky, but there was no poo. There was, however, something that looked like a blue sperm with a white tail. He reached for his binoculars and saw it was a space shuttle heading up into orbit. But why was it surrounded by that blue field? Also, why was it there at all? The next scheduled shuttle launch was three weeks away. Something didn’t add up.

Maybe it was some airplane disguised as a space shuttle and sent to spy on him. That seemed unlikely, but no probable explanations came to mind. Chad was fascinated by primitive space travel growing up and here on assignment, he liked to relive some of that history by listening in on radio transmissions between the shuttle and mission control. He tuned his radio to that frequency. If this was a legit shuttle launch, he would know soon enough.

“Roger, go at throttle up,” crackled through the radio speaker. That definitely sounded like a shuttle transmission and Chad might have accepted that as proof if he didn’t recognize the voice of the person speaking. He’d heard a recording of that very transmission countless times as a child. The voice belonged to Francis R. Scobee. He was indeed a shuttle commander, or rather, would be. His doomed Mission aboard the Challenger wouldn’t happen until 1986.

“My God, it’s full of poo,” said Francis R. Scobee.

The Challenger exploded. Chad was looking forward to watching the disaster in person. He just never thought he would witness it two years ahead of time.

“Need Another Seven Astronauts,” Chad said, making him the first person to ever tell that joke.

This anomaly was caused by an unwise decision made in the future. Someone figured that if a new fecal-transfer channel was to be opened, they might as well make the most of it. The problem was that throughput was not unlimited. Much as a massive bowel movement can rip rectal tissue, the temporal transfer of a large amount of fecal matter can tear the very fabric of time and space.

This was elementary future-poo physics, pretty basic stuff. They really should have known better. Chad saw what poo did to the Challenger and knew right away what was going on.

“There must be a shit storm everywhere,” he said then added “and everywhen.”

Indeed, the entire decade was getting peppered with poo. Most of it was not terribly noteworthy. There was a carpet soiler here, a punch-bowl floater there, all part and parcel of everyday life in the 80s.

However, there were exceptional cases such as these:

  • In December 1980, a single poo fell from the sky over New York City and froze solid during its descent. It struck a mortally wounded John Lennon as he lay on the sidewalk and came to rest sticking into one of his bullet wounds like a lawn dart. From that day forward, Yoko Ono could not bear to look in the bowl after doing her business.
  • In early 1981, John Hinckley was about to abandon his unrequited crush until he found a bowel movement in his mailbox. Believing it was a love offering from Jodie Foster, he decided to carry out his plan to win her heart forever.
  • In late 1983, a starving villager in Ethiopia found a small, brown loaf in his food bowl. After having a nibble, he said “ምንም ንጥረ ነገር የለውም” and died from malnutrition. His death was one of many that would inspire Bob Geldof to form Band Aid and make people in the developed world feel better about themselves.
  • In March 1989, a huge amount of future poo materialized inside the forward tank of the Exxon Valdez. The added weight caused the ship’s bow to dip low enough to run aground on Bligh’s Reef. The spillage slurry, which would one day be known to historians as “pootroleum,” was an ecological disaster erroneously blamed on the tanker’s captain. One whistleblower seal balanced a poo on his nose in an attempt to have the real cause be known, but he was quickly clubbed to death by a passerby who was also a future operative.

Chad could not have known all the details, but he knew enough to engage damage-control mode. The procedure was simple. Go home and pretend nothing happened. If suspicions arise, attempt to explain them away. If the suspicious party persists, kill the person.

Chad turned the boat around and headed back to Miami, hoping the entirety of whatever mess there was would be someone else’s problem.

He was awakened by a banging on his apartment door at 7:30 the following morning. He opened tge door and saw Claire standing there. She had been crying.

“Hey babe, what’s up your ass?” Chad said, expressing concern.

“I ran into Bill the janitor when I was jogging this morning and he told me he quit. He said there was no way he was going to clean up that mess,” Claire said.

“What mess?”

“The shit, there is a huge pile of shit on the stage at the studio.”

“Have you seen this pile of shit? Bill sniffs glue. You can’t take his word for anything.”

“OK, so Bill dumped a bucket of shit on the stage and refuses to own up to it. Fine, I was planning on firing him anyway.”

“It isn’t a bucket, Chad. It’s more like a truckload.”

“All right, let’s go. I want to see for myself.”

The two of them took Chad’s car and drove to the studio. On the way, he pondered the possibility of losing control of the situation. If this happened, he would have to kill or incapacitate Claire, retrieve the RPG from his boat, and eliminate her, the studio, and everything within the blast radius. It would be an acceptable move to HQ, but they wouldn’t like it and he would likely be reassigned working in fast food or selling Amway. Chad hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

When they arrived at the studio and Chad looked at the pile of poo on the stage, he could see that Claire was not exaggerating. It was at least a truckload worth, probably more, and the lack of forced entry or bits of poo anywhere else made look like it appeared out of nowhere, which of course it had.

“I think it’s pretty obvious who is responsible,” he said.

“You mean Bill?”

“Nah, it’s not his style. Besides, he has no license. To move a truckload, you need to drive a truck. I’m talking about Bobby.”

“But this is his ticket to the big time. Why would he want to ruin that?”

“Bobby’s a schemer. If he stops today’s audition, he can try out for the Olympics on his own and cut the studio out of the bargain.”

“Are you going to confront him?’

“No, he would just deny everything and continue with his plan. We have two hours to get this mess cleaned up.  When Bobby arrives, we accuse him of nothing and ask for his help. The important thing is to let him know that the show will go on with or without him. Look, I want Bobby gone as much as anybody. I just want to get something out of the deal.”

Bobby Steel’s Camaro pulled into the studio’s parking lot at 9:15. He exited the car and flicked his cigarette away without bothering to see where it went. Bobby was 22, the same age as Claire, and wore the same red Member’s Only jacket with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows every day of the week. Equally consistent was Bobby’s facial expression, which as equal parts smirk and sneer. He ran his fingers through his John Oates poodle perm as he strutted toward the entrance to the building.

“Goddamn, Chad. It smells like the inside of your mother’s asshole in here,” Bobby said as he walked through the door.

“Yeah, we had some vandals break in here last night,” Chad said. “Bill must’ve left the door unlocked again. Long story short, he doesn’t work here anymore. I guess that makes me the new janitor. Grab a mop. We don’t have a lot of time before the Olympics dude arrives.”

“You expect me, Bobby Street, star breaker, to clean up other people’s shit.”

“Not as a full-time gig, but this is kind of an emergency. Claire is helping me out here. I sure could use your help as well.”

“I’m happy to help,” Claire said, happy to help.

“Claire is helping because she is your bitch. I am not your bitch. And if you think I’m going to break dance on a pile of shit,  you’ve got another thing coming.”

“So what are you going to do, just walk out of here?” Chad said.

“No, I’m going to moonwalk out of here,” Bobby said and started doing an impressive Michael Jackson moonwalk, backing away toward the door.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys like you, Bobby Street,” Chad said. “Always ready to quit when things don’t go your way.”

“Screw you,” said Bobby.

“No, screw you. You’re going to keep giving up until the world gives up on you. And you know what you’ll be then? A worthless bum and you’ll be known as ‘Bobby on the street.'”

Bobby gave Chad the finger and continued his moonwalk until he was out the door, never to return. In time Chad’s prediction would be proven correct except for one minor point. No one would call the former star break dancer “Bobby on the street.” They would call him Homeless Bob.

When the 10 o’clock hour approached, Chad sent Claire to stall the Olympics representative while he put the final touches on the cleanup job. The poo was piled up in one corner of the studio with a tarp covering it. Fans were set up at the front of the stage to blow the aroma of feces back away from the audience.

The only problem was the stage itself. Future poo is not like regular poo. In addition to its unsuitability as a fertilizer due to its lack of nutrients, its consistency makes it difficult to clean off most surfaces. You need a high-pressure hose to remove it completely. Chad’s and Claire’s mopping efforts only succeeded in spreading it like Vegemite, leaving a brown, oily layer on the stage.

