MR. JOHNSON'S BBQ CONTRETEMPS

February 7, 2009

It's been a quiet week on the Island, our hometown set here on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. Winter returned to the Bay area with Michelangelo clouds and sodden evenings. Everyone is staying indoors right now, even on the weekends, getting those little carpentry projects done, fixing the sink, and generally finding things to do around the house or in the garage.

We've been so busy here at Island-Life with the Elections -- some of us volunteered as pollworkers, others on campaigns -- and the post-election hoopla that we are just now getting around to the beginning of the year round up. Still need to do the Annual WTF is Island-Life issue and the Editor is about to tear out the few remaining hairs that float about his crown like a pale nimbus aureole or an experiment by some mad German scientist in static electricity.

Right sir, get right on it. Yes sir. Life in the contemporary American workplace. Gone are the times past when employee loyalty was rewarded by years of constant paycheck. Those times are gone, now sonny. You been outsourced now.

Still, from the ghostly mists that shroud the shadows of the long unemployment lines and the lines at the bread lottery of the Episcopal Church one can hear this distant, far off, haunting tune, a faint echoing of struggles past, the revenant of a spectral million voices.

"I have seen them by the watchfires of a hundred sterno camps
I have seen them by the picket lines in the evening dews and damps
I have seen the men who fought for the eight hour day
I have seen the men and women who died for equal pay
I have seen the coming of its terrible swift sword
for the Union makes Us strong . . . !"


Over at Marlene and Andre's, Marlene is resting, for once, on the the battered sofa that Mancini trades as a bed with Rolf in shifts. The head of Bonkers rests on her lap and the warm body of Johnny Cash lay on her feet -- an excellent position, as nobody could afford to turn on the heat in the house and nobody knew how to effect such a maneuver had anyone understood anything about gas and pilot lights.

Or was the central heat supposed to be steam? Nobody had ever figured that one out, having employed the disconnected corrugated radiators as tables and fishtank supports for many years now.

Mr. Howitzer had them all de-piped a while ago anyway as a water-saving measure.

Marlene was relaxing with the earphones on listening to Pavement and trying not to look at the charred remains of her erstwhile wedding dress that somebody had spiked to the wall as a sort of artwork descriptive of disaster. Maybe she had done it. She couldn't remember and did not want to anyway. That had been an evil Thanksgiving.

Andre sat on a chair strumming an outlaw love song while Tipitina and Marsha tried to keep Jose and Xavier from spoiling everything with earnest sincerity and good-intentions.

Xavier got sent away with several onions to dice up, but without any useful tool for doing so, and that is how Xavier and Jose got to mashing onions with a stick out back.

It was a jolly household there in that one bedroom cottage, built probably around 1922 for the purposes of a single family to enjoy the salt air of what had once been the beach during the summer holidays before some mayor collected tons of debris and built another beach a ways off where before there had only been bay. Then the beachside attraction park called Neptune Beach had gone belly up, leaving these isolated chalets tucked behind landfill and an artificial, stagnant lagoon, unsellable and unrentable -- as long as the Navy Base had been there for eons, with all of its colorful highlife, tattoo parlors, pool halls, nudie bars, and similar things that kids find fun to do when away from home for the first time, making the property inherited by Mr. Howitzer an unlikely piece of real estate.

Well, the Navy moved out, greed became a virtue, the nudie bars turned into tiki themed restaurants, and somewhere in the middle Marlene and Andre moved in while the local meth dealers still ran a brisk trade and the tattoo parlors still provided a valid service or two.

Times change and so does rent. As the times decay, the rent rises, and the little one bedroom household took on more and more sublets to account for increases in rent that failed to match the lack of remuneration all around, until the cheerful company now included Piedro, Jesus, Tipitina, Marsha, Xavier, and Markus the dog, Pedro, who sleeps in the closet on a cot, Occasional Quentin who occasionally sleeps underneath the coffee table, Rolf, Suan the stripper, Alexis, Mancini, Sarah (she of the Sisters of Rosetta Tharp), Pahrump (who failed to get elected to office again), and the dogs Bonkers, Wickiwup and Johnny Cash. Born and raised Californians, one and all.

This does not include Februs, the messenger hamster who sometimes fought with the cats, often winning, and the raccoons who lived underneath the remains of the front porch. Februs had the nastiest disposition of any of them. Perhaps because he had been born and raised in Vermont. He was an hamster with a chip on his shoulder.

This evening was especially compacted as, because of the rains, everybody had selected to sleep indoors, and it began to look like somebody might have to unroll a sleeping bag on the porch for lack of floorspace.

