Tuesday, November 15, 2011


After dinner last Wednesday evening, I walked over to Sproul Hall for the Occupy Cal demonstration. There were lots of really pleasant kids, giving speeches, holding signs, sharing pens to write the number of the Legal Guild on their forearms for when they got arrested. I felt like I wanted to be outspoken and forthright like these kids. I thought I might participate in a revolution once it got rolling. Once it was a little less dangerous, maybe. I could definitely see myself join in then.

So I was sitting there at the Occupy Cal demonstration, nodding and clapping and accepting fliers and not knowing quite when I would find enough time to read them all when this lady I used to work with here at Cal years ago calls over to me. I'm forty-seven and I know she's older, but I'm not quite sure how much older. So I have to be careful what I say. I mean if she's only older than me by five years, she certainly wasn't protesting in the Sixties. But she could look older than she is, the way some people do, setting off all kinds of false old age alarms. So I slid toward her on the cement steps outside of Sproul Hall. She started mentioning the Sixties, but I didn't know if she was mentioning them from personal experience or just as a historical perspective, like how I might talk about the Russian Revolution although I've not personally experienced it firsthand. So I tried to steer clear of Sixties talk and demonstrations, but it's hard in that atmosphere. Finally I just flat out asked her:

Were you here at Sproul protesting in the Sixties?

Yes, I was there, she snapped, as if to say, You ninny, I was a revolutionary!

So, now I know she's old. Older. Oldish. And as she's telling me about how she'd been arrested, cracked on the head with batons, raped and pillaged and all that, I couldn't help but think, but you look like a librarian. Not that there can't be any bad ass revolutionary librarians out there, somewhere. I'm sure they are all over the history books. But she just didn't look the type, you know what I mean? And then because we were close to being the oldest, poorest dressers at the demonstration -- beside the crazy man mumbling from the bushes -- two other old, poorly dressed woman came over wanting to form an old, poorly dressed communist group and meet in some condominium rec room filled with musty National Geographics and romance novels. One of them, the little one with the homemade knitted scarf wrapped around her head, neck, shoulders and knotted at her waist locked onto me with two brown slightly bulbous eyes. Hypothyroid, I thought. Or was it hyperthyroid -- I could never get it straight. She talked about some meeting that she'd been attending for months in preparation for that night's demonstration. She was very, very earnest. Every direction my gaze drifted, hers followed. And I felt bad for looking away because she was so very earnest.

And I shouldn't have felt bad, because I'd only just met her thirty seconds ago. I really hadn't formed any kind of real relationship just yet. But still I felt bad. So I told myself to focus on whatever the hell she was talking about. But then I'd reach the middle of a sentence: "We've got to create our own paradigm..." and BAM!, I lost track and wondered who ordered all those boxes of pizzas floating around the crowd and why weren't they passing them in my direction -- Hey! Hey! I'll take a slice!

Like, I mentioned, everyone at the demonstration was so nice. Sharing food, water. I just felt bad for wishing she'd put a sock in it. And then my coworker friend from the Sixties came back and said she'd just signed up for Security Duty. She'd been assigned to patrol the perimeter for cops. Really, I said, And then what? She didn't seem quite sure how to respond and I could see her digging around in her cerebral cortex, dusting off decaying synapses to recall what exactly she would do when she encountered a cop at the perimeter.

We'll whistle, she said.
Do you have a whistle? I asked. I couldn't whistle without one.

What kind of revolutionaries were we? So we went looking for cops on the perimeter. I was excited and a little afraid. And to be honest a little pooped. It was 8:30 and I usually went to bed around 9pm because I have to get up at 6:30 so that I can be at my desk by 7am. What I'm saying is it's a long day. I don't have lot of spare time for revolutions. Seriously, I don't. We saw a lot of cop cars from different counties. And then my old co-worker friend bent down to let the air out of one of the tires on the empty blue school bus which would shortly be filled with arrested revolutionaries.

I need one of those metal devices, she said.

She squinted trying to think of the name of it, making a phallic gesture with her hands. The skin on her hands was wrinkled and thin. Her wedding ring looked caked in soap.

You know, those gizmos, she said, sounding a little frustrated with me that I didn't know what she was talking about. You see them at the gas station. If I had one, she said, I could just pop it on the tire and walk off.
Can't we use a stick I asked?

I leaned down to give a push with my finger to try to let the air out. We walked on some more. We approached the corner where the tents were located. I'd never seen any of the occupy tents up close, but in my mind I imagined them a little skankyer , perhaps with strips of electrical tape sealing holes. And a lot smaller. Christ, these things could house an entire Tibetan village.
REI is donating them, she said.
No kidding? I said.

Then suddenly she reached out and looped her arm around mine.
Form a barrier around the tents! she shouted and grabbed the person to her right.

So, there I stood locked arm in arm, protecting new $800 REI tents, way past my bedtime. There was wet mud beneath our feet and I wondered if REI would want the occupiers to return the tents afterward. Would they take them back if they were all muddy like that? I asked my friend but she didn't hear me. She cupped her hand in a half circle kind of like she was short stopping my words and throwing them into her ear canal.

A couple of cops stood next to us. They stood stiffly with their arms behind their backs with their feet slightly apart. They had white twist ties looped to their belt buckles. My friend asked them how they were doing?

I feel for your situation, my friend said. You're stuck in the middle of this.

They nodded. I tried to imagine them without their riot gear. Say, shopping at Costco for 20lbs of chicken wings. In that situation, they wouldn't seem threatening in the least. I might even have a casual conversation about the great deal I got on kitchen bags. But here, with their gear and their riot faces, they seemed threatening and alien. Then a kid came up to one of them and tried to get them going about the real reason they wanted to remove the tents. Turns out the occupation is about poop. One of the cops had got pooped slung at him by the stadium tree dwellers. He'd had it with poop. These kids weren't going to poop in Sproul Plaza, not on his watch. I could see his side of things. I've stepped in my share of cat poop. You can only take so much.

It was getting to the point, I just wanted to go home and sleep, so I unlinked my arms and broke the human chain protecting the expensive tents. It closed quickly behind me.