“He’s here, Chad. Go ahead and start,” Claire called out from the audience.

It was too dark to see either her or the guy from the Olympics. Oh well, Chad thought, formal introductions would have to wait until later. He put on his musical accompaniment  (“Rappin’ Rodney”) and started his routine.

It began disastrously. His attempt at a one-armed handstand failed to gain traction on the slick stage floor and down he went. To avoid breaking his nose on impact, he windmilled his body around and came down hard on his hindquarters, bruising his coccyx. He tried to push himself up, his foot slid just as his hand did and down he went again.

“No respect, no respect,” blared from the speakers.

There was no winning against this kind of poo. A man from the future should know that. Still, Chad was not about to admit defeat. If future poo was going to make him slip and slide, then he was going to deliver the slippingest, slidingest breakdance routine in all creation.

Chad whipped his body around and managed something he never could before, a shoulder spin. With no friction on the floor, he was spinning like a goddamn top. To increase speed, he did the figure-skater move of drawing his arms and legs closer to his body and spent a full minute a whirling blur.

When he stopped, a slow 80s clap came from the audience.

“Thank you sir,” Chad said.

“That was me clapping, silly,” Claire said. “The Olympics guy couldn’t stand the smell so he left.”

Chad sat up and laughed because he had been such a fool. Of course he wouldn’t get chosen. He had watched a video of the closing ceremonies before he got sent back in time and he would have noticed if he was one of the dancers. Maybe you can’t change the course of history just by smearing shit on it, but maybe, just maybe, future poo’s keeping Chad and Bobby from stardom in 1984 and blowing up the Challenger in 1986 always were how it was supposed to be.

Somewhere in Steinbeck Country

Rebecca and I were in a rental car heading north on 101 through the Salinas Valley Sunday before last. We had gone down to San Luis Obispo the day before to have a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving with my brother and his wife Mona. Mom was there too, at least as far as her current presence of mind would allow.

Rebecca was driving. She was a little rusty, having not driven a car for over three years, but she did fine. I would not have done fine. It had been 12 years since I had driven and I was never a good driver to begin with. My ego is fine with Rebecca being the better driver. I’m sure I’m better at something else, possibly a guy thing like pissing on a wall.

I used to travel this road fairly often back when my dad still lived in Paso Robles and back when my dad still lived. He died in 2000. I was married at the time and my then wife did most of the driving when his condition became terminal and I became a nervous wreck. She’s gone now too, not dead, just gone.

Rebecca fiddled with the radio dial. She was doing the driving so she got to pick the music. It made sense. This was not an agreement we negotiated, but rather one that occurred naturally because neither of us are total selfish assholes.

Satellite radio is largely alien to me. I did a fair amount of road trips in the 80s and 90s, and back then your options were limited to what was available on the local FM dial. I listened to a lot of country on those trips. The songs about drinking, adultery, and murder were pretty enjoyable, but the easy-listening-with-a-twang stuff bored me.

With satellite radio, you are less restricted by your current location. Having programing beamed down from Earth’s orbit does not ensure quality and this is not merely the opinion of a grumpy old man. Rebecca is a grumpy young woman and judging by the way she stayed tuned to a station for half a song on average, it was a reasonable guess that she agreed with me. We continued north with musical accompaniment a peppering of pop, hip hop, modern R&B, and an assortment of golden oldies.

Up ahead lay King City, known for being a speed trap as much as anything else. It’s a modern speed trap though with the CHP writing the tickets. If you’re looking to get pulled over by Buford T. Justice or his ilk, you’re in for a disappointment. It was our plan to stop there, preferably without the urging of law enforcement. King City had gasoline and caffeine. We had cash and urine. It was time to make a trade.

We exited the freeway at the south edge of town.  There was a Chevron station and food mart right when we got on 1st Street, but we decided to continue our search for more amenities. An In-N-Out Burger would be ideal. Rebecca had never been to one. While there are many of them in the Bay Area, the only one in SF proper is at Fisherman’s Wharf, a place to be avoided unless you enjoy being around tourists, yacht snobs, and frat douches.

We found no In-N-Out in King City. A later Google search would show there are none between San Luis Obispo and Salinas, which came as a surprise. I didn’t notice an In-N-Out when we stopped for coffee in Gonzales on the way, but we weren’t looking for one at the time. We planned to gorge ourselves on turkey later that day. With a Starbucks, a donut shop, a McDonald’s, and a Denny’s all within view, I just figured one would be lurking somewhere.

And if there wasn’t one in Gonzales, I had assumed there had to be one in Soledad. There’s a big truck stop there with parking spaces big enough for 18 wheelers. I ate at a McDonald’s there decades ago. It’s a relaxing place to eat knowing that the nonstop shankings and ass rapes at the nearby correctional facility was kept contained by armed guards and barbed wire.

The good news for Rebecca and me was that neither of us had our heart set on In-N-Out Burger. The bad news was that King City had very little else to offer. Flat, dusty, and low rent, it’s not the sort of place you move to if you have a whole lot of options. I’m sure the residents are decent, rural folk, neighborly to a fault. Rebecca is from a town in Georgia that’s much like King City though more humid. She knows what places like this are like, which made her adamant that we gas up the car and get back on the freeway as quickly as possible. It was the one time on our trip that what  was playing on the radio didn’t matter at all.

We pulled into a Shell station, which had neither more or less going for it than the Chevron station we saw earlier. I got out of the car and right before feeding my debit card into the pump, a wave of paranoia hit me.

What if it had one of those skimmers I’d heard about? Someone could steal my information then drain my checking account to buy whatever people shop for in King City. Huffable chemical solvents and Slim Jims was my guess. There was a green plastic thing in front of the slot you put your card in. Maybe that’s what a skimmer looked like. I batted at it with my hand, trying to knock it loose.

“What are you doing?” Rebecca asked.

“Making sure it isn’t a thing,” I said, blanking on the word “skimmer.” Brain farts like this usually hit me when I’m drunk and I usually laugh them off.

They’re less funny when I’m sober. A lot of things are, but this was particularly disconcerting because it reminded me of my mother’s confusion over lasagna the night before. She said it was Mexican food.

“I think it’s Italian,” Mona said, trying to be helpful.

“It’s certainly something Hispanic,” Mom said, doubling down. She certainly should have known the difference, having both made lasagna and traveled extensively in Italy. On the other hand, old age has a way of scrambling your type.

Maybe I was experiencing the beginning of my own decline at that gas pump, helpless against an imagined menace I had forgotten the name of. This didn’t seem all that far fetched considering I didn’t even trust myself to drive.

We were back on the road for a while when the Police song “Message in a Bottle” came on the radio. Rebecca was about to change the station, but I asked her not to. I don’t even like the song that much, but it was familiar to me. That was good enough.

Privilegemobile 8: Cold Veal Conundrum

The commute home has just entered its second (and hopefully last) big slowdown. The bus had made its stop at Millbrae BART and ran into a traffic snarl just north of SFO.

I stare out the window from my usual seat at the back of the bus. Daylight-savings time has just ended so it is dark out already. This suits me fine. There is nothing worth looking at in this part of the peninsula anyway. It is a perfect time to pursue my thoughts.

One of the nice things about privilege is that it allows you time to ponder the hypothetical. We can mull over a scenario with the kind of intelligence and evenhandedness that only comfort and distance can provide.

The less fortunate are routinely faced with personal and pressing matters, and it shows in their work. Much has been said about why the poor do such stupid things, but I’ll provide one more example for those of you who have missed out.

Imagine some piece-of-shit apartment building catches fire due to “faulty wiring” (aka “landlord arson”) and one of the residents flees said building as it’s being consumed by flames. “Oh no, Fluffy!” she cries, remembering her cat. Rather than relaying her concerns to those on the scene who have flame-retardant clothing and are trained in both fighting fires and cat rescue, she runs back into the building, which collapses on top of her. In an ironic twist, her tragic death fails to gain the attention of Fluffy, who is idly licking his butt half a block away.

