Friday, December 31, 2010

The Fireplace Screen

As the fuzzball sun nestles in scratchy southward trees on somnolent backstreets, the Flaneur, weary from the season of joy, captures his fleeting impressions.

Seated next to me in the Berkeley BART station is a seventeen year old girl with blue and white flower-colored bangs and a little hipster soft hat. She is reading an old used book and it's the same edition of William Blake poetry that I read when I was her age. She is lovely and warm when I tell her so and we enthuse about Blake. I sing her a little of "The Tyger" to demonstrate how he tuned his poems. She opens to a color-reproduction of his illumination of the poem and dear William Blake is reaching across the centuries to two lovers of poetry. It's an epiphany of inter-generational conviviality and the feeling lasts after my train pulls in and we say goodbye.

big black crow sails up
in a yellow ginkgo tree
the noiseless back street

A warm December afternoon beckons so I grab my bag and head down to the Marina. A quiet scene awaits me there strolling past the forest of sailing boats on the docks, past the faceless hotels so remote from day-to-day Berkeley that they could be anywhere. Cruise boats with idle crews await their next batch of marks. My destination is the rolling hills where people fly kites or otherwise frolic about. I'm taking a shoreline route that traces the shape of this man-made peninsula. The vista of Berkeley is all-inclusive from the flatlands to the crest of the hills with all the landmarks from a weird little hill in El Cerrito to the Campanile to Mormon Temple in the Oakland hills. Way off to the right one sees the high-rise crowd in downtown oakland and of course over one's shoulder over the green hilly park lies the Bay, San Francisco and massive Marin culminating in Mount Tamalpais, and beyond that the Pacific ocean and vast sweeping Western sky.
As I traverse the topography in a brisk walk, I approach two bird-watchers carrying huge binoculars mounted on tripods. I see a large bird take off and lead the two fellows farther along the coast. They proceed after it and I continue along after them. When I catch up they are in observation formation focussing on a marginal area roped off to keep people away from wild life. Last time I visited we saw the usual rock-dweling squirrels, and subterraneous ground hogs there and also a dark gray hare with the long ears of a jackrabbit throwing elongated shadows on a large rock. Today a red-tailed hawk a foot-and-a-half tall is standing and looking back at the two motionless bird-watchers who whisper to each other excitedly. I continue past them and just past the hawk who scrutinizes me casually and sit down half-concealed by an earthworks wall. This situation continues for quite a while until two bicyclists pull up from behind me. One lingers back near me but the other your big typical blonde big-bearded self-satisfied guy who looms on the trail above the hawk on his bicycle oblivious to how threatening his bulk might appear to it. Naturally it decides there are too many loutish humans for its liking and it launches itself over the water as various diving birds all dive to avoid it.
I shove-off just then myself along the lonesome trail in the mild marine air. Then as I round the far point of the trail there on a lamp post is either the same hawk or another identical example of the species. I come very near to being even with it when it swoops down toward the water passing within a few feet of me and not without inspiring a trace of alarm. It's splendid reddish coloration and the speckled markings on every feather are displayed to me in vivid detail. It is a thrill and a vision of power elevates me, inspires me and somehow perhaps changes me forever.
Returning wearily to the bus stop after my long hejira, I witness the once-an-hour bus hurl past the desolate outpost and race away without me. So it's the long haul walking the bridge over the horrific highway to the Amtrak station bus stop. On the conspicuous and else-wise deserted bridge I occasionally gesture to drivers crawling underneath by pinching me nose with one hand and making a thumbs-down gesture with the other

Dig the little fire in the hearth.

This year's Christmas Ghost story takes the form of a spectral occurrence in the skies on the longest night of the year. It is the first time the Solstice and a full-linar eclipse have coincided in 372 years. The spooky tide of darkness interrupted only by a short spell of pale daylight takes on a portentous tone as anticipation of the eclipse hangs over the day. A thin veil of cloud fails to obscure the mighty full moon rise which I observe from my figurative tree house window. Then on a night misty mild by most standards, sometime after ten the first bite is removed from the pie. The darkness of outer space eats itself and the moon is slowly devoured over the next ninety minutes or so. I bring my wrap-up down to the dark-end of the street for the denouement, the smoke curls into the fraught sky. Then it is gone. There was a moment of observation of its new roseate timpany that is almost immediately occulted by swelling clouds. In the dark night even the darkened moon is removed.

on the night of the solstice
full lunar eclipse
I saw a pattern of black ants
on the wall in a dream

