Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Night's Shadowed Dark Nothing

Caught between the umbra, penumbra and antumbra of shadow, mankind is perpetually subjected to a layered cake of night every twelve hours. The safe blue hue of television, the LED keychain batons and a simple savory bonfire: all subtle weapons to defeat the ink the sun leaves behind.
At night our vision is weakest. Yet, an average human being can see up to infinity, despite the fact that what lurks in the bush under a night sky a mere ten feet away can be rendered invisible to us by our own shortcomings.
Our eyes have a certain resolving power. If we are to see two points of a distant object, there should be some finite distance between them. If it is not so, the object for us may become blurred, pointed or may not appear to us at all.
If an object is less than 25mm before us it appears blurred. However, if an object is very far away e.g. a distant star, our eyes fail to resolve its image and it appears as a pointy object or does not appear at all.
At night the furthest objects visible to the naked eye in the western world (due to air pollution) are in the center of the Milky Way, some 30,000 light years away. On a clear night perched on the apex of the Mount Everest - more like 50 million light years.
But because we do not know if the universe is infinite or not; if it is only what we see, it is 100%. If it is infinite, we see approximately 0%.

“Let the night teach us what we are and the day what we should be,” the writer Thomas Tryon said in 1691.

Before the modern life of night vision goggles and constant streetlight, humanity was terrified and transfixed by the mystery of the pure, dark, night. The time after the sun dipped down below the horizon was the playground of criminals and demons, night terrors and moonstruck lunatics — the night was a menacing world beyond anyone’s control.
The Night was dangerous. In the mid-17th century, authorities in European towns and villages used to impose order on the nightly anarchy, with curfews and night watchmen or restrictions on weapons and disguises. 
This fear, and underlying paranoia, is still inherent to our human condition. I am a grown man of thirty-six, just under six-feet tall and two-hundred pounds strong. Yet when I haul out the compost to the garden after dinner or take a midnight smoke break stroll, I feel a heavy evil “presence” lurking, watching somewhere in the twelve acres of pitch-black farmland of my home. Is there a crazed rabid coyote studying my movements? Is there a vagrant psychopath bedding down in my old abandoned tobacco barn?

And that’s just it. Association and relationship with The Night is topographical. In the dark, men and women, from the dawn of kerosene lampposts and the gallantry of opulent chandeliers cut free of tightly-corseted social convention and acted on impulse and desire. The Night was no longer an eclipse of the mooncalf and a domain of witches, but that of simple human interaction.
Today, The Night is no more dangerous than it’s counterpart. According to the NCVS (National Crime Victimization Survey), crime happens at all hours, though particular crimes exhibit different patterns. Violent crimes occur between 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. in 52.7 percent of cases. Simple assaults occur 57.6 percent of the time during these same hours, as do 42.2 percent of aggravated assaults. Approximately two-thirds (63.2 percent) of rapes/sexual assaults occur at night. Most property crimes occur during the day, except for motor vehicle theft, which occurs 71.7 percent of the time at night.
The Night, as juxtaposed as day is unto it, is therefore celebrated on four very distinct holidays: Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve), Winter Solstice, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Each presenting a ritualistic homage to the inception of the ebony sky, each celebrating the wane of solar algidity and a wax of nocturnal zeal.
This year, we had an event for the first time since 1638. A full lunar eclipse on the cusp of winter’s solstice night. Wondered what the criminal, demons and necromancers in mid-17th century thought of the original.
Perhaps a bit of fiction from the late 20th century can summarize this strange concept of the Night's shadowed dark nothing:

G'mork: I am G'mork. And you, whoever you are, can have the honor of being my last victim.
Atreyu: I will not die easily. I am a warrior.
G'mork: Foolish boy. Don't you know anything about Fantasia? It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries.
Atreyu: But why is Fantasia dying, then?
G'mork: Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger.
Atreyu: What is the Nothing?
G'mork: It's the emptiness that's left. It's like a despair, destroying this world. And I have been trying to help it.
Atreyu: But why?
G'mork: Because people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has control has the Power.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The Day After was an American television movie that aired on November 20, 1983, on the ABC Television Network.  The film portrays a fictional nuclear war between NATO forces and the Warsaw Pact that rapidly escalates into a full scale exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, focusing on the residents of Lawrence, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri, as well as several family farms situated next to nearby nuclear missile silos.
It also affected me, and my family.  Nightmares and paranoia were it’s by-products and it’s disturbing portrayal of the effects of a nuclear holocaust still haunt me 27 years later…