There are two lessons to be learned here. The first is how a crisis situation can cloud your thinking. If every day is one breaking point after another, you are not going to make the best life choices. The second lesson, and the one that means the most to me, is how a cushy desk job and a relaxing commute can imbue even a near dullard like me the wisdom to conjure up pithy fables to illustrate the challenges of our troubled times.

Traffic is still at a crawl so I have plenty of time for other hypothetical situations. One springs to mind that goes head on against the big issues: death, passion, innocence, and how our sense of right and wrong is put to the test when all three intersect.

I picture a mother and her daughter sitting in a car inside of a garage. The garage door is closed, the car’s windows are down, and the engine is running.

“You know mommy loves you,” the mother says, clutching her daughter’s hand.

The daughter is about nine, old enough to sense that something is wrong but not old enough to know exactly what.  If nine sounds off for that level of cognition, the age can be adjusted to fit. Another correction option is to either make the daughter a gifted child or give her Down syndrome. I decide to keep her age at nine, but bump up both her IQ and her chromosome count. Why not? The kid is going to be dead soon anyway.

The mother is intent on spending her last moments in this world justifying what she’s doing, though to whom is uncertain, so she talks on and on. However, she doesn’t want to let on to her daughter that mommy’s going to kill her so she expresses herself in vague, high-minded concern.

“Evil, rich men are destroying our planet, but there is a better world just for you and me,” she says before she and her daughter succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning. Citing pollution as her reason for murder-suicide is an odd choice, considering her exit plan. If she were really so eco-conscious, she’d own a Tesla and the two would be sitting in the car unharmed while the battery ran down.

The husband finds them when he gets home from work. He says boo hoo, wipes a tear from his eye, and grieves an appropriate amount. This is not his story though I do wish him well in his journey through the healing process. The real story, the one chock full of moral gravitas, begins when the two bodies arrive at a funeral home owned by necrophiles.

Frank and Hank Gooley nominally run the business together, but it is Frank who calls the shots. He is a tall, lanky fellow with a professional demeanor that reminds one of a kindly Boris Karloff. His ability to say “My condolences” in a reassuring tone was without peer. It is he who chose the name for the mortuary, “Bon Voyage, Port of Call for Your Loved One’s Final Journey.”

His brother Hank is shorter, wider, and resembles Benny Hill. He has a disconcerting habit of licking his lips while saying “My condolences” so at Frank’s urging, he no longer utters those words. He has also been instructed never to call the mortuary “Bone Voyage, Home of the Boffin’ Coffin” in front of the bereaved as such levity is seldom appreciated.

The siblings stare at the mother and daughter lying naked and supine on the embalming tables. The two cadavers had been cut open stink to sternum by the medical examiner at the county morgue then haphazardly sewn shut after the autopsy with what looked like kite string.

“It’s a shame their beauty had to be marred when the cause of death should have been obvious to everyone,” Frank says.

“I like their whore makeup,” Hank says, referring to the redness of the lips and cheeks caused by the carbon monoxide.

“If you don’t mind, I’ll have my dance with the mother,” Frank says. “Only 38, such a shame. At least she will never have to suffer the feminine indignity of growing old.”

“Fine by me, I wanted the tiny tart anyway,” Hank says. “I can’t wait to make her little cooter sing like this.” Hank then proceeds to imitate the sound by shoving his hand into his armpit and flapping his elbow up and down to produce a series of fartlike noises.

At this point, it is hard to believe that such a refined man and one so utterly boorish could possibly be related. However, the difference between them quickly evaporates as the two siblings disrobe and commence their respective tasks at hand. Both men bare their teeth while savagely pounding away at their lifeless paramours. Both wheeze like chain smokers and grunt like sports fans on their uphill climb to climax.

Just then, a SWAT team bursts into the room and the question of how Frank and Hank might differ in the afterglow will forever remain a mystery. An anonymous tip from a disgruntled ex-employee has sealed the Gooley brothers’ fate and they are hauled off to prison.

Neither get a lot of sympathy from the public, but it is Hank receives the harshest condemnation. He is labeled a pedophile, a stealer of innocence, and the lowest of the low.

But is he really? I’m not going to justify necrophilia. There is an implied lack of consent that makes it a transgression. Whether it is more like rape or trespassing is open to some debate, but it is still wrong.

Even if it is rape, I am not on board with making it the moral equivalent of fucking a living child. What makes pedophilia truly reprehensible instead of just icky is the lasting damage that it does. Last time I checked, corpses don’t need much therapy.

I’ll concede that Hank Gooley shows room for improvement. He is as bad as his brother, but no worse. It’s not like  he killed anybody. That distinction goes to the mother, but the outrage over that has gone missing, upstaged by a lesser but more lurid crime. Apparently killing a living child has become better than fucking a dead one. It makes no sense and yet that is what we as a species do. It is a riddle of the dead-girl diddle, a puzzle of the perished preteen and the pizzle, a cold-veal conundrum if you will.

Traffic eases and the bus is once again moving at a reasonable speed. It is just as well. I have taken this story as far as it can go and I can tell you that I weep for humanity and how our hypocrisy has damned us all.

“Je suis Hank,” I say aloud, not caring if anyone on the bus is listening. In fact, I am proud of what I said. These are good words. These are the right words. These are pretty much the only words I know in French. I sit back and stare out the window at the approaching city limits, basking in the glow of my own sage wisdom.

Je suis Hank. Damn I’m good.

Future Poo

Homeless Bob had a beastly itch. He shoved his hand down the front of his pants, not caring that he was standing at a crowded bus stop on a busy intersection. He began to scratch himself. The initial rakes from his bite-trimmed nails brought him some relief, but not enough, so he started anew with ferocious vigor.

His body odor alone was enough to keep people at least a foot away. This radius increased as the sight of his arm thrusting up and down into his trousers made those nearby take at least one step back and often two. Homeless Bob was unconcerned. He had lice and they needed to be dealt with. It was not long before the poppyseed-like bite scabs in his nether regions began to fetch loose and have the wounds bleed anew.

“Hoo doggy! I got me a Crab Nebula going on down there,” Homeless Bob said to no one in particular.

The bus pulled up and people crowded around its front and rear doors to board, hoping that Homeless Bob would not be joining them. They need not have worried. Although he often rode the bus and not pay the fare and sometimes would be confronted by a ticket inspector and given a fine, which he would also not pay, it was not going to happen this time. He had just pulled his hand from his pants and was too busy inspecting what was under his fingernails to bother with public transit.

There was uprooted pubic hair, dead skin, dried blood, not so dried blood, and a single louse that had gotten evicted by the scratching. Its tiny legs vainly attempted to gain purchase on thin air, but it seemed to be in pretty good shape for having survived a literal bloodbath.

“Howdy little feller,” Homeless Bob said to his newfound friend. “I think I’ll name you Buster, Buster Crab. Get ready for blastoff, Flash Gordon.” And with a flick of his finger, he sent Buster airborne. The trajectory carried the insect over several feet of concrete before landing on the head of the last passenger to board the bus. Buster held on for dear life and would soon settle into its new home where it would feed and lay eggs.

The bus pulled away and Homeless Bob was left standing there all alone. Though perhaps he was not as alone as he first imagined. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a bowel movement laying on the sidewalk. It was not terribly remarkable in itself, a single sausage-link deposit with a size and coloration consistent with having been produced by a human. It was an altogether typical sight in this part of the city except for one thing: It was not there just a moment ago.

Homeless Bob was certain about this. Life on the streets required a certain level of situational awareness just to survive so someone dropping a stool would not have escaped his notice. Besides, no one who got on the bus would have done such a thing. The only probable suspect was Homeless Bob himself and he was able to vouch for his whereabouts.