Ray's smoking Grand-daddy

I have a dear friend I don't see very often though I pass by her home a few times a week. Her name is Mary Fabilli and she is a forthcoming saint. I became acquainted with her at the Roman Catholic Mass at 5 0'clock at the chapel at St Albert's college. For a long time it was Mary who prayed near me and with whom I began to walk to the bus stop after Mass. She was in her mid-eighties by then.
When she learned I was a poet and she surprised me by saying she had known Robert Duncan a poet of the Berkeley/San Francisco Poetry Renaissance of the forties and fifties. And yet still I lingered in my obscured thinking. Even when I put a call out for new Catholic poetry and received a submission from another well-recognized poet of the Berkeley Renaissance Mary Fabilli, the coin had not yet dropped.
Finally after Mass one evening Mary said to me, "Well, what do you think of my poem?" I had only ever seen a couple of photographs of Mary Fabilli, and one which I had seen recently at that time was in a book entitled "Women of the Beat Generation." The photo showed a middle-aged poet with her hair piled-up on top, smoking a cigarette and it just hadn't registered that this bohemian poet was the snowy-haired saint I prayed alongside in church. She had dropped out of the poet's public life quite a while ago and never gave readings or talks. Her new work appeared in the small press traffic but received little notice anymore. Her name appeared mainly in the histories and biographies of herself and her associates. As a consequence, I had never laid eyes on her despite my twenty years in the San Francisco Bay area with an avid readiness to go and meet her.
We laughed that day in the peaceful chapel courtyard and a few months later I published her poem in a collection called Jubilation (even though her poem was more one of protest). What was more astonishing, she agreed to attend the publication reading at Moe's books on Telegraph Avenue. Astonishing not just because she once wrote in a poem of walking on Telegraph with Duncan many years ago and stating "I don't walk there anymore," but because she never read her poetry in public in her life.
The night of 19 January 2001 entered literary history when she was joined there by a dozen fellow contributors and by her contemporary poet Philip Lamantia. She and Philip had been colleagues in the Poetry Renaissance in the forties but had not seen each other in fifty years. The whole story would really merit another essay: how Lamantia read the same poems for a Catholic group in Washington DC that same day. He was ushered straight from the airport to the reading at the last moment and made his first eye contact with a radiant Mary only after taking the lectern himself. The night opened up like a cathedral ceiling when these two great souls met again and spoke.
I later edited a volume of Mary's recent poetry entitled Pious Poems. It was published at her suggestion by my own Beat Books imprint. We spent time together at her home where, with her hearing loss and my increasing hearing loss, we enjoyed quiet conversation. We very rarely do any longer but are planning a visit, when her age and frailty and my own various states of being permit. We have also written to each other across town quite a lot. I donated her letters and cards along with my other archives to the Bancroft library at the University of California in Berkeley. I received a long, fairly undecipherable multi-page missive from her as recently as this November and somehow I got through most of it.
So on the feast of St Stephen, a friend with a camera visited and we went over to her quaint and holy house to take a photograph of this place in the heart. She was no doubt with her sister Lily for Christmas and so I didn't knock. I'll write to her to arrange a visit and spare my blood pressure the effort of a semi-deaf phone call.
She has lived there quite a long time and lives there still as the year turns again. When I pass by on a bus as I often do I make the sign of the cross and say an Ave Maria as if I was passing a church, or, in this case, the home of a saint.

One night on my midnight walk, which now occurs more often at eleven o'clock, I noticed more than the usual clutter in front of the hallowe'en die-hard house down the block. A couple of plastic bags full of small paper boxes had been put out for recycling. Amid the dangling spiders, fake cobwebs, and half-buried bones were dozens of empty cartons for some inscrutable product, all with a printed pattern in one bright primary color. I selected all the red ones and came home to construct this year's impromptu Christmas centerpiece display. I assembled a toy fireplace festooned with vintage elements including my late Mom's home-made needle-point and knitted items that had come in the mail over the years. Arranged on top of the fridge, this little oven of Santa-anticipation with its glow-in-the-dark Baby Jesus halo candle crown has charmed visitors of all ages.

A Christmas Blessing to you.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Slides of Samhain

Hallowe'ek was kaleidoscopic this year: the dazzling illusion of depth, the vertigo, some "Jack Herrer" extra color-receptive 16%THC sativa, the foliage, the mad costumes and decorations--the works. The Flaneur observes a sort of autumnal holy week over the holidays.

Friday, 29 October 2010
Hallowe'en Studies

warm days cold nights...the abscission zone...the incarnadine leaf

As delightful weather as the area can summon this time of year, awaits me as I set out for town before noon. Last Saturday I had a brush with atrial fibrillation at a Berkeley hospital. The cardiologist advised less coffee (was up to six cups) and alcohol (one big stout a day is all I take), but he did not say the same about my medical cannabis enjoyment. I stopped at a little traffic impediment at Channing that functions as a commons of sorts to have a few puffs. Just over my shoulder loom two grotesquely tall cornstalks, each with untouched gargantuan ears of corn unpicked. They have lost their green in time for a traditional Hallowe'en which of course has more to do with crows and scarecrows than it does with many contemporary notions of the holiday--sexy nurse outfits or transient media characters.
Continuing on, my perception of the day enlarged, I savored the ripe smell of the trees. then I caught sight of a commotion some blocks ahead at McKinley St. Kids were amassed on a sidewalk and could only mean one thing--a Hallowe'en parade at an elementary school.
I quickened my pace and caught up with the general high spirits of the gleeful children. Quite a crowd of ghouls and cute novelty costumes, all so involved with the world of children the few adults grinning and walking alongside in the street were easily ignored. One parent type with a camera was posing a little pharaoh and a little girl who gets my vote for best costume. She was tasteful make up and a satin dress under a remarkable headdress of multi-colored snakes as the the Medusa of Greek myth.
I felt sympathy for the unlucky kids whose parents sent them to school without costumes, even though most looked so enchanted by the festivities that they were having a very good time nevertheless. I wanted to hug one of them he seemed so sweet and innocent. If I was a teacher there I'd raise money for an assortment of inexpensive masks and disguises so every kid could parade in style. But who knows maybe there are rules against "guising" children.
As they all poured into the schoolyard for more fun I shoved-off. A mom was arriving with a little Minnie Mouse who was coming to join the older siblings in the great North American children's holiday.

