Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Perfect Pencil

Once, while attending City College, I had gotten it into my mind that I needed a pencil sharpener. I didn’t want just any pencil sharpener, I wanted the one that was mounted to every classroom wall of grade school of my youth. Fortunately, City College wasn’t flush in cash, so old sharpeners were mounted proudly near the door of every classroom.

I made a plan to steal one.

After my mid-afternoon piano class, I walked down the hallway of the humanities building, checking every door to see if they were locked. The night before I gathered the appropriate tools to steal a sharpener: screwdriver, Phillips-head, hammer and pliers - a burglary kit.

I found an open door and quickly went to work. It was held on by 4 screws that easily unscrewed. With a gentle tap of the hammer, it reluctantly came off the wall. IT had probably been there for 40 years. I quickly put the burglary kit back into my backpack with my new/old pencil sharpener.

Before leaving, I got an idea. I went to the blackboard and drew a large marijuana leaf in chalk. To the right of it, I wrote in letters that vertically spanned the height of the chalkboard: Smoke Pot. In my mind, I thought I was doing a service to the students who would see this. It would give them joy and make them laugh or at least shake their heads. In reality, I was the only who got the joke. I left thinking about the Puerto Rican kids in grade school constantly writing “PR Power” on the chalkboard with a graphic closed fist.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Roll and Smoke and Deal

Before I could drive, part of Lisa’s job was to chauffeur me to various sporting events and guitar lessons. In her Dodge Sapphire, we would listen to Sammy Hagar’s Red on the 8-track on our way to my guitar lesson. She always described him as “the little red rocker.” My guitar teacher lived in the the adjacent town, so it required a ride and pickup. Lisa usually came inside with me or stayed in the car and listened to music.

My teacher’s name was Vic Trigger. He was a tall, lanky fellow with dark, curly hair, and was always looking down and fiddling with effects or writing things in his journal. With the right clothes and makeup he could pass as Weird Al on Halloween. He was in a band called the Vic Trigger Band and they played Frank Zappa type songs with song titles like “Get High and Space Out” and “Roll and Smoke and Deal,” which pretty much summed up the philosophy of the band. Those Hip Hop guys got nothing on Vic!

Lessons were out of his small house and it always felt like there was some kind of party going on. People would come and go, hanging out in the kitchen or in and out of a closed bedroom door, while Vic taught me Yes and Aerosmith licks in the living. I would bring in a cassette of a song I wanted to learn and Vic would play it on his portable cassette player and figure it out on the spot. One time I brought in Eruption from Van Halen. He had never heard of it and was mesmerized by the hammer-ons. HE called to his bass player in the other room who was with my sister to hear the song. They appeared after a while, disheveled and annoyed. He said, “Hey, listen to this - what the kid brought in.” They came over and we all stared at the tape recorder. IT was a very proud moment and I think my sister was proud of me too. After this, I became the Eruption kid to the hanger-ons that frequented the house. On the way home, Lisa told me she was dating Vic’s bass player. I replied, “Yeah, like, no duh, Lisa. You date everybody!” She cranked Hagar and told me a druggie story about the meaning of the cover of the Yes album Yes Songs. She was high and was wearing a purple hounds tooth jumpsuit.

Lisa informed me they were dealing drugs out of the house. She didn’t tell me this to scare me, but to elevate her status, as she was now was part of the many people going in and out of the bedroom door. With her new status in the house, my half hour guitar lessons turned into 3 -4 hour ordeals: ½ hour lesson and the other 3 ½ hours trying to pry my sister from the locked bedroom.

After one of my lessons, Vic gave me a flyer for a show. The Vic Trigger Band was playing with a local band call Violation at the Livermore VFW hall. Lisa agreed to take me and my friend Frank to the show. Franks brother was the drummer in Violation, who we saw the previous weekend outside of the Pleasanton Library. All three bands at the show played the song Rock Bottom by UFO.

Frank’s brother always picked on us, so I immensely disliked him and wished his band to fail. After seeing him drum, I hated him more. He looked like a pussy when he drummed, choking up on his drum sticks - a look I never liked. I let him know this. He was only 2 years older than me and Frank and we could take him if he wasn’t with his friends.

The show was packed with freaks and 70s looking dudes. Frank and I were by far the youngest, but we were used to this as we had already started going to big rock shows at the Oakland Coliseum and Arena. Frank was more experienced at big concerts and taught me how to cut in line. Since we younger than everybody else, nobody would usually question us for walking to the front of a haphazard line and get in without waiting.

We called Frank frog because he could jump really high.

Once we got into the hall, Lisa ditched us and did her own thing backstage. She was with her friends and had no time for us. She was only a ride to and fro and that’s it. We tolerated Violation and another rendition of “Rock Bottom,’ waiting for Vic to come on. I was very proud that I was seeing my guitar teacher and let Frank know incessantly my relation to him.

