Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Static and the Trees

The night before in Lansing, the rain froze into wet ice. The drops fell through the cold sky with a nucleus of ice gradually spreading outward. Far above the streetlights, there was a haze of rain and mist, but about 25 ft. up, the sound of freezing was audible, a sound like the squeak of biting into a soft ice cube. The rain lost its wavy momentum, stopped and fell straight down. Ice drops fell like tacks, but the earth was loamy and damp from the rain. The tacks hit the ground with a sound like a collective sigh. I watched it for a very short time. I’d seen an ice storm in Lansing before. I walked around all night in one once, shifting my perspective so the light would run through the ice on a branch or a frozen McDonald’s cup. It was beautiful to see the ice again, but, for once, I was able to see in one ice-covered tree, what I would see in an entire avenue of them; I didn’t need a profusion of ice and light, just an example of it. The whole picture was right in front of me. From the trunk, to the tiniest ramifications, the tree was insulated with ice, like it was protected, but the mass of the ice was pulling the branches to the ground. Just a small gust of wind shook the thing awkwardly; it moved all the way down to the roots and did not sway but jerked. One of the frozen branches scraped the frozen roof of a car. The house behind me shifted and crackled in its ice casements. It sounded like the world was gratefully coming apart.

I woke up dazed the next morning. I haven’t been moving around very much since I’ve come here and I wake up every morning feeling dazed. It’s 11 degrees outside. I sit there for a while with the blanket around my shoulders and my head in my hands. Tired and cold, I want to go back to sleep. I don’t have anything to do. Just as I am about to lie down again, I change my mind and reach for my shoes. They feel like they’ve been sitting on the floor for decades. They’re cold and dusty and look like someone with huge boots has been stomping on them. I’m glad I don’t have to touch the shoelaces. I want to go to the QD and get a big, watery cup of coffee right away to justify getting up, but I decide I need to go back to Theio’s: my old favorite diner down the street. It’s a Sunday, there’s no one in the house and everything’s covered in ice. I really couldn’t pick a better time to go down to the diner to read, drain a few cups of coffee and listen to the snow melt from everyone’s boots.

I have to walk lightly outside with my arms out like a tightrope walker and my feet shuffling along. The streets are empty save for the heavy branches that fell: shattered remnants of ice and bark. Icy twigs from these fallen branches lie as far as 100 feet away from the crash. They all must weigh hundreds of pounds. I look up nervously at the creeping canopy of frozen branches. There’s a power line draped over a car as if the storm meant to use it for something, set it down and forgot about it. Everything is closed. The storefronts are all dark behind the wavy sheets of ice on the windows. The QD is open but the parking lot is empty. The tire tracks are still frozen from the night before. At the bus stop there’s a diagram of a frozen and impatient dance.
The Theio’s parking lot is barely visible through all the exhaust. There must be seven or eight cars idling out there, most of them large vans. I can imagine the inside of those things, smelling like cold exhaust and wet carpet, cold and humid with wads of pale pink gum tucked under every arm rest. The thought makes me shiver. The heat in those kinds of cars never reaches the back where the kids sit. At least it never did in my mom’s suburban. I shuffle to the Theio’s door. The front of the place looks like an atrium; it’s all wet, fogged glass. There’s a rumble outside the place the explodes into the combined sound of laughter, clattering dishes, scraping chairs and cash register clangs when I open the door. Outside the door, the icy world was still and empty. There’s something surreal about walking into a place surrounded by so much silence and crackling ice and to find it so alive. I imagined that temporary shelters set up during a disaster would have this feel—the outside world dark and broken, the inside full of light and humanity.

I was glad that I had come. At first, I didn’t want to go back to Theio’s. They remolded it some years ago. I hadn’t been back since. I wanted to maintain my memories of it and I knew they’d clash with the present state of the place. I hadn’t expected to be drawn back into the place, to be swaddled by it again. Apparently, it’s not possible to wake up alone, with nothing to do on an icy Sunday morning on the east side of Lansing, and not automatically start making your way down to Theio’s. I tried to avoid it, but there was nothing else to be done. I had to get some coffee and be with the people.

I’ve been away long enough now that it doesn’t feel strange to not know anyone here. There’s no smoking section anymore, so I take a seat by the window to get out of the way. A lot of the same crap is still up on the walls. By that first booth on the right, my favorite place to sit, the decorative, wooden mailbox is still there. We used put stuff in there on cold Saturday nights: pencils, notes, transit cards from far-off places and whatever junk we found in our pockets. I doubt there’s anything left in there now. When I looked in the mailbox the last time in 2010, everything was gone, even all the stuff Ramen put in there. It’s better to let myself think it’s still in there. I can’t imagine them dumping the stuff he put in there. But, I knew a waitress here who died suddenly and there’s no reminder of her either. When they told me she had died, I rode off to the florist on Grand River and rooted around in the dumpster until I had the makings of a nice bouquet. I went back and gave it to someone to take to her memorial service the next day. I didn’t go. I had to sit there, drink coffee and stare off into space like I did every night. That was my memorial. I did the same thing for Ramen.

I don’t remember the coffee being so watery. It’s hardly got any flavor, but this is probably a good thing, given how easy it is to drink 30 cups of the stuff. They never even used to ask me. Every time the waitresses would come around they’d splash a little more coffee in my cup. Now, they ask me, “you want a warm up?” I love how they call it a ‘warm-up.’ “Yeah, thanks,” I say and hold my cup up like I’m trying to toast the pot of coffee the waitress has. I keep my book open but I look up at her. She’s young, still just on coffee duty. She’s got a pot of coffee in each hand, regular and decaf. She reminds me of someone who used to work here. Everyone does. All the waitresses, the cooks, even some of the customers look and sound so familiar. I have to give them second looks to make sure they aren’t who they would’ve been, years ago. If I started coming here regularly again, I could connect with all these people, the way I did years ago. It wouldn’t be right. After all the places I’ve lived that were so far away from here, how could I be the one who ended up staying? How could I be the only one who’s still here years later?

When I look up and notice that there are no more seats and people are waiting by the door, I get up and give my seat to someone else. I’ve sat here long enough.
After the hum of 40 different conversations and all the nylon winter coats shrugged off and shrugged back on, the spoons stirring the coffee, the outside is like a vacuum. There is no sound. Even the idling vans in the parking lot are turned off now. I walk back to the house, but I forget to reminisce for a moment. The illusion is shattered; I see everything for how it really is and, much as I expected, it looks exactly the same. Even all the new stuff looks old and I leave as soon as possible.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Inherent Sorrows of the Tea-Drinking Countries

My memories of leaving a place are always soaked in coffee. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps, I get up earlier when I’m preparing for a move or because I am overwhelmed by a box-crowded apartment, I have to go out to get coffee in the morning. The coffee always tastes better when you go out for it. It’s a deeply satisfying feeling to walk out of the cold, gray morning into one of those steamy, brass and oak cafés with a bell that chimes at the door, the kind of places that usually have a resident cat and assorted mugs hanging on the wall. Some of the regulars request certain mugs, so that, eventually, the mug with a picture of, say, a snowman on it becomes ‘Jerry’s mug.’ Maybe there’s even a sign above the mug which proclaims this, drawn by Jerry himself one particularly humorous morning. The oil roasted out of the coffee beans evaporates, rises and condenses on the ceiling. The tables are damp with newsprint and the smell of ceramic mugs like wet sand.
It would be better inspiration to actually be at such a café to write this, but I decided to stay home this morning. We still have some coffee to use up and sometimes I’m too impatient to walk through the cold morning before having my first warm cup of the day. Of course, we’re packing away all the coffee cups. In the middle of a long, satisfying draught, my cup is pulled away and its contents unceremoniously dumped into another cup, one that isn’t being packed, a cup that’s cold and dusty on the inside. The hot coffee immediately cools to tepidity and the dust rises to the top of it resembling the ‘skin’ that forms on top of pudding. I continue to drink it anyway.
Two days ago, Gina and I decided to get up before dawn and climb up to the top of Grandview Park over in the Sunset Neighborhood which is on the other side of Golden Gate Park from us. My alarm went off just after 5, and I immediately threw myself out of bed just to silence it. It took me a few minutes to remember why I had set it so early. It was still completely dark outside and the heat hadn’t come on yet. I stood in the middle of the dark apartment, cold, my conscious returning like a Sperm Whale surfacing from the Marianas Trench. There was a light on the window in the house behind us. “Why do we always live next to some place that keeps one light burning all night?” I wondered. The wooden floor was cold under my feet and even in the dark I could see the wind stirring over the ivy on the back porch; the leaves shook off the jaunty window light from next door and then settled into it again. Gina mumbled something in her sleep and I thought about getting back into bed, but instead decided to make some coffee.
Making coffee in the dark reminds me of my parents. We had a coffee maker when I was a kid that sounded like a distant thunderstorm. It was a great comfort to wake up and here that thing fulminating and my dad shuffling around and swearing under his breath in the kitchen. It was a signal that the long night was over and listening to those sounds, I’d pull the covers back over my shoulder, turn over and immediately fall asleep listening to the soft chime of a spoon slowly stirring.
Now, the responsibility of making coffee in the morning has fallen to me. There are no children around to be comforted by it, but it gives me a sense of accomplishment to be up this early and swearing under my breath. Because Gina and I share a small studio, I wrap a pillow around the coffee grinder and tuck it into my chest before starting it. It looks like I’m throwing myself on a grenade. Although the noise is muffled, it’s still much louder and rasping than the sound of a distant thunderstorm. There is nothing peaceful about grinding coffee in the morning, especially before 6 AM. Luckily, Gina is a selective deep sleeper. If she hears something uncomfortable in the morning, her defense is to go deeper into sleep, rather than waking up to confront the offending noise. I greatly admire this talent.
When the coffee is finally percolating, I pour a little into two demitasse cups and dump the rest in the thermos to have later, when we get to Grandview Park. I have made the coffee strong and with a little sugar, it’s like espresso. I wake Gina up and we drink our 4 oz. of coffee together. It’s hard to believe that people can content themselves on such a small amount of coffee. Europeans may condemn American gluttony, our incomprehensible desire to consume copious amount of soda or fried foods, but they will never understand the satisfaction of holding a large, warm mug of coffee under the nose and slowly breathing in lustrous steam, because it doesn’t work with a cup of espresso, much less Nescafe.
It takes longer than we expected to get to Grandview Park. We have to cross Golden Gate park to get there and this always takes longer than expected. The maps make it look like it is only a few blocks wide, and maybe it is. I wouldn’t know because it is impossible to walk through it in a straight line. You take a curving street, then follow a bike path to a jogging trail, then cut across a soccer field only to find yourself back on the side you started from. After we emerged covered in burrs and panting from Golden Gate Park, we pass an open café on 9th avenue. In the front window is a man with a pint glass of coffee, newspaper majestically stretched open before him, drying the fresh newsprint like a butterfly drying its wings. I nearly sigh. The cold fog and the bilious lights outside are precisely what gives the scene its warmth, but it seems best to exit this world of dying night for the warm café interior. After all, we can watch the spectacle well enough from the window. But we’ve prepared coffee and the park isn’t too far away; without a word, we decide to press on into the tortuous maze of a terraced neighborhood.
There was so much fog, I couldn’t even see the Grand View, even when it was right in front of us. A neighborhood jogger pointed us in the right direction. (I always ask for directions when I am exactly a block away from whatever I am looking for.) The stairs were steep, I moved up them quickly because A. I was cold; B. I wanted the coffee we had in the thermos and C. I wanted to sit down. Up on Grandview, the fog was so thick it dripped of the Eucalyptus leaves in great, plashing tears. Every few seconds you could hear the dripping fog bang into clump of succulent plants or thump on a wooden fence post. We huddled together and saw nothing but whiteness. We were in the clouds. There was no sunrise to be seen, indeed there was no reality to be seen. Gina claimed it was a view so deprived of view as to be a thing that would surely drive one insane after a long enough exposure. After staring into the grey abyss for a moment I agreed with her. Grey, in its way, is more threatening that blackness. At least, blackness mimics sleep and unconsciousness. Grey is what you must see when the cable between your brain and eye is suddenly severed. Black is what comes when something is intentionally switched off. Grey is a malfunction.
I poured the coffee from the leaky thermos into the leaky cap; we passed it back and forth, drinking quickly. Birds could be heard chirping and fluttering nearby, but we couldn’t see a trace of them. Their wet wings would beat past us in the grey. The little birds passed in barely perceptible tics and the ravens sounded like someone shaking out a quilt. When the sound of the wings ceased, there was only the shifting grey fog falling to the wet sands and our green bench; we were entirely without context. Not long after we finished our coffee, the cold forced us up. We had watched the sunrise without knowing it. Gradually, the steely and oceanic hues in the fog had brightened to smoke and cloud colors; it was day. I wiped the moisture out of my beard and started for the stairs, hoping I’d be able to find them again.
It had been tacitly decided that we would return to the café we had passed earlier. The man was still there with his paper, his pint glass of coffee and his wobbly table. We joined him. The coffee had the texture and consistency of light shining on a waxed, oaken banister. I held the cup under my nose and let the coffee steam carry the rheumatic fog away.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I'm from Nowhere