The earliest citations for trick-or-treating date from the 1930s, when it is believed to have begun in the Northern USA and in Canada evolving from the Irish custom of "guising," going door-to-door in costume to perform a song, a poem, a dance, a scene from a play, in return for sweets (and perhaps liquor or stout). Funny, it has been going on only since the 1930s, I might have thought George Washington went trick-or-treating.
Hallowe'en itself as most know emerges from Irish culture as well. It represents Samhain (pronounced sow-win) the old Gaelic new year which is aligned with the harvest. The veil between the living and the dead was thin at this time of the year, you could speak to your lost beloved ones. Ghosts roamed the earth and the fairy folk, benign and terrifying alike, ventured out into early darkness of the physical world.
The first jack-o-lanterns were carved out of turnips, and many of the old-fashioned games associated with the holiday began in the culture of the charming Irish folkways. Pranks and tricks are theirs as well. As is also plain, the basic anarchic, slightly revolutionary spirit of Hallowe'en is not unknown in the Emerald Isle. This is only to glance at the visionary not to say hallucinatory tendencies among Celtic people.

After the fortunate timing in encountering the parade, I continued on with business at hand. First to launch a work of mail-art, a detoured post-card entitled "Howl-o-ween", to my Crosstown Correspondent Joey Know, I needed today's mail and fell by the Post Office to drop it in an old wooden slot marked "letters only." On my way I notice my favorite new eccentric of the downtown scene: a tall thin clean-shaven loner who wears a dark suit, cowboy boots and, until recently, a cowboy hat. He somewhat resembles the country singer Lyle Lovett. Whenever I see him he is patrolling the lampposts of downtown and removing the various fliers that have been unlawfully posted on them.
Today, after I left the PO, when I saw him again, he seemed to be speaking to me as we passed on the sidewalk. Regrettably, with my hearing back in the 20th century, I missed it. I sensed it was the sly, "I'm-onto-you" type of thing. People like himself are often extremely sensitive to the observation of others and my interest may have registered on his radar. Hope he senses I wish him well.
From here into the City Hall where I pass the gun-detector and sign in to visit the somnolent city clerk's office. I explain that my meticulously filled-out ballot went into the mail box without stamps last week and hasn't been returned yet. A guy barely clearing his cubicle wall calls over--"it's guaranteed delivery, the registrar of voters pays the post." Well, the many years I was a clerk of polls here and in Massachusetts earned me a an eighty-one cent tip from the registrar. General amusement follows me out.

At rest in the park, let's call it Provo, signs of Hallowe'en spill out from the high school into the park. On the eve of a big vote for legalization of cannabis, which was trumped by Arnold with liberalization, Berkeley at least seems close to majority acceptance and normalization. So outside the campus in a circle in the grass student-age youth are passing the pipe, boys and girls socializing and learning. On the northeast side of the park the police station looms obliviously. As I leave I feel compelled to tell one of them to be careful to get enough oxygen. He was wearing a body and head stocking through which he was inhaling on the pot pipe right after running around the park. As I walk up the lead girl says a slightly too big hello revealing a slight bit of nervousness perhaps under her obvious bravado. The kid assures me he's getting enough air. Peace kids, little do you know that the old guy concerned about you is probably more stoned than you are. But then this Berkeley, they may have thought I was in fact too stoned.
Down Alston, approaching sirens drive a dog on a front porch to start howling, I howl too to encourage him. Kids in costume pass by talking soberly. Hallowe'en is coming on.

That night it was time to improvise a Hallowe'en display for my advantageously positioned front window. I had found an intriguing shopping bag from Ormand Jayne London Perfumery in our recycling bin. A sturdy paper trapezoid eighteen inches high that was pumpkin orange on the outside and ultra black on the inside. The cords I cut off tied together for a good garrot, but no stranglers this year. I cut a great old-fashioned jack-o-lantern face in it, a scary grin. Next I waited for nightfall to visit for the first time the Tempko tot lot on Roosevelt, one street up from our dark abode. Here I filled two black plastic bags from the Sacramento corner bottle shop with the gravelly sand from the playground. This filled bottom of the luminarium as such en-candled bags are known. Into I plunged a plumbers candle I keep for black-outs. It burns bright and long. The heavy paper of the bag allows very little light through so it becomes projector casts the semaphore of a jack-o-lantern face as rays of lights. Inside on my ceiling or when It shines into the window creating cobwebs of light it creates an effect that my housemate Ian perfectly and simply described as "spooky". By daylight this version of a luminarium, one that the bag itself doesn't light-up, has great effect of the deep black interior seen through the orange face. Odd and yet satisfying--for the moment that is.

Saturday 30 October 2010 "Hell Night"
Crib Sheets

My old comrade in arms Joe shows up after noon on another day seasonal and lovely. He's carted over some cartons that I asked him to store at the finale of my last pad. Most important for today's purposes, he has brought my small flock of surviving Hallowe'en talisman and my eldritch stag antlers. The antlers go downstairs on the mantle of the enormous but defunct fireplace. Placed before an ornate mirror with long white tapers they add to a self-portrait in reflection that is slightly extravagant and Dalian.
Joe and I hang a tad and fiddle with my out-moded browser. In an attempt to download a fresh one I lose both. I limp into an exploded view of my pseudonymous social network. This dilemma reminds me of that old Kennedy campaign song Frank Sinatra sang, the annoying one about a rubber tree plant.