Before I headed home, my co-worker friend asked if I'd seen the Free Speech Monument in the center of the Plaza. I hadn't so we walked over toward a circular cement plate in the ground. She walked in a circle and read: "This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity's jurisdiction".

When the cops come, we should all jump in the middle here, she said and jumped inside.

I left her there in her tiny bit of free air space. As I turned back to wave, I saw her sillhouetted against the lights of Sproul Hall, a sign above her head read "We are the 99%". A real revolutionary librarian.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Today you are Russians

I went downstairs to the reception desk to check on the status of our guide who would drive us to Novgorod, an ancient Russian city first settled around 859 by the Vikings.

The front desk was on the second floor of our six storey hotel in St. Petersburg and was usually crowded with guests, but this morning at eight there was only one guest waiting. The sleepy girl as Linda and I called the receptionist appeared from behind a curtain to the left of the desk. She spoke only a little English and was patient with our limited Russian: hello, goodbye, thank you. Although I was practicing, Linda was braver. Sometimes she got it right, but often she would use the wrong word, saying thank you when she meant to say hello and hello when she meant to say goodbye.

"Yes?" the sleepy girl asked. She seemed to sway a little as if still half asleep. Her hair was slightly knotted above her right ear. I told her I was waiting for our guide to take us to Novgorod. "She is here," she pointed to the small lady seated in the chair to my left. I had seen the woman out of the side of my eye, but after meeting Natalia, our sophisticated Moscow guide, I had assumed this one was a hotel guest, perhaps one who had clogged up the breakfast line that morning taking extra scoops of boiled rice and pickled herring.

The lady stood up and immediately held out her hand for me to shake. "Good," she said, "I thought you would be two gentlemen."

I have sometimes been mistaken for one gentlemen, but never two.

"Sorry?" I said.
She pointed to her mouth to a gap in her teeth where a tooth was missing and said, "I am a little embarrassed by my tooth. That is why I am glad you are not two men."

Her explanation helped only slightly but I left it at that and we headed outside to find Linda.

I guessed she was in her mid-sixties. Her hair looked newly dyed -- a deep brown at the ends, fading to a purple tint around the scalp and roots. Her hounds-tooth print pants were tight revealing the contours of her underpants beneath. As she walked ahead of me to the hotel entrance where I could see Linda waiting outside she pulled her knit sweater down over her hips multiple times.

I introduced Linda and Emma, then we climbed into Emma's compact car. Linda quickly took the back seat which I knew meant she would most likely pass out, head back, mouth open, during the next two hours leaving me to do all the talking.

We took the same route out of St. Petersburg as we'd taken in that early first morning five days ago. Perhaps it was just that there were more cars on the roads at 11 am on a Tuesday, but I found the need to grasp the armrest tightly. I also felt my feet pressing against the floorboard on several occasions as if pushing down on anything -- an imaginary brake lever -- to make us not plow into the car in front of us.

"These drivers," Emma said shaking her head slowly. She turned and smiled at me. I smiled quickly then looked forward to monitor the approaching rear bumper of the car ahead of us.

"They're stopped!" I blurted suddenly when it appeared Emma did not plan to.

It felt odd to blurt this to a stranger, but Emma didn't seem to mind. She braked finally then began her guided tour, pointing to the Lenin statue outside a very Soviet looking grey building.

We talked for a while as we drove out to the main highway that connects St. Petersburg with Moscow. She told us she'd been a university professor, working with engineers as an interpreter. She'd got to travel quite a lot and enjoyed it. She'd lived in Cypress for almost two years and loved it.

"But I don't want to just sit around now, do nothing," she said. " I get to meet wonderful people like you ladies." she said. "But I must try to remember to make the right turn to Novgorod, or we end up in Moscow." She laughed a little revealing the gap in her teeth.

Yes, please pay attention, I begged silently. For the love of God, please pay attention.

She asked what I did for a job. I gave her my usual non-answer. Emma must have picked up on a hint of boredom in my tone because she said instantly that we should move to Russia and open a travel agency.

"You will become very rich. I will help you with contacts. Soon you will be very rich. Okay?" she said. " No problem."
"Really?" I said.
"Yes, no problem." I liked her confidence.

She had a habit of driving slowly in the fast lane. And fast in the slow lanes. Cars and semis blared their horns and cut in front of her, startling her each time.

"Oh!" she gasped. "Look how that guy drives."

I thought maybe there was no fast or slow lane on Russian highways. Maybe you could go any speed you liked in either lane and that was okay.
"Okay, okay I get over," she said and drifted into the right hand lane. I watched the car behind swing out suddenly to avoid her.

The freeway passed though a thick forest of tall thin ash trees. I thought of the stories I'd heard since we arrived of the Siege of Leningrad and imagined troops battling for territory in this forest. I mentioned to Emma how we had visited the Defense and Siege Memorial in St. Petersburg and how sad it was.

"Yes, the Fascists -- and I don't call them Germans, because I have met many lovely Germans -- destroyed much of St. Petersburg. Terrible, very terrible," she said. I figured she'd been born somewhere around the time of the German invasion and must have had relatives who had died during the Siege.

She successfully made the right turn into Novgorod and took city streets toward the ancient Novgorod fortress. Linda emerged from her coma and took out her camera.

"Pay no attention to all this," Emma said waving her hand dismissively at the the dreary outskirts. We passed Soviet era apartments buildings with laundry hanging from rusted balcony railings, statues of Russian fighter jets and tanks. There were banners strung across the road and I wondered if they were in celebration of some event. I'd read that Russians love their celebrations and will find any excuse to have one.

What do they say?" I asked Emma.
Emma craned her neck and glanced up at the banners to read as we drove past. She read the words aloud:

"Nizhny Novgorod Bank. All kinds of lending for individuals."
She continued reading, craning her neck as we passed below the banners to read every last bit of promotion"...including mortgages and car loans"

Finally we pulled into the parking lot to old fortress. At the far end of the lot were a row of stalls filled with the usual tourist trinkets. I hoped we would park close to these and browse a little before heading into the old city.

"Okay," Emma said. "We are here at last!" She seemed proud of herself. I wondered how many times she missed the exit and headed toward Moscow. She turned off the ignition and set the handbrake.

