Monday, July 18, 2011

Cracks in the Sidewalk

On Thursday, a TL hooker and a john were going at it in the alley, across for our roll up door. Groups of staff watched. As the excitement grew, more came to join in the view. Unaware of the street performance, I approached the crowd, inquiring about what was going on. A familiar face pointed across the street. Instead of walking away, I closed the roll-up door. It was the adult thing to do. Some shuffled off, others dissected the spectacle and one or two said, “Officer Kim,” shaking their heads.

A few minutes later, I opened the roll-up. The hooker and john had finished and were zipping up. Without provocation or even a meeting of the eyes, the hooker made a beeline for the roll-up. It caught me off-guard. Usually they wander off, the john back to his car for more trolling and the hooker using the proceeds to buy drugs.

The hooker laboriously shimmied up on our dock and slowly rose to her feet. Having a 6th sense for alley ghouls, who try to breach the line between alley and business, my verbal assault started way before she reached the dock. “Get out, get out!”

I ran for my stick – a giant, discarded wooden soup stirrer (I’m sure there’s a proper name for this thing) - and poked the air in front of her, yelling, “Get out, get out.” Her eyes attempted to focus and her mouth moved but words were indiscernible. She was totally fucked up and had no idea what she was doing. I felt sadness, but I still wanted her to get the fuck out.

My voice calmed and I pleaded with her sanity. Regardless of her illness and inebriation, “Get the Fuck Out” is one directive every TL alley dweller knows. They’re told this countless times every day and react to it like a stern push. She left.

A few hours later, another crowd formed. I grabbed my wooden stirrer and peaked out the window. 2 marginally homeless guys were fighting, one shirtless. Nothing out of the ordinary. They yelled, came together, jumped back , came together and generally did very little damage. A typical TL fight.

Three young men in flat-brimmed baseball caps, budding homeless, a decade away from fulfilling their destiny, danced around the fighters, filming every move and taunting them: “Get’em, Nigga. Get’em.” All the players in the scene were white or of Middle Eastern descent.

I tighten the grip on the wooded stirrer. This was it, my swan song; the culmination of 15 years of bullshit; the day I would join the ranks of the dregs and be a youtube video of an old man beating 3 young guys. I was ready.

The next day I watched the video on youtube. I decided against beating the homeless in-training. As I watched, I touched the wooden stirrer. It gave me comfort.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

One Wall

Most corners of rooms are right angles.

The window on the west wall looks over the Jackson’s house. Miss Jackson’s son, Rocky, was the first person I met when we moved in 10 years ago. I haven’t seen him since. He drove a 70s Charger. I still reference him, if I need to show community spirit.

A mile past the Jackson’s house is Bishop O’Dowd. The east side of their football stadium is visible from the window. On Sundays in the fall, you can hear rumblings of football games. My son may attend O’Dowd, if I can get over the Catholic thing.

5 miles past O’Dowd is the Oakland airport. Planes are silhouettes when viewed from the window. A lot of drama happens between our window and the Oakland airport. We’re kind of drama free except for the yearly break-in.

Attached to the window is a grey wall. Karl, Alex’s brother, painted it. After 10 years, the upper half of the wall has developed a transparent quality, the white paint from its former self exposed. It’s either the result of bad paint or mold. Like a letter from the IRS, I don’t like looking at it. It represents trouble.

Below the window is a small book case that I got at Thrift Town in Fremont. I’m not a fan of most bookcases, but this one is ok. It’s packed with books, the overflow stacked on top and in front. Most of the books are of the non-fiction, contemporary history or sociology ilk. There’s some literature, but that’s not my thing. They’re there for pretention.

On the hardwood floors next to the window is a side table. I got it at a St. Vincent De Paul in Oakland on San Leandro Boulevard. Like lots of other thrift stores, it’s no longer there. I got it with another side table. Both are marked Made in Denmark. This is a good thing if I ever want to resell it. However, like everything I own, it’s a bit flawed.

On the face of the table is a 90s TV. Something is wrong with it. Any time you cough or move, horizontal lines appear. I’ve checked the cables and connections and they’re secure, so it must be the TV. It’s annoying, but I only watch baseball games on it, when my wife is monopolizing the good TV.

Next the TV is my dresser. I got it at Thrift Town in San Leandro. Like the side table, it’s Danish. But it’s from the 70s so it’s a piece of crap, but it’s big and can hold a lot of socks, underwear, t-shirts and jeans. I tried sprucing it up, filling in dents with putty and staining blemishes, but I failed miserably. When it leaves me, it will go for less than 10 dollars to another sucker who is enamored by the Danish mystique.

