AUGUST 18, 2019
LIVE LIKE A REFUGEE
Peter was talking about Zelig, the figure in the Woody Allen movie as well as the Jewish folklore. A zelig supposedly adopts any number of personality traits culled from stronger figures in his neighborhood so as to gain acceptance. This is true of highly insecure figures who might also take a gift-wrapped projection handed to him by people looking to colorize a convenient object with their own fears and fantasies.
Peter was talking to the group and Bobo sat there among them with Donald and David and Sabina and all the rest.
They called him Bobo because his real name was such a conglomerate of vowels and consonants it looked like a doctor's eyechart and nobody knew how to pronounce it.
Bobo was the new boy in town and immediately he was alternatively painted as a tough punk, an angel, a wife-beating misogynist, an heroic kind Samaritan and any number of things via the gossip mill right away within 12 hours of arriving and setting up shop as an electronics salesman. Generally speaking, this sort of thing lasts for a while and then goes away in favor of the rumor-mill glomming onto the next fresh meat that arrives, and fresh meat is always arriving. And San Francisco has a nasty Rumor Mill like no other city has ever seen.
But something was different about Bobo. Although big in electronics he never owned a television, never went to the gossip-mill centers, and generally was a social naïf who accepted all that happened to him as either bad luck or the product of generally good people being by nature generally kind. So in Bobo's case this process of projection continued for some 42 years as the members of the rumor-mill aged out and young folks took their places, inheriting the legend of a man that was supposedly chameleon-like while Bobo continued dealing in electronics, moving into personal computers and smartphones when those things became popular and going to the same deli each week for the same pound of pastrami and pound of Swiss.
It was the colorless nature of his nature that let people project any sort of idea upon the scrim of his soul.
Bobo managed to insert himself into a karass of friendly souls who had known each other since the sixties. Into this community of oddballs and geniuses he entered as a member and so learned to love each of them and they himself and nobody projected an image of devil or angel upon him, but accepted him as he was as he stood there in his socks and shoes without pretense. This membership went a long way to keeping him sane.
One day someone on the street came up and hit him in the chest to his astonishment, and so Bobo grabbed the guy before he could run away to ask the man just what the devil was going on. Largely due to these sorts of erratic events, Bobo had taken to self-defense classes, and at 6 feet 1 inch and 210 pounds, he could be a force with which to reckon and the Street had given him lots and lots of practice.
"I do this in support of the Women!" shouted the man.
"Woman?" Bobo asked, thinking it must be somebody particular he must have offended in some way. "What woman?"
"All Women!" said the man. "You terrible violent misogynist you!"
"Who the hell said this about me?"
"I heard it through the Grapevine," said the man earnestly. "Let go of my lapels! I am a defender of Womenhood!"
"Get the fuck out of here you idiot!" Bobo shouted, and because he really was not violent, he let the man go.
Another time he was in an office after making some sales deals and, seeing a woman having difficulty shelving the heavy copyroom paper he stepped in to help her load the entire pallet often did things like that.
When they were finished, the woman said, "Shi shi ni! Shi shi ni! You good man! You not so bad! Not true what they say!"
Apparently the Rumor Mill had transcended some its racial barriers and he was now a topic within the Asian community, which is a dubious recognition of the hopeful dissolving of our racial separations that so plague this country.
Another time he sat at the rail in the Starry Plough waiting for the band to start, when a guy started berating him, calling him a sissy and clod and vastly incompetent and generally making an ass of himself while proving he was inexperienced in the art of true insult. True insults that are really good dig in with reversed barbs that cause pain for quite a long time after being delivered. These were mere brickbats. Bobo had encountered both in his time and so he knew the difference between a deft swordsman and an amateur. Bobo responded to the lunatic at first with some humor, parrying the more interesting ones (simpering eunuch, lost in space peripatetic dimwit) and laughing at the usual unimaginative ones (gutless coward, scumbag).
Finally Bobo interrupted one tirade to ask just what the hell was up with this guy, and the guy promptly invited him out to the street to settle matters.
Bobo refused to take that gambit, saying all could be resolved by calmly stating what was the matter. Then take to the street if so necessary.
This confused the man, who said, "Someone said you like to fight."
"If I liked to fight we would be fighting by now as you have been acting like an asshole for the past 15 minutes. Isn't that right?"
Another man sitting at the bar, listening to everything, concurred. "That is correct."
"Now who the heck has said this about me?"
"Well. I am going to have to talk to this person." Said the insulting man. And with that he left the bar.