I looked out the car window. We'd come to a halt at a few feet into the parking lot, directly over a white arrow pointing to actual parking spaces. I noticed Linda was peering out the rear window also. A car pulled up behind us and patiently waited for us to move as Emma reached for her purse and opened the car door.

"Emma, this isn't a parking spot," Linda said at last. I hadn't the heart to dampen her excitement at getting us here.

"Yes, yes it's parking see," she said and pointed to the several dozen other cars lined up in neat rows ahead of us.
"Yes, this is a parking lot, but this" -- Linda tapped on the window and pointed to the cement below the car -- "is not."

The car behind us honked, a short toot of incredulity
at Emma's parking choice.
"Well okay," Emma said and put the key back in the ignition. "I move." She drove into an actual parking space and stopped halfway. The hood of the car aligned with the middle of the car to our right.

"Do you think perhaps our guide is blind?" I whispered to Linda as waved her forward from outside the car until she was aligned correctly.

Eventually the car was parked and we headed toward the gift stand to check out the trinkets.
"Do svidaniya! " -- goodbye -- Linda waved abd greeted the woman seated at the stall.

Novgorod turned out to be a huge bust. We walked inside the lovely redbrick walls past the palace towers surrounding the city to find nothing but scaffolding, cement trucks, students spreading cement and laying bricks, mounds of rubble and empty food wrappers the construction works had left behind.

Emma apologized and asked if we'd like to go somewhere else. Linda mentioned another part of the old city on the opposite side of the river Volkhov, but the bridge, too was currently under construction with workers laying a new surface of tar.

I was ready to call it a day. Put my life in Emma's hands and drive back to St. Petersburg but Linda opened her guide book and mentioned a site nearby, the Vitoslavitsy open air museum of wood houses. While we went to the bathroom, Emma asked a local for directions. We returned to find Emma studying a scribbled drawing on a napkin.

"I've got it,"she said. "We go here," she pointed with her finger to a wiggly line the man had drawn, "turn left here, then left here." The final left did not look like a left to me, but more like the man had changed his mind and scratched out the left. But Emma seemed certain it was a left turn.

"Yes," she said running her finger over the scribbled mess,"I can get us there."

We left the parking lot, made a left, and then another left until we found ourselves careening down a dirt road rutted with potholes. Linda's body bouncing up and down in the back seat. I knew this kind blind alley approach to driving drove Linda crazy and I was glad it was Emma at the wheel and not me.

I didn't mind the adventure of heading down a road to see where it might go and from the looks of it Emma didn't mind either. "Oh that's a big hole I hit," she said as the car rocked sharply from side to side. Still she forged on. I held onto the hand rest tightly. The road narrowed further. Tall grasses brushed the car's windows.

"Give me that napkin! " Linda said at last.

We found the open air museum. Emma purchased our tickets requesting the local, non-tourist entrance rate for all three of us.

Here," she said, handing them to us, "today you are Russians."

The old wooden structures were collected from all over the region and brought to the museum for restoration and repair work. Fortunately for us, they were not still under construction. We walked inside the dark interior of one. I thought, I could live here.

On the drive back to St. Petersburg, I drifted off to sleep in the front seat and awoke just as Emma made a right onto a freeway on ramp. I watched in slow motion and horror as she steered directly toward an oncoming car.

"Oncoming!" I blurted.
Trust me," she said as she swerved out of the car's path at the very last moment. "I drive seventeen years. No accidents. Not to worry."

I looked to Linda in the backseat. She put her head back down against the seat and closed her eyes. I thought, there is nothing I can do so I closed my eyes too. Images of the day floated through my head. The blue and gold church domes against the sky, the Volkhov river, the sound of the wind blowing through tall thin ash trees.

"If die, today, it will be as a Russian."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Moscow in a day

We arrived in Moscow via the overnight train from St. Petersburg. We'd arranged to have a guide meet us at the train station to help us get to the sights quickly since we only had the one day before we had to take the train back to St. Petersburg.
As we disembarked, I gazed down the platform and saw a woman at the end of the platform holding a sign. The closer we approached I saw our two last names on the sign. She looked about our age, mid-forties, but was immensely more stylish. She wore a faux leopard skin coat, over sized dark glasses. She looked glamorous in a retro Rita Moreno kind of way. Her hair was streaked with gold tints. As we approached, I held out my hand. She wore white gloves and grabbed the tips of my fingers giving them a slight shake.

My name is Natalia she said. Where is your luggage?

I told her we'd just planned to stay the one day in Moscow. I felt like a tacky tourist just wanting to get in and get out, hit the main sites, write some postcards and leave. I quickly added that we really had wanted to stay longer but couldn't find a hotel. Which was true.

She didn't seem to care either way and quickly escorted us from the train platform to the Moscow metro station where she expertly cut in line at the ticket counter and purchased our metro tokens. She dropped one token in each of our palms and then turned and forged onward, her coat flapping behind her.

She guided us through the crowded subway as a thick stream of subway-goers spilled in from the bright streets above and pushed past us, a vacant morning commute expression on their faces. Natalia walked ahead with no apparent regard for our location behind. Several times I had to quickly push past someone to make sure I stayed in contact. I felt a sudden panic each time I lost contact with Natalia reliving a childhood experience of getting lost at Disney World. When I turned to make sure Linda was still with us. I found her, head down, fiddling with her iPhone.

We reached the metro platform at last just as a train that would take us to Red Square approached and the doors opened.

Natalie put her hand out for us to stop. We will wait for the next train, she said. There are things you need to know first. You are not ready to board just yet, she said.

I appreciated her caution and found it comforting -- she'd show us the ropes, give us valuable subway tips, protect us from pickpockets and dangerous Muscovites. But then as soon as she'd said this, she jumped onto the waiting the train. We quickly followed.

I grabbed a pole inside the train and waited for her to tell us the things we needed to know. But she said nothing and stared ahead, her eyes hidden behind her dark glasses.

She was an efficient informative guide and took us directly to Red Square the way, a guide in San Francisco might head directly to Fisherman's Wharf.

Instantly I pulled out my Blackberry to take photos, holding the red rubber encased device at arm's length to capture all the magnificent history. Linda looked down at her camera checking her photos. Natalia stood apart from us and waited. I wondered, did tourists secretly annoy her with their constant picture taking?