As early darkness arrives the haunted fragments have all fallen into place. Heirlooms in needlepoint fabricated by my late Mom in Massachusetts, in ancient spooky Fall River. Home on a visit, I sketched her outlines on a plastic grid and she made a witch, a cat, a jack-o-lantern, and a ghost. She was in her eighties then and she added to the suite with a large round jack-o-lantern in needlepoint a few years afterward when it arrived in the mail. She sketched a jack-0-lantern face in high folk art simplicity and the original drawing on paper is still on the verso.
These I arrayed on a black wool scarf over a small table with metal legs and a top resembling wine barrel slats. I brought it into my NYC-sized room for my jack-o-luminarium. Over both I strung a small set of small white Xmas-style lights and added my set of six glass antique-replica Hallowe'en lanterns. They consist of witch, skull, ghost, scarecrow, and two jack-o-lanterns, are formed a festive and radiant arch below the curtain rod of my front window. Also seen in the vicinity is my bean-bag bat by Edward Gorey. It's a first issue in great shape I bought on its initial release in 1980. He has ruby eyes and a body of cloth printed with a finely hatched drawing by the mock-Victorian Goth master. The wings are ingeniously articulated by stitching, and he's an old cuddlesome friend. By the next year the printed cloth on other examples I saw on sale had gotten muddy-looking--so look for an early issue if you do look. A few other fond knick-knacks are placed around the snuggest of pads, notably a vintage hand-painted winking cat face on a spring like-wire loop, his origins as mysterious to me as they are to you, mon cher hypocrite lecteur.

At night I watch the disc of a film from the Hammer horror film factory of a half century ago called "Never Take Candy from Strangers." It, incredibly, concerns a demented, elderly molester of little girls and whose wealthy family controls the Canadian town where it occurs. It has a wonderful indictment of rigged local politics, a lawyer browbeating the victim in a trial sequence, but the actual scenes of stalking and menace are handled in the classic monster-in-the-woods Hammer film genre. I was laughing even while feeling real tension and hope for the little girls to escape the pedophile zombie with out-stretched arms. When they start downstream it blows "Night of the Hunter" level tension out of the water. A long rope from their rowboat is stilled tied to the dock where the candy man salivates.
On my late night stroll I survey the area for Hallowe'en activity. On the Parker I find myself walking on a moonlight sidewalk behind a couple masquerading as Homer and Marge Simson. Her towering blue wig barely clears the low branches of the trees like a dislocated countess at Versailles.