On top of the dresser is a pile of clothes that is waiting to be put away. Depending on many variables, they could be there for months. Behind them, leaning against the grey wall, is two pieces of art: the first is a painting on wood of a British bobby. Part of the painting is carved, accenting creases in the ears and facial lines. It’s a nice touch. The artist is names Marco Cibali – something like that. He’s from Toronto and pays the bills with commercial design. Lots of artists are pragmatic like that.

Next to Marco is a photograph by Loretta Lux, a German artist. Loretta was very popular back in 2002, when her first USA show at Yossi Milo in NYC sold out immediately. I was lucky enough get a small print of a not-so popular piece. The piece is of a young girl in vintage turquoise clothing, waving like David Bowie on the cover of Heroes. The subject I wanted went to people with connections.

The Lux was prominently hung in our living room for years. Not sure why it’s now leaning against a wall in the bedroom.

Hanging on the wall next to the Lux photograph is a photograph by Zoe Strauss, a punk ass, poorly dressed (more on this later) lesbian street photographer from Philly. This photo is of an abandoned hotel in post Katrina Louisiana. On the outer balcony of one of the upper floors, someone spray-painted “Mom. We’re OK.” Besides the message, it’s a very architectural photo. I like it a lot.

Zoe was featured in the 2002 Whitney Biennial in NYC. Before the event, she appeared on TV’s What Not to Wear. I guess she needed something to wear and had no idea of going about it. I suspect she’s back to her disheveled ways.

Also on the dresser is a ball the size of a hacky sack, pictures of our deceased animals, ashes of our deceased animals, strewn change and a jewelry box from my father. At the base of the dresser is launder clothes, stacked on a dining room chair. It’s almost like a piece of furniture,

This is just one wall in our room.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

No Parking by Tom Pitts

When Jerry pulled up to the apartment, there was already a car parked in the driveway. It was a new car, or at least a newer model, a re-worked throwback to the muscle cars of the 70’s. He knew it was none of the neighbors; they never parked in his spot. He’d bought a No Parking sign when they moved in, but it was never a problem, so he never hung it up. Jerry sat in his car wondering who could be so obnoxious. He waited for about a minute, when no one appeared, he pulled away to find somewhere else to park his car.

It had been a tough day, his mind was overworked and he’d forgotten to turn on the radio on the way home. He liked to listen to music on the way home. It was his own time, the only time he could really choose what was on the radio without his wife or kids complaining. They hated whatever station he tuned into and complained endlessly until he’d switch it. Now, circling the block for a second time, he felt like he’d cheated himself out of his only serenity. Like missing a meal, he was worried that his day’s rhythm would be thrown; that he was ill-prepared to deal with what the rest of the day was ready to serve. He reached out and turned up the volume just in time to hear a string of ads as he continued circling his block searching for a parking spot.

After finally finding a spot and squeezing in, Jerry climbed out of the car and walked toward the apartment building. As he got closer he saw the unfamiliar car still in the driveway. It looked out of place there. The oil stains on the sidewalk under the car looked like they didn’t belong there. The car was superior to the driveway. In fact, the small dirty six unit apartment building looked like it didn’t belong there either. The car was new. It was masculine, powerful, youthful, everything the commercial promised it would be. It was not a model that Jerry could afford, and if he could afford it, it was not one he would buy.

As he walked toward the door, Jerry couldn’t help but peek into the muscle car. Around the rearview mirror hung a palm tree air freshener, in the back seat there was a 12-pack of American beer and a suitcase. Otherwise, the car was spotless.

Jerry opened the heavy metal gate and began walking up the stairs. He could hear laugher. He still couldn’t tell if it was coming from his apartment. The walk up the stairs winded him, like it did every night.

The laughing voices, he could tell now, were coming from inside his apartment. With the key in his hand, Jerry stood in front of the door listening. The voices sounded comfortable and relaxed. The social sounds of people having a good time. These sounds were foreign to Jerry and hearing them come from inside his home filled him with a confusing dread. Laughter from his wife’s voice filled the air and he slid the key into the lock.

“Hello? Sarah?” he said, feeling a bit like stranger in his own home. The strong smell of cigarette smoke assaulted his nostrils. There was a warm and spicy note on top of the smoke, too. Had someone been baking?

“Hi honey,” his wife called out, “you remember Eric. He came by to see Karen.” Jerry didn’t respond so she added, “Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah …” said Jerry. There was a grin frozen on his face. He wondered if it looked as fake as it felt, if it had melted into a sneer when he reached out to shake Eric’s hand.

“Jerry, what’s up?” said Eric smiling, not getting up from his chair. Eric grabbed Jerry’s hand and squeezed it hard. Jerry winced.

