WHERE WE COME FROM

AUGUST 1, 2010

 

Its been a breezy week on the Island, our hometown set here on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. The summer is marching right along with the usual suspects perpetrating the usual sorts of garlanded mischief. Glads continue to erupt, pole beans are hanging down and the tomatoes are swelling in those places where sun does shine while all the corn is being harvested by the squirrels.

It was a desultory day on Park Street when the discussion in Juanita's restaurant centered on what the differences were between California and the rest of the Country. Eugene shoved Juanita's effort at Spicy Spaghetti Bake aside and ordered a wet burrito and a margarita. First, of course, they had to limit what "rest of the Country meant," for as Eugene said, you can forget places like New York which everyone admitted was too damn wacky.

"New York is provincial," said Paul, meaning Manhattan. "But they do like theatre."

Boston was full of Irish Catholics and Brahmins, which prompted little Pepito to go fetch his dictionary, and for the rest of the evening he marvelled at mental images of sari-clad bald men switching the gaunt hides of cows as they plodded along the dusty streets while intoning the universal sound of Om, all under the shadows of an immense Catholic cathedral.

It was generally agreed that, unlike people from New York or Boston, people from Chicago tended to be very polite, but then no one there at the table could recall anyone from San Francisco as being particularly polite either.

That question led by natural degrees to the problem of determining just who they knew was San Franciscan and, ergo, who was a genuine Californian. This was a problem as no one there could recall anyone living who was a San Franciscan native, although Eugene did recall the Wildenradt family who used to own the McMurray Pacific Hardware Store. He could not recall if any of them had been particularly polite, but he did recall it had been a very good hardware store. The guys in there could fix any number of exterior door locks for you. It had been across the street from the 7th Street Jail and while they fixed your door locks, you could watch the hookers being let out and have your other hardware dealt with while you waited.

Juanita set down a pitcher of margaritas and someone foolishly asked her opinion on the matter.

Juanita paused a moment, and then said vehemently, "E'stupido!" Then she walked away. This soured the mood and the conversation and so the group finished their drinks quickly before heading from there to The Old Same Place Bar.

Now, it should be mentioned a few things as to why Juanita had responded in this way. In her house on Taylor a framed steerskin of a map hung up between guitars her husband, Glenn, had played in high school while working his way as a musician to pay the bills.

Everyone knew about this hide which was an old desueno that expressly stated that Juanita and all her heirs were lawful owners of most of El Sobrante, Pinole, Richmond, El Cerrito and Albany according to all the dictates and stipulations of the Treaty of Hidalgo and subsequent agreements between the United States and Mexico as well as Alta California.

Clearly Pepito was not to be Mayor, Alcalde or owner of anything like Pinole or Richmond in the foreseeable future and so this desueno was worth no more that the rotting hide on which it had been inked, so all this discussion about who was genuine Californio and who was entitled and who was not had long since curdled her Mother's milk on the subject. Even though everyone knew about the hide, Juanita was not likely to get any benefit therefrom, so perforce was made to work a restaurant on Park Street on the Island, which had the distinction of being one of the few pieces of land for which the lawful owners had been paid.

But that is another long story.

Meanwhile the argument continued in the Old Same Place Bar, as irrelevant as such bar discussions tend to be. Naturally, things got muddy, as one would expect the deeper one dives into the little brown jug, for the Water of Life does not always run clear. It was the opinion of Jaqueline that California, or more importantly the Idea of the Golden State, was vital to preserving the vitality and health of the rest of the country, most notably Minnesota. For without California there to absorb the malcontents, misfits, purple-haired punks and rioters produced in such abundance by places like Bear Lake and Minneapolis, those people would remain there and cause all sorts of mischief. Innovation would become the order of the day on Main Street and there would be Trouble, yes, Trouble with a Capital T, right there in River City. Pretty soon Unitarians would be running amok over the Lutherans, and they would be serving bean sprouts and tofu-stuffed walleye -- total chaos would ensue in the Heartland. That's no Sha-boopie, sir.