mail art 29 October 2010 postmark

31 October 2010 All Hallow's Eve

It's the day itself. When you awaken you remember it is then forget it as unimportant to your shower and breakfast routines. But underneath every moment is an awareness of the subterranean holiday that only really begins at dusk. Hallowe'en flavors the day, it colors the entire few weeks before and afterward. And the flavor is not just the ubiquitous doses of the old-stand-by candies, the bag you buy "for the kids." It's the whole atavistic pleasure in and surrender to the Fall. Scents trigger deep feelings this time of year: leaves, apples and other fruit, fields and meadows, pumpkin and spices, and the fine cannabis of autumn.
Today the old dark house is abuzz with the impending children's pumpkin-carving party scheduled for late afternoon. I reconnoiter the festivities early on and it is a party of special things to do indeed. There's a preamble table full of striking exemplars of the world of pumpkins and decorative squash. I really dig one big squash that's pumpkin-shaped but has skin of so dark a green that in twilight it reads as black. Next is the old and honored picnic table with more pumpkins, house-mates and toothsome food. And best for last, on the little patch of grass beside the garden plot, a pow-wow of kids and moms working on jack-o-lanterns. I nosh a little home-smoked salmon then head back upstairs to try my latest edible wonderment.
Over a little coffee-milk so to speak, I open and nibble from a small gingerbread housed in a mylar envelope labeled "Super Potent/Cannabis Gingerbread." It is more moist and odd tasting than the gingerbread from your favorite bakery which you might prefer but which would not usher you so delightfully to the cheery wonderland of every moment.
I rejoin the rollicking party outside, wearing only my everyday beret as a daylight costume. Greet our neighbor Mahati with blue lipstick, hair and feather boa-- I later learn she was dressed as a river. I keep finding her blue feathers afloat around the block. Her son Rowan is, sorry no other way to say it, adorable. The baby downstairs wears a cuddly turtle outfit intended for a dog outfit, but she's working it. I meet a bug kid and say, a beetle, but Mom says a lady-bug. Everybody loves lady bugs.
And it's high spirits all around and high jinx as allowed. I brought down two bowls of beans: kidney beans lightly sauteed with olive oil and tamari sauce and another bowl containing my state-of-grace black beans. As I drop the beans off I state "with apology to your spouses, here comes the bean man." After my meal and some fun chatting with the hip all-ages-crowd, I begin to feel very high, enough so that I decide to rest and pass over the peak in my chamber. Moreover I neglected to bring my earplugs and my oldest pal Helen the lamp lady from the corner is starting a set on clarinet in a trio with my two house mates one on saxophone the other guitar. It's far too loud for my hurt ear so I dash past them between numbers.
On the way inside I see a Mom guiding and restraining a little boy whose obviously wants in through the glass doors, kind of in a spawning movement against the glass. I ask if she wants to use the facilities and she says no. Then up in my tree-house pad, I hear a little battering at the door. It's the amphibious kid from the back deck and his Mom. They had come up the back stairs into the apartment of the family whose little girl Sandiya and her parents are the hosts of the gathering and through it to the backdoor and onto my door. I admire the kid's exploratory spirit too great to be confined to a backyard do. I invite them in and of course in he comes, Mom hovers on the threshold. We try to call his attention to specific Hallowe'en tableaux but he mainly wants to go to the front of the house and turn back the wiser.
I greet him warmly clasping his back and saying, "I like you. You're nice" which I mean from the bottom of my heart. He likes me too and says stuff back that may have been words but I don't get. I tell Mom I have trouble hearing; she says that's all right he has trouble talking. Onward they go and I feel like an angel visited me.
I sleep away or deep trance or journey in inner space or something for an hour while the country music station plays soft and there's nothing really nothing to turn off. I wake again in time to see the still light-out treat-or-treat parade emerging from our drive-way after the party. Waiting for them a guy with the video spies me beaming down with my lantern and begins the sequence with me like a loony old neighbor. Not long after they mosey off, other kids start showing up and hitting the more decorated houses. I decide to bring the old mouth harp out on the front steps to play a while and maybe add an attraction to our side of the street. Obtaining a cork from the abruptly vacant backyard scene, I roast it and use the charcoal to sketch on a wicked monobrow, a small goatee and a mustache in the morphology of the branches of a tree. With my large diameter black beret and smock-like shirt, the simple heavy black lines have a Dali-esque affect.
So adorned I begin my macabre recital of a ghost train slow-blues sitting on the front steps with some gargantuan heavily carved hard "pumpkins." But it's also the time of the return of the trick-or-treat troop and there's some small disquiet among the kids and parents. Darling Rowan was cheered at first hearing of my train sounds but had a too-tired something-went-wrong crisis on his hands. Somehow a bottle of some drink had spilled on his spider-man outfit. I felt his pain. Whenever I have ingested cannabis-enhanced foods I can really play and sing at my current best. Hearing me for the first time my 22 year old neighbor said with surprise, "go, Ray!"
So I hung-out there after the children's hub-bub dispersed toward home and candy rationing. I am left in charge of the bowl of small candy-bars that the household had provided for treats. More lights, front doors closer together, and, as I was to dig later, a haunted attraction kept the heavy traffic opposite my door. Three smiling black girls politely accepted their candy and I really don't think that they respond with tricks much these days. Or rather boys gets old enough to abjure candy-seeking and turn themselves over entirely to tricks, to stunts, and to pranks. Sort of remember going through a stage like that myself, I confess.
Once we loaded a pile of unguarded pumpkins into a volkswagen bug and drove around bombing places including innocent civilian sites, an armory, and one war memorial. We began at the armory on Dwelly street used that night for a clean-cut dance when we projected one smashing pumpkin onto the front sidewalk as we sped by. Soon we were driving on South Main and came up behind a pedestrian, I learned out and more or less bowled him over. The orange spheroid hit him in the back of his knees and he went straight up in the air before making a soft landing in the massive wad of pumpkin debris. I cringe now and hope that in this life of my own suffering I've done some advance placement time in Purgatory for that mayhem.
That night long ago, we stuck the last of the purloined pumpkins on the rifle of a World War I doughboy statue at the busy intersection of Flint street and Plymouth avenue. It was still there on our way to school the next morning. All Soul's day, a day of holy obligation for us Catholics. It meant after Hallowe'en you faced the other side of the coin the next day.
When the household gets sleepy I take my nocturnal somnambule, as ever in search of the ineffable heart of Hallowe'en. I note that a huge pumpkin on McGee went uncarved despite surgical patterns drawn on it in marking pen. Many observant houses that I spied on earlier evenings are enhanced tonight. Lots of new decorations have risen from graves in attic and garage to spook again. I head for a Haunted House I was clued-to and find there a graveyard/cornfield tableaux. Folks are invited into it in pursuit of the candy. Then as they approach a trellis walk the scare crow with a pitchfork comes to life to growl and grab at the hapless trespasser. Effective. A loud-talking black lady, trick-or-treating minimally in costume, a little blown-out on the trails, narrates her experience as it happens. "Don't go near that! I was so scared!"
Continuing on in an aleatory manner I take the next street parallel to return to McGee. Only one house on it has decoration, yet in my big sensitivity to spooky ambiance evident in the greenery and houses, in the deserted dark quiet, I decide it's a much spookier street. Worlds away from the fun house atmosphere a block away. On McGee I cross paths with the family of the broad-comedy black lady and bid them a happy holiday. "Happy halloween," she says without a trace of mirth in her deep slow gravely voice. Now that was frightening.

Back at the shack I relax and restart some other-worldly Tibetan chant. I have it playing out of the window on a speaker hidden by a curtain next to my lantern. Two known neighborhood spooks show up after the party's over, eccentric Simon a former resident of the dark abode. Tonight he is in his element with his real long white chin beard and a huge floppy velvet wizard's hat festooned with tiny blinking lights. He arrives with his elf-folk companion Laurie who has also an extravagant velvet hat electric-- fucshia leopard-skin inside and something wildly different on the outside. With her flippity-floppity hat, her fashion and tat, I offer that she is a "fashion victim" but it doesn't quite name her. They dig the effectiveness of my minimalist but still painterly disguise.
Joined by a fourth reveler we all decide to go last-call trick-or-treating across the street. Our companion, whom I'll call OG Kush, is not wearing any costume tonight. He's the most benign of men and yet he if knocked on your door tonight you would not consider him rudely under-adorned to be asking for candy on Hallowe'en. He also wore a beret and with his earrings and full-facial tattoos and he rocked a sizable tooth through his nostrils. He's Queequeg 365 days a year.
We all look as if we had stepped out of where the wild things are tonight as we follow a path of small luminaria to the front yard of a back house. I prowled here earlier to check it out and now guide the grounds tour of an impromtu cemetery. It contains not only large mock headstones but the standing bottom-half of a real headstone. The perfect setting of its overgrown leafy October backyard was enhanced by a real looking graveyard fence. It gave me a nice frisson when I saw it alone and passed by the charming lamp-lit living window with bonnie little kids. Maybe they saw me pass by as they watched for trick-or-treaters but I was a mere wandering ghost as well as a recovered addict who tries to avoid candy. But now, led by our soigne sorceress, we accept their greeting and get to see the piece-de-resistance effect that I had missed. A substantial witch figure was suspended up near the second floor roof awaiting the kids command to swoop across the graveyard toward us. We cheered naturally. Then we bid the family the holiday, no doubt to let them watch a little more TV then go to bed.
Another house has transformed partisan campaign signs into gravestones by pulling a sock of fake spider web stuff over them, fitting really. It has loads of other holiday stuff strewn around it's cluttered vintage-funk yard design. But what I dig most is a string of small lights with a reddish interior and blue outer glow so that they are like psychedelic stars perpetually inventing the color purple. I dig that they keep the decorations lit every night as I do-- looking from my window I see their strange necklace floating in the pepper tree under Orion's belt.
Last stop is at the Tinker's house. There I actually do accept some of the dreadful sugar-stuff and it does keep you moving about. Then it's adult crash time. Laurie bikes away home and Simon the charming British-born crack-pot wizard and quack comes over to fiddle with my computer. Then he insists on some guided breathing to save my soul or my health or my life or something.
When he exits finally I wind down in blessed solitude after my first children's style Hallowe'en in years. The rest of the night involves a candle left burning in the lantern all night, chiaroscuro film archetypes, and sleep steadily approaching from not so far away.