I'll give you the standard tour, yes? she said finally.
Yes, we said. I wondered what the non-standard tour was.

She pointed out St. Basil's Cathedral, the GUM department store, the lovely Kremlin domes with their golden crosses. She gave a brief history of each. She talked about how the hill and the surrounding river gave the area a strategic advantage.

The wind blew strongly and she pulled her coat close to her. I asked if it was always windy like this. Always? she asked, cocking her head slightly in the universal sign of that's a dumb question. No, not always, she said.

She pointed out Lenin's Mausoleum and we decided to go inside.

Again she cut past several people and moved directly toward the front of the line. I wondered what Natalia said to the man in uniform as she waved for us to follow her past the waiting crowds. But the guard stopped us. We could not enter with our backpacks and cell phones.

We went to the bag check. She cut to the head of the line there too.

Inside Lenin's Mausoleum it was cool and dark. Guards stood at attention around the walls. Natalia walked quickly around the glass case that held his formaldehyde-soaked body. I turned to look where Linda was and found her groping along. Her progressive lenses hadn't adapted yet to the dim lighting inside the tomb. I laughed and stopped to wait as she walked slowly feeling the wall to guide her path.

A guard ordered instantly, No stopping!

I turned and looked up into his eyes. He had a cold, slightly bored stare. I ditched Linda to find her own way around the dead man.

As I circled the glass case, I gazed at Lenin's face. He looked fake like one of those wax figures at Fisherman's Wharf. His skin was a bluish grey color. I tried to grasp the reality of the situation. I am looking at Lenin. That's him, there in this little glass case. But it's funny how you can get used to looking at the bizarre until it feels normal.

Natalie waited outside in the bright afternoon light. Linda emerged after me, her progressive lenses slowly darkening again with the bright sunlight.

Weird, I said out loud. To think he's been in there all these years. Weird. Really Weird.
I could not stop saying weird. Natalie slid her sunglasses back over her eyes, and checked her watch.

He's very grey, she said. I don't know what they do to him.
I noticed that too,
I said. He looked the color of a shoebox that's been left out on the sidewalk in the rain, I thought, but I didn't share this. I thought it might come across as disrespectful.

Natalie led us outside the gates through the Alexandria garden.
She'd seemed to have exhausted her standard tour speech and commented casually on the flowers and birds.

A nightingale, she said and stopped to listen to a bird's song. Do you hear it?
I paused to listen. Sure enough a distinct birdsong stood out from the hum of voices, the distant roar of traffic. So that's a nightingale's song, I thought.

Do you smell that?
she paused and leaned in toward a tree blooming with purple flowers. Lilac, she said. Isn't it wonderful? Linda and I both stopped and inhaled. It did smell good and I imagined the next time I smelled it, I'd be reminded of Moscow.

I liked that our guide knew so much about the city, the culture, its plant life. I wanted to tap her knowledge while we were on the clock and find out as much as possible.

What flower is this?
I asked crouching to sniff a row of newly planted orange and blue flowers.
Well, I really wouldn't know, she said without pausing.

She talked about her dacha -- her country house -- that her grandfather had left to her and her son.

It's in terrible condition, really she said, but I go there and plant flowers. I relax. I read books. It's very peaceful. I tried to imagine Natalia in gardening clothes, dirt in her fingernails but I couldn't.

She walked us to a bridge with a view of the Kremlin. She pointed to a church to her left at the far end of the bridge. It looked fabulously old and historic.

This church, Cathedral of Christ the Savior
was fully rebuilt in 2000 after Stalin destroyed it in 1931. I love this church she said. I know much about it. Shall we go?

Give me old. I want old, I thought to myself. Not, new old. Old, old. My stomach started to growl. I also wanted some good borscht, not a 21st century church. Still, we didn't have much say in the decision, as Natalie headed immediately back along the bridge toward the church. We followed.

On the way, we stopped at a public toilet. A lady with a doughy face sat at a table inside the doorway at the entrance to the stalls. Half a sandwich lay on a piece of paper towel in front of her. Linda quickly pulled out thirty rubles to pay for the two of us and Natalie. I headed inside stopping first to roll off a wad of brown toilet paper hanging from a roll on the wall.

Please to not throw papers in toilet. Put into bucket! a sign taped to the inside of the stall read.

I looked at the basket by my feet. The lady at the entrance eating the sandwich either was very efficient or people were not obeying the sign as the basket was empty. I made a mental note not to flush the toilet paper but a habit such as this is very hard to break. It becomes simply automatic -- wipe, drop, flush.

We walked toward the church. I asked Natalie about the Arbat district as I'd seen pictures in our guide book of a quaint street closed off to traffic.

It's just some kind of tourist place this, filled with restaurants, and cafes, she sniffed.

It sounded wonderful to me.

We headed to the church and entered. Sure enough it looked old , but I couldn't get past that it was a replica. Unlike Lenin who looked fake -- and whom I could have stared at for hours -- I couldn't get into this replica church.

Natalia walked slowly toward the center of the church and stared up at the high painted ceilings. Linda and I followed and looked up too. I was in Russia, replica or not, this was history, I told myself. I waited for Natalie to begin to tell us all the things she knew and loved about this church. But she said nothing. She turned and walked outside.

You pay now, she said outside on the street.

Linda quickly dug inside her money holster -- the one she wore strapped to her torso like Magnum PI, the one that was giving her a rash by her armpit -- and handed Natalia her fee.

Thank you, Goodbye, Natalie said. I turned to shake her hand but she was gone, walking up the sidewalk, heading away from us, her coat flapping in the breeze.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

bad mondays and good mojitos

Cesars is our let's not cook or drive anywhere far dining choice. It's a tapas bar on Shattuck that we always seem to end up at on Mondays. Since I am not so fond of Mondays, I think of Cesars as the bad Monday place while Linda thinks of it as the good pour place because they make a good Mojito.

I told Linda that the whole kidney experience had got me thinking about things.
"Well," she said while she paid close attention to the bar tender, "it should get you thinking."

We talked of Joe, our friend who'd crashed at the track and was in the hospital with a spinal chord injury.