I must first blame media.  Not The Media, but simply - media.  For hundreds of years man existed on the written word, music and theater.  And during the last twenty-five, man has existed on cable, computers and any one sided mirrored disc measuring exactly 4 ¾” in diameter.  All of these contemporary electronic media mediums begin their mass-market start when I began my one market start.  (Sorry mother, I did not mean to compare you to business or retail, for that matter).  
I discovered our Zenith’s remote control before my own penis.  Ironically I will blame sex secondly.  But back to the metaphor: you see, the remote control was as new to the world of technology as was my penis to my hand. 
Cable television and remote control, microwaves and microwave cookbooks, taping and then burning.  I do not know how it got to this point, and I do not know why I was such a part of it.  The Atari Generation, The Nintendo Generation.  Walkman and Discman, who am I man? The white noise of electricity was flowing through my veins, keeping me up past the witching hour.  My parents, my book and black and white TV loving parents, enraged at the revolution of their children and mad at the surge of my distraction and the origin of ADD.  They were beautiful sorry people, and third to blame for whom I am. 
I will address all three blames in due time.  After all, this is a memoir, which means I have an exorbitant amount of time to divulge all my dirty little agendas and excitable adventures.  But when I don’t write, I think.  And lately I am trying to figure out at the tender age of thirty-six (yes, I know I am still a baby to most of you, and really old to some of you), what happened in those first 10,950 days; because I feel as if I do not stop and do it now, I will be screwed for the next 10,950.  And it is much better to be screwed now, then later, when it is too late for redemption of the soul for the schemes of the heart.
Let us choose an arbitrary age of nine to begin my story.  Because day 3,285 sounds really interesting does it not? Much sexier than say, the unsightly day of 3,409 when I knocked my front tooth out on the morning of picture day or when I realized the Catholic Church was a crock of shit on day 4,912.  No no, none of that.  We will stick with ole’ trusty rusty day 3,285.  I had just turned nine and did not sleep the night before.
Yes, I am sure the fact that it was the eve of my ninth birthday, (the restless spirit of children is more pronounced in these anticipatory fervors) which would play an enormous part in any child’s restiveness.  But not with me, no no no.  It was not that simple.  I could not sleep because I had just watched the movie The Day After.  Do you remember than fine film? Where practically everyone in America gets nuked by the Russians in a rose colored drawn out last breath from the Red Scare Dragon.  It was 1983.  Reagan had never been more popular.  Michael Jackson was moonwalking on the billions made from Thriller.  And lest we forget: the conclusion of the greatest story ever told on celluloid from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, was yours for $3.00 at any movie theater.
Even with Reagan, MJ and Luke and friends protecting me from evil, the movie The Day After, needless to say, started blame #1.  For those who can barely remember or for those who have no idea what I am talking about; The Day After was a pinnacle and an achievement for the ‘made-for-TV’ genre.  First of all, it was advertised for weeks, perhaps all of summer, by ABC as a blockbuster film.  With an all-star cast of such names as Jason Robards, Jobeth Williams, John Lithgow and Steve Guttenberg …. yes, Steve Guttenberg.
 The producers were going for a Last Episode of M*A*S*H* sized audience with a relentless campaign that lasted for weeks. Instead of the concept of a bunch of nice and goofy doctors saving wounded soldiers, in was now washed up actors with panicked faces co-starring with mushroom clouds.  ‘Must see TV’ was created ten years before it was coined.

dun dunt daaa … Stressful Military Situations in the Command Center! You know the scene.  An older stuffy general is pacing back and forth, on the phone constantly, watching monitors, barking commands at younger wide-eyed military personnel, ignoring the advice of the guy with the glasses.
This sort of heightened juxtapositioning maddenly continued, through unending commercial breaks, through my baby brother Zach jumping all over the place pleasantly oblivious to the broadcast mayhem and through my nerdy friend Min Tint calling me to see if I were watching.  Of course I am watching, I AM AN AMERICAN! He is from Burma.  He liked to squirt ketchup on his deep fried chicken.
And so this is where it happened: The pace had quickened in the movie.  Which essentially meant there was less time devoted to simple family lives and more given to, dun dunt daaa …Stressful Military Situations in the Command Center! Soon the missiles flew! We were at war! Oh my God! I held on to the remote as if I could control those warheads with the sickle and hammer decal on the side.  Oh my God, the people, the people on the ground, they are so screwed! Oh my God, that could be us! My brother Ethan stopped eating popcorn and started crying.  Zach was still bouncing around with whatever three-year-olds bounce around with.  And my parents, my beautiful black and white parents, were on the couch clutching each other like they were watching the JFK assassination, LIVE!
The first nuclear bomb hit, I think it was California, and there was a tremendous flash! And the first feeling incarnated in my heart, and you are not going to believe this, or actually, you might, was this: NOT DISNEYLAND! And this was what I thought before the next scene where hundreds of thousands of millions of billions of people all over the world were incinerated, not even a trace of their carbon dust left behind.  And I stopped thinking of Disneyland, and remembered from school those poor people from Pompeii and at least when shit really hit the fan back then; your body and your beautiful fearful positions were preserved.  Preserved for the mannequin tourists who point and touch and leave no statues of themselves left behind when their shit hit the fan.  This is when I started thinking about the machine. 
A fear exploded in me like that first nuclear flash in the desert of California.  We were all screwed.  Technology had sped up and passed us.  The television and what it transmitted was a movie called The Day After.  Day after day after day I could not sleep.  For a week starting on the eve of my ninth birthday, I grew quite conscious that there was a quiet noise that I had not heard before.  A soft whirring of machines.
The jet passing overhead became a missile.  The smoke detector when the chimney backed up, the war alarm.  There was noise everywhere; the machines were crying that they had not done things first.  They were angry but patient.  After all, look how long it took for us to create them and look how long it took for them to destroy us. 
Someday, I though with a nine-year-old mind, technology and mankind would assimilate or destroy one another.  I did not know which was worse, a quick painful death, or a slow painless one.  A world free from pain is a world void of memory.
I want to remember Pompeii, I want to remember Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and I want to remember that warm night in Phoenix on the eve of my ninth birthday, where the last of my innocence was melted away in a blinding nuclear flash.  Maybe it is all about war, a constant war with machines that we just have to resign to.  Maybe this is why I’ve been angry.  Angry at the lack of privacy from them.  Their soft whining music, their clicking and crackling.  Their white noise laughter.
The day after 9/11 was the first time since before that night, the night of warheads and fear, that I could not hear their song.  The planes that day had stopped flying.  Kept the skies quiet because of two jets, the same planes that were the missiles of my childish fright, stopped by America to remind us of...the day after. 