Yet the poo was right there plain as day. He could not deny its existence. It merely had no explainable origin, no past. Homeless Bob remembered this Sherlock Holmes quote:

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

It stands to reason, Homeless Bob concluded, that something that exists in the present, but did not in the past, must have come from the future. This was not just a poo he was looking at. It was a future poo.

The question remaining was why. What possible reason could people have to send their poo into the past? When Homeless Bob was younger and not yet homeless, he used to hurl his feces at old people for sport, but he had a suspicion there was something more significant at stake here. There had to be something very wrong with this poo, something that required its total removal by any means necessary.

Homeless Bob crouched down and scraped a small amount of the poo onto his fingernail. He then waved the sample under his nose and sniffed. Not surprisingly, it smelled like poo. He poked at the sample with the tip of his tongue. It tasted like poo as well. The smell and the taste did seem a little off, but he couldn’t tell exactly how. To find the answer, he had to make use of his keenest sense, his sense of pain.

Homeless Bob, like most homeless people, did not have a dental plan. As a result, his upper-left canine had rotted and had half of it broken off, leaving the nerve exposed. When he pressed the turd dollop on his finger against that nerve, the effect was immediate. A white-hot arc of agony shot between his tooth and brain. It was the brilliance of that arc that shined a light on the truth about future poo and once illuminated, that truth became both irrefutable and obvious.

“It has no nutrients!” Homeless Bob cried.

What made shit worth a shit, he figured, was its being a natural fertilizer. We eat and make poo. That poo goes into the ground where it helps grow the food that we eat. And round and round it goes.

Until it doesn’t. Human beings are a greedy bunch who are always finding new ways to skim off the top. In time, we would no doubt find a way to extend that to the very food we ate. That had to be what happened here. After multiple laps around the track, poo would eventually be robbed of what made it good fertilizer and it would become as useless as unrecyclable plastic. Landfills would brim beyond capacity with the stuff and humankind might well be faced with its own extinction if no one had invented the time machine along the way.

The past would become their new landfill, but it too would fill up after a while. Homeless Bob decided then that he was not going to wait around until the city streets became nostril deep in future poo. He had to do something, but what? How do you stop a crime when the perpetrators haven’t even been born yet? Well, maybe some of them have. Seeing a woman pushing a baby carriage, he picked the poo up off the ground and made his move.

The woman stopped in her tracks and her eyes widened when she saw the shabby man approach her with excrement in his outstretched hand. Homeless Bob saw this and realized that despite his good intentions, he sometimes had an unnerving effect on people.

“Cool your tits, lady. You’re too old for what I’m after. It’s your baby I’m interested in,” he said, hoping these words would calm her.

Homeless Bob saw the baby as an ambassador to the future and a possible connection between the present and the posterior of posterity that will one day birth this future poo. He knew it was a long shot. The dawning of the future-poo era might be centuries away. However, it was a chance he had to take.

He looked at the sleeping infant in gender-identifying blue pajamas. This was an ugly baby, uglier than most, but Homeless Bob needed a messenger, not a model. The trick was getting the baby to understand. He couldn’t simply explain himself, not to a kid who was too young to know how to talk. He needing him to reach that as he had, through profound discomfort.

Tooth decay on a par with Homeless Bob was out of the question, but the kid was probably the right age for teething pain. That would have to do. He scraped a fresh sample of future poo onto the tip of his finger and stuck it in the baby’s mouth.

“What the hell are you doing?” the woman screamed even though the answer was quite obvious.

“Back off, bitch. I’ve got a gun,” Homeless Bob said. He disliked having to lie to her, but it was a fib told in the service of imparting a greater truth, which made it OK.

The baby was awake now, wide eyed and vainly trying to force the finger out of his mouth with his little tongue.

“Ah ah ah, not until you’ve seen the light,” Homeless Bob said and pushed his finger in deeper. Tiny tonsils contracted involuntarily around the fingertip, which prompted him to remark, “Way to shake hands with it, kiddo. You’ll make a fine altar boy one day.”

Homeless Bob made eye contact with the baby and it was clear that the point had made. There was such seething hatred in those young eyes. It was obvious that the baby loathed future poo as much as Homeless Bob did. There could be no other explanation. Feeling satisfied, Homeless Bob pulled his finger from the baby’s mouth and wiped a shit-and-spit “V” for victory on the blue pajamas.

“Just one more thing,” Homeless Bob said. “Both you and this poo belong to the future. You’re going to have to take it with you.” He drove his finger into the future poo and dug out not just a sample but rather a big, thick wedge. He changed hands this time because he thought it would be more sanitary.

“Hey lady, you want to help getting the diapers off? I kind of have my hands full here.” He certainly did. Most of the future poo rested in the palm of one hand except for the freshly dug wedge on the crooked finger of the other. This finger had a hangnail that looked fully capable of slicing through any piece of sphincter that refused to yield.

When the woman did not answer, Homeless Bob looked around and saw that the woman had flagged down a police car and was was gesticulating wildly at the two officers inside.

The cops emerged from the black and white. One was a policeman who was built more or less like Rosie O’Donnell and the other was a policewoman who was built more or less like Rosey Grier. Officer Grier moved off to the side out of Homeless Bob’s field of vision while Officer O’Donnell stood front and center with one hand raised in the air.

“Stop what you’re doing,” the policeman said. “I just want to talk.”

“Well that’s splendid,” Homeless Bob said. “I appreciate it when law enforcement is willing to listen to reason. It benefits you as well. It will save you the embarrassment of arresting me when you’ll just end up letting me go. Now I’m sure there’s a law on the books about shoving things up a baby’s ass and it’s probably is a very good law. The problem is that it doesn’t apply here. Poo is defined as a substance that has come from pooping. Am I correct, officer?”

“Sure,” the policeman said.

“Well then, what I am holding is future poo. The pooping has not yet happened ergo the poo does not yet exist ergo any laws involving this poo are not yet enforceable. I’m sorry this woman wasted your time. Maybe you can arrest her for crying wolf.”

Homeless Bob smiled and nodded at the policeman, who smiled and nodded. Well that wasn’t so hard. Homeless Bob congratulated himself for being a veritable Perry Mason, which continued until Officer Grier came up behind him and put him in a chokehold.

He struggled in the policewoman’s grasp, but she was too strong for him. Saliva bubbled from between her clenched teeth as she tightened her grip. He grimaced. She grunted. He passed out. She belched out a chuckle.

Officer O’Donnell took a brief statement from the woman while Officer Grier loaded an unconscious Homeless Bob into the back of the police car. Soon the cops and their suspect were gone, leaving the woman to take deep breaths and try to regain her composure.

The next sound heard came from the baby carriage, but it was not the sound a baby would make. It had a deeper voice. It sounded gravely from years of drinking and tobacco use.

“What the fuck was that shit?” it said.

“Not another word, Time Dwarf,” the woman said. “You know you’re under orders not to talk.”

“But you saw what he did to me.”

“But nothing. I swear to Christ if you blow our cover, I’ll make sure you’re brought up on charges and executed by the High Command. Now shut up while I report the situation to HQ.” She began talking into her wristwatch. “This is Field Agent Dietrich. It looks like our operation has been exposed. You’ll have to suspend fecal transfer until you get the all clear. Fortunately, the arresting officers were two of ours. They’ll make sure he dies in custody so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.”

A Low Point of Sorts

Alcoholics hit bottom before they begin their recovery. It’s what they do. It also makes a certain amount of sense. You’re not going to be enjoying a cocktail in the company of good friends then suddenly check your watch and say, “Gotta run. There’s a meeting at the rec center where I’ll drink nine cups of coffee and listen to total strangers’ downward-spiral stories festooned with appalling grammar.”

So yeah, drinking has to get shittier than sobriety for sobriety to stand a chance. How low you sink prior to recovery varies from person to person and like most human affairs, there is some snobbery involved. High-bottom drunks are considered a better class of people than low-bottom drunks. The alcoholic whose liquid lunches caused him to get passed over for promotions can look down on one whose liquid breakfasts caused him to fuck his child. He in turn gets to look down on another kid diddler who was so drunk he  fucked the eye socket and had to thumb it in. And down and down it goes like so many metaphysical turtles upon whom the world rests.

