SF Lit Crawl '18

SF Lit Crawl '18

Me and my new friend Walter Rosenthal

Hello, friends

A Sweet Holiday Sketch

December 22, 2016

My friend the trash man wanted to know how I voted. "Guy," he called out to me in the gym. He calls me guy. He's a son of the dustbowl, child or grandchild of the original Okies. He's told me he goes back to Oklahoma, his family. He's got a weather-roughened face as if he himself made the trek, not his forebears carrying him or whoever came first bearing him shortly after. He looks the dust bowl. I know the dust bowl. I've grown up in California and like to think I can see it stamped on a face, even generations back, and am seldom wrong. I feel a closeness to those faces, too, because I grew up and went to school in Southeast L.A., when it still hadn't settled, the dust, and still swirled and hung over those small cities dotting the Southland, making up industrial Los Angeles. It reminded them of hardship and the need to work hard. Palm trees couldn't hide the truth of looming nature threatening to destroy everything.

So he confessed to me one time that, yeah, he grew up in the Bay Area, but if you went back far enough he experienced Oklahoma. "You know, that business. My family came. It was rough, guy, but that was a long time ago. We did all right."

Don't know how we got on it, history, origins, backgrounds. But I told him my story.

"Los Angeles. Mexico. A long time ago, too. We came."

"What part?"

"Shit, I don't know. Los Angeles. It was one big field."

He snorted the way he does, like, Ain't that something?, and limped along in the gym to the next exercise machine, most certainly adding, "All right, guy, you take it easy."

"I will. You, too."

I can't tell you his name, but I can call him a friend. We're simpático, simply. On the same wavelength even though we belong to different social classes, according to the sociologists or the economists or nobody but me and my own stupidity. What they get into your brain is insidious. Who even invented that name, "social class"? Ought to be shot with a powerful squirt gun loaded with a mild detergent to cleanse his dirty mind. It's more pornographic than the basest producer in lowlife cum-shot land. (Talk about boring. Just could never get into porn. Rather watch a nature show in my Tarzan outfit. All right. Time to move on.) It's abrasively divisive without consent. The lowest people on the scale aren't asked for their input, ever. Just tagged so-and-so. Such-and such. Fucked up enough to be beneath me.

"What do you do for a living?" he asked me once.

"I teach."

He stiffened a bit, sitting upright on a bench press. He figured me for a working man, too. I suppose it's because I radiate that vibe in many ways. For whatever reason, he pegged me for a tradesman, I think, an air conditioner repairman, an electrician, any profession that uses manual skill as well as mental acumen. Quick hands and a nimble mind, you know, a diligent workingman: he gave me that much credit. He had been riding the garbage trucks for all of his adult life, slinging trashcans over his back before automation eased the job a good bit, hollering at guys as they scrambled down the street, working hard, very, very hard to make a living. He had fucked up his back. He devoted most of his time in the gym to maintaining its delicate equilibrium. He is probably in his early 70's, I'm figuring, or a little older — retired, comfortable, falling apart but not broken down completely, spirited, yes, proudly alive, and humble.

"Where do you teach? At the high school?"

"No, the college."

"Oh, shit. What? I ain't even got a high school education. I dropped out in the eleventh grade. Joined the army the next year. Got to work as soon as I got out. Forty five years on the job."

"English. It's no big deal."

"Huh. Well, good for you."

"Yeah, I'm looking to get out, too. Retire."

"So soon?"

"I've had enough!" Chuckles. Work is fucking work!

Well, that's my preamble to my short and sweet sketch. Already it's about as long as I intended. And not sweet in the way I wanted, with mistletoe and holly wrapped around it, Bing Crosby in the background, the infant Jesus in a crib under the tree, a star on top of it, Santa's fat ass coming out the chimney, "Ho, ho, ho," Mrs. Claus giggling in the background, post-sleigh ride satisfied — oh, the things they do up there in the star-bright sky! — and the jingle of the reindeer outside, and fog, and Christmas lights on every third house up the street. And I wanted Happy Hanukkah signs on the Jewish-owned businesses on nearby Whittier Boulevard in East L.A., like in my childhood. And warmth, mostly warmth in my reader's chest. I still do. I want all that.

Just a minute ago, stepping outside, I breathed in deeply and advanced down the driveway. A beautiful band of orange stretched across the sky above the bay in the distance. I could make out enough of it to feel the weight of that body of water defining this area, the salty sea, the cargo ships docking and unloading in Oakland, the lit up Bay Bridge looking like a Christmas ornament all year round, the waves lapping under the Golden Gate Bridge where early this month, apparently, a gay writer from Saint Mary's College jumped to his death. I had met him when I read there a year or two ago, a nice man, a talented novelist and memoirist. Despondent since the election, the forces of evil in the air too strong for him, he took his life into his own hands before he let any wretched politician with a warped agenda come near him.