(*ABC created 1-800 hotlines to help viewers cope with the movie's apocalyptic imagery during and after the airing of The Day After)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

APOCRYPHA X. Friendly Skies

She had that cleaned up walk of shame dive bar look.  I could smell the beer and smoke musk trapped in the tendrils of bargain-basement hairspray on that golden mane of peroxide.
And the makeup.  Bright splashes of color that resembled cheeks, eyes, and lips exploded from an ivory chalked canvas.  She was beautiful.  She had a subscription to Glamour.  And she was mine.
Her nametag read BEATRICE. Ahhh, Beatrice. Wait, Beatrice?
It was as if the little angelic wings thrust from either side of her United Airways pin flapped all the way down from heaven. (which I guess at 35,000 feet, is pretty close)
“Hi, I’m Betty! And I’ll be your ‘flight attendant’ for this ‘lil trip!” she honked in a Southern accent while clicking her cherry painted nails in the air twice as she said ‘flight attendant’.  Ahh, Beatrice, atta girl; down with political correctness.  Up with stewardessness.  She slid over a little square napkin with some indistinguishable red, white, and blue insignia upon it.
“What can I get you to drink hon?” her twanged schnauz honked.
“Bloody Mary, double please.”  I replied morosely, somewhat disappointed that my little swan donned the voice and the title of an ugly duckling.  One of her many saving graces though was her eyes.  Those sparkling green emeralds cast in a black pool of mascara and eyeliner.  Green was my favorite color as a child.
As the cheap vodka and watered down tomato juice slid down my throat I glanced out the bubble shaped window and witnessed the checkered black and white chessboard of snowplowed homes, farms, and business complexes.  I wondered how long it would take for a bomb of spit to hit one of these homes from 35,000 feet.  Checkmate.
To my left sat an elderly bald man by the name of Edward.  “You can call me Ed”, he announced as his pudgy paw shook mine.  He worked as a consultant for some yadda yadda company, and blah blah blah later I had his business card and three drinks in my polluted bloodstream.
I looked out the window again.  Like albino cotton candy, tufts of powder white clouds wisped by.  I reached out and grabbed a piece, dunked it in the last of my drink, and indulged.  Not bad.  I offered some to Ed, (he refused) and proceeded with my fourth Bloody Mary, double please.

Clouds in my coffee, clouds in my coffee” Carly Simon/Betty sang to herself as she smiled and nodded and got nervous passengers drunk.
Maybe she had a subscription to Mademoiselle as well.
While she roamed the aisles I glanced for the first time at her glorious backside.  It was the size of Texas. I wanted to be deep in the heart of Texas. Ahh, Beatrice.
“Ladies and gentlemen, just wanted to let you know that we are flying over the panhandle of Texas,” the captain suddenly blurted over the intercom.  Couldn’t be truer.
Jesus Christ! The in-flight movie was Home Alone.  Doesn’t get any more apple pie than that.  Live action cartoons bore me.  I mean, how many times can people receive blows to the head from full paint cans, ironing boards, and chandeliers without shedding some blood, or brains. 
I have a strange affinity towards this movie for I believe I lost my virginity on the day this it was released on video . . .

Summer of 1991.  My girlfriend Kristen and I had been dating for a few months.  She was crazy.  Blonde, spunky, kind of dorky, but we had this strange emotional (and physical) marriage that was impenetrable.  She loved to give head and loved the forest.  She also loved Michigan.  Couldn’t stop talking about ‘the Lakes’.
It was a week before my sixteenth birthday.  We were on a picnic in beautiful red rock and river country . . .Sedona.  Ahh, Sedona.  The one niche on earth that still holds any natural nourishment I had once adhered to, like an infant to a teat.
And as the ritualistic day came to a close, we experienced a comforting repertoire that nobody else had.
“We just fucked!” I exclaimed halfway back to our suburban shelters in Phoenix, which was soon followed by a dead-arm from my fellow deflowered co-pilot.  Along the way still buzzed, elated, confused as to whom I was as the proud new member of the sexually active human; we stopped by Blockbuster Video.
Home Alone was everywhere.  The gala release of hyper family values seemed an odd contrast to the precious and fragile experience of two virgins fornicating in the forest just hours before.
Home Alone, wasn’t that some sort of Christian movie?
The need to kneel at the front of the navy blue Formica altar in the video store was overwhelming.
Home Alone, wasn’t that some sort of kids movie?
The need to wash my hands from the iron rich copper sand of Sedona as it mixed with the primordial earthiness of vaginal essence was strong
Home Alone, wasn’t that some sort of cartoon?
And as her virginal blood melded with the soil, I felt as if right there, I became a man.
I was Macaulay Caulkin
I was home alone . . .