Those of us who either drink moderately or drink ourselves to death are immune to this rigid caste system. For one thing, our low points are, relatively speaking, not all that low. Rock bottom is still a long way down. The lows are also more plentiful. We don’t see one as a wake-up call. We feel them in aggregate as the backbeat to our personal rock-and-roll song.

My own backbeat hit a particularly resounding thud this past weekend. There were friends visiting from out of town and their presence made this a special occasion, which effectively renders the rules of moderation null and void.

That’s what led me to being perched on a barstool at Iron & Gold way past my bedtime on Saturday night. Reading this, you might be asking what the big deal is. Tying one on with friends you don’t see very often sounds perfectly reasonable, and it is, but that is not what I was doing.

I  had arrived with Rebecca and she was feeling sociable enough to go chat with a friend sitting at the far end of the bar. I sat alone for a good long while and only spoke when ordering a drink. All three of our visiting friends said they would be coming out to the bar with us. None of them did.

We had all started drinking during brunch. It was nothing too hard core, mimosas mostly, and afterward we adjourned to a bar about a block and a half away. That’s where it all went wrong.

I was drinking pints of Stella, pacing myself because I predicted a long night ahead. One of the visitors showed no interested in pacing herself and started knocking back multiple double Jamesons she could neither pay for nor keep down. When it got to be late afternoon and we decided to temporarily adjourn before meeting up later, guess which one of us could not be talked into leaving because she decided two random bar patrons were her new best friends and attached herself to them like a lamprey.

After that, details are sketchy. Rebecca and I walked home. The lamprey woman eventually detached herself, went missing for a while, then showed up at the hotel spraying vomit on herself and her immediate surroundings . She wouldn’t be coming out. Nor would her friend who decided she needed looking after. That left one other person who turned out to be a no show for possibly unrelated reasons. Just like that, our big night out had turned to shit.

No matter, I said I was going to out drinking and that was exactly what I did. Never mind that I wasn’t having any fun. That wasn’t the point. Practicing drunks, like recovering ones, have their own snobbery. It’s acceptable to either bow out early or crash and burn, but not both, and the strata are formed from that axiom. The bottom of the pecking order are the matinee casualties, those sad sacks you see in the back of a police car at 7 pm on New Year’s Eve. The top is a tie between Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson. Mere mortals will never reach that level and the best we can do is make a good show of it. I decided to make a good show of it. This weekend was, after all, a special occasion.

As one drink followed another, I remained perched on both the barstool and my high horse just fine. I quietly drank until close to midnight. That’s when my friend Scott showed up.

I hadn’t seen Scott in a couple of years and despite being Facebook friends, I drew a blank on his first name. I remembered his last name and was able to cover my mental lapse with a quick visit to the FB app on my phone.

This maneuver would’ve been a nice save if I didn’t try to engage in conversation afterward. My mouth opened and a flash flood of gibberish poured out. I blathered in about the events of the day, the events of the day before, and the likely events of the day after. I bitched about my job and sorry state of the world. I was not all negative. I had nothing but good things to say about well scotch even if it was too late for happy-hour prices. I inquired about the health of a mutual friend then ended up blanking on his name as well.

Scott was laughing all through this and I realized I was complete wreck. I wished him a pleasant evening and left the bar. Driving would have been a real bad idea, but  I don’t do that and I could still walk without falling over. The cool night air sobered me a little, but not a lot. I hadn’t been this trashed in quite a while. It was my low point, in recent memory anyway,  and would remain so until the next one came along. At least I didn’t throw up (unlike some people) and so my nadir was not a ralph nadir.

There was one more poor life decision to be made before the night was over. I went into the corner store and bought some Cap’n Crunch and milk to go with it. This was exactly the kind of food I gave up a year ago to lose those 40 lbs. I desperately needed to lose, but a special occasion is a powerful thing indeed. I would have preferred the Cap’n Crunch without the Crunch Berries, but that’s all they had. We live in an imperfect world.


“And if you wake up, you might learn something before it’s done.” -Bill Cosby

About 50 miles north of me, a high-school gymnasium had been transformed into a temporary shelter for evacuees. The rows of cots were all filled by those ordered to leave their homes as the fires advanced. They did not know if they would have a home to return to, but they were exhausted and for now, they just wanted a place to sleep. Except for a few children sobbing, all was quiet in the spacious darkened interior.

Until the farting started.

The first one didn’t even make a sound, but what it lacked in volume it made up for aroma. It smelled of broccoli, egg, and some sort of dead animal. The groans of protest from those still awake woke others so they could smell it too.

Since humans’ directional sense of smell is limited at best, the perpetrator remained anonymous and therefore immune to shaming. The only way to retaliate was to return fire. Sauce for the goose and all that.

Payback was not so silent. It trumpeted from the buttocks and took full advantage of the gymnasium’s acoustics. The person responsible had no hope for anonymity, but did not care. This was war.

Any need for restraint after that was, as they say, gone with the wind. Razzers, pops, and sputters erupted all around in the darkness, as well as frustrated grunts from those who tried and failed to add to the flatulent zeitgeist. Some farter non-starters decided that sound effects were better than nothing and drawing from memories of their summer-camp bunkhouse after lights out, put their lips against their forearms or palms pressed together and forcibly exhaled.

Unfortunately for them, the volunteer working the night shift was a former camp counselor and had little patience for such shenanigans. She blew her whistle and issued a direct order to knock it off. The gymnasium fell silent and sphincters tightened save the one that caused the ruckus in the first place.

Fifty miles can seem like a world away, especially when the threat from the fires are kept at bay by, of all things, a bay. What woke me from my my fitful sleep was not evacuee flatulence,  but my cat demanding attention as she often does in the vicinity of three o’clock in the morning.

Kitty is 16 now. If she were a dog, she would be dead. Cats on average live a little longer, but she is well into her dotage. A few years ago, she would have delivered multiple headbutts and/or taps on the face with her paw. Now she just leans her forehead in and lets gravity do all the work. It’s lazy but effective. I was soon awake and scratching that spot on her forehead.

“It’s OK, Kitty. We don’t have to worry about those nasty fires,” I said.

My cat, having never ventured north of 17th Street, purred and concurred.

There were posts on Facebook from friends who lived up there and  were now cooling their heels in Marin County. Soon they would go home and feel relieved that they had been spared, perhaps thanking the same god who saw fit to ruin the lives of their neighbors.

San Francisco was immune to these fires, but not their smoke. The more sensitive and cautious donned facemasks before setting foot outside. The sun turned blood red when it lowered into the late afternoon sky.

I had seen the sun like this on the tail end of by bus ride home from work and it reminded me of the Japanese flag. There were no streaks radiating from the sun so this was not the flag of the 1930s and 40s when Japan had lost its collective shit and took to raping Nanking plus countless comfort girls, bombing Pearl Harbor, and beheading POWs. No, the unadorned red ball was the Japan of Gamera, tentacle porn, and peaceful prosperity made possible by seeing that the way of the future lay in the transistor and not the vacuum tube. This is the Japan I visited. This is the Japan I love.

It was a lovely sunset, perhaps not worth the torching of California’s wine country to create it, but impressive nonetheless. Yet neither it nor the fires burning out of control held my attention. I had a bigger crisis of my own to deal with.

I did not know how to process the passage of time.

I had some conventional wisdom. There was that adage about time flying when you’re having fun. Not applicable given recent fun levels. Then there’s the Clash’s “Clocks go slow in a place of work/Minutes drag and the hours jerk.” That’s closer to the mark, but both fall short because they deal with perceived time. My concern is far more objective and quantifiable.

I have about a decade to move through before I hit retirement. I went to the epoch-converter website and with it and my calculator, I came up with how many seconds were left between then and just after midnight on my 65th birthday. It was a lot. In the low eight digits, I think.

