Old haunts

Sometimes I look at houses for sale in my home town. For fun, or torture, because owning a home where I live is such an impossibility.

I sign into the Trulia app and select them like I’m choosing a baker’s dozen of doughnuts to bring to a dinner party. Ooh, I’ll take that one because of all the pretty stained glass. And that one because of all the fireplaces and claw foot tubs, and that one because of the pool–who doesn’t like a pool? And that one because of the big back yard for my many nonexistent kids to play and dogs to run.

I imagine a series of all the different possible lives I could live, the lives I didn’t choose. Then I close the app and open Craigslist to search for decent one-bedroom rentals under $3k a month in San Francisco.

This is not as easy as choosing doughnuts. This is kneeling on the floor of a dimly lit bar bathroom searching for a dropped contact lens: it’s frustrating, you start questioning what your life has come to, and you don’t actually want what you’re looking for.

This last bout of Trulia searching, I came across my childhood home: a half-double, 3-bedroom house where I had all my baby firsts and can still walk through in my mind.

Yet I almost passed the photo when I saw it. This was not the house from my memory. The peeling paint and dilapidated roof were unfamiliar. It seemed so small now, and someone had torn down the tree in the front yard.

I lived there until I was 14, when we moved across town to a big single home. The last time I stepped foot in it, my Dad had taken me and my best friend to say goodbye to it one last time, after it was all cleared out and before he turned over the keys to the realtor.

The carpet was dark in places, almost like a train track connecting the most trafficked spots in the house. The walls were faded in some areas, and darker in others, with faint outlines where pictures and clocks had hung. It was almost unrecognizable with emptiness.

On the way back, my friend and I laid down in the flattened third seat of our mini van. We didn’t talk or look at each other. And a few blocks from her house, she burst into tears. I was stone silent, unable to truly comprehend the loss that was happening.

It wasn’t just the house. It was the neighbor’s grassy hill we used to roll down. The screen door I hid behind when a boy I liked rang my doorbell. The stairway going down the cellar where my siblings and my height are probably still marked. The bedroom window that I sometimes watched the neighbor’s TV through. The attic steps my brother and I jumped from the top of, into a pit of stuffed animals at the bottom.

It was the living room stairs we would slide down in footsie pajamas, seeing who could do it the fastest. The treehouse with the rope swing that a girl from around the corner fell from and scraped up her face on the sidewalk below. And the neighborhood girl who told me, “She can sue. My dad’s a lawyer, so I know.”

It was a departure from the kids I’d spent all my summers with, painting rocks, collecting things like grass seeds and acorns, and whittling sticks on our front porch steps. We’d knock on each other’s doors at 7 a.m. every summer morning, and would be barefoot and bike-riding until fireflies sent us home for babyfood jars to catch them.

We lit sparklers together on the front lawn every fourth of July. We played board games and card games and video games, and made up games to play, our favorite of which simulated a break-in (don’t ask). We had Miss America pageants, pool parties, and birthday parties. And in the winter we’d build snow forts, and in fall we’d rake leaves and jump in them.

We grew up together. And we were in each other’s lives since before we could remember. Until just like that, we weren’t.

The following year I would be going to high school in my new neighborhood, across town. A public school where I knew nobody. While all my grade school friends would continue on together, I would start over, alone.

All these years later, I’m struck with the same feeling I had in the back of that mini van. And it’s clear to me now: That was my first lesson in letting go and moving on.

And I’m still learning.



remembering kevin marshall

It’s been five years since I lost my friend. I hope there’s a place where all those unsaid conversations are stored, and a time when we can finally sit down and have them.


i lit a hundred candles tonight, like a really special mass,
and read through old emails
and not-so old ones.

you were telling me about your porch, where you invited me to come
and have a glass of wine
and talk philosophy.

does it overlook the ocean, i asked.

a small brook, you said,
with a family of ducks.

i can’t wait to drink wine and talk philosophy! i said.

you laughed at my enthusiasm. i’ve been waiting FIVE yearssssss,
you said dramatically.

* * *

you sent me a hard-covered version of to kill a mockingbird one christmas,
with a note that simply said
“because you’ll understand.”
(and i did).

* * *

someday i better get a chapter in your biography, you said,
i’ve logged a good 7 years.

* * *

i like this alot, you said:

“But an invalid or an inmate would agree, just existing…

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weekend at boredom’s

The heavy-headedness of ennui Saturdays. The mechanical brain kicks in, auto-piloting motions and setting to work on chopping down the hours until, hopefully, the internal clock allows it to shut off.

It makes lists of things to do:

  • put on coffee, even if you know you won’t drink it, because it’s something to do
  • empty trash bins
  • wash dishes
  • bleach the sink and shower
  • put away clean clothes
  • sort dirty ones
  • pick up and fold crumpled blankets
  • tidy the couch
  • finally go through the week’s mail
  • put like with like (magazines, receipts, pens, medication, coins), forming little piles like a bird collecting twigs
  • finally drop off that stuff to the Goodwill
  • stop by the dry cleaner’s
  • pick up things you’ve run out of (another list: mascara, face cream, cotton balls, tissues, deodorant)

And when the body has completed everything, the mind scrambles to do what it does best: make something out of nothing.

Leave the house — you’re now on a mission to… browse the bookstore down the block. Walk up and down the same street twice. Think about going into a coffee shop — no, you made coffee at home. And you didn’t find a book, so you have nothing to read. You’ll just end up spending a bunch of money on stuff you don’t need. You should go back home. You have a book there. You should read that book you’ve been meaning to finish. Or the magazines that just came in the mail.