Ed tells me he’s much more than a yadda yadda power plant whatever.  He’s a musician.  Apparently he plays something called a phonobone, which is somewhat of a small tuba.  He’s in a thirty-piece ‘Big Band’ orchestra that has played all over the world.  He knows John Williams.  That’s probably why he’s in first class.  Wait, I’m in first class.  My father is a mailman and my mother a nurse; and me, well; I’m a poor college student.  Someone made a mistake somewhere.
Where’s Beatrice/Betty? Where’s my precious lil’ buttercup?
“You look like you could use another drink sweetie.”  She called me sweetie.
I tried to say no thanks, I believe I had seventeen already.  That’s not actually correct, it was more like five doubled, which is … math - never my strong point.
“Sure.” I slurred, she gave me a wink and sort of shook her head as the cool aunt would of after catching me finishing off my dad’s beer at a barbeque - when I was ten.
“This is gonna be your last one, okay schnook-ums.”  She called me, what did she call me? Oh yes, schnook-ums.  Who the hell came up with that one?
The old Ed-ster pulls out his wallet.  I think I already have his stupid business card that I will never use and which will only serve the purpose of bulking up my wallet to seem like I have money, or connections or better yet, a bulky wallet.
“…and this is my son Scott and my daughter Lisa …” He’s showing me his trite little K-mart family photo and I believe he’s been talking to me for several minutes since I don’t remember any sort of precursor into family or really bad family photos.  I can tell his son Scott will be bald like his father sooner before he should and Lisa will be fat, and his wife, well, there’s a reason why he hadn’t mentioned her.  And to top it all off there’s our phonoboner himself in the center of the world’s ugliest family photo ever.  He has this shit eating grin that suggests he has no idea how he got to this point in his life, but that he’s trying.  He’s our live action Homer Simpson.  And then I feel sorry for him.  And then I don’t give a fuck.  I’m drunk.  I want to fuck our lovely Beatrice; I want to hit fat bald Ed.
I want to get off this plane.
And then, as if an emergency broadcast interrupted the nation’s favorite animated sitcom, I feel a strange tomato and vodka revolution in my stomach.  They aren’t playing nice down there and I’m the bad babysitter.  I cut off Ed in the middle of whatever he’s saying and stagger past his pudgy legs knocking my tray and capsizing the last of my last bloody Mary all over him.  I don’t even think I apologized.
Turbulence knocks the plane about which doesn’t help the war in my belly.  I fall into the aisle and look up to see a small boy staring at me.  I flip him the bird and pull myself to my feet.  I guess I used someone’s head to pull myself up for now I have someone’s hairpiece clutched in my hand.  The bathroom is all I can think of.
The chime of 'fasten your seatbelts' gongs from above.  Which way is the bathroom? Oh yes, at the end of the plane.  I’m in first class, which is at the beginning of the plane.  This is the beginning of the end.  Or the end of the beginning.  Why the fuck am I in first class? Oh yes, I won a contest.  Where am I flying to? I see my fair maiden Betty off in the foggy distance.  She’s heading towards me.  Maybe she knows where the bathroom is, maybe she can save me!
I stumble down the spine of the jet, holding on to whatever I can.  Oops, sorry ma’am.  I go on.  I see her she’s holding her arms out to me.  The plane rocks, my gut twists.  I hold out my hairpiece to her.  Another jolt.  I lunge into her arms, and puke streaming rivers of Mary’s bloody battle onto her blouse.  No one wins in war.

I wake to the sound of an overhead intercom announcing flight numbers and other things I don’t care of.  My head is a hot boiled egg, my skull a mess of cracks held together by the egg’s thin membrane.  Where in the hell am I?
I sit up and realize I’m in an airport terminal.  I see people that look like my parents talking to people that look like policemen.  I’m on a bench or more like a cluster of chairs welded together.  I look down at my shirt and there is a large red bloody stain adorned like a bib on the front.  I am slowly remembering the last few moments of my lovely flight.  Shaking my head I swing my legs to the floor and feel like someone is staring at me.
“Rise and shine hun.”  A familiar voice honks to my left.  Betty!
“I, um, what, …sorry”  I sputter looking at her equally stained blouse.  No, not equally, devastatingly red splattered stained blouse.  But there seems to be some nice breasts under there.
“Don’t speak suga’” She patted the top of my cracked eggshell head.  “I got suspended cuz’ of you.  Seems I should have checked your I.D.”  She winked her patented bat.  I tore my eyes from her emeralds and looked out the window at the other aircraft being taxied by people who resembled orange cones.
Betty reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen.  It was a business card and she scribbled something on the back.  “You dropped this when you puked all over me.”  It was Ed’s (the phonobone power plant yadda yadda) business card, yet on the back now was something a little more important than on the front, Betty’s phone number. 
“Well, I gotta go home and clean up.”  She fastened close her purse, “glad I got suspended in my hometown.”  And then I realized where we were, and why I was on a plane.  I was returning home to Phoenix on break from college.
She stood up, “Give me a call sometime, except maybe instead of those fancy drinks I’m now wearing, we should stick to beer.”  She stuck a stick of gum in her mouth and smacked away grinning down at me through rose lips and piano ivory teeth.
“Thank you flying United and enjoy your time in Phoenix.” She sang in her twang and turned on a heel, shaking her Texas panhandle on down the terminal.
I looked at the card again and stuffed it in my jeans.  And then a familiar tune smoothed out the cracks in my skull.  A song sung by a woman named Carly about some clouds in her coffee.

Friday, August 6, 2010

APOCRYPHA XVIII. The Elusive Black Mussel Hunt

It was a dank wet December in the Bay Area of San Francisco.  Yet, it was also the prime harvesting season for the elusive black mussel, aka The California Mussel (Mytilus californianus).
California mussels were an important food source for the Miwok who lived on the Pacific Coast prior to European contact.  In California's San Francisco Bay Area, archaeological evidence shows that they were harvested continuously for almost 12,000 years!
And so, to carry on this ancient tradition, a quest begins of three men to perilously brave the craggy slippery granite cliffs of Pirate’s Cove, where they are exposed to the strong action of the surf and the bone-chill cold of winter mist.  In the search of these mystical beds of ebony shellfish… I was one of these unfortunate men.