I then remembered an internet hebephile during Emma Watson’s Hermoine Granger period who put up a clock counting down to her 18th birthday. There was quite an uproar over it at the time. He was labeled a predator by some, which was idiotic. A predator would not have been so willing to wait. Watson did eventually turn 18, but that’s all I know about how the story ended. There is probably not much else to tell, but part of me likes to think that one of her first acts as a consenting adult was to reward him for his devotion and patience. Perhaps consent was given with a most British “Right, in you go then” or maybe she was a Joe Don Baker fan and quoted his Final Justice catchphrase, “Go ahead on.” I doubt I’ll ever know.

I considered creating my own countdown clock, or better yet appropriating someone else’s, and customizing it to fit my needs. Underage actresses aren’t my thing, but knowing the number of seconds to retirement might provide comfort when work stress gets to be too much for me. Tick fucking tock, I would think while watching the number decrease.

Ultimately, I am afraid this would feed a much bigger problem. You see, I am in that stage of life where I am neither here nor there. In the past, I behaved irresponsibly and figured I could get away with it. Abnormally good luck proved my prediction, if not my judgment, to be accurate. When I retire, the plan is to have enough money to be irresponsible again and by then I’ll have the extra reckless abandon of knowing I’m on borrowed time.

Perhaps I’ll be like that one old fart Creepy Jeff told me about who got carried out of a strip club and thrown against a tree. I don’t know what his transgression was, certainly not simply leering. You earn that privilege by paying the cover charge. Maybe he got grabby or was caught sprinkling brewer’s yeast on currency before stuffing it into a g-string. Neither activity is my style. The tree fate could still await me, but only if it was a service I paid for and was carried out by strippers who were built like bouncers.

There I go again with the hints at my proclivities. TMI be damned. I may just have to write about it at length someday, but I’ll spare you this time.

The point is that in order to secure a future of not giving a shit, I need to give a shit now. That’s job one. I need to hunker down and transform. I am neither caterpillar nor butterfly. I am a pupa. (I originally wanted to call this blog entry “Cocoon” but did not want to establish a pattern of picking movie titles, especially with the softening of the film’s subject matter over the last one. Following this trajectory, the next one could be called “Terms of Endearment”and none of us want that).

Fortunately, being a pupa is not a 24/7 operation. I just need to remember to make the time count so I’m not just counting time. Irresponsible, self-centered people are supposed to be good at living in the moment. Half the time I don’t even know what the moment is. And it should be so easy. All I need to do is get over myself and see that the world needs me. Hand me a beer and stand back. I’ve got a fire to piss on.

Shriek of the Mutilated

Mission Bar, as the name implies, is a bar on Mission Street. It is near the corner of 23rd Street and about a five-minute walk from my house. Lately, I have been walking there quite often.

This is not to say I drink a lot when I get there. It has been my experience that if I have to work the next day, one or two drinks is fine. Three is iffy. Four or more is unwise. I have been unwise enough in my life to speak on this topic with authority.

Even if my alarm didn’t go off at 5:45, I would still rein in my drinking. My purpose is not to spend the evening in an alcoholic fog, maybe a few scattered clouds, but not a full-on fog bank. I have thinking to do.

Mission Bar has become the preferred spot for my midweek drink-n-think. Doc’s Clock, about three blocks away, has cheaper drinks during happy hour and more quirky charm. However, I don’t always want quirky charm, especially when done so intentionally. Mission Bar comes off as far less self-aware. The whorehouse-red lighting is understated as are the sporadically placed velvet paintings. Only the Halloween decorations, plastic skeltons that make the bar look like the Pirates of the Caribbean, are overbearing and they seem to be an honest mistake.

None of the bartenders there know my name and I’m OK with that. This allows me to focus on what’s going on between my ears. There is also a mirror behind the bar where I have a clear view of myself. I don’t need it for vanity. I just need to make sure my monster is kept on the inside.

That’s harder to do at longtime local, Iron & Gold. I’ve spent many evenings there and even more when it was the Argus Lounge. Over the years, I’ve tipped my hand too often to fool much of anybody. It’s the only bar I’ve been asked to leave except for that one time at another bar where I got ejected as part of a package deal when a drinking buddy set fire to the curtains.

The time I got booted for my own actions was 10 years ago during the Argus era. My infraction was less severe than arson and so the banishment was only for one night.

That night, the bartender had refused to serve me because I was a gibbering mess with lips shiny from spittle, eyes like runny eggs, and both nostrils caked with an illicit white residue. I must have been in pretty bad shape because when I got confronted by the owner earlier that year with my lips blue from doing nitrous hits in the back room, I merely got a talking to. The Argus Lounge would cut you a lot of slack. Anyway, I did not think being cut off was fair so I got a friend to order my next drink for me. That’s what got me booted. Looking back, raising my glass at the bartender in defiance was probably not a good idea.

I dialed it down after that and have been at least tolerated ever since. Neither the staff nor the owners from 10 years ago are there now, but there is enough overlap in the turnover to keep me from ever starting with a clean slate. I have no desire to sully my reputation further, even when the transgression likely exists nowhere but in my own head.

There was one of those instances that happened a couple of weeks back. Rebecca was down in LA to see Interpol and I was drinking at I&G, enjoying the healthy pours afforded a regular. The movie Grizzly was showing on the big flat screen above the bar. My tongue was loosened by well scotch so I told the bartender how I stowed away in a friend’s Mercury Cougar to see it at a local drive-in when I was in high school. This amused her so I went on to tell her how the film’s director, William Girdling, was decapitated by a helicopter he was about to board when one side of its landing  gear collapsed. She seemed less amused by this than the stowaway story. When it comes to real-life deaths by helicopter in the motion-picture industry, most people are hip to Vic Morrow but it takes a real film buff to want to know about more of them.

I now regret telling her, mostly because I was factually in error. While Girdling did die in a helicopter accident, the collapsing landing-gear beheading actually killed Michael Findlay, director of Shriek of the Mutilated. I’ve never seen this film. It’s supposed to be about a Bigfoot-like creature in upstate New York, but so what. It’s the title that really stands out and the film itself was probably just tacked on as an afterthought.

Since the title still packs a wallop after all these years, I have decided to borrow it for this blog entry. The title I was going to use (“Rules of the Game”) is simultaneously pompous and anemic by comparison. This one is direct. It has zazz.

So when I set off for Mission Bar, I did so with the understanding that the bartender would have zero interest in anything I had to say. This allows me to turn my focus inward where it belongs. There is also peace of mind knowing that keeping my mouth shut will prevent me from spouting a load of crap and being regarded as a blight on the premises. I may not like to drink akone, but I do like to do it with near invisibility.

I arrive a little after eight. Sportsball is on the two TVs, but no one is yelling at the screen. The people watching show only mild interest. It gives the eyes something to do while alcohol passes the lips.

I’ve seen the bartender before. She has bangs and tats and is wearing a black t-shirt. It’s a comforting look. It assures me that I’m in a neighborhood dive with a reasonable set of rules. She won’t act like I’m trash for ordering a well drink and I won’t say anything creepy or try to order a mojito.

My usual these days is a scotch and soda. The bartender may not remember this night after night, but she does drink after drink. That’s good enough. I don’t want to be that memorable. If asked, “He’s OK, ” said with a shrug is perfect. Let that be my epitaph.

Sitting at the bar with a drink in my hand, I can send my thoughts down a rabbit hole of my choosing. It is important to choose wisely. Rabbit holes are fine, but the abyss of existence is to be avoided. This is doubly true when alcohol is involved. The suggested two-drink limit goes right out the window as one’s mood goes into freefall. The best to hope for then is to pass out before doing something more regrettable than drinking too much.

I can usually avoid this by thinking about people in far worse shape than myself. The mass shooting in Las Vegas provided that in spades. First there were at least 50 confirmed dead. That number has since climbed to 58. I doubt it will increase, but one can never be sure. It took over 30 years and the death of Jim Brady to elevate John Hinckley from attempted murderer (and Jodie Foster’s number-one fan) to a bona fide killer.