That's my take, anyway. Rest in peace, brother. Wesley Gibson. I appreciated your kindness in the short time we had together. A moment standing outside the auditorium in the comely courtyard on the elegant campus tucked away in the hills of opulent Moraga, like a bit of cultured Rome nestled amidst the rolling landscape of the empire. It's good to feel special and coddled. I grant myself this luxury of pretending the bubble called culture is real and impermeable and can be marked off by architecture and university-sanctioned events. It's not a howling world everywhere we go, right.

Wesley smoked a cigarette while I sipped a coke and steadied my nerves for my gig. Who ever knows what's storming inside a person at any given time, what furious winds are kept at bay by the oddest expedients? An unexpected conversation; an owl's hoot; an undergraduate's loud laughter — all adding to the loveliness of an evening. Who ever knows?

"Are you ready?" he asked.

"Ready as I'll be."

"Read your book. Liked it."

"Thanks. I got your latest on order."

"Is my smoke bothering you?"

"Nah, I used to smoke. I don't mind second-hand smoke at all. Kind of like it in fact."

"Looks like it's time."

"Here we go," I said.

"Nice meeting you," he said.

"Nice meeting you," I said. We had stood by a short wall in front of the lit auditorium making this small talk, which is big, big stuff in my life, at least. And we went inside and I never saw him again after the reading.

I never planned to write that. I wanted to give you that sweet sketch and no more, not an impromptu eulogy. But I couldn't help it. I think it's the catholic in me, the trained tragedian accustomed to accepting no gay event (no happy and carefree and shadowless occasion) without the solemn fact of death acknowledged, of sadness and hopelessness and the irredeemable moment played out alongside it, the celebration, the joy, the majesty of life. Well, it's all mixed up, one way or another. I can't possibly gain that innocent glory without that crown of suffering atop it, whether that crown be in the shape of dust clouds over the plains so many years ago, or the memorable eyes of a man I spoke with briefly that revealed uncommon depth and compassion. I don't think his death is a wasteful act. I don't believe his life has been lived in vain. I'm saluting it right now and drawing energy from it.

I'm saying, "Wesley, as little as I knew you, I'm going to remember you now and then when things get ugly here, assuming the worst, and do what I can to bring lightness into the world without flinching at the darkness. I've gone through a period of intense fear and marked anxiety myself, and I'm through with it, at least for now. I'm feeling strong and capable of bringing down towering bogeymen like Trump, with my sling in hand, tossed over my shoulder like The David in Florence that made my eyes water for its sublime strength and fearlessness the one time I visited Europe, feeling inspired by all that has ever moved me in the art world to use my small ammunition — words — to bring a congenital bully down. It's going to be done, I feel positively and strongly. It may take time and cost lives and minds, who knows, and Lord I hope not. But we're going to win, Wesley, you and me and the rest of us opposed to terror and fear and government by intimidation." Because, I need to add, that's what's been hinted so far, government by decree and allegiance, and no opposition brooked. No disagreement allowed without sic'ing the hounds of Breitbart upon the violators of the status quo. I don't think you imagined a threat in the air, Wesley, a Chimera concocted by the hysterical liberal media. Being a sensitive writer, you read the times correctly. Even as things seem to settle into normality, your desperation foretold a new era. I maintain hope. I do not forget your sacrifice, brother.

I am a goddamned catholic for life, sentenced to the notion of death made meaningful by my response. I am sorry if my religiousness offends anybody. It's all sacredness and holiness this time of year, and every day. I started to write a little something about a sweet encounter with a real friend of mine.

There is some Christmas music in the background, and the smell of cookies in the oven, and a Charlie Brown Christmas tree in the corner, like in graduate school, and nothing religious on display but the overt spirit in the air, surely palpable, of peace, and love, and fellowship, and calm. There is calm and quiet joyfulness in the background. That is the inaudible soundtrack to my loudly optimistic paean. What I celebrate is, well, everything worth striving for in these fractured times.

So I'll call it ultimate harmony and the grand reconciliation of opposites.

"You know, A Hope Supreme, after John Coltrane." I guess this is my stage and I get to introduce my final number any way I want. I even get to wear a tux with a green cummerbund, fully in the Christmas spirit, and not care that cummerbunds are probably so out of style the millennials are walking out in droves even though I gave them free tickets to my show, tapping away on their iPhones.

"Hey, come back," I say. Oh, shit. "All right, man, my Christmas Special, here it is. A Holiday Sketch." I disappear like a good MC should.

When I saw my friend in the gym a few days after the election, he paused in his routine at one of the weightlifting stations, facing me as he sat with his back ramrod straight and held a stack of weights over his head with the handlebar mechanism gripped tightly. "Hey, guy," he said. "Who'd you vote for?"

"You're not going to scream and yell at me if you don't like who I voted for, are you?"

"Nah, shit no. Just curious, guy."

"I voted for Clinton. You? Trump?"