All Saint's Day
Aftermath: Day of All Hallows

The heart's a little heavy after so much fun. I pin an antique holy metal over my heart on both my inner and my outer shirts. I try to remember to pray throughout the day. In some periods prayer comes easier than others. Today is the day of holy obligation, in which Catholics are expected to try to get to Mass, but I will go tomorrow for All Souls Day instead.
I have wearied long ago of my gentle attempts to induce people to understand the difference. The popularity of the Mexican customs of el Dia de Los Muertos with it's emblematic sugar skulls, "bread of the dead", and calaca toys and whatnot has only somehow added to the confusion between All Saints and All Souls days. This is found even among those who might have heard that the procession in the Mission district of San Francisco takes place on November the second. It's a procession that began to take shape in the early eighties, around Galaria de la Raza as a small community event and is now a wild SF carnival-like winding parade. I was there early on and loved to dine at the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor after the procession in which we painted our faces white with black skull features and wore suitably solemn clothes. I had a mail-art work called "El Alcade" a drawing of a skeleton judge in one year's Los Muertos show at the gallery. But I last attended in 1989 and glimpsed how big it was to become. I walked with a friend and her two or three year-old, a sweet little never-had-a-haircut punk-hippie boy who is an adult today I hope. Giant skeleton arches were over the street, a huge roisterous crowd of skull faces hooted, and outlandish skeleton and death-based side-shows abounded. Not to pine but I had enjoyed the old celebrations. Now it's an international known event like of course everything else.

Yet another memory of a night not long afterward comes to mind. It was a November first reading by my friend and colleague the widely-known Berkeley poet Ivan Arguelles and the major American poet Barbara Guest. It took place at the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Library in my old Elmwood stomping ground. As Barbara prepared to read someone exclaimed that it was the day of the dead today! I politely informed the ground that that it was in fact tomorrow and that today was All Saints day called Todos Santos in Spanish. A voice led others in maintaining that I was mistaken. Barbara said nothing but she looked mildly aghast. This facial expression and demeanor was not unusual for her in her dotage I came to notice. After the reading she signed a copy of her book The Blue Stairs with the inscription "for Stephen on Todos Santos."

On this holy day the fairest of weather continues. I walk the perpendicular route over Roosevelt street to Allston Way. Along the path I find the segments of an abandoned Hallowe'en costume hand-made out of cardboard. They consist of a cut-out sword, a large letter 'E', and the trunk, a painted and shaped box out-fit bearing the legend, "E-VIL ROBOT with SWORD." These I collect and arrange neatly on the sidewalk as a temporary folk-art installation.
As night falls I play liturgical music and make a quiet supper. As the clock rolls I watch a mild film before entering again the realm of spirit.

All Souls Day
Dia de los Muertos-Day of the Dead


The days of the dead occur at this point in the year in Catholic belief, in pre-Christian Celtic belief pre-Columbian meso-American belief and in other cultural traditions in the northern hemisphere. Death and rebirth, the afterlife and it's relation to the living, and the great mystery are universal in human thought and naturally are tied to nature. A process of synchretization takes place when a new religion comes to dominate in any people whereby ideas of the sacred in the new religion become aligned with the sacred in the old religion. Not only do elements of both survive in a new synthesis but they are perhaps turned a bit so that all fit in place. The Christian churches were built on the sacred sites along the mysterious ley lines in France and in Ireland and the British Isle. In Haiti the Holy Trinity, Blessed mother and saints became identified with African loas in Voudon tradition. With All Saints day one sees the techtonic wheels of the calendars of Eire and of the pre-Columbian world turning to arrive at the Church's official days of remembrance of the saints and the dead.

And everyone loves a bonfire this time of year. Bonfires from the Celtic "bone-fires" burning the skeletons of the animals slaughtered after the Summer. The veil is made thin by all the dying plants and slaughtered animals in the season of Samhain.