It was a rainy spring morning, probably a Saturday because I wasn’t in school and I didn’t have one of those dull headaches you get on rainy Sundays. I was about eleven years old and with my friends Eric and Jim who were the same age. The three of us were walking around the neighborhood looking for something to do. The neighborhood was a subdivision that could have been the scene of an Updike novel if it wasn’t in south central Michigan. There were lots of two car garages but probably very few martini shakers. The people that lived here—our parents—seemed to have been sated by their moderate success. They found all the scandal they were looking for on TV and in the grocery store checkout line. The neglect of the subdivision was not as apparent as it would have been in a city. Still, it didn’t take much attention to see that signs needed painting and the concrete used on the driveways cracked after a few winters. The landscaped median was blowzy. The pine trees were surrounded by donut-shaped mantles of dead needles. The ornamental rocks were beginning to rust in places. The last time gravel had been laid down on the streets, it hadn’t been entirely cleared away and pebbley dunes washed against the curbs and hunched in the middle of the street. The cars that were closer to the ground occasionally hit shoals of gravel which made a sound like a shovel clearing an icy driveway.

The rain had dampened the gravel for the first time which resulted in the widespread smell of wet stone, a hopeless kind of smell on a Saturday. We were walking up a hill in the back part of the subdivision where the houses were spaced much farther apart and each driveway was afforded its own little hill. Some of the unsold lots in this part of the subdivision were large enough to feel like swaths of unexplored forest. In the middle of one we had a few boards that we had looted from nearby construction sites. We had one hammer and a couple of boxes of nails. But we got ahead of ourselves when we started construction. Instead of concentrating on measurements and where the door would go, we started talking about the entertainment center and how to get beanbags for the third floor ‘chill-out’ room. So we’d never gotten farther than a few boards hastily pounded onto a tree. About all you could do was sit on them, even then, they were uneven and you usually fell off.

Sometimes, we came back to the fort, as we called it, and tried to figure out what went wrong. That day we weren’t even interested enough to look for the hammer. We glanced around to see if anything interesting had been left behind by the other kids and then hopped back to the street, trying to avoid the wet grass lashing at our legs. Back on the street, I felt the water soaking into my socks where there was a hole in the back of my shoe. The walk toward the front part of the subdivision felt like work. We knew every fence, every dog’s bark, every car. We turned off the main street and took the short cut that led behind Jim’s house. We hadn’t been back there much that spring and the weeds had grown up quickly with no one to tramp them down. We had only taken a few steps before my socks and shoes were completely soaked. I didn’t say anything, but thought how nice it would be to be a wild animal and to not be inconvenienced by things like wet socks. If I were a wild animal, I thought, I could lie down in that swale of trees over there and listen to the rain falling on the leaves. If I were a wild animal, I wouldn’t even be bored or get cold. My wet shoelaces had come untied, they were trailing behind me and whipping ahead as I walked. The laces and the cuffs of my jeans were covered in those seed-sized burrs and a few of the big spikey ones. There didn’t seem to be any point to trying to get them off. I knew from experience that after a few days they usually fall off on their own.

When we came out onto Rickfield road I realized that Jim and Eric were covered in burrs, but I only had a few. They must’ve walked into a plant that I avoided. They stopped to pluck off the bigger ones that poked so far through your clothes they scratched you when you walked. The feeling of being scratched by burrs is especially annoying in wet jeans. Don’t ask me why. I absent mindedly picked a few of the bigger burrs off myself, but there weren’t many and I started to look around, trying to see if there was anything interesting on this part of the street we’d overlooked in the past. There used to be a skateboard ramp here, but that family had moved away, or at least the kid who built the thing had. The houses up here were the cheapest in the subdivision and only had car shelters rather than attached garages. The car shelters were slanted roofs to park under, about ten cars wide. It was easy to get on top of these roofs, but we had learned once you got up on them there wasn’t much else to do but get in trouble. They weren’t close enough to anything to jump from and they were completely open with nowhere to hide. If you climbed up on one of these someone would see you, yell at you to get down and then you’d jump off. That’s it.

All the houses on the block looked dead, except one of the houses near the end of the street that had a garage. The garage door was open and a fat guy with white tennis shoes and shorts seemed to be moving some stuff around. None of us had ever seen this guy before. We sat on the wall where we had stopped to pick off the burrs, watching him. There was no car in his garage, but there were a lot computer CPUs, probably about fifty of them. Most of them looked the same, rectangular and white with slots for disks and CDs and eject buttons. The fat guy seemed to be sorting them, bringing them from somewhere inside to the garage. We gradually stopped picking burrs and watched him set one down and go back indoors for another. “Where do you think he got all those?” Eric asked. “Probably mailed in all his Twinkie wrappers for ‘em.” Jim said and we laughed. “I bet there worth a lot of money.” He added when we stopped laughing. “Yeah,” I said. The door swung back open again and we were quiet. The fat guy emerged with another CPU and went over to where he had the rest of them stacked together in the garage. He must’ve seen us. After he set the CPU down he looked out across the street to us and beckoned. We pretended not to notice but did a very bad job. “What the hell do you think he wants?” Jim whispered. “To eat us?” I suggested. We laughed, nervously. The fat guy had started to yell to us and was now standing at the open garage door. “Hey,” he called in a voice that was slightly high, almost like a kid’s. “Can you guys help me?”

I don’t know how it was with other pre-teenagers, but those years would’ve been much less turbulent for me if more strangers had asked me to help them. I didn’t give a damn about helping my parents with anything, but I loved being able to help people I didn’t know. I held open doors and returned shopping carts to corrals with the idea that I was doing something very mature that hardly cost me any effort. Eric and Jim were similar, but we hardly ever got to help anyone. Who wants the help of some punk kids with untied shoelaces? But this fat guy, this stranger none of us had ever seen before, was standing in his garage asking three eleven year-olds to come over and help him with something. It may have been his effeminate voice, the difficulty he showed carrying CPUs or our newfound haughtiness, but we decided that should he try anything unsavory the three of us could take him, or at the very least, get away from him. Maybe he really wanted our help. After a whispered conversation, we got up and walked toward the open garage, out of the rain.

“Call me Computer Joe,” the fat guy told us, “everyone does. I work on computers.” We shuffled nervously as Joe explained our task: to carry CPUs out of the house, stack them in the garage and, when they were all together to load them into his Bronco, which was still parked on the street. He showed us where the CPUs were in his furnished basement and then he disappeared upstairs. We all automatically grabbed a CPU and headed back up the stairs. We didn’t say much other than: “this is weird.” For the first few trips up and down the stairs we clung together, but as we began to work, we set our own paces and began to feel more confident, walking in and out of the house alone. When we passed each other on the stairs or in the garage we whispered jokes about how Computer Joe was going to eat us or pretended we were going to drop the CPUs we were carrying. What we were doing had become normal to us in a few minutes and no one had seen Joe since he left us in the basement. We hadn’t even heard him.

When we had brought all the CPUs to the garage, we stood there for a moment, awaiting instruction. Jim said that we should put them in the Bronco, since that’s where Joe had said he wanted them, but Eric and I thought it would be a better idea to ask him before we started carrying them all out to his car. Besides, it was raining. He would at least want to back the truck up closer to the garage. We decided to go in and call for him. Not knowing what else to say, we called for him using the name he had introduced himself with. “Computer Joe?” We yelled. “Are you there? We’ve got all the CPUs in the garage.” “Ok,” he called down from upstairs in his high voice. “Be right down.” Not knowing what else to do, we went and stood in the garage, next to the work we had done.
When Joe came out into the garage, he was followed by a little boy who was about three or four years old. “This is my son Levi.” He told us. We said hi to Levi, feeling like uncles, or at least older brothers asking him innate questions about the Winnie the Pooh shirt he had on and the ball he was carrying. None of us were from big families. We hadn’t had a lot of experience with babies but Levi didn’t seem to mind. I was really feeling like an adult, calling this man by his first name, patronizing his child and carrying heavy things around. “Joe, did you want us to load the CPUs in the Bronco now?” I asked, feeling like I was talking to the foreman on a construction site. Joe looked at the CPUs as if he’d forgotten about them. He considered the question and then waved his hands indicating his decision before saying anything. “No, boys, don’t worry about that yet. Just leave them here. Thanks.” We started to tell him that he was welcome and that it was no trouble at all. “Well, let me pay you a little for your help.” Joe said and reached for his back pocket. When he handed Jim a 20, I wanted to rush out before he changed his mind. We couldn’t have worked for him for more than half an hour and he was giving us twenty dollars. We were moving toward the door and thanking him when he handed another 20 to me and another to Eric. Sixty dollars! This man was paying three 11 year-olds sixty dollars to move some CPUs up a flight of stairs? We thanked Joe profusely and assured him if he had any more work that we would be only too happy to do it. Jim, who lived the closest, wrote down his phone number. “The three of us can help you whenever you want, Joe,” Jim told him and Eric and I agreed, our eyes practically shining with greed.

We weren’t even half a block away when the absurdity of what had just happened caught up with me. “What the hell was that!?” I yelled at the other two, who I noticed also had their right hands in their pockets holding their twenty dollar bills, as I was doing, afraid that if we let them go they would somehow cease to exist. “That was awesome.” Jim said. “Yeah,” I agreed, “but wasn’t it also a little weird? Why did he pay us so much? He probably could’ve carried those up himself. He didn’t look crippled or anything.” “He’s fat,” Jim argued. “What? Fat guys can’t lift anything? C’mon, man. Why did he pay us so much then? And who was that kid?” “He said it was his son. What’s wrong with you?” “Man, I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. Maybe he’s just a nice guy. It just seemed weird to me.” “Hey,” Eric said trying to broker a peace. “At least we’ve all got twenty bucks.” And the three of us went back to our separate houses to put our twenty dollar bills in a can or a box where we kept the rest of our money and spend the rest of the rainy day thinking about how we’d spend it.

I had almost forgotten about the incident about two weeks later, when Jim came up to Eric and me at school during lunch and told us that Joe had called him the day before. We had another job. He said it would take most of the day, but that he’d pay us for it. I wondered if he paid us 20 dollars for half an hour how much would be pay us for an entire day? I still had my reservations, but when I saw that I was the only one, I readily agreed.