"That could be anyone of us," Linda said.
"It sure could," I said.
"Maybe now I'll get my Harry Potter," Linda said. She wanted me to write a book like Harry Potter so that we could buy a house and say goodbye to our landlord who wants to rip out our kitchen.
"Perhaps," I said.

She sucked on the last of her drink then tipped water into her glass and squished the mint with her straw. I thought about my kidneys for a moment and made a vow to take better care of them. I thought about all the free time I would have now that I didn't have to train and traipse all over the central valley on weekends. I was thinking how easy it is for life to get away from you, to veer onto some course you never imagined it would. It took strength to get where you wanted to go. And clearly I wasn't strong. I was feeling pretty weak these days in fact.

"Shall we get the the fries?" Linda asked
I didn't like the fries. They reminded me of crispy brown shoelaces.
"Sure," I said.

The bartender was also the manager. He was mis-fifties, an ex-bike racer who liked to talk about how in his younger, glory, non-bar tending days, he'd go to Central Park and just rip the legs off the other guys. Every single time we went to Cesars he'd tell us this story.

I'd just put it in the 53x12 and just go, he'd say.

He'd get this wistful look in his eyes then snap out of it suddenly and say, "Getting old isn't fun, huh?"

I didn't like that huh one little bit. In fact it disturbed me so much I felt like doing a ten minute seated uphill interval right then. Maybe that was my problem. I ricocheted off people. I was a bumper car kind of a person.

I got the feeling Linda was bored with his chit-chat too and would prefer if he hobbled his old self over and made another round of Mojitos.

I think he sensed our non-interest because he pushed himself up, did an old-guy kind of double-pat on the counter with his palm. Jeez, I thought, this is a bad Monday.

"Maybe I will do the crit this weekend," I said.
"Whatever," Linda said.

I felt I deserved that whatever so I just let it hang there. I was such a mess. I sensed Linda was thinking I was a mess too, but when I looked over she was craning her neck to see where the fried shoelaces were.

The waiter, his hair gelled into a peak in the middle of his head like a wave about to curl, walked slowly with our fries so they didn't spill to the floor.

Should there be so much food on one plate, I pondered.

I thought of poor people in Africa scrambling for whatever they could find -- one squirmy maggot -- and here we were having to balance our food so it didn't fall off the plate. Surely that wasn't right. Then I started extrapolating because the bartender did give a good pour indeed and I was starting to feel it.

What if I couldn't make a decision because I had too many choices? What if i was simply a product of this food balancing society? I felt like some kind of social scientist which is what a good amount of rum does to a person.

Next to us there were a couple of regulars, a midget and an old guy with eyebrows from here to San Carlos. I kept wanting to trim them in between my deep social scientist thoughts and sips of Mojito.

Linda was hitting the fries, removing them gingerly as if she was playing a game of Pick-up Sticks. The pair next to us were talking about the latest news -- the swine flu that was killing off people in Mexico and making its swiney path around the world.

It's in Pakistan, the midget said.
Just might become a pandemic, the eyebrows said.

The midget knelt on the stool, his little feet propping him up so that he could reach his drink on the counter, some ghastly looking brown liquid in a highball glass. A real drinker's drink I thought. We weren't quite there yet. We still liked something besides booze and ice in our drink a little mint, kumquats, perhaps.

Pakistan, I thought. Didn't they have enough to deal with with the Taliban going around lopping off people's heads. Where was the fairness in the world? I lowered my hand over the fries like one of those claws in a seaside arcade and lifted a wad into my mouth.

Shall we order another Linda asked. We'd learned not to try to enhance heaven by ordering two drinks, but in light of what was going on in the world, a second Mojito didn't seem like such a bad idea. Besides, I was weak and this was a bad Monday.

Linda tapped me on the knee and nodded to a different bartender making our second Mojito. Now that's a good pour, her eyes seemed to say. The second bartender was a little guy with a square face. He held the rum bottle high above our two glasses, a steady stream of rum sliced the air.

The Flomax commercial came into my head. Do you suffer from weak flow?

We asked the bartender about one of the tapas items on the menu.

"Pickeeled anchovy," he said in a thick accent of some sort.
"Are you Spanish," I asked.
"No, Serbian," he said.
"Ah," I said because I simply had no Serbia small talk from which to draw.

I said to Linda, "I feel i should know more about Serbia. I sort of missed that whole war thing. I don't know why. Maybe I let my Chronicle subscription lapse that year."

We ordered a $15 fava bean salad that came on a plate the size of Daisy's cat dish, a manchego cheese and greens bocadillo which was my second least favorite item, after the fries, as it reminded me of lawn clippings.

"Let's get out of here," I said when we were done eating and surrounded by empty dishes.
"We better walk home," Linda said

We said goodbye to the sad-sack ex-pro bike racer and the Serbian not-Spanish bar tender and headed out into the bright late April Berkeley evening. Across Shattuck the sidewalk was teeming with people waiting for a slice of the Cheese Board pizza.

"Hey there's Sheila!" Linda said.

We'd run into Sheila and her dog about a month ago. She was a little lady with a thick mustache and glossy red lipstick. A small black dog sat by her feet. It had an incredible under bite. Shiny white fangs poking out nearly parallel to the ground. I thought the dog might be put to good use on a farm, plowing up the fields. I looked at Sheila's cardboard sign. "Donations welcomed."

Mojitos bring out Linda's charitable nature. Last year she bought a homeless lady two nights at a local hotel.

"Can we buy you some food?" Linda asked Sheila this evening.

Sheila said we could: "I'd like a whole chicken from the deli, and some of that barbecue sauce, not the little packets. Ask them for sauce in a container, not the little packets. And maybe some potato salad."

Sheila paused at this point. She put a finger to her lips. I could see her laying out the table. What am I missing?

"...and bread, I like the buttermilk bread it's $4.99, I think. Some soda too. Root beer, A&W, not the diet. I don't like the diet."

So we went shopping on our two Mojito buzz for the homeless lady with the mustache and her plow dog. When I asked for barbecue sauce the lady behind the deli counter handed me three small packets of the stuff in her gloved hand.

"No," I said, "I'd like a small container, please, not the packets. It's for the chicken." I held up the chicken steaming in its tiny plastic coffin.