Banker was emphatically waiving his arms, describing perhaps his 32nd awesome story of the day.  It was only 9:14am.  Riding shotgun in Manuel’s 1971 Dodge Van (man), he more than once knocked the rearview mirror askew, rattling the dangling trinkets Manuel had hung there while elucidating a surfing conquest, or his recent marathon in Hawaii as he turned back to me to make sure I was paying attention.
I was in the back of said van, laying on an uncomfortable arrangement of throw rugs, 2 x 4’s and extension cords.  This van was after all, property of Manuel Jimenez.  Jack-of-all-trades and owner of the sketchiest ride in the East Bay.  His two-foot Afro haloed by thick pot smoke nodded silent approval to all of Banker’s stories.
Manuel passed the joint behind him without turning his head, I took a toke or two and passed it up to Banker – one of the few times he remained quiet.  Good California marijuana in the morning.  Delicious.
Banker passed it on, Manuel cranked his ZZ Top and we rumbled north on I-580 through Richmond, soon to approach the industrial span of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.  As we slowed to pay the toll I kneeled up between Manuel and Banker to get a better view.  There were no windows in the back.  Part of the van’s sketchy charm.
“And so then, when we were hugging that bald mountain man, the wind whipping around us, I thought we were gonna fly like kites right off the face! Whoo!”  Banker went on emphatically.  Manuel grinned behind aviator shades and stashed the joint in the ashtray.  We slowed to a stop; Manuel reached out and paid the hangdog-faced tollbooth operator the $4 and we moved on. 
As I stared up through the bug-splattered windshield and past the dangling bits of whatever hanging from Manuel’s rearview mirror, I marveled at the strange roller-coaster look to the bridge, with dips and turns spanning it’s unusual length.  And then grew disappointed by the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of the low budget span of architecture, especially when compared to the engineering and historical marvels of it’s pretty cousins the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge.
I felt very stoned and over-analytical and so I lay down on my makeshift lounge.  Our destination: Pirate’s Cove, just south of Point Reyes.  Our mission: to find and extract as many black mussels as possible during low tide.  Each of us was armed with backpacks, gloves and knives.  Manuel had the pot, Banker had some rum and his stories and I had – well, I was along for the ride.
“Hey man, weren’t you born here?”  Manuel asked back to me.  I shot up scanning the horizon through the windshield.  We had left the expanse of the bridge behind us and were now driving through San Rafael, the county seat of Marin County and home to Marin General Hospital where I was born at 5:55am on July 23rd, 1974.
“Uh, yup, that’s right.”  I removed my glasses and rubbed my sleepy eyes.
“I believe Marin General is in Greenbrae, just off of 101 South, we’ll see it soon on our right.”  Banker stated while stroking his massive beard.  He was raised in the Bay Area, seemingly everywhere.  He knew every nook and cranny, every alleyway and port.  And this, The Elusive Black Mussel Hunt, was his idea.
We exited off of I-580 onto Sir Francis Drake Boulevard that hugged a small cove just south of San Quentin.  San Quentin.  An old Johnny Cash song echoed familiar…

San Quentin, you've been livin' hell to me
You've hosted me since nineteen sixty three
I've seen 'em come and go and I've seen them die
And long ago I stopped askin' why

San Quentin State Prison, where my grandfather did seven years for embezzlement in the late 60’s and into the early 70’s, before I was born.  A building that represented my birth on my right, and one that nearly took my grandfather’s life, on my left.  An odd tour of misplaced nostalgia.
We merged with traffic onto the 101 South, leaving San Quentin and my mysterious family history behind us.
“There it is, over there, see it? That big white building?”  Banker thumbed towards his window.  I craned my neck around and saw it.  My birthplace.
Apparently there was a power outage the morning of my birth. A flashing yellow light of the intersection across from the hospital and through the window of my mother’s room was used as her focal point during labor. The light went out, and I was born.
A wave of murky antiquity soaked my daydream.  I had not been back to the Bay Area since I was five years old, but for some reason, this all seemed very familiar to me.
“Welcome home buddy.” Manuel grinned and patted me on the back.  The hospital moved out of view and if there were back windows in the windowless van, I would have followed its alabaster beacon until I could no longer.
I turned to Manuel, my appreciative smile reflected back at me in his mirrored sunglasses, and nestled back into my lounge.
“I’d say we’re about 20 minutes out.”  Banker announced soon followed by a zealous rendition of, “A HUNTING WE WILL GO, A HUNTING WE WILL GO! HIGH HO A MERRY HO, A HUNTING WE WILL GO!!!”  His strong fist pumping the air, knocking the mirror’s necklace so that it swung into Manuel’s frizzy hair.
“Hey man, watch it.” Manuel lazily warned, “Got a better tune for y’all.”  And with that he turned up the tape player to that of ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man.
“’CUZ EVERY GIRL’S CRAZY ‘BOUT A SHARP DRESSED MAN!” The three of us all chimed in, heads a banging, air drums a beating, sharing a laugh as the old van rumbled and tumbled to the thin crust of golden coast.  To the edge of the world.