When I got back home from school my mom was standing in the kitchen with her arms akimbo. When she was mad about something at night she stood with her arms folded. When she was mad about something during the day, they were akimbo. It smelled like chopped white onions and warm canola oil in the kitchen. My mom was making dinner. With her arms still at her sides, she began to talk. The kitchen radio was turned up so loud, I couldn’t hear what she was saying. “Huh?” I said, reaching for the radio to turn it down. “Don’t touch the radio,” my mom said, bringing her hands up, one of which was holding a wooden spoon that had tomato sauce all over it. “Well, I can’t hear you.” I said, dropping my hands. “Let’ go over here,” my mom said, gesturing with the sauce spoon to the living room. There was some kind of problem with the radio. The volume and the station couldn’t be changed. It could only be turned on or off. Anything else caused some kind of problem so we were always having to yell over the thing.
I sat down at the table. I could hear my sister bounding around upstairs. She was listening to her favorite record Ten Girls Ago, probably one of the most annoying songs ever written, especially when it’s played on the wrong speed the way she likes to listen to it. My mom set the spoon down on her plate. “Who’s this Computer Joe?” She asked me. “Who told you about that?” I asked, caught off guard and not knowing what else to say. “Yvonne called me about half an hour ago and told me that Eric had come home telling her you guys were going to work for some guy named Computer Jon tomorrow.” “Joe,” I corrected her. “What?” My mom asked. “Joe, Ma, his name’s Computer Joe.” “I don’t care if his name’s Computer Bob Dylan. I don’t want you working for someone I’ve never met.” “Ahh, c’mon, Ma!” I tried to argue. “We’re not stupid; it’s not like he’s paying us in candy or asking us to work in our underwear; he’s just some guy who needs help with his…uhh… computer stuff.” BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP the smoke alarm began to beep. “The garlic bread!” my mom jumped up and ran to the oven. A cloud of acrid smoke spilled out as she opened it and pulled out a pan of charred bread. “I mean it, Jonathan. I don’t want you working for some computers person I’ve never met!” I probably could’ve argued with her some more, but I didn’t care that much. I was already reluctant to give up my entire Saturday just to make money. It struck me as being a dubious trade off even if there wasn’t anything weird about Computer Joe. “Fine.” I mumbled for propriety and stomped up to my room.

In the lunchroom on Monday, Jim fanned about 60 dollars’ worth of ten dollar bills in front of Eric and me. “Man you guys should’ve come to work on Saturday. We hardly did anything but hang around the garage, talking and listening to music and I made sixty dollars.” I was almost glad my mom hadn’t let me go. The idea of hanging around that garage all day Saturday for sixty bucks didn’t seem worth it. I didn’t mind half an hour, or even an hour, but I had no desire to spend my whole day off hanging with a computer guy for sixty dollars. “What did you do?” I asked. “We just moved some stuff, like last time.” “Who else was there?” “Some other guy who was there to help,” Jim said. He had one of those adult complexes that some kids develop. He liked to do just about anything if it seemed adult to him. We were the same age, but to me, adult stuff was boring and I wasn’t going to do any of it unless I had to. Working with Joe was better suited to Jim anyway; I figured that he could keep the job. I was probably never going to go back.

Jim worked for Joe about once a week for a few months. It had become such a commonplace thing he hardly mentioned it anymore. “What are you going to do this weekend?” I’d ask him in class. “I’m working for Joe.” He’d respond, as if hauling computers around was the most natural thing for a sixth-grader to do on Saturday. Eric and I saw less and less of Jim on the weekend. While we’d blow our ten dollar a week allowances on toys or movie tickets every Saturday, Jim hung out at Joe’s all day and never seemed to be around to spend his money with us. I assumed he was just saving it for something. I would’ve felt bad for not seeing him much anymore, but he didn’t seem to mind.
One Thursday, Jim came up to Eric and me after school. “Hey, guys, I know you don’t want to work for Joe, but you should come out with us this Saturday. We’ve got to rewire a radio station out by the highway. It’s going to take all day, but the pay’ll be good. Joe said he really needs people to help.” In less than two months, Jim had gone from hauling computers up stairs to rewiring entire buildings. It seemed slightly ridiculous to me, but my sense of pride was slightly wounded. Jim had mentioned some of the things that he’d learned from Joe before. It seemed like Joe had taken Jim in as a sort of apprentice. I didn’t have much interest in learning about electronics, but figured it might be valuable to learn a little about rewiring radio stations while getting paid to hang out in an empty building all day. Maybe there’d even be some old windows to break or something. I told Jim that it sounded good and that I’d mention it to Eric and tell him not to say anything to his mom about it.

On Saturday morning, we met in front of Jim’s house early, around eight and then walked over to the house where we had met Computer Joe a few months before. Everything felt different than it had that day we had helped move the CPUs. We had been walking by, stopping into this guy’s house didn’t interrupt anything and we had all been bored, anxious for any kind of diversion. Now, we had gotten up early and come over here so we could get in this man’s car and drive across town to an abandoned building. I would’ve felt much more suspicious, but in all the times Jim had worked for Joe, he’d never reported anything even slightly odd.

Joe was as I remembered him, slightly baby-faced, always blushed and with large ankles packed into white tube socks. He came out to greet us as we walked up the driveway. As he did so another man came out with him, a man who was much less friendly-looking. He was skinny, wearing clothes that were ripped and spattered with paint. His face and neck were bumpy and red, covered with dark stubble and he had a nervous look. No one introduced him and he didn’t say anything. I didn’t like the guy, but Joe’s son Levi was there again and I figured nothing too unsavory would happen with a kid around.
The truck was already loaded with a few spoils of wire and very little else. The unshaven guy opened a door and held up his seat so Jim, Eric and I could climb into the back. There were a lot of fast food containers and soda bottles on the seats and floor. We had to push a bunch of old wrappers and bags onto the floor to make room to sit down. As Joe climbed in and started the car, I thought about making up an excuse and asking to be let out. I knew it would be painful to hear what happened to Eric and Jim later on, but at that moment, I only cared about me. Rewire a radio station? What the hell had I been thinking? I was eleven years old? I didn’t know anything about wires and how could I really help with the work? I wasn’t very tall and didn’t have very much upper body strength. This didn’t make any sense. I started moving to make for the door, but Joe had already gotten in. The door was shut. I’d have to ask to be let out and at the time I was more afraid of embarrassing myself than being murdered. I leaned back and said nothing. No one did. The ride out to the radio station was almost completely silent and the only one who seemed comfortable was Jim. I noticed that even Levi just stared out the window, like he wanted to be somewhere else.

Just north of the junction for 94 and 127 there’s a place with an old radio tower and a satellite dish next to it. It’s one of those places you’d never notice unless you were scouting foreclosed property. It was like an overpass with nothing underneath it, or a dead-end street with nothing on it but weeds and broken sidewalks. When we pulled up to the building, it was like it suddenly leapt through my memory. Whereas before every time I had imagined this stretch of highway, there was an empty plot here there was now, and always had been, a salient, but empty radio station.

The parking area was packed down paving stone that had matted grass growing through it. There were ancient piles of Quikrete that had solidified with parts of bag still stuck to them. Behind the place, there was all kinds of construction trash: empty cable spools, a workman’s boot, crusted paint cans with petrified brushes stuck to them and a few rusted circular saw blades. Weeds grew through all of this. I felt panicked looking at it. No one had been to this place in years.

The inside was no better. We got out of the car and walked through a doorway with no door. The walls, ceiling and floor were intact, but everything else had been stolen, mildewed or smashed. Shards of fluorescent light crunched beneath our feet, the smell of black mold stretched out from dark corners and rats could be heard scurrying through their urine-soaked nests above and beneath us. It didn’t look like a place that needed to be rewired, but a place that needed to be torn down. If anything, it needed to be cleaned out first and the structural damage assessed before anybody started with the wiring, even as a sixth-grader I understood that. Since we had arrived, my heart had been knocking against my chest. I tried to keep my distance from Joe and the stubble-faced guy. If they decided to pounce, I wanted to be the one standing closest to the door. We were pretty far from everything out here, but there was the highway, I could always run there and try to flag a car down or if that didn’t work I could run to the Red Lobster. I hoped I’d be able to save my friends.

Joe went out to the truck and came back rolling one of the spools of wire that we’d brought. He took it up on a ladder with him and started to show us how to thread it through the beams and the other wires. I noticed when he did this that there was already some new-looking wire up in the ceiling. It stood out because it was the only new thing in the place. Joe seemed intent on explaining the wiring to us. Watching him talk and wince when the old dry wall dust got in his eyes, I began to realize he was serious about wiring the place. He and the stubbly guy were going to do anything. I looked over and saw Levi jumping up and down on an old piece of particle board. I smiled and then looked back up to Joe’s explanation.

We worked for the day climbing up and down the latter, joking with each other and passing the spool of wire over and under the beams and other wires. Joe walked around checking various things, and the stubbly guy was working in another room. Levi had been left with us and we kept an eye on him and even played with him a little. He seemed grateful for the attention. At the end of the day, we had looped wire through most of the building. I hadn’t really understood much about what I’d been doing, and I doubt that we even did it right, but at the end of the day, I felt good about it and for years when I drove past that building, I pointed it out to people as the building I wired. No one ever questioned me about it. Nobody seemed curious to know how an eleven year old ended up wiring a building. Everyone either believed it or assumed I was making it up for some reason and said nothing.

After the wiring job, Computer Joe disappeared. I don’t mean the next morning his house was empty and his car gone but he disappeared from our lives. Summer vacation started a few weeks later and maybe those warm and adventurous days dissuaded us from thinking about work. After that day we wired the radio station, no one mentioned Joe again until an August afternoon a few months later. The three of us were walking around, trying to think of something to do when I remembered Joe. “Hey, let’s go over and see if Computer Joe’s around; maybe he’ll even have some kind of work for us.” But on the way over there, we passed a basketball game. We refused the first offer to play, but as we were walking away, the other kids started insulting us and our basketball playing skills and we had to defend ourselves(even if they were right and we weren’t very good). The first game was so close that we decided to play again and then best two out of three. By the time we were done, I had to jog home to make it back before it was completely dark and when I burst into the kitchen my mom was standing there with her arms folded because it was night and she was mad. By the time I got to my room, I had forgotten all about Computer Joe.

Just before the end of the summer we did make it over there. Taking the shortcut that came out on Rickfield Road one afternoon, Eric, Jim and I walked right by the house, but the garage door was shut and the Bronco wasn’t there. Like the kid who had once built the skateboard ramp, Computer Joe had gone. We didn’t say much about it. Somehow, I think we’d already assumed that he’d moved away. “I wonder who he really was,” I heard myself say out loud as we walked past his driveway kicking rocks and listening to the hum of the transformer at the end of the block. No one answered. Either no one heard me or no one had an answer.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I Think I Can

From the teacher’s lounge window of the university I worked at in Armenia, a mountain was visible. It wasn’t a huge mountain, but it was tall enough to be raked over by snow while the valley I lived in was still verdant and warm. I looked at this mountain for about three weeks before deciding to climb it.

After I made the decision, my first day off I packed a lunch and set off in the direction of the peak. As I passed through villages and pastures, I lost sight of the peak now and again, but every time the view was unobstructed I could see the white corona of the mountain almost blending it with the blue-white autumn sky.

The mountain was called Vardablur or Rose Hill.

As I climbed up the goat paths and rocky screes toward Vardablur, I reminisced about the various things I missed about America to pass the time. I thought about the cities I had lived in and the people I had known. I thought about the road trips I had taken and the way the Sonora desert looks in the twilight. I thought about the cold and humid Redwood forests in Northern California and the dusky smell of white pine fires in the Ozarks. I thought about Lake Michigan’s frozen waves and the reflection they distorted of Chicago’s skyline and about oxidized verandas leaning drunkenly over Bourbon Street, but mostly, I thought about the food.

As I hiked over dusty shale, cropped grassy swales and loamy depressions, I thought about the creature comforts I associate with home. The walk was so long and so quiet that I nearly began to hallucinate, almost seeing these objects of my acute desire. I imagined I was walking toward a table that represented the apogee of my alimentary desires. I pictured San Francisco Mission-style burritos, freshly-delivered pizzas with that still hot-in-the-box smell. I tasted fried tofu, mounds of fries, Soul Vegetarian of Chicago’s Protein Tidbits, Seva of Ann Arbor’s orange cake, Del Taco, Vietnamese sandwiches, Pra Ram with extra peanut sauce, my mom’s cinnamon rolls, all of Maggie Mudd’s nine flavors of coconut milk ice cream, ice-cold cans of Tecate beer and fresh-roasted coffee beans, finely ground and steeped into a viscous espresso.