The deli lady looked at the packets. I looked at the packets.

A deli standoff. No time for weakness.

"You don't want the packets?"
"No," I said. She sighed, tossed the packets aside and reached for a ladle and filled a small plastic container with barbecue sauce.

Now that's a good pour, I thought.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

surviving kidney failure

I was seated in conference room 200 along with about sixty other employees, listening to the directors explain why they needed to lay off 27 people on Monday. Fortunately, I was not one of them.

More workers showed up at the entrance to the room and were spilling out into the hallway. The CIO waved for them to come in and take the few still empty seats up front.

"I promise you won't be laid off if you sit in the front row," he laughed.

Indeed it was comforting to know he still had a sense or humor. and hearing the guy next to me giggle, I guessed he still had his job too.

Another director began speaking. He was a small man in an over sized suit and punctuated each sentence with a flick of his wrist as if cracking an invisible whip.

"We feel we have met expectations within an organizational framework."


What on earth does that mean, I asked myself? Was I the only one in this room that thought he was talking gibberish.I looked around. People seemed to get what he was saying, or they were real good fakers.

My Blackberry rang and I quickly hit ignore. From the number I could tell it was the doctor's office. I hadn't been feeling well and they'd given me some routine blood tests. I would call as soon as the meeting ended, which I hoped would be soon. The air in the room was getting stuffy and thick with the smell of doom.

"Thank you all for coming," said the little director with the large suit. Who did he think this was, some kind of rock star or something?

Thank y'all for coming. I love you. God bless.

After the meeting I walked toward the Juice Bar Collective for something to eat. It was a beautiful spring afternoon. The kind where colors are distinct and separate like blots of paint on a artist's palette. The yellow mustard in the fields, the green weeds, the blue sky. It gave me a good, clean happy feeling. I checked my voice messages as I walked.

"This is Dr. Yu's office." a woman's voice said. "It is important that you call us back as soon as possible." She left her number.

I stopped walking. I was okay with the first sentence. they were calling to let me know my blood and pee tests came back and everything was okay. But that second sentence -- that was a stunner.

as soon as possible.

What could possibly be the rush, I wondered. Maybe they were closing early for the day.

I kept walking and called the number.

She put me on hold while she searched for my medical record number. Apparently your name is not sufficient these days. She returned to the line and told me she'd left my number with the doctor's office and they would give me a call. There was nothing for me to do but wait.

I bought some lentil soup from the Juice Bar. I ate it walking. It was cold and needed more salt. I thought about death.

Finally as i walked home along Hearst the phone rang. Here it is, I thought, whatever it is, and it'll probably be nothing. I made my voice light and cheery, disease free.

The woman on the other end repeated my name. I still couldn't hear so I walked down the side of a house, at the entrance to someone's open backyard. There was a swing set, a kid's doll in the dirt, and a brown paper bag with an empty bottle inside. I put my hand to my ear and sat on a tree stump.

"Your blood tests came back," she said. "The results show severe kidney damage."

My pulse jumped. The traffic on the street was loud. I cupped my hand around the phone. The voice on the other end of the phone continued speaking. She was reading the results of my test. my numbers where low when they should be high, high when they should be low. I felt a sudden pain in my gut, from where I thought a kidney might be.

"Have you been taking Motrin or Alleve lately?" she asked.
"Yes! yes I have!" I said. "I took two extra strength Tylenol the other night." I had. It was true. Even as I read the instructions, I thought two tablets was a little excessive.
"No that wouldn't do it," she said. "How about drinking. Do you drink?"

Do I drink?

"Yes," I said. "why yes I do."
"How much?" she asked.
"A lot. One drink a night sometimes two. Maybe a half a bottle of wine."

This was no time for my usual "in moderation" response I gave nurses as they took my vitals. These were my kidneys. My poor little kidneys where ever they were, whatever function they performed in my body. It's gotta be the booze, I thought. please let it be the booze.

"Hmm," she said. "that wouldn't really do it. Let me call you back once I speak to the doctor," she said. "I will call you back this afternoon."

I was only two blocks from our apartment. I walked the distance in a daze. a severely damaged kidney daze. What's a kidney do, I wondered? And why wasn't mine doing it? I felt blindsided.

Hey you kidney -- what's this all about?

I thought about how I used to love the steak and kidney pies my mother bought from the butchers in Scotland. How there were never enough pieces of kidney in them. Sometimes I would take more than my share, dig around in the pie for those dark chewy morsels. I tried to picture my kidneys.The nurse had mentioned something about a filtration rate that my kidneys weren't filtering properly. I pictured my poor chewy kidneys soaking in booze.

Didn't booze affect the liver, not the kidneys? How could it be that I'd lived in this body for 45 years and had no idea how it worked. Maybe if I survived this, I thought, I'd go into medicine become a doctor. I imagined my future.

A sixty year old doctor with a slight drinking problem. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in student bills. Maybe I'd Google kidney instead.

I turned onto my street and headed toward our apartment. Our landlord was in the front yard. He had a shovel in both hands swinging it fiercely at the base of a tree in our front yard. the tree quivered each time he made contact.

I climbed the stairs inside our apartment and stood at the entrance to the bedroom. Linda was in bed with the iPhone held inches from her nose. Daisy jumped down and headed for the kitchen for her afternoon 1/4 cup of kibble,

"They say I have kidney damage," I announced. I dumped my backpack and climbed up on the bed next to her.

Usually when she has the iPhone in her hand there's a huge delay in her response. She puts her hand in the air for me to halt what I am about to say. I am put on pause while she completes the her Facebook post or finishes reading a Cycling News article. This day, she stopped sliding her finger across the screen and immediately looked over at me.

"How can that be? What did they say?"
I told her. I mentioned the part about drinking. "I knew we drink too much," I said.

"That's the liver dumb-dumb," she said. She looked back at the iPhone, the little finger poised to resume its tapping.

"Don't you Google anything," I said. "Don't!"
"I'm just gonna look," she said.
"Don't!" I said.

I thought that maybe in my newly diseased state I might have some influence over her obsessive iPhone usage. She shifted the pillow to get more comfortable, sat up and started tapping.