It was a former girlfriend who commented that although some people called him a zelig figure, he never really changed. He had been declared a non-person. This phenomenon is not without precedent. You take someone, remove their humanity, and they become your convenient devil to defeat easily enough; it has been done before. How much better to batter a relatively defenseless person, like the new boy in town or someone a little different than to come to grips with the real Devil, as the real Devil is monstrous, strong, possessed of savage weapons and a notorious reputation for not fighting fair.
Bobo continued to go to the same gym every other day, the same deli every week, and the same job every day. He took music lessons and learned to play the banjo. He maintained a small circle of friends, but due to the rumor mill never really got close to anyone, save perhaps his friend of 40 years Peter, who was one of the few college professors he admired still living. Most of his childhood friends who had survived coming out of Vietnam had passed away. He continued working in the bad parts of town where the posters and the garish windows suggest there are women who want nothing more than you and it is all about fulfilling your deepest, darkest desires.
So years pass. The problems associated with the passage of years, are manifold. Although our enemies grow older, so do our friends. Although enemies die off, so do our dearest friends. Although strength wanes, Evil remains an undefeatable giant. The Bay Area and San Francisco changed too over the decades. Peter moved with his wife to Fairfax in Marin. David moved to San Rafael.
Bobo moved to Woodacre down the road to be among the skunks and the deer and to get away from the gossip-mill. The City had changed, but some things never change.
A girl came up to Bobo in an office and pointing a finger, exclaimed "You are the reason everything is ruined in the Bay Area!"
Bobo sighed. "No I am not!"
One after another friends of decades-long association succumbed to cancer, to suicide, to other causes. In this time, his friend Peter went though some difficult times. Besides enduring the deaths of close friends known for half a century, Peter contracted a serious illness -- cancer. And this cancer was of a type with little hope for survival. Long months of surgeries and radiation and chemo did serve to beat the thing back, but at terrible cost to the man's physique. Then, engaging in property improvement projects that involved a lot of digging with machinery and laying of stone, he got dinged by the City for building without permits -- a newbie in the neighborhood had informed on him to the Planning Department.
One must understand that surviving Cancer is understood as a pass good for one more go around. And one would think joy would ensue, but the truth is the process is practically medieval in its savagery in cutting out pieces of functioning anatomy, leaving behind something that will struggle somewhat from day to day. Nobody gives you a golden medal or a trophy for beating the odds. There is no big party with confetti descending from the sky. You just get handed a chart with some numbers. Yes there is life, but life under reduced circumstances. Just ask the ghost of Skip James to tell you all about it.
Then came the announcement of Donald's stroke and subsequent coma. Peter had known Donald since 1973 and they had become dear friends, dearer as the years passed, with Donald hosting affairs at his house in Sebastopol and Peter holding gatherings for friends with his wife Sabina at his house in San Francisco.
Donald hung on by way of artificial respirators and the usual life-support systems as the once wonderful electronic system that had been his brain sparkled and fizzled with dozens of minor strokes until two weeks later, his daughter made the wrenching decision to not leave the once virile, powerfully built man in this condition. Before the plug got pulled, Peter came up to visit Queen of the Valley Hospital. He bent down to speak into the ear of his old friend, but no one knew if Donald could hear him and his daughter sat too far away with her hands clasped.
After Donald was cremated and most of his ashes distributed, his daughter scheduled a Memorial in San Francisco in an old building converted from a 1930's shipping office along the water to a restaurant and special events venue. It was an appropriate location to honor an old time San Franciscan.
Peter and Bobo talked about getting to the Memorial, which supposedly featured difficult parking, a couple weeks before the event. Bobo had only known Donald since 1982, about 38 years, but had grown fond of the man through their sporadic encounters at special events. Peter knew Bobo now worked in the East Bay and the Memorial was to be held midweek on a Wednesday evening. Bobo said he could leave work early and get over the Bay Bridge in time.
Peter said if Bobo was leaving early, he should come over the Richmond
San Rafael Bridge and he would pick him up halfway and they would go together
with Sabina to save on parking.
The two weeks passed and with the problems from the City inspectors, the costs for construction ramping into the thousands, the everyday evidence that the Bay Area was changing adding to his natural tendency toward the anger one would expect from the son of a Baptist minister, Peter forgot the conversation had occurred and Sabina began talking about riding with David who had grown up as a child clambering about the knees of their friend Donald. Peter thought it would be a good idea to hook up with David, who tended to be extremely busy these past few years having grown up to be a man with significant responsibilities. Sabina never knew the conversation with Bobo had taken place and so the idea of riding with David became an idee fixe. During this long car ride, they would go over memories extending the length of David's lifetime and so heal themselves from this grief of loss. That was the best way for things to go.