No, you should do some kind of craft — you haven’t done that in a while. What though? You should look stuff up. While you’re online, you may as well check your bank account. What’s that double charge? You should call the company to sort it out. It’s after business hours, of course. You’ll call back later. You should pay your credit card bill while you’re at it. Oh and finally book that flight for next month’s trip.

Damn, it’s already 8 p.m. You should make dinner. But what to make? You should look up recipes. Do you really want to spend all that time cooking? You just did all those dishes… you should just order something. No, you should go out and get something. But you shouldn’t be spending the money when you have food at home. You should clean the fridge. Oh yeah, you should finish booking that flight. But you should really eat something. Maybe you should just fast tonight. Gandhi fasted for 21 days. Skipping one meal isn’t going to kill you. If you go to bed early, you won’t be hungry.

You should get up early tomorrow and go to a coffee shop. Maybe bring a newspaper to do a crossword. You should go to church too, it’s been a while. Oh, and the farmer’s market! Wait, you should clean the fridge tonight to make room for the stuff you’re going to pick up tomorrow. You should start making a list. But what’s in season? You should look it up. You should call your brother — he’s a farmer. He could tell you. But would he know what’s in season on the West Coast? And it’s already late back home. He’ll be sleeping. You should call tomorrow.

You should just put on the TV and call it a night. Go to bed early, get an early start. Tomorrow’s a new day. You can choose to do anything you want with it…


Maslow and His Hierarchy

“What’s a shit-hole? WHAT?! What’s a shit-hole? Disgusting WHAT?! What kind of retard? WHAT?! What’s a shit-hole? Trashy WHAT?! What kind of retard? WHAT?!”

The woman at the back of the bus yells continuously for five stops … seven. Nine. It’s like an endless loop cassette recording of a child quick-fire yanking the cord on an aggressive talking doll.

The guy sitting across from me rolls his eyes. People are annoyed.

Everyone is ignoring her, and even with headphones on full volume, that’s hard to do. But the homeless (and mentally ill) problem in San Francisco is so rampant, this type of behavior doesn’t faze most people anymore. Acknowledging all the problems you see would be depressing, so ignorance is the less personally damaging of two injustices that most people choose.

This town breaks my heart on a daily basis. And I’ve been accused of allowing it to, but that’s inaccurate. I see everything equally. The majority of it happens not to be the stuff of motion picture happy endings, because that isn’t real life, and I won’t pretend it is. That’s why we have movies.

But there’s something to be said for finding the beauty in the sadness, the self in others. It keeps you honest. It grows compassion.

People say, “What can you do? The problem is too massive.” Global warming is massive, but we still recycle. We buy organic, even though it costs extra. We stop eating meat. We buy electric cars. We bring cloth bags with us to the store.

What can you do? Spend Sunday morning researching volunteering opportunities. Give a dollar when you have it to the man who sits on a milk crate outside the grocery store. And if you don’t, at least acknowledge him. Take the headphones off. Say hello.

When a baby cries, it’s trying to tell you it needs something, but doesn’t have the vocabulary to tell you what it is. We understand what it wants–and if we don’t, we try things until we figure it out. We change shitty diapers, burp it until it throws up on us, give it food. And we do this, over and over, not expecting anything in return, not even a thank you. And one day, that baby will be able to care for itself and for others who can’t care for themselves, and the cycle continues.

I don’t know when in a person’s life needs move from socially acceptable to appalling. Needs don’t vanish once your wisdom teeth grow in or you get your first “real job.” Not when your period begins (or ends), or even long after you bury a parent.

Needs shift, like life does. And sometimes you have trouble meeting your own needs, but you don’t know how to ask for help.

So you cry out.

On a bus full of strangers.

Who drown you out.

With music.

Alcatraz and Herzog, 2007

I knew him when he was just 19. He slept in past noon every day, got up, watched TV. He took trips to the grocery store occasionally, coming back with bags full of stuff that belonged in the freezer. I made him vegetarian lasagna once, and it was probably the only real meal he ate all summer.

He never offered to take me to the store, but he once said, “Want to see a place?” And before I knew it, we’re pulling into Muir Woods. It was foggy and cold, and we leaned up against a beached log and wrote separately and watched people in silence, until the wind became too biting. We left and drove to the top of the Berkeley hills, where we stood in awe, watching the fog roll across the valley.

His mother was a real-life Oakland Black Panther: tried, jailed, and all that. His father was a white hippie somewhere on the East Coast who’d send him packages that he refused to open. He had a half-brother who was branded with ancient symbols from Eastern religions and lived in an ashram nearby.

The kid wrote poetry, even at 19. Towards the end, he read some to me. I said this is good, this is real good. You have to perform this. He shrugged and stared out the window. After a minute, he sniffed the air and said what smells like jasmine?

I dragged him to slam poetry night at a local bar. He was nervous and his voice was faint and timid at first, but it strengthened halfway through and he placed third.

Recently–that is, years later–I went to hear a friend’s band play and there he was on stage, reciting his work with the conviction of a pastor and the confidence of a poet who had found his voice. People clapped at different parts, shouted affirmations. I watched quietly and proudly, like I knew a secret they all didn’t.

I saw him in the crowd after the show, when the band was playing. Just as I decided to go over to him, he walked out the door and was gone.

What could I possibly say?: Remember me? Long ago and far away, I knew you.

Before you even knew yourself.