Truth be told, California needs the Heartland desperately, for here on the edge of the continent, backs to the sea, we long for the faux memories of simple beginnings, the Big Sky and the modesty enforced by the boundless prairie with its uncompromising weather. Somewhere in the Great Midwest a woman wearing a gingham apron closes an oven door on a hot dish cassarole and unbends to brush a strand of corn-floss hair from her eyes. Out the window she can see the bare cross glittering from the steeple of the church perched above the horizon miles away. Everybody wants pristine orgins, best kept pristine by being held at arm's length.

If people were really perfectly happy living in the present, deracinated and as empty as characters in a William Gibbons novel, there would be no Sons of Knute, no DAR, no Native Sons of the Golden West.

While this discussion was going on, they were all sitting, crouching, perching to dinner at Marlene and Andre's, where Marlene had cobbled together another Bread Soup feast from scraps left from the Food Bank distribution and spring harvest from the ironmongery garden out back, and just about everybody was there.

Piedro, from East LA, Jesus, from Managua, Tipitina (Metarie, LA), Marsha (Newark, NJ), Sarah (Goleta), Xavier (San Francisco), Markus the dog (Fremont), Pedro (Martinez, CA), Occasional Quentin (Oakland), Rolf (Leipzig, DDR) Suan (Walnut Creek), Alexis (Falls Church, VA), Crackers (Pinole, CA), Mancini (Trestle Glen, CA), Sarah (Oaktown), Pahrump (Pyramid Lake, NV), Bonkers (also Newark, NJ), Wickiwup and Johnny Cash (both native Islanders), and Snuffles Johnson, the bum (can't remember), and Februs the hamster liberated from Genentech Labs in Burlingame.

Andre was from Vallejo and Marlene was from Weed, in the shadow of Mount Shasta. And they were all there for a supper in the depths of the Great Depression. Nearly everyone had lost their job or had hours cut back, but Februs -- who had been slated for vivisection as part of his employment at Genentec -- remained sanguine. Given the wretched places from which they had all come there was no going back for any of them any more than for Februs. Even for the ones who hailed from towns closer at hand; that would have meant simply shifting misery a few miles to the left or the right, and, according to all reports, there were so many just as miserable people living in those places already. Hey ho. So it goes. Everybody in the room had already seen plenty of hard times before just like these. Only difference was that a whole new crop of folks was experiencing what Occasional Quentin had started living through long, long, long ago.

So they all sat around while the fog rolled in and ate their bread soup in a dinner that couldn't be beat and lay around while Marlene picked his guitar. For it has been said and we'll say it again, no matter where you go, there you are.

In the Island-Life offices the Editor stood at the window, looking out while Denby finished up the weekly Issue, standing like some Captain at the Poop looking out over the mutinous waves with his remaining white hair flying all about his head in an aureole, although only the peaks of dark rooftops unrolled in a frothing swell of lamplights, a choppy sea of houses all the way to the tsunami of the hills shrouded now by fog. He had gotten the news recently that a man he knew named Robert, the man who owned the New Orleans-style restaurant Angelina's in Marin, had died of an heart attack earlier in the week. Seeing the man was troubled, thinking about his people suffering in these Hard Times, Denby put on the stereo a CD he had made and they listened to Jorma Kaukonen's "A Life Well Lived." As he left, the speakers started playing "Heaven on Earth," and the Editor unclenched his fists. Music has a way of doing that. It doesn't do much, but sometimes it unclenches the fist. Sometimes that is all for which one can hope.

As the notes died away, the long wail of the throughpassing train ululated across the Estuary and the choppy sea of rooftops as the locomotive wended its way from the lighthouse gantries of the Port past the dark and shuttered windows and doors of the Jack London Waterfront, heading off to parts unknown.

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