As the days passed, Peter's anger grew more intense. Foppish clods driving around Marin in their rented European cars, pushing their ugly values and bad decisions on everyone. More traffic and more people of an undesirable type everywhere. His health problems now included an hernia about which he had to be careful. And the grief for the loss of his friend, the latest in hard losses yet again, yet again!
The stages of grief also include anger, as we well know.
The afternoon of the Memorial Peter and Sabina were tossing things into the car in a hectic rush. A number of texts and dropped phonecalls emitted from Bobo, which Peter professed not to understand.
Finally, Bobo showed up in Fairfax in frustration at his phone equipment having failed and Peter shouted, "You are supposed to be at work!"
"I got off early," Bobo said. "So I drove direct." Indeed he had made unusually good time getting over the bridge, so he had bypassed Larkspur.
It seemed something was off to Bobo, so he asked what should he do. He felt prepared to head into the City on his own if that was what was wanted, but Peter was too angry to say anything intelligible. Sabina then said, "Well since you are here, climb on in."
And with that they drove to the City and Donald's emotional Memorial where his daughter read a speech and cried and members of his weekly poker game spoke about remembering him, and one of his ex-wives said "It is really great to see all of you our dear friends even though the cause for it is really sucky." His brother stepped up and everyone commented how much his voice sounded like Donald's. People who had known him a year raised their hands. People who had known him five years raised their hands. Ten years. Twenty years. Thirty years and Bobo's hand was still raised. Then it went on to forty and fifty and sixty years. Donald had been 83 at the time of his stroke and before that still as strong as a bull from doing construction all his life.
Then it came time to leave and it was learned that David did not need a ride back to Marin as he had his own car in a lot in SF. No one had ever communicated with him about the plans to have a nostalgic drive back from the City, so instead of taking the ferry as he usually did, he had driven in and just like any perfectly capable adult had parked his car and walked to the venue.
Peter, now was furiously embedded in his grief anger and anger towards all things, and he directed this anger at Bobo. Bobo forgot his jacket at the venue and Peter drove the car jerkily to a stop at the door and drove furiously, starting and stopping abruptly through the City streets that had changed so much during his lifetime that he had to follow David part of the way even though he had been born there at St. Mary's.
At one point Peter indicated the bike rental racks placed by Limewire and Bobo commented that Limewire was shifting from bikes to scooters, with the back of his mind registering that this was old news. He failed to see the warning signs.
"Yes those scooters. The kinds of people who rent them. One of them buzzed right by me and hit me just like this!" And Peter tried to smash his fist against Bobo's side, but because one hand was on the steering wheel his fist raked across Bobo's chest. "God damned outsider!"
"Vot de furk!" exclaimed Bobo, who decided getting home from this event was better than making an issue of minor discomfort.
Not much happened further along the way and the violence in the dark was not witnessed by Sabina in the back seat.
The nasty ring of that phrase "God damned outsider" remained with Bobo as he entered his livingroom and turned on the TV to find that yet another public place had been attacked in a mass shooting event, one of those things becoming ever more frequent these days. The shooter had been found with scads of anti-immigration literature in his van and loads of material from the campaign offices of the current inhabitant of the Oval Office. Then there was all the talk about immigration and the case of the fellow who had picked up a trash bag on a San Francisco wharf to have the loaded gun inside fire off and kill someone standing there, producing an incensed reaction among the Far Right. And the synogogue on Alameda Island with all its windows smashed in a new Krystalnacht.
Bobo's girlfriend came out from the bedroom with bed-towseled hair and asked how the Memorial had gone. The County was doing some controlled burn in the area and the air stung.
"When will this stuff ever end?" Bobo said, referring to the news report.
And the awful answer hung like fetid cigarette smoke in the acrid air.
The sound of the train horn keened from Oaktown across the estuary and wended its way through the redwoods of Marin's well-matriculated hills and slid over the sleeping bulk of Princess Tamalpais following the old, forgotten railbeds that once led along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard to the coast, stirring the coyotes who began to howl their evensong which carried forth on the winds over Fairfax and White's Hill, ululating through Silvan Acres and the mist-shrouded niches of the San Geronimo Valley, coursing with faint gray shapes along the ridgetops through the drifts of fog to an unknown destination.