I spend my evening hour tonight taking the bus to attend Mass at the chapel of small Catholic college. I hadn't been there for a few weeks after over a decade of weekly attendance. It's always a moving experience and it was for me particularly this night after my irregular heartbeat worries. It is the place I truly learned to sing, to sing without over-self-consciousness, to sing from the heart and to sing to God. The experience of faith regardless of how absurd the precepts may sound to a skeptic is profound and if you believe you are praying and singing to God other people's arguments are beyond irrelevant.
I dawns on me that I have not taken my pill before the Mass began at my customary med time of five o'clock. So just as the Gospel begins I crouch behind the brothers and dig my pill-box out of my book-bag. Then not enough saliva to swallow it's foulness I have to dive again to dig some dried pineapple out of the crowded clutch. But it kicks in and I'm able to feel well enough to get the full benefit of this beautiful and healing sacrament in this jewel-box of a sacred place, my San Chapelle. At the moment when the priest asks who shall we pray for I aloud say the names of my family and my friends who have died.
After Mass I realize in the fading daylight and advancing chill that my black beret is missing. Nowhere on the floor I deduce it must have been found and say again,"c'est la vie." Then we walked down to College avenue, my friend Barbara and I. She has a new hypertension diagnosis. I listen and offer the benefit of my experience as a sufferer. We are both cheered by friendship founded on the mutual lifeboat
I'm wearing in addition to my saints medal a little articulated skeleton in black enamel with rhinestone eyes. He hangs from the button-down button of my shirt collar. On the way to five-o'clock Mass I hopped off my local 49 bus when it reached the Haight-Ashbury of Berkeley, Telegraph and Durant. Students poured through otherwise quiet precincts. I'm bound for a haircut at the Intensity barber shop. Someone must have tipped the owner it was hip to say barber shop. But since my old-time barber quit the biz the only old-style place I know of is a weird vintage nostalgia-esque place on College Avenue that's never open--pile of mail inside.
Outside I see a striking tall gal on her way back inside. Are you the hair-cutter I ask with relief now that I see that it isn't a Chinese lady. It is she. I ask the cost and say I'll be right back --that I must hit the automatic teller. She seems to doubt me a little, whitish hair and all. But I do return pronto for a very stylish and I dare say hip cut by lovely Sandrine. Ah, Sandrine of an old guy's dreams. We talk fast friends the whole time. She extracts the story of my former marriage to a woman whose parents objected to my being Gentile. Little did I notice that a guy loafing, maybe owner, seemed almost Israeli to me when he too entered our chat. He seemed to actually run the new high-gloss falafel chain store down telegraph. I have tried it from a sidewalk sample drone--tasty but really not a fairly common food-stuff hereabouts to bet your shirt on. I sensed this while bemoaning with him the dearth of consumer foot traffic on the Avenue these days. Say I'll try to go some night before a Moe's reading and perhaps I may.
So adieu to my young friend I'll return another cut by her when I can.

Back at the ranch I go out to the pumpkin load zone in the backyard with the balance of my dinner stout in a glass. In a quick flurry of activity I recover a half-made jack-0-lantern from the behind picnic table and create my own from it. A kid and his Mom presumably had opened and emptied it and started two simple triangular eyes. I try to add nose and mouth then observe that earlier incisions had already occurred in the region. I give it a huge greedy grin and reattach a section for the nose. Next I rely on the garden to supply additional features such as a green skinned squash stuffed inside, its stem poking out like a tongue or a cigar. For eyes two cheery cherry tomatoes and out of his skull cap a jaunty marigold. All this rests on a broad squash leaf with a total of five tea-lights to light it inside and out. "The Producer" (see photo).
Here shared the picnic table with a two-foot wide orange hard-type "pumpkin."
Next I light a completed Jack or in this case Jill with spiral eyes to which I add a witch's hat with long black wig attached--the proverbial wig-hat of the blues. Surrounded by the un-carved squash collection and more squash leaves and candles it all made for a stunning backyard tableau. Later tonight I come back for a wee smoke under the stars with the silent chorus of vari-colored and illuminated gourds.

Hallowe'en ambiance continued all the following week past Guy Fawkes night on Friday through to the first Sunday after the Dark Hallows and beyond. I maintained our pumpkin flock out back and to some extent on the front steps too. There early jacks were succumbing to mild weather and fruit flies. In the mouth of a sturdier carved hard "pumpkin" with toothy maw was a smaller squash-face being devoured. Oddly when I looked again the next day the little pumpkin squash was missing. There followed a definite replacement example certainly not the same one. A miniscule mystery. I asked the folks downstairs when I next saw them. They had replaced the first one when it went missing. Odd.
Next morning as I rose before dawn to hit the water closet I see orange in the pepper tree and start to think o the sun is rising an orange ray has struck it. Look again observe that it is not the case. I squint at the color with too early to rise eyes and can't identify it. Later in the day I look again and it dawns on me it is the little missing jack positioned upright in the tree as if it were looking in at me.
Theories followed. Who would put it there? A trickster tossing it up until it stayed, as unlikely as the idea of an adult risking his neck to climb it. I began to suspect some kids from next door when I saw them inexplicably choosing the commencement of a rain shower to send one of them up the tree. Did they want to retrieve the pumpkin after putting it there themselves? I wanted to ask them but didn't want to frighten them. The girl was unsuccessful in scaling the newly wet trunk, walking up doubled over to use her hands as well. I started downstairs to go out and talk to them but they were gone by the time I arrived. Still perched in the tree the little jack grinned down not without a hint of derision.
As the days passed the solution that a squirrel had stashed it arose. It seems far too heavy for a squirrel, I could believe a raccoon. Then there were signs it was being eaten and soon it was gone. Another small real and apparently extra sweet pumpkin had been utterly demolished and ruling out the abundant but noisy crows or the raccoons it must have been the beefy squirrels one sees about. Down on the corner I see big juicy pine cones chewed by them and discarded like corn cobs. Helen who lives there says even the little ones run the trees with large cones.
So one is forced to concede that the notion any one placed the little voodoo jack there to spook me is utterly false and paranoid to even consider.