I was still discovering myself in a different country and adjusting life there at that time. My fantasy almost got the best of me and by the time I reached the top of Vardablur, I had a difficult time really caring about the amazing view, the incredibly fresh air and the complete stillness. All I could think about was what I was going to buy when I got back to town. About the only things I could buy were stale sugar wafers and warm apricot juice, but I managed to fantasize about these a little, not without some remorse that I was selling myself short after the sumptuous banquet I had created in my mind.

When I got back home with my wafers and juice, my host family scolded me for having been gone so long. It was nine o’clock at night. I had been gone thirteen hours and I had spent most of it thinking about food.

After climbing Vardablur food became my most ardent connection to America. When I moved into my own apartment, I spent a good portion of every day off trying to recreate the familiar and comfortable food I missed so much. Eventually, I discovered many Armenian dishes I liked—zhingalov hots (fresh-baked bread stuffed with sautéed greens, zhareet (home fries, golden and crispy on the outside, almost mashed potato-like on the inside), Georgian puri bread, banjar (sautéed greens and onion) and, of course, the priozhki in its infinite varieties—but my appetite wasn’t so easily sated and I continued to dream and to create.

On one of our meandering walks, Paige and I once shared this fantasy. It was a beautiful summer day, and I was taking her to see a fresh water spring in a neighboring village. About half-way to our destination, we started talking about how our day would be different if we were back home in Austin and San Francisco. We didn’t get very far in the conversation before we started talking about Mexican restaurants. For the rest of the walk, we babbled about warm, floury tortillas on hot, brightly-colored plates; milky, green avocados; peppers sweet and spicy; icy, citric margaritas and the nearly-forgotten flavor combination of sweet and spicy in mole. We rhapsodized until we got back to town and then we stopped into a café and had a few Kilikia beers and fell silent, both of us thinking about the things we missed that we hadn’t mentioned, namely, the people we’d like to have that meal with and the things we’d like to say to them and how it would be different than it was before, how this time, we’d know enough to say the right things and there wouldn’t be any awkward silences or hushed arguing. It would be so wonderful that nothing could ruin it and our happiness would be infectious; the whole restaurant would feel it.

Food wasn’t all I thought about. During the day, especially before meals, when I got that faraway look, I was usually thinking about some kind of meal, the crinkle of a Taco Bell wrapper or the sound of my mom’s kitchen with its continuously crackling frying onions and talk radio static, but after I went home and ate and the moon began to rise over the mountains, I sat by the window and replayed my memories. Looking out my kitchen window, I watched scenes of my past stir into action. The people I had loved, and the people I thought I loved spoke to me, reminded me of things I had said and did. I talked to them. I told them of my accomplishments. I told them about what I struggled with and why, and I pleaded with them not to forget me. “I still think about you every day,” I told them. “How is it possible that you still haven’t answered my e-mail from last month? And why don’t you ever call? My mom does it all the time. It can’t be that hard.” I took relics from my suitcase and wallet and turned them over in my hands: the receipt from the last cup of coffee I bought with my parents before we said good bye in the airport, a picture of Mikey and I lying on our backs on an ice skating rink and a phone card I bought to make one last phone call from JFK. I paid twenty dollars for it and only got to use it for a few minutes before they announced our flight. I was never able to make it work in Armenia.

There was also the map. After my first year, a volunteer who was going home gifted me a huge map of the United States. I put it up in my kitchen, right next to the window. At night, when I wasn’t out walking and playing with stray dogs, I hardly left the kitchen. I smoked countless cigarettes and turned from the window to the map and back again. On the map I looked at the places I knew and the ones I didn’t. Looking down on the places I knew was like looking down on the people that lived in them. I saw past the clouds and the balmy street lights and looked into windows. I plopped down on familiar couches, went to familiar rooms, I said good night and sometimes, I even imagined tucking my friends and family in for the night, while I did so, I mumbled endearments in my quiet kitchen soaked with moon light and felt tears come to my eyes.There were times when I felt like I would never see these people again.

When I wasn’t being sensitive and lachrymose, I sought out the places on the map that looked remote and beautiful. Mobile, Alabama consistently snagged my gaze with its imagined swamps and gabled white houses slowly drawing themselves up in curtains of wisteria. I looked over the small border towns like Nogales and Brownsville and imagined Las Cruces to be all white-washed adobe rising from a plaza major. There were a few rain-shadowed and fern-covered places I sought out by the Puget Sound and my attention even walked along the banks of Lake Superior, where I imagined great birch forests running into cobalt and frost-scarred waters. I imagined the winter light, like a gleam on burnished metal spreading out over the cold waters and sinking there and then my attention would break and I’d be back in my kitchen, with the moon and the mountains before my window.

After thirty months, my plane out of Dublin dropped down over Michigan, just west of Detroit. I saw the map that had been on my kitchen wall come to life. In grey clusters, I saw the towns, Flint, Saginaw, Midland, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Grand Rapids until they were blotted out by the slate blue of Lake Michigan. My lips moved unconsciously as I passed over my home state. I mumbled like a penitent greeting everyone, knowing that this time, what I was looking down at were not lines on a map, but actual roads that led to actual homes and that the people I loved were, at that moment living down there. I was home.

Almost immediately, I began to live my fantasies. My first night back in the country, I ate two burritos one after the other. It was the only time in my life that I’ve understood the concept of spiritual hunger. After I had eaten the first, I was completely full, but something else in me cried out for another. It was nothing visceral, but rather like the result of all those dreams on all those long, dusty walks that were finally being realized. Something in me cried out for more, as something else in me began to weep. To anyone walking by, I was just another guy in the taqueria having a late dinner. Sometimes, I walk by restaurants and wonder how many people eating in there are weeping on the inside while they eat. It probably isn’t very many, but I like to imagine it is. Even the drabbest places look inviting and warm this way and I find myself wanting to sit down and eat amongst all the profoundly happy people I have populated the restaurant with.

After Chicago, I went home and ate at home for six weeks. I went for long walks and stopped off at every other convenience store, buying all the junk food I hadn’t seen in over two years, things I didn’t even like before became new obsessions of mine. One example was the ginger ale Vernor’s that had once zoomed into my recollection with startling clarity while I had been staring out the window in Armenia one night. I don’t know where it had come from, but after I remembered it, I thought about drinking Vernor’s on a daily basis until I returned to the states was finally able to go out and buy a can of it. After that first can, I must’ve bought one nearly once a week for several months. Before I had left the country, I never really even liked the stuff.

I ate and drank and talked and saw as much as I possibly could. On my way back to California, I was able to visit many of the places I had seen on the map and make them real. I walked around Mobile trying to memorize as much of it as I could so that the next time I left the country I could look at it on the map and know what I was looking it. While Mobile was almost as beautiful as I had imagined, it other places like Las Cruces were complete suburban disappointments and after I got back to California, I noticed that even the food didn’t taste as magical. I still had some great meals and ate at some fondly remembered restaurants, but there was no more internal weeping. The spiritual hunger was fulfilled and now I was only eating to satisfy my hunger. It wasn’t disappointing. You could say that everything just became normal again. And then it moved from normal to mundane and then I started looking at the map again, not the American map, but the world map. I started walking around with thoughts of Myanmar and Uruguay gradually developing in my mind like Polaroids. I gave Montevideo cobblestone streets and I started to walk them in the evenings. I heard old wooden doors squeaking open and the sibilant pronunciation of Rioplantanese Spanish. These thoughts began to carry me away. I stopped eating out so much and spent more time in front of the map. I looked out from my doorway at night, listening to the boorish yelling of drunken college students and felt bored and detached. Most of the time, I scarcely noticed the food I ate.

Just before the one-year anniversary of my return to America, I bought a one-way ticket to Argentina. I stayed there until I started to see my loved ones in the map on the wall, began staring out the window for long periods of time and imagined conversations. I knew it was over when one day I found myself fantasizing about eating at Taco Bell. At that point, my girlfriend and I decided it was time to go back home, at least until the veneer wore off again.

I know now that the veneer will wear off every time, that nothing, no matter how much it has been missed will taste amazing forever, but it’s nice to live without the creature comforts, if only to discover how much they really mean. The cycle of longing and reconciliation is something with which we all live only we have healthy or unhealthy relationships with it. When both aspects are equally enjoyable, that is a kind of peace. When denial and indulgence rank evenly how can we ever miss anything again?

One day, everyone I have ever loved will sit down in a menagerie of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and we will eat all that food they we have ever missed. This won’t be in heaven. It will be here. It will be memories.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