The three of us stood there, one thousand feet above the rotten mouth of Pirate’s Cove.  We were perched on a grassy butte, high above the sharp teeth of granite and the frothy rabid surf spewing between them.  The sight was entrancingly ominous.
Brisk, briny air whipped and swirled about and I pulled my baseball cap tight to nearly my eyebrows, then pulled the hood of my jacket over my hat, and fastened the cord tight to my throat. 
The mid-morning glare magnified by high cirrus clouds forced me to reconsider prescription sunglasses.  I pulled my hat’s brim so that it touched the top of my glasses.
Banker was stretching, Manuel was battling the wind to finish his joint, his jew-fro flapping, and I just simply marveled at the sight.  “Little help” Manuel piped out, and we instinctively huddled close together, backs facing the cliffside so that we could have one more toke before the descent.
I have to admit I was nervous and elated.  A workman, an adventurer and a writer.  A motley crew.
While our raw pink fingers passed the resined roach, we exchanged glances of giddy apprehension.  A pair of screeching seagulls darted up from beneath the cliffside, missing us by a few feet; I jumped.  We had a bit of a laugh and I sheepishly turned back to the wide expanse of the ocean. 
I peered across the wide cobalt marvel of the Pacific, my gaze dancing from one roving whitecap to another.  Absolutely amazing.  A tear made it’s way from my right eye – partially from the scenery, partially from the biting gale.
“Well, if the big one hit – this would be one hell of a front row seat!”  Banker declared, “You see, we are at the ass end of the Point Reyes Peninsula.  See the Dorito shape?”  He pointed north, a few miles past our destination.  Sure enough, we were at the south end of a massive triangle shaped geologic formation.
“The whole goddamn chunk would break off right there where the San Andreas fault is, see that line?” He pointed out like the salty dog he was, “And I do say goddamn! That would be the place to be if it all went to shit! 70,000 acres of elk, deer, pheasant, blackberry, pine nuts and mussels all to yourself!”
“The only competition you’d have is the dozen or so hikers and bikers that survived the quake.  Let’s hope a few of them would be those fine yoga-ass model type bitches from the city, right Bobley!”  And with one of his flailing paws, smacked me in the chest. 
“Ya man, the Isle de Poontang.”  Manuel stated and tucked the roach.  The three of us paused, looked at each other and erupted into wholesome belly laughter.  The kind that made snot and spit spew forth.  It took awhile before the moment was over and when it was I patted Manuel on the back I said, “Manuel, you’re a man of few words…let’s keep it that way.”
The next few minutes were spent making sure we had all our gear, fastening straps, lacing up so to speak.  And then we plunged, down, down, down through the crevasses and steep declines of what was once (according to Banker) an old elk trail.
The grasses receded to exposed rock and the further we hiked, the more slick and treacherous the terrain had become.  Banker was in the lead followed by Manuel then me.  Several times I slipped, nearly sliding into the back of Manuel.
It was mid-morning and so the early fog had lifted, and what usually replaced it was a bitter salty wind.  At times I would have to tug my baseball hat down, losing a valuable gloved hand on rock.  But this was the way it was done.  We had to descend quickly so as to beat the tide.
“We got ‘bout 10 minutes!” Banker shouted from in front.  His words caught an updraft and whipped right through me.  Ten minutes until tide was at it’s lowest.  We stepped it up a tad and made it to the bottom in just a few minutes.
The toilet-bowl shaped cove was glistening with the afterbirth of the ocean.  Barnacles, seaweed and mussels bubbled and popped on the surfaces of black granite. Immediately I thought of a beloved classic from my childhood: Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island.

Shiver My Timbers, Shiver My Soul
Yo Ho He Ho
There are men whose hearts as black as coal
And they sailed there ship across the ocean blue
A bloodthirsty captain and a cut throat crew.
It’s a darker tale as was ever told
Of a lust for treasure and a love of gold...

            Mussels were our gold. So with the spongy sand beneath our boots and the high marble-swirl of Western sky above, we took to the rocks.  Banker took me to his side and showed me how to extract the shellfish from their beds.

Nearly impossible to rip off with just the naked hand, a pair of workman’s gloves and a hunting knife made the experience rewarding and easy to learn.  Essential you slice the mussel’s byssus, also called “sea silk” (the strong filament fiber by which they attach themselves to hard surfaces), and pry off a cluster of them as you unpeel several dozen of the little ebony wonders in one go.
The three of us moved quickly and stayed within our territories.  Maneuvering around the slippery rocks did tend to present their own risks; several barnacle slices on my ankles and holes in my jeans attested to this. 
My rucksack was already half-full after about 20 minutes of work.  Banker popped in to check on my progress and offered me a swig from his rum-filled flask.  The hearty burn at 10:45am felt nice and warm atop my cereal and toast breakfast, and propelled me to work more.  Banker slapped me on the back, gave a wrinkled wink and moved on to his rock.
This was great.  Truly.
We scurried and scrambled for another hour, scraping the cold rock for shelled meat.  Our bags were visibly engorged, and once I nearly toppled head first down the side of a slimy stone due to the weight of my booty.
“Ok, let’s call it!” Banker shouted above the roar of the distant surf.
We regrouped at nearly the same sandy patch where we started and threw down our packs in front of us.
“This was a good score.” Banker whispered out loud, and I could tell he was doing some quick figures, counting fingers and then announced, “So, we each got about 40 pounds each, so that’s 120 pounds and if we sell them at five bucks a pound…that’s $600!”
“Better than a slap in the belly with a wet mallet.” Manuel said.  Banker and I exchanged whimsical glances before erupting in laughter again.
“Not bad for not even two hours work. Let’s eat!” Banker exclaimed after regaining his composure, and passed me his flask.  He hoisted all three bags over to the base of the cliff, and Manuel and I searched the cove for dry driftwood.  After ten minutes we each had a substantial pile.
Banker already had a small pit dug out filled with dried seaweed and pine cones and had circled the area with flat, rounded stones. I let my fellow hunters puff their chests and decide which was the better way to start a fire, while I wandered over to the pools and eddies of exposed sea life.
I felt calm; solace - here in the harsh beauty of erosion. The long fingers of tide were recessed, exposing dozens of craggy alcoves and anchored islands on the beach. A relatively smooth rock became my perch; and so I did. Below me at the base of the black granite was a pool teeming with bubbling life.

A starfish and some sort of hermit crab were jockeying for my attention.  Slowly moving this way and that, their movements isolated from the ocean’s guiding current. Under them, a bed of blood-red seaweed was their stage.  They danced and pranced, and tickled in the tangle and sand beneath. I was mesmerized by the minutiae intricacies of these two alien creatures.
So much so, that apparently I did not hear the resonant calls of Manuel and Banker.
“Hey, Mobley! Space case! Get some chow!” shouted Banker, the louder of the two. It was then that I realized I was really stoned, and relatively buzzed at one in the afternoon. Fortunate for the crab and starfish, for I was just going to use them as the main actors in a live puppet show.