Vic and the Band walked on the stage and half the crowd raised their hands, touching their thumbs and rings fingers in a symbolic gesture. The other half who did not raise their hands in this gesture were left wondering what the hell they were doing. Decades later I would experience the same feeling except it would be at Sea World while watching Shamu the whale with my family.

Before (one of the many)Shamus leaped the barrier from the backstage pool to the main stage pool, in a dramatic splash, a handler prompted us to do the Sham Slam. Half the crowd stood up – mostly locals with season passes – and did a 4 move dance that involved putting your left arm in the air, your right arm in the air, touching thumbs than slamming it downward, while chanting Shamu! Like the Macarena and the Lawn Mower dance, I would like to think that some drunken couple is leading revelers in the Sham Slam at their wedding reception. A Marine Biologist?

Frank and I were both perplexed by the gesture and speculated that it meant “Get High and Space Out,” which Vic and the band launched into. The Vic fans lowered their hands and shuffled about in an odd, rhythmic way. IT was not so much dancing as twirling and reckless abandonment. I would see this type of movement a few years later at a Grateful Dead concert.

Vic’s music was not rock. It was disjointed, loose and felt more like they were giving an exhibition of their musical prowess than a show. And they didn’t play covers. Since it was Vic and Vic was God to me, I never said anything bad about him. Despite both of our negative silent opinions, Frank and I listened to his record and actually enjoyed it over time. WE played it for our friends and they were impressed with the druggie song titles.

Friday, March 6, 2009

$100 ain't a $100

In front of me at the Andretti Speed Mart, a clean cut Asian guy held out a 100 dollar bill to the clerk. I noticed it, I always notice when somebody tries to pay for something with a $100 dollar bill.

“$40 on number three,” he said.

The clerk paused, held the bill to the sky, examining it for irregularities.

“I’m sorry, we don’t accept $100 dollar bills.” Holding the bill to the light was just dance, an attempt to deflect the expected anger of not accepting the bill.

“How about if I put $80 in the tank? He pleaded, stepping back from the counter where the clerk couldn’t give back the bill.

Looking outside, expecting to see a Hummer - something large enough to warrant $80 dollars worth of gas. What I saw was a mid-size sedan. At today’s prices - $2.15 a gl. – he was lucky to pay $40 bucks. I found this suspicious but not odd.

The clerk reexamined the bill, once again holding it to the light. He squinted his eyes, brought it down and then back up to the light. The guard, flanking his right side, said, “Do you want to see if Burger King will change it?”

The clerk gave him to the bill and he walked over to Burger King, which shared the same space, along with Starbucks. I’m sure Starbucks wasn’t too excited to be partnered with Burger King.

In his absence, I paid for my soda and left. While walking to the car I thought about how the $100 dollar bill has changed. It used to be a sign of wealth, a status symbol to flash around. It still is (a $100 dollars is, well, $100 dollars!) but it now comes with suspicion. It’s generally assumed that if you have a wad of bills, with a few hundreds on top, they’re either counterfeit or you’re a drug dealer. Even if you’re straight looking.

In today’s credit economy, where paper money is near obsolete, and $100 dollars is comprised of 5 twenty dollars bills because of ATMs, you have to assume the beholder of high currency bills is one of the following:

• Drug Dealer
• Rich Guy
• Being paid back from a debt or paid out for a bet
• Doesn’t have a bank account and cashes his payroll check every 2 weeks
• Counterfeiter or runs in counterfeit circles (if there is such)

I think this guy didn’t have a bank account. I still didn’t trust him.

Sit Down, Casper

As the weather turns warm and the tanned flesh of the privilege appear below half-shirts and shirtless Spring-Breakers at Lake Havasu in Arizona, I’m painfully reminded that my pigment is challenged and my complexion is ruddy. My Scottish heritage of pale skin and skinny legs is made for cold and foggy regions, not for areas where speedboats are king and Reggae music permeates the air. No amount of sunscreen, large brimmed hats or parasols can protect me. Eventually I’ll make a mistake or denial will knock on my door and whisper: “Take off your shirt. Nobody will make fun of you. Be like everybody else.”

In late September of ’97, the SF Giants were battling the Dodgers for the National League West pennant. We were enjoying an early Indian Summer and I planned to attend a Saturday day game with my buddies Brad, Joey and Dan.

On the day of the game, the weather was in the 80s and San Franciscans were taking full advantage of the blue skies. Our tickets were on the field level about halfway up on the 3rd base side. Great seats. The game started and Brad took off his shirt. Dan and Joey (who was whiter than me) chose to keep their shirts on. I, on the other hand, convinced myself that I really wasn’t that pale, and if I only allowed myself to get some sun, I would see that I could tan!

I slowly stood up and took off my shirt. 10 rows behind me someone yelled, “Sit down, Casper!” The whole section erupted in laughter. I acknowledged the crowd with a slight wave. Returning to my seat, I put my shirt back on and adjusted my hat, reapplying sunscreen to my nose and lips.

Summer is the cruelest season.