· The bike ride to work is much less taxing in the afternoon. The traffic has thinned out a little and there are hardly any pedestrians until I get downtown. When I come out of the Stockton tunnel, into Chinatown, I see a kid crossing in the crosswalk nearly get hit by a car turning left. When the kid sticks his middle finger right up in the window and bangs the car with his open palm I smile to myself. I drive a car for work, but I still dislike cars in the city. There are too many of them and they take too many liberties trying to nose into crosswalks between pedestrians and gunning their engines to pass bicyclists. Even drivers would agree with me. They’d be much happier if everyone else had to stop driving and they could have the streets to themselves. It’s only all the other drivers that make driving so difficult. In my case, I hardly ever notice what other drivers are doing. All of my stress comes from the shifting of precarious and delicate deli trays stacked in the back of my truck and the catering companies and my two bosses all trying to call me at the same time to ask why the order to BlogDottle or Gumfinkle is five minutes late. It is unnerving to realize that while all this is happening, I am seldom paying much attention to what the drivers around me are doing.*** It’s odd to show up for work in the middle of the day. I was going to have the day off, but my boss called around noon and asked if I’d mind coming in and doing a few deliveries. By that point, I’d already had a pretty relaxing morning off. I’d gotten my sewing done and listened to some music. Sure. What the hell? I’ll come in for a couple of deliveries.*** When I get to work, all the cooks are getting out for the day, so there’s a convivial atmosphere that’s much different than the typical morning when everyone is rushing around in circles to get all the platters made, packed and loaded into the trucks. I’ve gotten used to starting off my day like that, so the easy-going afternoon is slightly uncomfortable. I feel like I’ve just shown up to my job on my day off just to hang out. I keep listening to the conversation, but I go over to where my orders are hanging and start making mental notes of all the platters I need to get out of the refrigerator and all the hot trays in the oven. The conversations taper off and I get down to packing everything up.*** It’s a grey, humid and boring afternoon and loading the truck, I feel like I’m standing in a high school parking lot after all my friends have gone home. I’ve got four orders, but none of them are very big. The truck is loaded and just as I’m about to pull out, my boss comes out and tells me I’m going to need ice for the drinks I’ve packed. She walks back inside and I sigh. 28 cans of soda are awkward and heavy enough to carry without the added chunky weight of three pounds of melting ice. The bags are not waterproof. As I load the ice, I know it’s going to be sloshing around in my shoes before the afternoon is over.*** The first two deliveries are between 5 and 5:30. Normally, this sort of thing isn’t a problem. You do the first at 5 there’s usually enough time to do the second one just before 5:30. Of course, the receptionist for the first company is going to say “Wow. You’re really early,” and the second company will be calling your boss by 5:20 wondering where the food is. These particular two deliveries were spaced a little further apart than I would’ve liked. One was in a neighborhood where I could easily double park for a minute, but the second was downtown and between 4and 6 in the afternoon there is nowhere to park down there. All the street parking breaks down into extra lanes. Trying to park down there in the late afternoon is like trying to park in the middle of the damn highway.*** I do my first delivery to a little art gallery with no problem. The woman hovers a bit when I’m trying to unpack everything, but it’s only because she’s excited about the food. It so much nicer to have someone hovering because they’re excited about what you’re bringing them than to have someone hovering and trying to take things out of your hands because they don’t think you’re moving fast enough.*** I make it downtown with almost ten minutes to spare. No problem. This should give me enough time to park a few blocks away and hoof it over there. I weave around looking for a spot for a while. Everything in the area is no parking. The few places the do permit parking are completely taken up in this area between Chinatown and Union Sq. I get a block over from the place on a narrow street in Chinatown and decide I’m just going to have to risk it, knowing that I’m almost certain to get a ticket if I leave the car here, but there’s no time. It’s a minute to 5:30. I park the car, jump out and run around to the open the trunk.*** I’m getting everything out, the bag with the platters and the hotbag, when I notice there’s water all over the place. All 28 cans of soda are sitting in a soaking wet bag in a pool of water. I ponder the heavy bag for a minute and think ‘no, this is stupid. I’m not going to park here, get a ticket and schlep this stuff down two crowded city blocks. I’ll find a parking spot. I’m sure whoever ordered the food will understand if it’s a minute late.’*** I put everything back into the trunk and call the number on the order just to cover my bases. There’s no answer. I leave a message explaining the situation and relax a little. If this person was desperate for this food they would’ve answered the phone right away. The meeting’s probably not for another hour anyway. I jump back in the car and nose back into the crowded streets. Things should be OK, but I’ve begun to sweat more and I can’t tell if it’s from the humidity or if I’m getting nervous.*** Eight minutes later and there’s still no place to park. No one from the office that ordered the food has called. This has happened before, so many times in fact that I’m suspicious. Far too often, I’ve called whoever ordered the food and left a message only to have one of my bosses call me a few minutes later telling me that these people are calling the restaurant wondering what the hell happened to the food. Invariably, when I show up with the food (usually only a minute or two later), these people tell me, with a shrug, that they never got my message. It’s always hard for me not to say, “Huh, that’s interesting, because the voice mail message was in your voice and it said your name. I also used the number that you gave us to get a hold of you.” I usually just shrug back at them when they tell me this and set the food up without a word.*** While still circling the block, I call the office again. A girl answers this time. She tells me that she never got the message. I tell her that their building has no loading dock and there’s almost no street parking right now, making it extremely difficult to find a spot nearby. I can hear the anxiety rising in her voice, asking me how much longer it’s going to be. I’m driving through heavy traffic while having this conversation, looking for a parking spot and I’ve also got to pee. “Is your meeting starting right now?” I suddenly ask, knowing why this girl can’t appreciate my situation. She’s an event coordinator or something like that. Her job is to make sure the food’s set up and ready to go by the time the meeting has started. Of course, you’d think if it was such a big concern she would’ve answered her phone or at least checked her voice mail.*** “Alight,” I say, not seeing any alternative. “I’m just going to have to double park outside.” “Ok,” she says, mollified. “I’m already waiting in the lobby.”*** I pull in front of the building. It’s a big skyscraper downtown. The traffic seethes around me. I put my hazards on, put the truck in park and jump out into the humid evening. Horns blare, taxis shoot around me, but I ignore it all; I’m much too worried about getting a ticket to care about hemorrhoidal taxi drivers. After I shoulder the dripping bag with the 28 sodas, I glance down the street making sure there aren’t any traffic cops nearby and run up the stairs and into the building.*** The event coordinator is helpful. She seems to understand that I’m doing her a favor and although she doesn’t rush, she moves somewhat quickly and she helps me unpack everything once we get up to the 28th floor. I try to be as courteous as possible, but I know I’m going to get a ticket. Damn 28th floor, damn 5 o’clock delivery on the other side of town, damn people and their damn cars. It’s all I can do not to swear under my breath. She signs my papers, I ask if there were any questions in a way I hope subtly expresses that I hope there aren’t and I dash back out to the elevators.*** There was a very brief interlude here, in an otherwise hectic night. When I got back onto the elevator, there was a girl, about my age, wearing casual clothes standing in front and facing the doors. I felt a need to explain to her why I was repeatedly jabbing the door close button after lunging into the elevator like a madman. ”Sorry, I’m double parked outside.” I said to her back. Somehow the stress has made me feel more garrulous. The girl turned and told me that she hoped I hadn’t gotten a ticket and asked me how long I’d been up there. I told her it’d only been a few minutes. “You’re probably fine,” she said. For a moment, standing there and not moving, I was inclined to believe her. What good would it do to think about the situation any other way? As long as I was in the elevator, I might as well let things be fine. But just as soon as I really began to believe this the elevator reached the ground and my panic flared up again.*** I push myself through the widening gap and yell out “have a nice night,” while bolting for the door. The marble stairs are wet but I jump down them anyway, hoping I won’t slip. The truck is still in the street but there’s a tow truck backing up to it. “Oh, God!” I nearly yell and bound over the last set of stairs, almost colliding with some businessman.*** There’s a ticket on the windshield but luckily the tow truck hasn’t actually hooked the chains up yet. Like I’m making a getaway from the cops, I open the door, grab the ticket off the windshield and throw myself into the car all in own movement and then turn the key and blast the accelerator. “I knew I was going to get a fucking ticket!” I repeat as I shoot up the hill, oblivious to where I’m going or even what I’m doing. I try to feel grateful for not getting towed. If I had decided to pee, which I still desperately have to do, while I was in the building, I would’ve come out to find the truck gone and my next two orders, each worth a couple hundred dollars, hopelessly impounded.*** My next order isn’t for half an hour, just a little after six. ‘An optimal delivery time,’ I think to myself, when there’s actually some place to park downtown. I stop the car on the way into North Beach by the Powell street cable car tracks, get out, light a cigarette and get out my phone to call my boss. I want him to hear the story right after things had happened. I need to explain everything to him while it’s still fresh in my mind. If I wait for tomorrow before explaining, it would look like I wasn’t really even concerned. I want him to understand that I care about his business and that I’m not out to break them with tickets, just parking where ever the hell I felt like it. I open the phone, bring up his number, but instead of calling him I stand there smoking a few more minutes. When I feel less angry, I hit the talk button.*** I feel better when I hang up the phone. It was a lose/lose situation. The food was either going to be late or I was going to get a ticket. I made a decision. There wasn’t much else I could do. The boss seemed to understand this and knowing that he understood it, I felt better. Still, I call Gina, just to make sure of my relief.*** After I tell the story again to Gina, replete with agonizing, swearing and gnashing of teeth, I feel even better. I still have to pee, but I don’t feel so strung out. I have two more deliveries, street parking is open. I’ll be finished in an hour.*** There’s a parking spot open right in front of my next delivery address. I pull in and, since I’ve still got twenty minutes, take out my book. Sometimes, it’s hard to read sitting in a car in a crowded place. People keep walking by, coming right up alongside your window and catching your eye. There’s too much movement around you to not be distracting. But, right now, it’s not bothering me at all. I put my head down and read. The only distraction results from the need to pee, which makes me sorta’ shift my weight from leg to leg, uncomfortably in my seat. When I go in to do the order, I’ll see if they have a bathroom I can use. *** The cut-off time for the last order is 6:45 and I can’t bring this one in until 6:20. The last delivery isn’t so far away so I don’t think I’ll be too rushed. Still, I decide it would be best to go in a couple of minutes early. It’s about 6:14.*** I put my book down and jump out to start getting everything together. I’ve got my invoice in my hand. “OK, there’s two platters and then I need a…Oh, God! Oh, God you’ve got to be kidding me! SHIT! SHIIIIIIIT!” In my truck where there should be a hot bag with two pans there’s a lacuna coil, a black hole, nothing, only my own blatant stupidity staring me right in the face.*** I call the company that I’m supposed to be delivering food to right now. “Uh, hello, I’m the delivery driver. I’ve, uh, I’ve got to go pick something up. I’ll just be a minute or two late. Ok, yup. See you then.” I jump in the car and fly back to the last delivery. Repeating “please don’t let them have eaten the food. Please!”*** It happens to everyone, when you’re stressed and trying to rush through something, you make idiotic mistakes. If I had been parked legally on that last delivery, I would’ve had plenty of time to just double check that everything was delivered and that nothing was there that shouldn’t be. I would’ve noticed that they didn’t even have any hot pans on their order and I could’ve apologized for bringing them up there and then cracked some joke about how the smell was free or some crap like that. As it was, I had delivered the wrong thing to the wrong building. The catering kitchen was closed for the night and the order was set to be delivered now. I had no recourse. If they accidentally delivered food had been eaten, I wouldn’t be able to recover for hours. I’d have to go in and tell them that I didn’t have their food, which seems like a really inept thing to do.*** On the way back to the last delivery, I’m calling the girl who ordered the food, the event coordinator, over and over. No answer. Is she in the meeting? Is she off work for the night? Did she turn off her phone? I keep calling and I keep getting that sunny voice mail recording. I keep thinking how the last message I left on it was never received. What’s the point of leaving a new one?*** There’s a parking spot about two blocks away. I take it and bolt from the truck. I’m not going to try to find one right in front of the place now. There’s no time. As I approach the building, I realize that I gave the invoice, with all the order information on it, to the event coordinator as a receipt. I don’t even know which floor I’m trying to get to. The security in these buildings is usually strict. I don’t think the security guard is going to believe my story. Even if he does, will he just let me into some corporate office?*** The front door is locked. The door next to it suddenly opens as a woman comes out, as soon as she’s cleared the doorframe I grab the door and run inside. Naturally, the security guard is standing right there at his granite and impersonal-looking desk. Granite is impersonal-looking as hell. Why anyone would ever want to have that stuff anywhere besides a prison cell is beyond me. “Uh, hi, I was just in here with a delivery. Well, it was about 45 minutes ago. There was a blond girl named, uh, Lisa, I think, that brought me upstairs. I have to go back there and get something. Which floor? Um, it was twenty-something. Twenty-two?” The guard tells me that there’s nothing on the twenty second floor. “I don’t remember exactly which floor.” I try to explain. “I was in a hurry and she escorted me up there. Is there a directory I can see? I’d remember the name of the place if I saw it.” The guard looks like a tough bastard but he’s nice and obliging. He must be able to see the desperation on my face. There’s no directory, but he takes me over to the mailbox and shows me the names of all the businesses above the nineteenth floor. Every name sounds like a spoof of the one that preceded it. I do so many deliveries to so many -techs and -groups and LLCs and LTDs; I have no idea which one I was just at. But then, he mentions a name, slightly different than the others. “Yeah, that’s it!” He pauses a moment; I worry he’s not going to let me in. After all, I’ve got no credentials and my story really doesn’t sound very important. I don’t even work for the company.*** I’m lucky I’m not in another building. Anywhere else and they probably would’ve told me to get someone to escort me, or at least give them the name of someone who works there, something more than ‘blond girl.’ But this guy is nice. He lets me go up.*** The entire elevator ride, I’m mumbling to myself. “They’ve eaten all the food. God, I hope they haven’t opened it. If they did open it, what the hell am I gonna’ do?” I sound like a lunatic. When the elevator beeps at the 28th floor, I get off and walk quickly into the office. There’s no one there, no one at the front desk, no one in the halls. The place is empty. It’s dark. I walk down the corridor I rushed down about half an hour ago to set up the food. There’s a light on at the end, it shines from the other side of a closed oak door with smoky glass panels. From the other side, there issues a constant stream of talk. Talk that one person is doing, a banal and instructive sort of talk that hums on from the other side of the door without pause. It must be the meeting.*** I hover at the edge of the door for a while, but there’s nothing for me to do other than barge into the place. I didn’t come all the way up here to turn around without even checking to see what happened to the food. The talking seems to have dropped a few octaves as I ease open the door. The speaker, sensing he is going to be interrupted, waits for the interruption. I try to see if I can tell if the food has been disturbed from where I am standing in the open door, but it is impossible to tell, besides, I look ridiculous. I’m all sweaty and wearing very average clothes just standing in the doorway. These people were not here when I delivered the food. I don’t think any of them have any idea who this strange man is who is suddenly hovering at the edge of their meeting. Glances of various kinds are thrown my way, some of them curious, some of them angry or even fearful. I assume a harmless stature and quickly skulk to the counter where I left the food. To do so, I have to brush past the speaker because the food is right behind him. It would be too merciful for the food to be at the back of the room. It must be right behind the speaker, so when the absent-minded delivery boy comes back in he must make an obvious spectacle of himself. Most of the people at the meeting, however, don’t even know that I’m the delivery boy, but years of training have taught them to wait until absolutely certain before raising a complaint. I edge the rest of my way around the suited speaker. He loses track of what he’s talking about—confused by this guy kinda’ sneaking behind him, but he doesn’t say anything either, probably been practicing his speech for a while and I’ve gotten him distracted.*** When I get over to the counter and can actually see down into the pans I realize, to my absolute horror that everything has been opened and sampled. I look at the two platters that should be being delivered to another place right now. They’re partly open with spoons sticking out of them. I consider taking them anyway, but there’s rice grains all over and everything. I’d feel like I was stealing someone’s meal from their greasy kitchen table if I took this.*** I get out by the elevators and all I can think is ‘what the hell am I going to do?’ I decide I’m just going to have to admit to my stupidity and call the company and tell them I delivered half of their order to the wrong place and that someone else ate it. Either that or I’m going to have to call my boss again and tell him what’s gone wrong now. Not only did I get a ticket, now I’ve ruined an order. I’m standing by the elevators thinking these things and wringing my hands in abject grief when I start to consider maybe just taking the damn food. It really didn’t look that bad after all. It could probably still be salvaged if I smoothed things out a little. It’s not like anyone was eating out of these platters with their hands or anything. No one touched the food and really there wasn’t that much missing. Before I could change my mind again, I run back into the meeting, this time quickly and purposely brushing past the speaker. I don’t even look around. Upon this second interruption everyone in the meeting is becoming more agitated, like they’re beginning to get worried this strange and manic guy is going to be sweatily barging in here and checking the food on the counter every few minutes until the meeting is over.*** After I grabbed the trays and walked out the door, a woman got up from her seat, to follow me into the hallway and ask if everything was OK. God, I must look like a maniac. They probably think I’m just some guy trying to steal their food. I hold up the trays I’m carrying (as if they weren’t obvious enough) and roundly declare ‘these got delivered to the wrong place.’ Before she has any time to respond, I whirl around and bolt back to the elevators. *** I pick up my ID at the desk and profusely thank the security guard. He’s so relaxed. I wonder for a moment how a guy like him would handle a problem like this, as I sprint back to the car with a tray in each hand and people staring at me like they think the food I’ve got might be for them.*** Back at the car, I pull the tailgate down and quickly shift the contents of the platters around. They look fine, hardly anything was taken out. The food was just a part of the meeting. No one was expected to really eat much of it. They probably only had a few minutes before the meeting started to grab anything. The only problem was that the stuff is obviously cold. It’s been out and open for almost an hour with the lids open. Other than that, it looks fine, better than some other platters I’ve delivered after the contents have shifted a little. I slam the tailgate, jump into the truck and I’m just about to drive away when I remember that the fourth order is almost late now. I grab the order sheet and call the guy.*** “Hello, sir? I just wanted to let you know I may be about five minutes late with your delivery.” It’s seldom that anyone balks at this line. People almost always tell you it’s not a big deal, but the guy I’ve got on the phone isn’t like everyone else. “Five minutes, huh? OK. You know how to get here so you can just come right on up on your own?” I glance at my order sheet and read the directions printed there to reassure him in my ability to deliver his food directly to his mouth if necessary. “OK,” he says. “I’ll see you soon.” I hang up the phone and drive like a maniac back across downtown. I’ve still got to pee like crazy. It’s so bad my legs won’t stop bouncing around all over the place. I feel like a little kid on a roadtrip, all anxious from sweaty with the need to pee.*** I find a spot about two blocks away, grab the food and race to the building. The bags are swinging in my hands and everyone I pass must think I’m either a really careless or a really late delivery boy. I manage the heavy door with the tight pneumatic hinge that tries to close on me. The elevator just about kills me. It’s one of those really old ones that takes about five minutes for each floor. I impatiently tap my foot, as if it would make any difference to the elevator while it gradually ascends the building.*** I jump out at my floor and try to look composed going into the office. Luckily, it’s one of those very laissez faire places. Some of the places I deliver to (like the last one) have always got a nervous event coordinator standing in the doorway, blocking your arrival and trying to take the bags of food from your hands, while in some others, it seems like no one is even planning on eating what you’ve delivered. I’ve done lots of deliveries without ever talking to any of the people perched in front of their computers all around me. This was just such a place.*** While I’m setting up, it almost feels as if nothing went wrong, I lost some food, but I was able to recover it. I’d gotten a ticket, but it wasn’t entirely my fault. Things don’t work out all the time, but I was glad I’d been able to salvage the food. After I set everything down and label it, I start pulling off the lids, as I do so, I hear a slight scuffling sound behind me. I turn around and there’s a few tech guys standing there with their plates in their hands already. “Sorry guys, give me one second here. It’s been kind of a long night.” I tell them. When I pull the last lid off I call out bon appetit from the door way, already on my way down the stairs.I wish the food wasn’t kind of cold. I feel slightly bad for those guys and there paper plates held at chest level.*** On the second floor, I see an open men’s room. I’m already late, but I’ve had to pee all night. At least I’ve got all the food for this order. I go into the bathroom and while I’m going my phone rings. I don’t recognize the number. I’m pretty sure it’s the guy who’s waiting for his order. With one hand, I open my phone.*** “Hello? Yes, sir, I’m actually right outside the building. Be up in one second.” I hang up the phone with one hand, flush the toilet with the other and rush back out into the night.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Last Time I Was Here, They Overthrew the President.