I climbed up onto the bed and lay flat on my back with my arms at my sides, like one of those luge athletes in the winter Olympics ready to plummet down the icy chute.

"This is like one of those awful made for TV movies," I said to Linda who was reading intently. "Hmm," she said and made a disturbed looking face.

"Don't make that look," I said.
"Is there a "y" in dialysis?" she asked.
"Stop! They'll call me and give me more information. I just need to wait."
"You need to stay informed," she said.

My cell phone rang then and I rushed to answer it.
"Yes," I said, "This is Erika."
"This is Dr. Yu's office. We'd like you to go to the ER immediately."

Again with the bad second sentences!

"Now?" I asked though I pretty much knew what immediately meant.
"Yes, now."

I hung up and told Linda what they'd said.
"This is just crazy," I said. "How did I mess up my kidneys?"
Instantly she snapped the iPhone off and threw the blankets off her body. "You better pack for overnight."

This was worse than a made for TV movie, I thought. It was an after school special made for TV movie. The kind where a fluffy Labrador dies.

I opened my messenger bag. Inside was a package of GU, an old bike racing number and a pump. I dumped it all out. would I ever ride my bike again. I looked around for my snowflake pajamas. As I packed, it suddenly hit me -- were these the last days of normal two kidney me? Would there even be a me in the future?

Linda stood in the doorway dressed and ready to go. A backpack hanging off her shoulder. she is the fastest dresser and undresser I've ever known.

I turned to her, "Am I going to die?"
"You're not going to die," she said, "but there's a chance you might lose a kidney."

Her bedside manner needed much work.

When I checked into the ER, I asked for the results from my blood test. The nurse wrote the numbers down on a little piece of paper. My creatinine was 2.81 when it should have been below 1 and my GFR was 18 when it should be over 60.

"Doesn't look good," I said.
"Your kidneys aren't happy," she said. It was a kind way of putting it. Linda could learn from her.

While we waited to be admitted a man pushed a woman in a wheelchair into the waiting room. Her right leg was outstretched with an improvised splint made of cardboard. She groaned softly, little painful whimpers of despair. Across from us a man sat with his arm in a sling. Linda said she'd heard he'd been hit by a car. I gazed at them with longing and envy.

Give me your broken bones! Take my sick kidney!

I drifted in and out of denial floating between terror and distraction. At one moment I saw myself in surgery, my torso cut open, my poor chewy boozy kidney exposed. I saw the surgeon cut it out and drop it in a bucket. It bounce a little. The next moment I simply stared at a TV commercial mesmerized by the sparkling clean swath left by the Quicker Picker Upper.

Finally they called me into a room and put me in a gown. The doctor came in and asked me if I was on EPO. Linda and I both laughed at that. Then he said he'd take more tests and we'd go from there. If my potassium was high, they'd admit me.

Linda left in search of food for us. While she was gone, I laid down on the gurney listened to the sounds from the hallway and thought about death. I am not afraid of being dead so much as the process of dying. You will be okay a voice said.

Outside the room there was a fight going on. "Don't you touch me," someone was yelling.
"Trust me i don't want to touch you lady." The machines made their repetitive hospital noises.

beep. beep. beep. beep

The blood guy came into the room and took seven vials of blood. I thought, how could they not find something in all that?

Linda returned. she'd bought me goats cheese, rice cakes, tangerines, and my favorite ginger snap cookie. One of those large ones that I never finish because it would simply be wrong to each a cookie the size of a dinner plate. We laid it all out like a picnic on a fresh blue pad -- the kind the blood guy had me rest my arm on -- and i ate with no regard for calorie content, like it was my last supper. I ate that damn ginger cookie dinner plate. Then we switched off the light and laid down together on the tiny bed. Linda, napper that she is, fell asleep and snored softly.

And then the doctor entered the room and flipped on the light.
"You're an interesting case," he said. "All your blood work came back normal."

If this was a made for TV movie, we'd all hug, and upbeat healthy kidney music would play. The dying Labrador retriever would return to health, let out some barks and we'd all laugh. As it was, all I could think was holy crap. The doctor shook my hand and suggested I make an appointment with a nephrologist to double-check the blood work. And that was that.

I was set free to go about my life. I got out of my gown and we packed up what was left of the food Linda had brought. Outside it was a lovely spring evening. We walked down the sidewalk toward the car. Linda talked and I half listened, feeling light as air. Just damn glad to be alive with two good kidneys that I hadn't messed up yet. all is good. All is so very good, I thought.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

the paper lady broke our window

Yesterday the paper lady broke the glass pane in our front door when she delivered the Chronicle.

I got in my truck and chased her down after Linda shouted, "get in your truck and chase her down."

I tracked her two blocks over. She saw me approaching and waited. I wanted to be nice about the whole situation because she had always been nice to us. Always made sure our paper was right on the porch and sometimes if we headed out early before it was delivered, she'd slow down in her Suburban and hand it to us from the window.

Every time I was ever unemployed, which has been often, I'd always try to get one of those delivery jobs. I thought they'd be easy to get but they're not. Turns out they're very much in demand. People get on wait lists for them and the lists never seem to get shorter. I'm probably still four from the bottom on some paper delivery list somewhere.

I reached over to the passenger seat to roll down the window. It took me a few cranks. as my arms are short. I could see she was getting impatient, she had papers to deliver, so i cranked more quickly.

"The window," I said finally, "it shattered when the newspaper hit." I thought maybe I shouldn't cast blame on her directly, but rather blame the Chronicle.

"Did it?" she said.
"It did," I said.

The Chronicle broke my window. The dingo stole my baby.

The situation just hung there for a moment, no one taking responsibility for what the Chronicle did. I felt I had to press the point.

"You busted our window," I said just in case she wasn't following where I was going. I mean the Chronicle has enough problems. It is close to bankruptcy.

"I'll write you a check. I'll leave it tomorrow," she said. That was good enough for me and I should have just left it at that but I felt the need to appear not as someone who would take money from a poor delivery person who probably bumped me out of line for a delivery job.

"Or i could get the landlord to fix it," i said.

A voice most likely Linda's said, you said what?

"You could do that," the paper lady window breaker nodded.