"Yeah, I voted for him." He let the handlebars slide down past his shoulders to rest the weights. He looked tired, suddenly, more aged than ever, his face lined, his eyes sad, and his shoulders slumped. He looked defeated in victory.

"I gave the other guy a chance two times. This is the first time I've ever voted Republican. I've never voted anything but Democrat. Never. I'm looking for change. I don't think Obama delivered."

"He was all right. He got a lot done. Health care. Unemployment. He helped. And he didn't get us in a war with anybody we got no business fighting. It's too dangerous out there to have a fool for president."

"You think Trump's a fool?"

"We'll see. I hope not."

"Hillary is crooked."

"Some."

"I used to like Bill. Can't stand him now. Can't stand them both. Crooked. Conmen. Liars."

"They aren't perfect."

"I'll say. But I voted for Obama. Twice. Like I said. I'm a Democrat."

"Still?"

"I guess. I don't know. I voted the other way, I told you. You a Democrat? Must be."

"Nah, I'm an Independent. But my whole family is Democrat, you know, going way back. I always vote Democrat anyway. You know, working people and all. I still toe the line."

"Sheesh." He jabbed a finger at himself, sitting there sweatily in his gym clothes in the clanging gym. "Look at me. I don't have a chance to be anything but this buster anymore. I'm old. Not that I give a rat's ass about what I done or didn't do. But I want some of the guys after me to have it a little better, you know, some of the guys and gals coming up. They're all right. They need a break."

"Everybody needs a break."

"Yeah," he said, wiping his face with a small towel now. "It's just politics, man. I played my part. I voted. Let's see what happens."

"Let's hope it's good," I said.

"Yup. That's about it. Okay, guy," he said. "Go work those machines, man. Get some big muscles and shit."

"I guess," I said. "I just like to stare at the machines and psych them out."

"I do that, too," he said. "I got my groovy side."

Next time I saw him, he ran the treadmill pretty hard, pounding away on the running path of rubber loudly, huffing and puffing in a bright blue tie-dyed tee shirt with Bob Marley on the front, my Okie friend, my renegade Democrat, my fellow American. Imagine a Christmas ornament with this portrait on it. I'm in the background with my hands up. I'm smiling.

I'm saying Merry Christmas from inside that Christmas ball, looking out at you. I'm wishing you a Happy Holiday Season. I'm hanging from a high branch, ready to break and shatter me on the floor.

I don't mind. I'm dispensable. But the tree needs to keep blazing and smelling good. The star and the icicles and the ornaments need to stay in place. Beneath the sheltering boughs are presents ready to be unwrapped. Life is ready to start anew in the morning. Like when I was a kid, squirmy in my pj's with my cowlicked hair, tearing open my gifts. Outside our front window I swear one time I saw a fucking horse. In City of Commerce in Southeast L.A., on the edge of the great barrio East L.A., a horse jangled by with a fat man in a roller sled tossing out weighted fliers with a candy cane in the plastic bag announcing the city's beautification project. We were always doing shit like that, spending our excess corporate dough gained from special tax breaks to rebuild, remodel, renew City of Commerce! And hiring cheery men in plaid shirts with a prancing horse to cover our streets on Christmas morning. Shit like that. That was my childhood. I walked up to the window and stared out. I dangled a beeping laser gun at my side.

"Hey, guy!" my gym pal said. "Watch me fly, buddy! I got my strength back!" He set a new record on that treadmill. He and Bob Marley ran right at the mirrored wall ahead and stared back at me until I was caught between them, nut cases, and left me grinning as I sauntered by, shaking my head.

Go, dude, go, I said to myself. Keep running. Keep reaching. Keep believing.

Merry Christmas, friends! Happy Hanukkah! To one and all, peace and love and joy and happiness and health and wealth in just the right measure, and all the good things in life, and more.

Comments

  1. December 22, 2016 4:18 PM EST
    Thanks for this one, Steve. Needed it for this week of weeks. But I do demand proof of the tarzan costume, one day... Peace and love!
    - zac walsh
  2. December 22, 2016 5:05 PM EST
    Keep 'em coming, big guy. Another lovely read. Yup. Work is work.
    - Georgie
  3. December 22, 2016 8:32 PM EST
    Rich, Steve. I loved reading about your interactions with the old trash man and Wesley. Those little connections mean everything. It reminds me of the payoff of Carver’s “A Small Good Thing.” It reminds me of the Louis Armstrong line from “It’s A Wonderful World” — “I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
    They're really saying I love you.” That’s why “small talk” means so much. Peace, brother!
    - Jon Sindell
  4. December 23, 2016 1:17 PM EST
    Nice entry, Steve. Captures something we need this holiday season, that's for sure. Gratitude and friendship.
    - Rob Davidson
  5. December 23, 2016 10:41 PM EST
    Thanks, Steve. Liked it, as I knew I would. Wonder what the trashman will think when the guys and gals he'd like to see get a break don't, in fact, get one when Trump's incoherence makes everything go spur.
    - Jake