As I’ve said on many occasions, empathy isn’t my strong suit. Here though, I don’t think it should be expected considering I have no idea what it’s like to either shoot somebody or get shot. People on the internet, however, seem to have all the answers.

It helps to have an axe to grind. Otherwise, you have no real urge to shout “Aha!” When a senseless tragedy occurs.

ISIS was first on the bandwagon and claimed Stephen Paddock as one of their own because of course they did. Far less odious, but still biased, people followed suit.

One sentiment that many of my friends subscribe to is the insistence that Paddock be called a terrorist. Their reasoning is that if he were darker skinned and/or Muslim, he’d be assigned that label in a heartbeat. On that point, I cannot argue and he may actually be a terrorist. Definition of the word can vary from person to person, but motive remains the deciding factor rather than how despicable the crime was. This is why I think Dylann Roof is a terrorist and Adam Lanza was not despite his higher body count. So far, Paddock’s motive is anybody’s guess.

Gun-control advocates chimed in and even though I doubt America will ever rid itself of guns, I do see their point. I don’t know how many people Paddock would gave killed if he were blasting away with a hunting rifle, but I’m guessing a lot fewer than 58.

Then there were those pushing the idea that the shooter was some crazed libtard who hated Trump and freedom in equal measure. Such people both amuse and frighten me.

The last of the axe grinders I’ll mention are those who point an accusing finger at toxic masculinity because it is toxic, pervasive, and drives people to kill. It is toxic, I’ll grant them that. My own masculinity is pretty meager, but what I do have is toxic all get out. I’ll also concede pervasive as I’m just one in a multitude of spiteful, entitled pricks in the world. You would think that with all these raging assholes running loose, the carnage would be far worse than it is.  Yet, most of us are not homicidal. The unsavory parts of my character may not stay my hand, but they don’t force it either.

You need that extra something to commit mass murder. Stephen Paddock had it. I don’t think I do. There’s only one person I ever think about killing and that’s the ugly fucker in the mirror on the other side of the bar.

And there’s the abyss I was talking about. I need to back away and shift my focus to those I hate even worse. There was the CBS attorney who said the victims deserved what they got because they were country-music fans and therefore likely Republicans. Then there was the owner of a vegan food truck in Pennsylvania who cheered for the animal lives saved by the death of all these meat eaters.

These are not the people I hate. Sure they’re assholes, but they are up front about it. No, the ones I truly despise are the ones who chant their “freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences” mantra and set out to get those who offended them publicly shamed then deprived of their livelihoods. You are not doing me any favors. I like it when people say offensive things. I enjoy the freedom to say “What an asshole” when the situation merits it. You rob me of that freedom with your need to enforce civility through any cowardly means available.

I’m not against your right to criticize. Criticize away. Denounce. Wave your arms and pitch a hissy. Just don’t stifle people and then pat yourself on the back for being such a wonderful person. People on both the left and the right do this and I gave nothing but contempt for the lot of you.

And yes, I like to be offensive as well.  It’s how I process human tragedy. It’s also a lot of fun. People are caricatures to me.

Sitting at the bar, I have nary a twinge of guilt as I muse about that procrastinating murder victim James Brady and his devoted wife Sarah, who took care of him for all those years. She had to get sick of his shit once in a while.

Picture if you will, James Brady sitting on the floor in his diaper eating tapioca pudding with a plastic spoon. To minimize the mess on his shirt, he is wearing a bib with “BRADY BILL” emblazoned above a picture of his face with a duck bill. Enter wifey Sarah with a strap on and she mounts his forehead and starts fucking his Hinckley hole for all its worth, Old Puddinhead wet burping his meal rhythmically with the thrusting.

The bartender sees my head tilt slightly and a smile spread slowly across my lips. She asks me if I need another drink. I tell her I’m good and gather my stuff to leave. I don’t share my anecdote. I doubt she’d appreciate it and it’s her bar, in reality if not by ownership. She needs to come here to earn a living.

You, on the other hand, get on the interwebs in large part for the same reason I go a bar, to amuse yourselves. Do keep that in mind when you have the urge to turn into a self-righteous piece of shit.


Northbound and Down

Your workday dies a lingering death when you have a long commute. If you’re driving home, you may not think about it too much because you’re too busy concentrating on the car ahead of you and the slow crawl of rush-hour traffic. I ride a tech bus so I have plenty of time to think.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to own a car again. It’s been 24 years since driving my old one to death by not caring much about scheduled maintenance, including oil changes. I’m not very good at taking care of things, whether it be my car, my teeth, or my career path. I’m also not a very good driver because other cars on the road just aren’t all that interesting to me. While it may be true that driving a car would give me the freedom to go wherever I want, letting someone else drive gives my brain the freedom to go wherever it wants. I like that better.

It’s usually an hour and 45 minutes of my semi-workday purgatory before the bus gets off the freeway. I spend this time fretting about work, fretting about things that aren’t work, or losing myself in my fantasy world so I don’t have to fret about anything. The only thing I have to do is stay on the bus. Unless it crashes. Then I have to lie on the asphalt and bleed a lot. Either way, I’m still a prisoner.

The bus exits at Cesar Chavez Street, which was Army Street when I first moved here and its current namesake was still alive. I remember some of the older and more conservative (by SF standards) residents objecting to the name change. I didn’t mind. Sure, it took a couple of extra syllables to say, but Chavez was a pretty good guy and streets in this town have been named after far worse than him (e.g. Fillmore and Columbus).

I actually heard Cesar Chavez speak one time. I can’t remember what he said but he earned a lot of applause, being Cesar Chavez and all. It was 1988 and I had just moved up to the Bay Area and was living in Oakland. There was an event at Dolores Park that had the words “jobs,” “justice,” and “peace” in the title. I’m not sure of the order and I don’t think it really mattered. The three were all good things and the intended effect was to create a big, liberal umbrella that was welcoming to one and all.

It worked. Dolores Park was transformed that day into a veritable swap meet for progressive causes. Environmentalists, feminists, socialists, and “Where was George?” finger pointers had all set up shop on the grass. Bored by the overall nonviolent vibe, I gravitated toward the table with the pro-IRA swag on display.

The table wasn’t actually run by the IRA with some hatchet-faced Fenian hissing about the “durrrty Briddish” through a jack-o’-lantern smile. Instead, I was greeted by a rather fetching redhead who represented an organization calling itself Irish Northern Aid.

She informed me that their mission was to support the families of “political prisoners” in Northern Ireland and if I signed up for their mailing list and made a small donation, I could help myself to one of those nifty “Victory to the IRA” bumper stickers. It was just a few dollars so I handed her the money and put the bumper sticker on display in the front window of my apartment, where it received pointed disapproval from my English friend whenever he came by for a visit.

That’s as close as I’ve come to being a sponsor of terrorism. Irish Northern Aid, or NORAID, was accused of supplying the Irish Republican Army with cash to buy weapons. This was never proven outright and I did not know about the allegation at the time. Even if I had, I don’t know if it would have made any difference.

My ancestry is Irish as much as anything, but I had l no real kinship with the land of my roots. At the time, I never visited Ireland and had no strong opinion whether it should be united or not. Even now, I have no dog in that fight. For people in Northern Ireland, the IRA were a grim reality. For me living in California, they were a parlor game.

The only thing I ever liked about the IRA is that they got drunk and blew stuff up. To this bored and sheltered idiot, that was some punk-rock shit. I didn’t know the issues and didn’t care. When someone pointed out the ideological inaccuracy of writing “IRA” with a circle around the “A” to denote anarchy, I sneered at his attempt to stifle my creativity.

I wasn’t all that sympathetic either. I heard about the hunger strikers while I was in college and with a level of tact that hasn’t changed much, I wrote “Bobby Sands” on a piece of paper and taped it to a skeleton Halloween decoration at the frat house. Some guy who took the Troubles very seriously pitched a hissy over that. If he were actually in the IRA, I probably would have gotten kneecapped.