“What … ah … what brings you up here?” Up here, down here, Jerry had no idea where Eric had come from, or for that matter where he had been the last eight years.

“I came by to see the kid. I thought Karen might like to get out to Six Flags or something. You know, a break from her life.” Eric was Karen’s natural father. Jerry came into Sarah and Karen’s life after Eric had abandoned them. Not long afterward either, Eric’s name was still haunting phone messages and the mailbox when Jerry moved into the tiny house in the Lakeview district. The house, long since re-rented, re-sold, and then torn down, had been a starting spot for Jerry and Sarah and an end for Sarah’s old life with Eric. The only history that Jerry knew was what Sarah had told him, an anguishing story of abuse and alcoholism.

“Her life?” Jerry was trying to understand what it was she needed “a break” from.

“Yeah,” Sarah interjected, “I was just telling Eric about Karen’s school and how she’s having a rough time there. We thought that a little break might be just what she needed.” Her words flowed fast and may have been slurred a little. Jerry noticed several beer cans piled atop the kitchen garbage. He also noticed Sarah’s use of the word “we”. A parental decision had been made without him. Another parent had voted in his place, a parent who had seniority in his family hierarchy.

Sarah went on, “Eric could take her, and maybe me too. Eric’s been working near town here and he thought he might be able to see her more often.” Work? In all her stories and complaints about Eric, Sarah had never mentioned him having a job. Quite the opposite. She always said that Eric would rather sit in a prison cell than work for a living. Jerry had never met Eric. He assumed that this was true. Seeing him close up, he began to question the picture Sarah had painted of him.

After all the years of having a tidy picture of Eric, having him pigeon-holed as a dead beat dad, here he was, live and in the flesh, sitting across from Jerry, destroying that picture. Eric was good looking and tanned. He seemed both relaxed and well rested, a look that Jerry could never cultivate. When Eric smiled, he showed off perfect white teeth. There was an undeniable charisma. His presence was the only thing in the room. It diminished Jerry, made him feel like a schoolboy again.

“Jerry, you wanna beer?” Eric said, pulling open the fridge door like it was his own. Jerry wanted to say “no”, he wanted to say “no” to everything that Eric was going to ask. He wanted badly to say “no” the very idea of Eric.

“Uh … sure,” said Jerry. Eric reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a can of American beer for Jerry. Jerry nodded thank you. He hated American beer. As soon as he cracked it, Eric lifted his half full beer and said, “Here’s to Karen.”

Jerry lifted up his beer, even though he thought his step daughter was a strange thing to toast to. Why would they toast to Karen? Jerry looked back down at the garbage and tried to count how many beer cans there were. How long had Eric been here?

“So, Jerry, how’s life down at the plant?”

“Plant? I don’t work at a plant, I work at a place that screens t-shirts.”

“Yeah, well, plant, factory, whatever. Splittin’ hairs when it comes to names, job’s a job, right?”

“Right,” said Jerry. He knew that Eric wasn’t listening to what he was saying. When he spoke, Eric looked Sarah in the eye, not Jerry. An uncomfortable silence filled polluted the air.

“So, Eric, what do you do for a living now days?” asked Jerry.

Eric gave Jerry a patronizing look and used a tone that was reserved for talking to someone who couldn’t grasp the answer.

“I’m doing some work with some fellas just down the peninsula. It’s going quite well.”

Before Jerry could ask him to clarify his answer, the dog began to yelp. There was the loud crash of the gate closing downstairs.

“That must be Karen, she’s gonna be so excited,” said Sarah.

They sat looking at each other, listening to Karen’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Sarah and Eric both had tight expectant grins on their faces. Jerry’s face was slack and pale. The front door creaked open.

“Hello-o?” said Karen. She was fifteen years old and had only recently begun taking the bus home from school. Karen usually beat Jerry home by a couple of hours.

“It’s a little late to be getting home isn’t it?” Jerry asked, but his question was downed out by greetings.

“Karen,” cried Sarah, “look who’s here. Eric. Do you recognize him? Of course you do.”

Eric took over. “Oh my god, what a beauty! My little girl is all grown up. You look beautiful, so mature.”

Jerry felt marginalized, invisible. He stood in the middle of the room wanting to disagree. No, she’s not grown up. No, she’s not mature, she’s only fifteen for Christ’s sakes, and, no, she does not remember this a-hole that was just referred to as her father. I’m her damn father. But he didn’t say anything; he just stood there with the same painful look on his face that he was trying to force into a smile.

“Hang on a sec, I brought you something.” Eric reached into his leather jacket and handed Karen a CD shrink wrapped in cellophane. “It’s the new Mirror Ball Tramps CD.”