The distant winter sun had now begun to burn off the mist, the glare held at bay by the cliffs of the crevasse. After gnawing on some beef jerky Manuel had brought, and chasing it with the flask, I was nearly ready for a nap.
But then came the mussels.
Banker had found a weathered rock with a crescent shaped basin eroded in the middle, and was using it for a steamer skillet.  About thirty or so of our little ebony shelled bounty nestled in its one-inch ewer of seawater, balanced on top of the rocks that made the fire pit’s border. Steam was slowly rising from the makeshift bed, and one by one the little mussel beaks cracked open, exposing orange-sherbet colored meat.
Occasionally Banker would give the sample platter a stir with his knife while splashing the shells with some rum, then pushing the shells that were clearly cooked off to the side of the rock to cool.
On cue, Manuel brought forth a tin plate with cut lemon wedges and a bottle of Tabasco sauce. “Dig in.” he grinned while the reflection of the fire’s flames danced across his glasses.
And so I did.
And oh my, they were amazing. Once you got past the sand.
“A little crunch for your munch, eh Mobes?” Banker bellowed and punched my shoulder. I smirked, spat out some granules, and continued on, carefully maneuvering my way through a couple more sweet and salty treats.
I slithered over to my side, manipulating the cool sand to contour to a bed and pillow. Another joint came from somewhere, some more mussels and then the flask. I was growing sleepy, and blissed. And tried to follow whatever it was that Banker was flailing on about.
I popped one more mussel, slid my rucksack under my head, and gazed into the eyes of glowing embers. Seconds later I was fast asleep, with the conflicting cacophony of Banker’s boom and the faraway whisper of lapping tide my lullaby.

I awoke to the strange cautious cawing of a seagull. A scraping, clicking sound of shell on rock. And the foamy grumble of approaching surf. There was nothing like waking on the edge of the world.
My bleary focus came to, and I found myself staring straight into the red-rimmed eyes of a seagull perched five feet from me on the rocks that served as the fire pit. The bird muttered something to itself and then returned to the pecking and the nibbling of the piles of empty mussel shells we had left strewn about.
There were hundreds of the eggplant colored husks for the gull to choose from. I sat up, removed my glasses and rubbed my eyes. The seagull gave a minor shriek, flapped its wings and hopped to some shells a little further out.
The embers of the fire still had a faint glow under the powdery white ash; I found a stick to stir them up and release some more heat to my raw fingers.
I looked out at the encroaching Pacific, which was now licking sand at about thirty feet out. The black granite rock formations that we scrambled over were now partially submerged under the breaking surf. Perched like craggy chess pieces, they stood rooted and true against the graying advance of sky and water.
I wondered where the starfish and hermit crab were.
And then I wondered where Manuel and Banker were.
I rubbed my hands together one more time and decided to stand up. The residual effects of the rum and weed however told me to wait a minute. And so I did.
I looked around the cove and could not find any trace of my companions. My rucksack sat next to me, nestled firmly in the sand, weighed down by forty pounds of black rock candy. Tied to one of the straps a piece of paper flapped in the salted gale.
My lips felt dry, my head in a swirl. I managed to slowly amble my way to the pack, the simple briny satisfaction of licking my lips held a minuscule distraction before I untied the seaweed twine from the paper:

You are impossible to wake up! We headed back to the van where more libations await you. Don’t get caught in the surf!
-B & M

At least they tried. Somewhat offended that they did not try harder however, I felt slighted, abandoned. And it was this surge, this pained realization of foreign isolation that motivated me to my feet. And thanks guys for signing the note, for if it weren’t for your sardonic monograms I would have had no idea who left it.
The seagull that had been cautiously hanging back eyeing the litter of black shells littered about, erupted in flight at my sudden rise. A high-pitched insult its parting comment.
I gave the bird the bird and pitched the note into the smoldering embers where it went up in flames in an instant. I pushed out a frustrated sigh, hoisted my burly mussel-bound bag over my muscle-bound shoulders and tightened, zipped or fastened all things that needed it.
I faced the skulking sea, gave a tip of the hat and turned my back on the cold frothing water.

Ascending the elk trial was a little tricky. With more weight and less strength, climbing the nearly ninety-degree rise proved to be a slow and steady process. My garden variety sneakers slipped in the soft sand, my hands gripped whatever rooted grass I could find. And the forty pounds of mussels weren’t getting any lighter.
I paused at some point and assessed my progress. I found myself on a small promontory that seemed to jut out over the sea. Below me, (I dared not to look) I could hear the din of the surf pounding the cliffside, roaring dangerous taunts and goading my poor climbing skills.
None of this seemed familiar. How did I get here? I did not remember seeing a fork in the trail, but then again, the sunlight was rapidly vanishing to a hazy dinge and I could have easily veered away from the main path.
The grass had been replaced by slippery shale rock, and no matter where I stepped, dislodged rubble would tumble and plummet to the depths of the dark waters below.
Despite it being a cold and clammy mid-December evening, I began to sweat profusely under my clothes. I continued on over the butte, hoping that a grassy trail would reveal itself and I could safely continue my route up and out. But the further I scraped and shuffled over the slimy rock, the more panicked I had become.
My fingers were raw; my glasses were impossibly covered in sea spray. I tried to wipe them with my shoulder, daring not to pry my hand from its nook. This proved to be a near disaster for I nearly dislodged them from my nose.
“Ahh, shit.” I muttered to myself self-defeatedly; a desperate whisper of hope carried away with the whipping wind. And then I did what every parent, scout leader or experienced climber has told me what NOT to do: I looked down.
Frozen to the black crag of rock, I dug my fingers deeper into whatever crevasse I could find. I was a scared wet bat, with a backpack tax. The mussels in my pack were now hundreds of magnets, pulling me down to their iron bedded ocean floor.
My face was pressing into the wet rock. I could smell my fear above the brined ocean air. I considered all the things I have done, and all that I wanted to do. I thought of my brothers, my mother and father and what a bad brother and son I had been.
I thought of how close I would die to the place I was born.
I thought of my grandfather smoking cigarettes and playing spades in San Quentin Prison.
I thought of how stupid this trip was and what in the hell were we gonna do with all these damned mussels!
I thought of my friends Manuel and Banker who convinced me to come along on this, “The Elusive Black Mussel Hunt!”
And then I did something that I had never done to that point, nor never have since: I screamed for help.