Real violence has always scared the piss out of me so to make the IRA seem more palatable, I half convinced myself that they were committing “A-Team” mayhem where there’s a lot of property damage, but nobody actually gets hurt.

Looking back, I was perhaps exhibiting a similar stupidity as some of my contemporaries were with their “Mao More Than Ever” t-shirts, which were a perfectly acceptable social and fashion statement if you were willing to ignore the fact that your beloved Chairman’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution killed people by the tens of millions. I’m guessing they were into it out of boredom as well. The 80s were a stultifying decade. We all had to amuse ourselves as best we could.

The bus stops at 24th and Guerrero Streets. I get up and make my way to the exit. I move past a number of seated coworkers, most of them millennials.  They look so committed, so earnest. I really have nothing in common with them at all.

Fuck-You Money

There is a meme that’s made the rounds on Facebook and other social media. There are in fact a lot of them, but the one I’m talking about has a quote about how socialism never caught on in America because the poor see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

The quote is attributed to John Steinbeck and is accompanied with a picture of the author to clear up any confusion over what Steinbeck looked like. You have probably seen this meme and may have even shared it with an enthusiastic credulity common among meme sharers.

It’s a nice quote. I’ll grant you that. The only problem is that John Steinbeck never said it. Ronald White did. Not Ron “Tater Salad” White, another guy. Something similar happened with Martin Luther King Jr. with a quote about never rejoicing in anyone’s death. It’s a sentiment King might well have shared, but the actual quote belongs to one Jessica Dovey, a nonfamous American teaching in Japan. Steinbeck did have something to say about “temporarily embarrassed capitalists,” but it was part of a longer bit about how armchair communists seldom accomplish jack shit.

I was discussing this at Iron & Gold with my friend Ken, a semi-retired academic. Ken eschews most social media and is not very meme-savvy, but makes up for it by being knowledgeable about stuff that people actually said. I told him about the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” quote and he said it reminded him of what a German sociologist and economist named Werner Sombart had to say on the matter.

I had never heard of this Sombart character because I drank away my college years, but I made note of his name for future reference. The conversation then drifted to what famous people we each shared birthdays with. His claim to fame was HP Lovecraft and mine was Mink Stole, making us dead even when it came to bragging rights.

So the following Monday morning on the bus ride to work, I was googling Werner Sombart to find out what he had to say about why socialism has been a non-starter in the USA. I’m a Wikipedia scholar at best who’s had a short attention span before it became ubiquitous, so I was hoping to find something glib and pithy as an easily digested takeaway.

Alas, German scholars are not big on being either glib or pithy. They would much rather verbally beat the shit out of a topic from every possible angle. Sombart was no exception and in his 1906 motherfucker Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus, he dedicates over 150 pages to the subject.

I didn’t want to read all that, nor did I want to pay to download the PDF in its entirety, so I gleaned what I could by perusing the publicly available previews to each section. Sombart’s description of the American workers’ level of optimism falls in line with the Ronald White quote, but he also includes such points as the tendency of America’s most ambitious people to go into private business rather than public service and how two major parties dominate our political system.

From what I could see, Sombart’s arguments are valid and I can offer few objective criticisms of the work. On a personal level, it doesn’t all ring true. Part of that is because over a century has passed and his assertion that American workers are better off than their German counterparts is not as true now as it was then. It’s more than that though. My biggest objection is that I’m not nearly as optimistic as Sombart and White’s perception of the American worker bee.

I’m also kind of a socialist myself, but only kind of. I think laws to make sure workers are treated decently, and this includes a respect for work-life balance that goes beyond lip service, are both beneficial and necessary. I like single-payer healthcare and access to higher education that doesn’t cost a fuckton of money. There are some things the public sector is better at providing and since those things cost money, I’m OK with kicking in my fair share in taxes to pay for them.

It’s the nanny-state bullshit I have a problem with. If your ideal society is devoid of enjoyment of vices and unpleasant thoughts or words, I want no part of it. I’m kind of a libertarian because of this, but again only kind of. I believe that my life is essentially my own and no one else’s, but I don’t buy into the notion that unfettered capitalism makes the world a better place. Left libertarian is a fairly accurate description of my leanings, but that doesn’t seem to be an option in America these days. You’re given a choice to side with either the Pollyanna statists or the plutocrats with a selective appreciation of personal freedom. I choose to drink.

So what’s left? What possible light can be found at the end of this long, dark, and ugly tunnel? For me, the answer is fuck-you money.

I first heard the term “fuck-you money” from comedian Doug Stanhope, but I’ve been acquainted with the concept as long as I can remember. It’s that amount of cash you need to spend the rest of your life doing what you want.

The fuck-you part of it doesn’t even have to be hostile. You don’t have to say those words to your boss when you quit and you certainly don’t have to take a shit on his or her desk as a parting gift. If your situation merits that, do what you have do, but it’s hardly a requirement. In fact, you don’t have to quit your job at all if you enjoy it enough. Fuck-you money is about your own happiness, not obligatory rebellion. Personally, I’d make my exit and do it on friendly terms because I don’t want to be remembered as a complete asshole.

How does the dream of fuck-you money differ from being a temporarily embarrassed millionaire? For one thing, FYM may be a figure considerably less than a million dollars. It all depends on your definition of a comfortable existence. There are places on the planet I can afford retiring to right now. Unfortunately, they tend to be in areas where the local water supply comes from muddy tire tracks and paramilitaries periodically roll into town for their festival of rape.

The good news is that if I keep working for another ten years, I can retire in a place a little more civilized, like Oregon. I’ll also be 65 then so I’ll be eligible for Social Security, that is if people can keep a muzzle on Paul Ryan and his ilk.

What does this dream of attaining fuck-you money have to do with cockblocking socialism in America? Not a whole lot. It’s a lot more pessimistic than being a temporarily embarrassed millionaire so you don’t have the same enabler relationship with capitalism. You’re under no illusion that the corporate world that backhands you really loves you deep down.

On the other hand, diehard pessimists are less likely to work for positive social change. Nihilists like me are good at brooding, but we can’t be counted for much else. Viva la revolution. Tell me when you’ve won.

With people like me pretty much a wash as far as socialism goes, what is the impediment exactly? Werner Sombart might have had the answer and if I were a more diligent reader, I would have picked up on it. I must therefore look to Sombart’s contemporary and bestie, Max Weber, who wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. OK, I didn’t read this either, but I’m willing to guess it discusses how the two things in the title have something to do with each other.

This is certainly true from my own experience. Sharing the religious aspects of puritanism may not be required in this day and age, but the nose-to-the-grindstone, killjoy element from those Mayflower buckleheads is still alive and well with the company you work for serving as a sort of surrogate god. You must stay busy and productive, but more than that, you must never shut up about how busy and productive you are. Part of this is self-preservation as you want to be spared when there is a round of layoffs because the shareholders (your god’s gods, in case you’re keeping score) get hungry and demand a blood sacrifice. It’s more than that though. I see this song and dance done far more than is necessary and through sheer repetition, it becomes second nature.

What’s even more pathological is the expectation of team spirit beyond what’s required to get your work done and not be a dick to your colleagues. This exists throughout a company, but is concentrated in areas where the accomplishments are less tangible (people in marketing and HR are particularly known for their pep). Critics of socialism are quick to point out its odious forced collectivism while conveniently forgetting how rampant that shit is in capitalism as well.

It’s far from perfect, but it’s the only viable game for me. Trying to change the world is not my nature. Creating my own little world is. For now, I’ll carve out a little one as time permits and keep checking my bank balance. Someday my money will hit the fuck-you threshold and I can retreat full time into my own little nook of resistance. I won’t need much, just the basic creature comforts. I neither need nor want a trophy room of possessions. I just need enough so the failings of the world are no longer my problem. Where I can live each day on my own terms. Where no one will take it all away from me.

Until someone does.