She gave me her cell phone number. I was to call her once the window was repaired and tell her the cost. I searched for a piece of paper, something to write on. I had some weird water leak on the passenger side of the car. When it rained, the front of the car became one big dirty puddle. Last spring, a blade of grass appeared sticking out of the carpet. The automotive guys quoted me $300 to fix the leak but I found it more cost effective just to just toss down the occasional Chronicle to sop up the rain water.

I tore off the corner of the front page. the headline read -- The Next Great Depression?

She gave me her name and cell and home number. I scribbled the numbers across Tim Geithner's forehead.

I got the window fixed for $115 dollars. It seemed high to me, but like the leak in my car, these kinds of repairs generally are three times what you expect to pay.

The next morning we heard her truck pull up outside the building.

"Get dressed! We gotta get her!" Linda shouted and rushed to get dressed. I didn't rush because I was fairly certain the woman would leave a check. She'd been so nice and understanding, especially since I'd suggested the landlord option.

"Hurry. We gotta get her," Linda said pulling on her shorts quickly. She slid into her shoes and headed down the stairs.
"You get her," I said, "I got her yesterday. You get."

I went into the kitchen to divide up our breakfast oatmeal into plastic containers. With blind trust in the window breaker's good word, I didn't feel the need to rush.

I spooned out the oatmeal, sprinkled some raisins on top, poured a little soy milk over it. We were shelling out $3.75 each for this pile of roughage down at Betty's Bake shop on 4th street. But that kind of extravagance had to stop, especially if we were facing the next Great Depression.

Linda re-appeared in the kitchen with her hands on her hips, her shorts inside out and backwards.

"You could'a helped me get her," she said. "Now she's gone. No check. nothing. You deal with it," she said. She sized up the two oatmeal containers I'd prepared and took the one with the most oatmeal and left.

I felt miffed that I was getting chewed out because the paper lady was not only a window breaker, but a deal breaker too.

Besides, what was the woman thinking? Did she think we wouldn't wait for her when she delivered the Chronicle the next day? Of course we would. We'd keep the lights out, stand by the front door and peep out waiting for her. Or maybe one of us -- Linda -- would wait outside in the car, to act as a backup in case she tried to make a run for it. I could feel the anger rising in me. the nerve of that Chronicle delivery paper lady.

Damn it it, I wanted my $115 dollars back! $115 dollars these days was a lot of money. It was 153.333 Chronicles. Half the cost to fix a puddle in a 94 pickup truck.

I went into work. my co-worker Raul came up to me and I was just about to launch into the story of the window breaker, when he pointed to a yellow envelope in his hand and said he'd just got laid off. We knew layoffs were coming but here they were right in smack in our face. he was the only person I really talked to at work. We'd gone to a couple of poetry readings.

"Raul, no," I said. I wasn't sure what the proper protocol was for situations like this.

Do you hug the newly laid off? Or, was that too much?

So I sort of rubbed his elbow. He'd lent me a camera lens the day before to try out. I reached into my backpack to give it back to him.
"Keep it," he said but but I could tell he really wanted it back. So I gave it to him and he left.

I went back to seething over my $115. The mind is like that sometimes. It latches onto one thing and will not put it down -- or mine is. Let it go a voice said. Think of Raul. I thought of Raul.

Then I thought of eggs and throwing them at the lady. A bucket of water tipped on her head.

We waited again the following morning. This time she wouldn't slip away. When I saw the lights approaching I called up the stairs to Linda to hurry. The lady walked slowly up the stairs and held out the paper for me as if I always waited outside on the stoop at six thirty in the morning.

"I'd like a check," I said. I handed her a copy of the receipt the repair man had given to me. It was still early out. Linda came down the stairs and stood next to me. I reached over and pointed to the total in case the woman hadn't seen it clearly.

"$115," I said.
"Yes, well I can see that," she said. "But what I don't see is a breakdown of the charges. I really need this to be itemized. A piece of glass costs ten dollars. And this says here $115."

I saw the eggs again. A dozen extra-large.

She refused to pay until she received an itemized receipt. So we called the glass guy again. Since it was early. there was a long pause filled with a rustling as if he were digging out from under blankets and clothing, beer bottles and pizza boxes. We explained the situation while the delivery lady waited. He said he'd fax me a new itemized receipt.

I went to work, received the fax, found out more people were laid off.

The next morning we waited again but she didn't appear.

"Call me if she comes back," Linda said. I waited with the receipt in my hand on the front porch -- or what was left of it. Our landlord had torn up the brick stairway and built his own interpretation of stairs from what looked like driftwood and old packing crates.

And then she appeared. She got out of her truck and handed me a release. It was something she'd got off the Internet. All very official. I called Linda and told her to come back quick. I have a profound fear of forms and small print.

"I'm calling Linda," I said. "wait here." I tried to dial Linda on my new Blackberry while the woman watched.

But I suffer from sudden onset performance anxiety. Simple tasks become impossible when I'm observed. I punched the wrong button, brought up the browser, turned on Pandora. The woman huffed, shook her head and opened the truck door.

"Wait here," I demanded. "You wait here."
She looked me up and down. I was wearing red pajama bottoms with white snowflakes and a Tour de France tee-shirt. Very threatening.

She climbed up onto the car seat and put the truck it in gear.
"I ain't waiting here. I got a job to do. I'll come back." The car slowly moved passed me.

So I kicked it. I kicked her Suburban.

The minute I heard the thud of my foot against the side-panel, I saw myself standing before Judge Judy, the TV judge. I saw myself trying to explain the situation to Judge Judy. But she's very black and white, that Judge Judy.

I kept interrupting her saying, "but the Chronicle delivery lady was leaving and she hadn't given me my money" and Judge Judy was repeating the question over and over,


There's no explaining to Judge Judy when she gets like that.

But luck of luck, thanks to the ridiculously enormous size of a Suburban, the delivery lady never felt or heard a thing. Linda appeared, we chased the woman down and finally she coughed up the dough.


Linda's decided to cancel her subscription. One more nail in the coffin for the poor old Chronicle. It's not the paper it used to be, not that it ever was much but still I think i'll miss it.

Especially when it rains.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

i miss the little guy

i miss the little guy...