I felt weak. Weak in many ways, but insignificant was more like it. My “friends” were most likely sitting in the back of the van, polishing off the rum, smoking joints and most certainly not picturing me in this predicament.
My next thought was to just unstrap myself from the seafood bounty, ridding myself of the dead weight. And so I tried.
Slowly, I let go of the nook my right hand had found and was meticulously maneuvering my shoulder out of the strap when my feet slipped.
For a sickening moment I was falling in slow motion. A searing bolt of electricity went through my body. I felt body fluids jockeying for the exit doors. I tried to shout but the frog that was living in my throat for the last five minutes had apparently died too and left it’s putrid carcass to block any guttural scream that would soon be my last.
And then, from somewhere above, a giant paw grabbed my free arm and in an instant I was hoisted up by four very strong, very capable arms.
“What the hell ya doin’ out here!?” bellowed an amused Banker, owner of two of the four arms.
“Dude, you could’ve died.” Softly spoke Manuel, keeper of the other two.
Right there and then I realized what my friends had done and I gave them the most desperate, thankful embrace I have ever given. The adrenaline was wearing thin, and my knees grew weak. Holding me up and moving me away from the edge towards a patch of grass, Banker and Manuel removed the heavy sack from my shoulders and let me sit on the soft damp bed.
“Thank you.” I managed to whisper while removing my glasses for a wipe. “You guys saved my life.”
Manuel reached into his jacket, removed his flask of rum and handed it to me. “Ehh, all in a day’s work.”
Again, Banker and I looked at each other and erupted into a cacophony of guttural bellows. Manuel just shrugged and adjusted his Afro. Still chuckling, I took a big swig off the flask, and immediately I felt alive again.
I held both my hands out, which each friend grabbed for the second time, and brought me to my feet.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here.” I wearily announced, took my backpack from Banker (who gave me another of his patented backslaps) and the three of us followed the elk trail out of the mist and to the safe dry vestibule that was The Van.
 Away from the snarling rotten mouth that nearly devoured me whole. Away and far from that which was Pirate’s Cove and The Elusive Black Mussel Hunt.

Shiver my timbers, shiver my sides
Yo ho he ho
There are hungers as strong as the winds and tides
Yo ho he ho
And those buccaneers drowned there sins in rum,
The devil himself would have to call em scum!
Every man on board would have killed his mate for a bag of ginnys or a piece of eight,
a piece of eight, a piece of eight
5 6 7 8…

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

APOCRYPHA VIV. Vacationland

Today I thought of several things.  

For instance: there were blood and brains spread out on the driveway next to the art building where I work.  I had to look, I just had to.  It has been a long time since I have witnessed death, and personally I have cheated death more times than I should have, and therefore disregarded that wet and clammy spine choke that sends me to shivers and makes me laugh nervously.  

And today, a warm yummy September type one. I witnessed an armored car with an amplified grill crack and crush the skull of the bicyclist whose parents had died of AIDS - and then I thought of how sick of it all I have become.  Death has finally worn out its novelty to me.

I wish it would wash away like the chunks of skull tumbling in a pink river of blood. A rookie cop with a face of green mans the hose that sends her down the gutter.

I also thought of how I almost die every time I finish the denouement of lovemaking.  I can’t breath.  And I’m in pain and I reek.  Very deathlike.

I thought of how many grams of pus human beings must tote around in their cavernous pores.

I thought of how someone else’s anti-depressants can be fun taken with watermelon vodka and pretzels. 

And then there is Maine.

I wish that I lived in Maine, by myself, to write – chop wood – and drink scotch by the sea.  Scotch always tastes best when the salty spray of crashing waves season the glass lip and the bellow of brined surf echo my name.

Move to Maine.  Chop wood.  Fetch water.  Write books.  Drink scotch.  

This is my rĂªve de vie.  I should refrain from using italicized pretentious French quotes, but Maine is so close to Quebec, and Quebec is, well, really really far from France.  But they do speak French. Wait, sorry. OK. Right. Oui.

Move to Maine, wood, scotch, books, water, etc.  This would be my ideal way of life.  Simple, reserved, yet full of infinite possibilities.  Something so poetic, so clandestine and within five hours of my beautiful baby boy birthright, Abel.  A rundown cabin within view of the craggy shale coast and the hint of salty dog sea sweat.  

Oh yes, a dog.  Must get one of those.  Since a woman, or women, may not be part of the picture, company is a virtue.
A mangy mutt who will undoubtedly come back to the cabin with quills in his muzzle and the musk of skunk on his sodden hide.  His tongue will never know the comforts of his mouth and he will answer to Jericho.  And Jericho will outlive me.

Chopping wood is very cathartic; I highly recommend everyone try a round.  The act of making one into two, a mitosis of lumber.  It’s the act of violence that actually creates rather than destroys.  

A splinter cell.

A feeling of husbandry swells whenever I venture into “Vacationland”.  As if I am going home to a place that never was one.  Majestic Maine.  

The rain in Maine falls short and sweet.  It’s people, “Mainers”, have a familiar cousin quality.  A healthy old-fashioned  inbreeding if you will.

The lobster, the chow-dah, scallops, shrimp, clams…nuff said. 

And lighthouses. Guiding me away from mornings like these.