So its raining and Jose and Xavier are out mashing onions and Mr. Johnson next door, who did not approve of certain kinds of music or certain lifestyles, and who necessarily did not approve of Marlene and Andre's household, and who still believed that he had made all the Right Choices -- except for maybe a few items involving a formerly robust 401k -- was trying to get his BBQ lit in a perfect storm underneath an umbrella held by his insipid nephew, Carleton.

It seemed no matter how much lighter fluid went down there -- how much had he squirted already? -- the god damned thing would not stay lit. Blame Charley for wanted the fajitas perfectly seared. Well why don't you just use the broiler. Oh, you just don't understand. we paid all that money for mesquite charcoal and you complained then and you are complaining now. The Blathers are here tonight. And the Cribbage family. Just get over it.

Well, you get the idea. It was a family squabble involving others and that is the worst kind. One had appearances to keep up and appearances involved about ten pounds of tri-tip stacked there in a neat pool of marinade. Slowly diluting with rain drops as Mr. Johnson tried and failed to get the g--d d---d bbq flaming. And his nephew there.

Who happened to be a boy scout. Not quite Eagle, of course. Despite years of trying, he was about to be mustered out due to age, having failed to advance beyond the curiously titled rank of "Lifer".

Yes, if you had been a boy scout for ten years, and you had been made a "Lifer", your future was not assured.

Perhaps in aluminum siding, but not in higher circles.

It just so happened that our perennial scout had a lump of manganese fire starter in his pocket. Which he offered to the increasingly distraught Mr. Johnson.

Now it should be mentioned that there is a very good reason that manganese is used for emergency firestarting, as once ignited, it will burn under any conditions, including underwater, and cannot be extinguished.

Since matches had failed and bic lighters seemed unworthy, Mr. Johnson conceived of the grand idea of resolving this issue in true California style, along the lines of the Spirit of '49. Here, he planned to teach Nature a thing or two.

He went to the garage and returned with an highway flare, which ignited readily enough. This he applied to the manganese, which, sure enough, ignited right there on the Weber grill. Which, sure enough caused the fluid there to go Whoop! in a most satisfactory ball of flames.

Now for the issue of what to do with the flare, which continued to get hotter in Mr. Johnson's hand. This he set on the ashtray there on the sideboard table.

Enrapt they watched as the white heat of the inferno burnt holes in their retinas, and waited for the fire to die and the coals to take.

This did not happen.

Instead the white hot manganese burned quickly through the soft coal to the bottom of the made-in-China BBQ, where it melted the thin bottom quite through and dripped in flaming gobs of hot molten pot metal to the aluminum tray there, which, being the nature of aluminum of Chinese alloy, also caught fire. This assembly then dropped with astonishing speed to the table beneath and set that on fire as well, which process remained entirely undetected as the nephew got stirred to fetch unneeded implements by the suddenly important Mr. Johnson and said Mr. Johnson stood aside to smoke a cigarette.

The two converged as the fire engulfed the table, the awning and the BBQ unit as well as the conveniently placed bottle of lighter fluid, which went up in a really spectacular fireball that arose above the roof.

The nephew thoughtfully put the steak marinade aside as the only reasonable action to take.

As Mrs. Johnson rushed out to scream obscenities and direct the garden hose at the blaze, which succeeded in carrying rivulets of fire to various far corners of the yard, the guests looked out in wonder from the windows.

Somebody, perhaps a neighbor, called the fire department. Which, because of the budget cutbacks, and station "brownouts", was delayed.

"We'll get there, don't you worry," said the Operator. "Just hang tight for a bit."

Sensing opportunity, Johnny Cash, followed by Bonkers and Wickiwup entered the yard, each taking a tri-tip. Once satisfied, the three, being of naturally communal nature, decided to share their findings and so each brought a dripping steak back to the House of Marlene and Andre.

Marlene, having seen two dogs exit with two t-bone steaks not a two days earlier, marveled to see three dogs return with three tri-tip steaks and then return again with three more and to her astonishment, yet another three. It really was a most marvelous game of fetch for the dogs for they were lavished with praise in the kitchen with each retrieval.

That night, the household dined well on found proceeds, instead of spaghetti, while enjoying a spectacular show next door.

Andre complemented the chefs. "Eff you!" they said.

"Eff you," said Andre. And they all tucked in. With potatoes and peppers from the 99 Cent store. A feast.

Across the estuary came the wail of the through passing train as it hooted its way through the rain and night shrouded Jack London Waterfront.

That's the way it is on the Island. Have a great week.

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