“Oh my god,” Karen’s tone instantly changed, “this isn’t even out yet!”

“Their road manager is a good friend of mine, if you want to see ‘em we’re in.” Eric was smiling at her with those white teeth.

“Are you serious? Yes I wanna go. When?” Karen was smiling back at him now too. She had forgotten that one of these men was her father, Jerry wondered which one.

“Whenever, I’ll make some calls.” Eric’s answer was ambiguous, but apparently good enough for Karen, who grinned with excitement and retreated to her room with her new CD.

“That was easy,” said Eric, shooting a wink across the kitchen at Sarah. Was Jerry not supposed to see the wink? Was the wink meant for him to see? He was right beside them both. The beer was making his stomach feel empty.

The conversation returned to where it was before Jerry had come home. There was no talk of beatings or abandonment; there was no talk of missing child support. No complaints of missed birthdays, Christmases, report cards, anything. The only memories they were now sharing were good ones. They talked about friends they shared that Jerry didn’t know. They talked about places that Jerry had never been. They talked excitedly over top one another and Jerry never got a word in. He sat, acting like he was listening, but letting his mind drift as far away as possible.

After two more beers Eric got up to go to the bathroom. It was then Jerry saw how tall he was, much taller than Jerry, he seemed to fill the whole kitchen. It was as though he was too big for their tiny apartment. He was larger than life and couldn’t be contained by the hum-drum constraints of Jerry’s tiny apartment and life.

When they heard bathroom door shut, Jerry saw his chance to voice his opinion, to say, what the fuck is going on here?

“Sarah …” was as far as he got.

“Don’t start now, Jerry. You’ve been complaining for years how Eric was never here to help out, now he’s here and you’re ready to jump down his throat.”

“I’ve been complaining? You’re the one who’s painted this fucker as the devil. And what does ‘help out’ mean, anyway?”

Before she could answer him the bathroom door opened and Eric came out extolling a satisfied “Aahhh.”

Jerry tried to continue with the momentum he’d built up while Eric was in the bathroom.

“Eric, what kind of work did you say you were doing down the peninsula?”

“Work again, Jerr? Come on let’s talk about something a little less boring. I mean, work is work, am I right?”

Sarah shot Jerry a look that admonished him for slowing down the conversation and they moved on from there.

“Do you ever hear from little Ricky?” asked Sarah. Jerry tuned back out. He could hear the muffled sounds of the Mirror Ball Tramps coming from Karen’s room. Normally he would tell her to turn it down, but right now the steady thump helped drown out the sound of the conversation in the kitchen as his wife’s voice peaked and crested with excitement. Between Sarah’s giggles and Karen’s noise, Jerry felt a heavy pull on his chest. He tried to sigh, but the mere effort of drawing a breath was too much labor for him. He was exhausted and could not even bring himself to yawn. He took another sip of his beer, it was flat now. He set it down and didn’t say anything.

“Jerry. Jerry...Jerry.”

At first he didn’t even recognize his wife’s voice.

“Jerry, we’re gonna go for ice cream. Eric’s gonna take us in his new Charger.”

It wasn’t an invitation.

“Are you sure?” said Jerry, looking again at the empties piled high atop the kitchen garbage.

Sarah smirked. “Of course, he’s fine, he can handle it.” She didn’t say “unlike you,” she didn’t have to. She would never let him get behind the wheel even after one beer. Before he could ask Karen if she wanted to go, she was in the living room pulling on her jacket.

“Bye Daddy,” she said from across the room.

“Okay then, Jer,” said Eric as he held open the front door for Sarah.

“Bye, Hon. Love ya,” was all Sarah said. She didn’t wait for a response. Eric pulled the door shut. Jerry could hear them laugh and chuckle down the stairs until he heard the metal gate slam shut.

Jerry stood at the window and watched them get into the sleek new car. A memory floated up. Jerry thought about the time it used to take the three of them to get into that old white station wagon they used to have. Brown with mud and perpetually full of garbage, the car would burp blue smoke until they were safely out on the open road. What piece of shit that was. In a way, he missed the car that took them on so many camping trips and Sunday drives. Sarah always told him it wasn’t the car that made the man. She said the same thing about clothes, and money too. She always knew just what to say.

Jerry watched now as the car he could never afford, and would never buy if he could, pulled out of the driveway with his family. It was dark now and he stood like a sentinel and watched the taillights disappear down the street. All that was in front of his home now was an empty driveway with a large oil stain. His oil stain. He thought about it; he was a terrible procrastinator. He should have put up that No Parking sign weeks ago.

Tom Pitts 5\16\2011