We got back from our roadtrip in the early evening. We came into our apartment and it had that sealed up smell that living places do when they’ve been left shut up for a while. It smelled like orange peels and some kind of wax. I couldn’t tell if this was how we had made it smell or if that was the way the room smelled without our interference. I opened the windows and we started to put everything away. It didn’t take long because we didn’t take much with us, just two bags really. We had cleaned out the car at our last stop at Gina’s parents’ in Arcata. There was still some firewood in the back seat. I must’ve gotten that stuff back in Montana. These split logs, I had taken them through 5 states without even meaning to, really. I left them for Gina’s dad in the garage. Intrepid, traveling logs. After dumping our bags out and wadding our clothes back into the closet, I ordered a pizza. There was no food in the house and the smell and warmth of a hot delivered pizza would make the place feel more like home again. After the noise of the wind cutting past the car on the highway for two weeks, it seemed really quiet in the apartment. I could think of nothing to say. While eating the pizza, we decided to watch something on the computer. Since I don’t know anything about TV we just watch Pete and Pete because that’s the last thing I remember liking. It’s never until I start watching an episode of this show that I remember I’ve seen them all fifteen years ago. I know how they’re going to end. So does Gina. She falls asleep before the first one ends and I stay up and watch three more. I knew how they all ended. We had the next day off. I had to take the car back, but it wouldn’t be too difficult. One last ride even if I wasn’t going anywhere. The weather was nice and the XM radio was finally playing something agreeable. I drove across the Bay Bridge. It smelled like fog and exhaust on the under deck, but the air was clear. It was disorientating to smell something and not see any trace of it. The only time that ever happens is when you can smell snow before it falls. It’s dark outside and all the lights are on inside. You can’t see anything but something pulls your attention away from the TV or the kitchen table, a wet and empty smell, like what I imagine space smells like. Snow? Outside its cold, cold enough to snow, but there’s nothing on the ground and the night is clear. The first snow that sticks always waits until you’re not watching. I exit from the invisible fog of the Bay Bridge, drop the car back off at the Oakland airport and begin the convoluted process of taking a bunch of shuttles around the airport complex, each one of them crossing the area that I drove through to drop the car off. By the time I get to the BART station, I’ve crossed the same intersection 4 times. But I’ve got the ghost story I brought with me on vacation and never opened. It’s engaging and it’s nice being on the bus. It’s nice not driving and sitting in the back. It’s like being a kid. When I found out I was going to Armenia, I was standing outside my apartment on Mack St. in Arcata. There was a redwood right in front of the living room window. The letter announcing which country I had been matched with had been sent to my parents’ house. My mom called and I stepped outside to talk to her. It was cold, February. It smelled like snow. I lit a cigarette. “It says Armenia.” My mom informed me, hesitant, not sure how I’d take the news. “Armenia, or Albania?” I asked, wanting to be sure before I went to the library and checked out everything they had. “Armenia. It says Armenia.” I had no associations for Armenia. The name meant nothing to me. I knew it belonged to a country in the Caucasus, part of the CIS, but my imagination had no fodder, Khrushchev houses were about all I could imagine. Maybe goats, maybe mountains. It took me a day to see the goats and mountains; I spent the rest of my time there trying to look beyond them. “Asuncion, it says Asuncion.” I told Gina after I had gotten the e-mail matching me to a program for the English Language Fellowship. “It’s in Paraguay. I’ve been there before,” I continued, “it’s not really that interesting.” I thought back to the border-crossing, the trash in the highway median, a McDonalds and a bunch of green sodas in the supermarket with gurana in them. “From what I remember, it was kind of like Argentina.” I put my head down, mentally comparing the Argentina I knew with all the places that I could’ve gone, tropical places, exotic places in parts of the world I had never seen, but Paraguay? Damn, it would be just like turning around and going back to Argentina. I remembered Gina and me sitting on a bus driving out of Buenos Aires. “Do you think we’ll ever come back here?” She had asked me. I took one last look at the place, at the parillas, the cartoneros, and the boliches. “No,” I said and shook my head. “No, I can’t see why we would.” I had meant it and here on the screen: Paraguay. “Wait,” Gina breaks my depressing chain of thought, “wasn’t Paraguay the place you were really excited to see when you went there on tour?” “Yeah, it is a really interesting place. I mean, it’s really overlooked. There’s hardly any tourism there,” I replied, remembering how I had been excited to go there back when I was traveling for work back in Argentina. “You were only there for a night, right?” Gina says, sounding as if Paraguay interests her much more than it does me. “Yeah, it was an interesting place. There were lots of illegal wires strung up downtown. It looked more like Georgia than Argentina, but I’m sure they’ve got Fernet and bidets there. You know a lot of the same things.” “I thought you liked Fernet and bidets? After we left you were constantly complaining about how uncivilized the rest of the world is because it’s not equipped with bidets and you pay ridiculously high prices for Fernet here, I mean back in San Francisco.” Gina corrected remembering we were still in Oregon. We talked about the Paraguayan possibility for the rest of the evening. The more we talked, the more interested I became. Before we went to sleep, I was talking to Gina about the place like I was trying to convince her it was the best place on earth. She switched her tact and tried to calm me down. Reminding me that we hadn’t actually gotten the position yet. I shouldn’t get too excited and start assuming that we were definitely going to Paraguay. I still had to have another interview. Before I went back to work, I had a phone interview with the US Embassy in Asuncion, Paraguay. They called me at 8:30 in the morning, so I did pretty well. I always have better phone conversations early in the morning. I feel more relaxed. After the interview, I had a little more coffee and then went back to work. I met Gina after work for a drink. I had stopped at the library and now had a book about Paraguay with me, with another on reserve when it came in. I talked about what I had read in the book and made all kinds of wild assumptions about the place and the job. “Just wait until you see if you’ve actually got the fellowship.” Gina cautioned while I was pointing out a passage for her to read in the book and spilling my beer all over the place in my excitement. I didn’t expect any news, but I thought I’d check my e-mail when I got home. They had sent the message 5 hours earlier, only 3 or 4 hours after my interview. I was invited to accept the position of English Language Fellow in Asuncion, Paraguay. I told Gina and she was as happy as I was. I wrote back immediately to accept the position and then we went out to have a drink. Outside, the streets were quiet. There was a wet smell in the air, but the sky was clear. Scarcely back home, we were already planning on leaving again. On the way down to the bar, we talked about Paraguay. I imagined what it would be like with no goats and no mountains.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Behind My Eyes, Beneath My Tongue, It's All Gas Station Coffee.

V. “What the hell is that?” Gina yells as we crest a hill and a form around a pair of large, bleary yellow eyes dips down, takes a few steps away and then reestablishes itself just outside our field of vision. It’s about 10:15 pm and we’ve been driving through these woods in Northern Idaho for almost half an hour. There are no camp sites, no signs, nothing, just darkness, the leaves in the wind spreading shadows before the headlights, miles of gravel road and now some kind of dark hulk with yellow eyes. We left Colorado on a rainy afternoon three days ago. After a stop to see my brother Mike one more time we drove straight up into Laramie, Wyoming and began the college-town tour that has comprised the second half of this trip, the part where I try to find a place so fitting to live that even a less-than-perfect job couldn’t disturb the happiness that would result. Outside of Laramie, it was snowing a kind of cotton fluff. There was enough of the stuff to make it really look like snow. Sitting inside the Taco Bell we watched it constantly falling for about 15 minutes. I began to wonder if it was actually going to accumulate in drifts around town. I imagined a plow truck clearing off a parking lot and kids diving in and out of massive piles of the stuff. But it stopped just after a general dusting. In some places the grass was hoary with it and the pine boughs a little heavier but generally the green of summer remained even as the skies began to darken. The wind quickly carried the fluffy seedlings out into the craggy emptiness of northern Wyoming. We watched them go from the concrete platform of Laramie where there are at least two bars on every block—-a noticeable difference from the general distribution of 3.2 alcohol content beer in Colorado and Utah. Wyoming was not concerned with limiting the people’s consumption of alcohol. We walked around Laramie for a while enjoying the American legacy of laissez faire, rugged individualism and booze. The sky began to darken. It was getting late and there was a storm moving out there somewhere. We decided to move on. We found the car where we had left it. All the accumulated dust had blown off and there were a few spatters of rain on the roof and hood. We had planned on camping outside Laramie, but with the leaden skies, the early hour and the long drive to Montana planned for the next day, we decided to drive north and see if we could find some place to camp closer to the border. At first the rain was a smeared curtain of cloud of the horizon, far off raining in the mountains, but as our road veered around and switch-backed we soon found ourselves driving right into a bruise that was dark in the middle and dirty around the edges and seemed to be spreading and distorting everything around it. It was like a reflection of a mountainscape in one of those old mercury mirrors, spotted with black where the backing has come off, distorted, stretched and pooled. I drove faster, trying to beat the storm before it hit us off. The lightening was nearly breaking up the sky above us, but there was almost no thunder to be heard. It was eerily silent. The car hummed down the road and the earth steadied itself for the coming rains. No one spoke. About 30 miles outside of Casper, we drove through a wall of water. The lights in the distance were instantly reduced to the bleary and menacing light that fulminates from the protrusions of deep sea fish. The town of Casper, flooded as it was looked like a school of Angler Fish, the lights like lures for their sharp mountain teeth.We found the cheapest place in town, settled into our beds and settled into the stuffy and fitful sleep that one finds in any motel. In the morning, we all woke up at once and hurriedly packed, anxious, now that the sun was back, to return to the road, meadow grass and gas station coffee. On the way out of town a restaurant proclaimed that patrons should ‘Enter at their own risk.’ It was an old diner, like the one in which Mikey and I had met each each, years ago and back in Michigan, the kind of place where the waitresses come by your booth and pour coffee into your cup every 3 minutes saying ‘warm up, hon?’ each time. The kind of place with ripped linoleum bathrooms and dusty carpet and sticky walls. The kind of place that still allows smoking—probably one of the last in America. Strangely, it wasn’t the actual act of smoking that appealed to me. Sure, I had a smoke with my coffee after I finished my hashbrowns and toast, but it didn’t give me the same satisfaction I had expected. I wasn’t in this place to write a paper, drink coffee and chain smoke all night. This was a stop on the road; I could’ve easily smoked in the parking lot or in the car. What satisfied me about the place was the smell and the indolence. I had forgotten the way such places smell. It is a smell that populates my childhood. A smell of March of Dimes mints, toothpicks, vinyl, grease, urinal cakes and second-hand smoke. Things that do not necessarily smell good apart, but when put together that smell takes me back to being five years-old and sitting in a Coney Island or a diner with my dad. It’s a smell that I grew up with and it’s gone now. I’ll probably never smell it again. When I went to Boise a few years ago, smoking was still permitted in bars. This is no longer the case. If the law has even penetrated Idaho, Wyoming isn't far behind. One place in Casper, strong as it may be, cannot stem the tides of popular opinion. By the afternoon, we were in Bozeman, Montana. We parked downtown next to something that looked like an old grain silo. Unanimously, we declared our heartfelt appreciation for Bozeman, her cafes, co-op groceries and her friendly people. On Mendenhall, I looked at the homes, the small painted porches, like craft sets and imagined my feet on their boards, my hands on their railings. In that quiet neighborhood, I projected myself up every walkway, onto every porch and through every screen door and then we got into the car and drove away. Outside of Helena, we pulled into the White Earth campground. After the sun went down we cooked beans, bagels and the chilis we bought in Colorado on the fire. We skipped stones into the Canyon Ferry Lake, we smoked cigarettes, drank beers, watched the sun go down and talked about these things like they were new things that each of us was finding for the first time. Look at this chalky rock, this water like midnight blue silk and those silhouette mountains. After dinner, Mikey and I stayed up talking for a while. He and I have crossed the country three times before together by car and have taken innumerable sidetrips here and there across a couple of states. We’ve never had to part midway before. I’d never had to drop him off in Missoula before, but tomorrow he’d shoulder his bag and walk off toward the train yard, back toward the highway, toward the places that transients sleep and I’d have to drive away in my rental car back home, back to my job and my apartment. But for now, we were on this beach and we had time for one more cigarette, one more beer and a little more time to talk about how many stars there must be out there..................................................................................... Gina’s awake first in the morning. It’s cold and sunny, we sit at the picnic table for a while, smelling the smoke in our clothes and trying to shake the beer out of the synapses in our minds. We go down to the river, test the water with our hands and then with our feet. The temperature somehow does not seem as important as the beauty of the water and in a few moments we’re in and gasping for air, the cold water shocking our chests into frail consumptive things that can barely hold any oxygen. From up on the bank, Mikey’s head peers groggily from the tent, and with a few moments he’s knee-deep in the water preparing for his own ablution. West of Helena on the 90 we are looking for the Bear Gulch Road exit so we can find the ghost town of Garnet. There’s something like Bear Mouth Road so we try that. Yeah, there’s a sign there. Garnet Ghost Town, it proclaims. We follow it until the pavement drops out from under us, until the gravel turns into football-sized boulders and until the rutted two-track is hanging about 200 feet above a sheer drop down into a Ponderosa Pine forest. The road climbs and climbs and narrows and begins to appear more tenuous, like something that started out serious but gradually became abstract, something like an homage to the original idea of road. I have to honk at every bend. If a car were to collide with us up here there’d be nothing to crash into but sky and eventually the trees below. Gina and I remember the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia, we talk about it. At first telling Mikey the story to calm our nerves, but as we climb higher there are too many parallels between the experiences. The yelling and the crumbled cars and trucks 100s of feet below, the coca leaves and the rockslides of the road to Rurrenabaque all come back to me as we round a corner and there, blocking our path is a white truck. We slowly negotiate the skirt of a road and each other’s vehicle. I keep telling myself that at least there are trees here. If we fell of the side, they’d stop us before we got too far. Garnet seems to get farther and farther away. The signs that proclaim its existence are like jokes. If there is anything up here, it can’t be more than a few burned-out old sheds and a log that used to be a hitching post---nothing worth coming all this way for. Then there’s a parking lot, with other cars and an RV. “An RV? How the hell did they get that thing up here?” I yell in exasperation. None of the cars in the parking lot are covered with the dust that ours is covered with. They look like they all just shot up here directly from the highway. There was clearly another way to get up to this place. After the road we had traversed, I had not expected to see many people in the ghost town. While I couldn’t say that the place was overrun with curiosity seekers, there were certainly more than a few other people standing around between the general store and the old hotel. It was difficult to experience the ghostly laughter of the past when children were running past me, laughing in the present and asking the exasperated tour director where all the ghosts were. We still managed to get ourselves wrapped up alone in some corner of an old storage room or the miners’ quarters in the hotel. We were able to get away from the pack long enough to hear the wind groan in the rafters and to be slightly startled by the sudden appearance of our reflections in a faded mirror. We took the easy way down from Garnet. It wasn’t as interesting, but I could relax and try to enjoy Mikey’s company before we got into Missoula and had to part ways with him. The end of our trip together came when we went through a small mill town about 10 miles outside Missoula. Going through the mill town we made our last road-trip observation. Here was an unfamiliar place that we would probably never return to. Many of its company-built homes were empty as was the old mill. But they had built a new one and there remained a spark of life in the place. When we drove through and commented on the place our words were not yet strangled with the portentousness of impending departure. It was like the last conversation in the car before you get to the airport. After you get to the airport, you just bumble around and hold your breath. Anything you say is entirely devoid of meaning, phatic speech. We pulled over on Main street in Missoula. Mikey got out and gradually collected his things together. Gina and I stood there silent as he collected himself into a bag, Mikey clothes, Mikey sleeping bag, Mikey beanie. We made a few quips, trying to lighten the mood, but it was 92 and humid as hell in Missoula and our friend was leaving us for an undefined period of time. There wasn’t anything to joke about. Mikey finishes packing his stuff, closes his bag and looks up. This is it. Dammit, why can’t he get on a bus? Why can’t he get dropped off somewhere to stay with someone. I don’t want to leave him in the middle of this unfamiliar city with only vague plans of egress. But we’re adults, I can only offer advice and I can’t even do that very well. “Alright, Mikey, take care of yourself. Take the bus if you need to. Be careful in those trainyards.” He smiled when I was done talking and we embraced. In putting my arms around Mikey, I remembered all the other times I had said goodbye to my friend, each time knowing it would be years before I saw him again, but we always found our way to each other. As we surely would again this time. We drove off, watching Mikey struggle to shoulder his bag. We yelled. He yelled. We honked and then we were around the corner swallowed up by our destination. The backseat felt charged with absence as we got back on the highway. Lightning struck somewhere across the pine-covered mountains. I began to feel homesick for the place in the future where we’d meet. I wanted to rush back home to San Francisco. It felt like the trip was over. All the road that was left would only eventually wend its way onto our block, to our front door. Gina drove and I slumped down in the passenger seat, staring out the window. The mood lifted a little in Coeur d’Alene. The mountains in the Idaho panhandle are some of the most gothic and spired in the country. They are like jagged children’s depictions of mountains, except much darker. We had no definite camping plans—somewhere outside Moscow, Idaho. It looked like there’d be a few places in the area, about 60 miles south of the 90. Surrounded by rolling farm country, we drove south, past the sharp peaks and their dark pine-spiked outlines. It was very dark. The highway was a small local one that was nearly devoid of traffic. Our lonely car rolled through miles of unbroken darkness, tentatively casting its headlights here and there. We only had 60 miles to go, but as it got darker and quieter it began to seem unlikely that we would find a place to camp for the night. If we were to find a state park, they’d probably be closed. If it was some BLM place we’d probably have a hell of a time trying to set up the tent in the dark in some remote clearing 100s of yards from where we had to park the car. I had a place written down in Potlatch, a town which seemed to be moving down the highway. The closer we got to it, the farther the signs proclaimed it to be. It got later and darker and we got more tired. The driving continued. A car came up behind us and tailed me without ever attempting to pass when there was plenty of room. The car’s bright lights distracted and unnerved me. I couldn’t see the driver; there was nothing but light behind me, nothing but darkness and the unknown ahead. I saw a brown forest service sign with a camping icon and decided to make a quick right to check out the spot. The tailing car had dropped back a little and I was secretly relived when he didn’t follow me into the camp ground. About ¼ mile from the road there was an information board. The first camping site in this forest was 7 miles back. OK. 7 miles is a ways back, but It looks open. Let’s check it out. The road was more like a tunnel through dense and dark forest. The bark of the trees looked shoe-polish black, the leaves more yellow than green but bright somehow even in the darkness. Heat lightening flashed in the sky, but we could only see it when we rounded a curve and looked down into miles of sky in the interstices between the trees. We were up in a mountain, we could see the faraway lights of scattered towns and then the forest would swallow us again and there’d be nothing be nothing but trees and the glint of their golden leaves in the dark. The forest road seemed to go on forever. Was there even a campground out here? In 5 miles of driving we hadn’t seen anything but one trailhead and a turnout that looked like it could accommodate a single parked car, nothing more. As we went further into the darkness, it was difficult to imagine that anything could come from such a stark place. I found myself wanting to turn back. It seemed unlikely that there would be any place to camp down this endless road. We crest a hill and arrive at the beginning of the story. The darkness, the bleary yellow eyes, the dark, hulking shapes, it’s all there waiting for us at the top of this little hill. “What the hell is that?” Gina yells. I break the car, dust flies up and we stare ahead, looking into the yellow smears of eyes that are looking back into us. I say nothing hoping that some aspect of these terrifying, unfamiliar shapes will betray something familiar to me. Nothing. I keep watching, ‘tree’ my mind suddenly associates. ‘That one partially matches the definition for tree.’ The idea that these things are yellow-eyed trees does nothing to calm me down. It upsets me even more. I continue to stare until my mind makes the leap between branches and antlers, huge antlers, but antlers. I edge the car forward to cast the light a little further. “These are moose.” At the same time that I make the mental connection, I tell Gina out loud. Slowly the car begins rolling again; the rocks and gravel crunching emptily. Seven miles down the road we come to a small turn out. There’s no sign for a campground, no evidence of one, except a truck parked here. It’s empty. I drive off the road into the clearing a little, but it’s so dark I’m afraid to go off the edge of the mountain or get stuck in something. The headlights wash over a picnic table. This must be the camping area. We get out of the car and hurriedly take the tent and the sleeping bags out. Just before we take the tent out of the bag, there’s a sound behind us, a snapping stick and something like a groan. We turn around and over by the truck there’s now a little light, like a small flashlight. It continues to shine for a moment and then goes out suddenly. I hear the groaning sound again. At once, Gina and I are up throwing our stuff into the car, struggling to our seats in the dark and making the decision to get the hell out of this place. I drive the car out of the clearing and back out on the service road, just as I’m about to drive away I notice a man over by the truck. I’m slightly afraid, but I also recognize the fact that I’m being stupid. I push the fear down, put the car in park, get out and call to the man in the dark. At first there’s no answer and then he realizes I’m talking to him. “Camping? Sure, it’s right down there. We’re over here in the picnic area. Not supposed to camp here, but it’s the best spot. Got a fire pit.” “So, we can camp down here?” I ask. “Yeah, that’s all camping over there. We drove all the way to the end of this road. This is the best camping spot.” I wonder about how desolate those other, farther camping spots must’ve been. I’ve camped quite a few places, but I’ve never felt so remote as I did out there in that Idaho forest, but in that remoteness, I slept beautifully. Before I went to sleep, still straining my ears for bears, I thought about Mikey sleeping in some train yard and wondered about the parallel nature of our adventures 300 miles apart, in the dark and listening for things that may or may not be there and then I was asleep. VI. It was the first night I slept all the way through. I woke up shortly after dawn to grey and wet weather. The inside of the tent was damp with our breath and the slightest movement sent the soft shrieks of rubbing nylon through the wet air. Every morning had been like this but this one in the mountains of Idaho was markedly different because every sound was followed by a long tumbling silence. The forest around us had taken all the little noises of the night and turned them into drifting fog. Even the crows were quiet. We drove into Moscow for breakfast and found a spacious but dim café at the center of the drizzly town. I went in to write and Gina went out to buy some stuff for lunch. Traveling does not readily permit one to pick and choose cafés. Early in the morning, no one wants to go to a place with uncomfortable chairs or a crush of people. In the drizzling pacific northwestern fog, it’s a pleasure to find the café equivalent of a roaring fireplace. The café in Moscow was such a place, so much so that it gave me a pleasant impression of the entire town; after spending a few hours in the café, everything else seemed like an extension of its hearth. Moscow is not on an interstate, so we drove through the southern part of the panhandle for a while, before crossing into Washington, dallying back into Idaho and finally firmly and resolutely turning for Walla Walla. It rained most of the morning and the temperature had dropped drastically from the 93 that it had been in Missoula not even two nights earlier. The cattle stood apoplectically in the rainy fields, the radio crackled with static but occasionally coughed out a recipe from a segment on Fresh Air that we were trying to listen to. We stopped at a public bathroom in the middle of nowhere. Someone had drawn the NY logo of the Yankees, underneath it they had written Yakima and Nez Pierce. About 30 miles after Walla Walla, we started down the Columbia River Valley and eventually came into Oregon: the last state of the trip. Old reliable Oregon, the state I feel like I’ve been to more often than California. For the last 7 years, most trips have begun or ended with this state. Instead of passing through it in a day, this time I was hoping to stop and look around a little longer. I had been looking into jobs and dreaming of quiet fog-huddled, river-banked cabins. This time I wanted to go to Oregon and envision my own home amongst the neighborhoods, cafés and used bookstores. I wanted to see if it would work. We got into Portland first, not because I have any plans of living there, but because it’s home to a large diaspora of people I grew up with. Outside of Chicago, there are no other big cities in this country where I can say there is more than one person that I knew before I was sixteen. In Portland, there are two. I also know several other people from college who live in Portland. Portland is Michigan’s capital-in-exile; there’s no way I can pass it without stopping in for a few reminiscences. Both the 84 and the 5 are backed up. Portland is such an antithetical city that I am always surprised by anything urban about it. Traffic, crowds and violence all seem strangely out of place in Portland, though they happen here at nearly the same rate as they would in any other city with a similarly-sized population. We sit in traffic and the rain drizzles down on us. I unroll the window, light my cigarette and my cigarette gets wet. I roll the window back up. Behind me someone honks their horn. We spend 20 minutes a few blocks from our exit. My friends Erik and Sara live in the northeastern part of the city. When we exit the highway, I felt relieved to see that there is nothing much on this side of town, just wide roads, train tracks and some guy walking around in a thawb. Erik and Sara take Gina and I to a karaoke bar a few blocks from where they live. The pronounced David Lynch-feel of the place suddenly skyrockets to an almost impossible degree when a frail old man in a dress stands up and sings Blue Velvet. When the male Isabella Rossellini is done, a girl gets up and does an awkward show tune I don’t recognize. Despite her lackluster performance; it’s hard to stop watching her. I’ve found that to be true of most awkward and arrhythmic experiences. Sara, who is the only one who can actually sing in the place, gets up and does a song, much to the chagrin of everyone who has to follow her. A woman does a heartfelt Just to Be the Next to Be with You and everyone sings along. Including our table because we’ve had a few drinks a piece by this time. After a few more songs, I finally find what I’ve been looking for in the book. I write my name and song title down on the piece of paper. It was tough, I had to decide between With Arms Wide Open and Higher. I waited impatiently through a few more songs and then sauntered out on the floor to sing an entire song through my teeth. Wid arm vidopehh! vidopehh! I started the song with lots of energy but after 30 seconds, I began to feel like the joke was losing its punch. I gestured more grandly and clenched my teeth harder, but somehow, like most jokes, taking it to the microphone had robbed it of its spontaneity. We stayed for a little while longer, long enough so that when we went home we bumped into each other a little and stopped to lie down in particularly soft-looking bushes.............................................................................. I woke up just after six. It was almost pitch dark in the basement where we were sleeping, but a few grey shafts of light sank to the floor. I had a slight headache, felt a little tired, but I was basically fine, despite having had nothing but beer for dinner the night before. Gina and not fared so well. Her stomach was queasy and she felt exhausted. I had other people to see and felt almost anxious about leaving the basement and getting back on the road. We got our stuff together and staggered out to the car while the rest of the house and even the neighborhood was still asleep. VII. I had let Corvallis become the center of the trip. Because I had applied to a job at Oregon State University or OSU, I had let myself get carried away with fantasies of living in this often over-looked Oregon college town. Months before I applied to OSU, I had applied to a fellowship that would take me back out of the country to teach English. When I didn’t hear anything back from the fellowship coordinators, I continued to apply for jobs. The one in Corvallis was the first of these domestic jobs that I felt excited about. The day I submitted my resume for Corvallis, I got a reply from the fellowship team informing me that I had an interview the next day. So for a while, I forgot about Corvallis and went on to thinking about the out-of-country fellowship. The interview went well and the interviewer gave me reason to hope that I’d soon be finding out where I’d be going and that, indeed, things would continue as they had years before when I’d been applying to the Peace Corps. A few days later, I did another interview for the fellowship whereupon I found out that positions were extremely limited and that I had probably significantly less than a 40% chance of actually getting matched to a program. At this point, I turned my attention back to Corvallis and OSU, or at least a domestic job.............................................................................. I was excited to see Corvallis, my imagination had built it up to almost mythic proportions. In this town of about 50,000 in the Willamette Valley, I imagined the amalgamation of all of my favorite places, Arcata, Bozeman, Tbilisi, Aleppo and others would all be evenly balanced here; Corvallis would finally be the perfect comingling of birthplace familiarity with exotic beauty. We got off the highway in Albany and drove 15 miles west toward where Corvallis was framed by fields of mint and trails that spun off into the cascades. When we breached the town, I parked the car, not wanting to cheapen my first impression with stop signs and turn signals. Once the car was stopped, I took a few tentative steps. OK, it looked somewhat ordinary, but places always seemed that way at first. At least I wasn’t getting an overwhelming bad feeling. The first few blocks were almost a mass of cafés and bars with a couple of restaurants squeezed in, all of them interesting, all of them unique. At the end of the street there was a decent-looking skatepark and beyond that the green shoots of new trees and rain-sodden grass. We walked through a residential area and found some interesting places: A pet store in someone’s house, a statue of a crocodile on stilts with a hat and a coat on, a theater that charged one price for students and another, much more expensive price, for 'students of the world' and a coffee roastery with a sign on the door that said ‘Go Away!’ After a long afternoon we sat down in a café to use the internet to search for a campground for the night. I searched listlessly. Sitting there in that twilit café, Corvallis seemed like any other college town to me. It was nice, but I don’t know what I thought was going to make it so special. I could move here and maybe even live here, buy a house here and stay for a long time, but I wasn’t ever going to be as excited about it as I has once been. In many ways, it was just another American town, with its local Thai restaurant and its national chain grocery store, its parks, trees and poured concrete sidewalks. It was pretty, but it wasn’t Walden, nor was it Shangri-La. After we found a campsite on the internet, I opened my e-mail. I didn’t expect much because I had just checked it a few days before and, generally, I don’t get many e-mails. When the page loaded, a couple new of e-mails jumped out at me right away. One was from Mikey, the other was from the fellowship program. I opened the fellowship one first. “Jonathan Maiullo, you have been matched to a program in Asuncion, Paraguay…” “Paraguay?” I mouthed silently, than I looked up at Gina and practically wailed “Paraguay! That’s just like going back to Argentina; it’s practically the same country, at least as far as the climate!” But even while I was complaining about my assignment, I felt invigorated and excited to be going somewhere new. I couldn’t believe that I had been matched to anything. The director had even written to me that she had been very impressed with my dossier. Gina and I sat in the Corvallis café talking about Paraguay for a while, with every sentence, it sounded better. The prospect of living in another country, even one I’ve already been to, excited me as it always has and by the time I got up to throw out my empty cup of coffee, I knew what I was going to do. I thought about all the places we’d been on the trip and the people we’d seen. Even if we were going to move away again, I was glad we had gone to the places we had; I was glad I had seen Corvallis and Montana and Laramie. I was glad I had met my brother in Pueblo and that I had listened to Mikey play his guitar at the edge of the Mojave desert once again. “Mikey, I almost forgot!” I tossed my cup in the trash and went back over to the computer to open Mikey’s e-mail. It was a lengthy summation of the night he spent in Missoula, ducking in and out of the train yard, hiding from searchlights, getting rained on, sleeping on benches, getting soaked by sprinklers and retiring to a 6am laundermat before finally making the decision to take a bus to Minneapolis. It was a load off my mind to read that he’d bought a bus ticket. I knew he was probably a little disappointed, but I knew his adventure would come off soon enough. As would ours and maybe the two would coincide in South America.