So as the week passed and most of the houses faded out in their orange glow. On my neighborhood walks I still see the odd display still lit, a notable one has eerily glowing white hands protruding from a column of viney leaves. There's another display close by my home, a lace that I have long suspected of Hallowe'en die-hard tendencies. They for example have the bones of a large plastic skeleton popping out of the dirt there all year long. I stop spark the herb frequently and chuckle over the orange and green lights spiraling up a tree the white-cloth ghosts hanging from the porch roof, and best of all the spider gate. Their wooden gateway is over-decorated with hanging lights, skeins of spider web stuff, hanging spider lights, and blinking googled-eyed bulging eye-glasses with eyes. This is their own private nightmare before Thanksgiving and counting

draft written entirely in three successive sunday sessions on super gingerbread. I will return to correct revise and edit some velvet morning when I'm straight.

"If you write stoned edit straight. If you write straight edit stoned." Timothy Leary

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Inward Empire

The Flaneur resumes his regular feuillton from the tree-lined boulevards, the noirish back alleys and the bald pedestrian bridges of Berkeley. He has relocated to a long-familiar section of town called in its storied history the McGee-Spaulding District.

It unfolds its deeply Berkeley character to me as I observe it's mostly peaceful streets at all hours of the day or night. Like many of us, its vegetation could use a trim and there is an artful recycling of vintage elements. Amid the inescapable chatter and beeping of 2010 a strain of 20th century hip style remains--as artfully applied as the patches on Neal Young's old bell-bottoms.

The borders of my new part of town are set as between Sacramento Street and Martin Luther King, Jr Boulevard; and between Dwight Way and University Avenue. California Street is somehow it's center and on a traffic island at the intersection with Dwight, a sign marks its history.
It seems that in 1820, King of Spain granted the land to a Luis Peralta. His children sold it to a San Francisco businessman who in turn flipped it to an intrepid Irish immigrant named James McGee. On the land he ran a successful farm and he became one of the leading political voices around town. In an effort to promote his property values and his own prestige he funded the original St Joseph's Catholic church and proposed the area as town center. Newspapers ridiculed the idea of a City Hall built in the middle of a farm and before long the facts on the ground settled the issue as it stands today. City Hall landed not very far away from St Joseph the Worker as the church is now named and whose occasional bells toll a somewhat mournful sound in my solitude.
Fields of barley, orchards and livestock remained. Apparently the area stayed farmland through the 19th Century, long after the entire city was subdivided for housing. It was only after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1908 that real building took place, notably by 1912 when the Southern Pacific railroad ran a train down California street. A sort of grandness persists in the lay-out of very wide streets hosting rows venerable trees. There are some distinctive older houses and an occasional showy newer place but a rather humble middle-class architecture prevails.

And yet somehow in my perception the area retains a strangely rural flavor--an old fence, a raspberry bush, the noble, aged trees, the wild fauna and domestic gardens, the house cats strolling unmolested down the center of sidewalks.
I picture this central region of Berkeley as having an unexplained analogy to the Central Valley of California sometimes called the Inland Empire. In my solitude and contemplation I have come to regard my new neighborhood and my new abode as an inward empire. After my 30 year long habitation, after serious consideration of migrating elsewhere, in an outward direction, I had instead moved inward toward the heart of Berkeley. A less public nervous cerebral scary exciting happening dreadful crowded competitive part of town than university-side central Berkeley where I had been living for six years.
To digress perhaps on the Inland Empire... it has struck me for quite a long time that when seen from an aerial topographical map the San Joaquin Valley as defined by two long rather labial mountain ranges resembles the topography of a vulva. One can stretch the symbolism of this any number of ways, but in my own subjectivity the womb association extends from Inland Empire to my local Inward Empire. It has to do with the face I wore before I was born.

It is also a neighborhood that begins a more racially integrated Berkeley. Oddly, sort of a Mason-Dixon line can be detected after which, African-American owned homes begin to proliferate. There is still such a line discernible at Dwight Way and it determined what sort of activities took place south of it. The gun play has diminished as far as I can tell. I walk some of the blocks in that direction in tranquility. Most of the houses are attractive even if there is an occasional crime-watch tone, a grim suspiciousness, say a barred window. Even in the hot crack years, the action was outside the Spaulding-McGee district. This is not to imply that we don't see cops with flashing lights racing around the hood now and again. Berkeley is always ready to respond with profuse cops-in-cars, often just one cop per car. This policy is perhaps in inverse ratio to the idea of foot patrols as the most humanitarian and effective way to keep urban communities peaceful and safe.

So, bucolic, artisanal, educated yet working class, liberal, casual as the place is, there is still an edge. And in the general disappointment of the American dream, there is some anomie and friction among local residents as well, without doubt.
The trains sounding as they pass West of here are frequent and can seem loud. I happen to love the sound but there has been many over the years who object to the volume, frequency, and duration of the train whistles. In other words, they moved into West Berkeley alongside the tracks, presumably with knowledge of the situation, and then try to force the trains to "keep it down."
A similar disharmony exists between the newer not-in-my-back-yard residents and the older-style Berkeley residents over such Aquarian age hold-overs as People's Park and a free-box on Channing not far from my abode.
Thems-that-got never knew or have forgot what it's like to live and to have not. Some local home-owners are chagrined by the thought of having the needy falling by to look for sweaters or pants or children's clothes. They maintain that it's presence damages their property value. But many more residents bring their donations by the venerable old wooden box with a hinged top and some occasionally score something themselves from it. And many leave useful and interesting housewares in individual sidewalk free boxes as they move-out or merely decide the items are no longer needed. To me this represents an endearing folkway, one that I hope endures.

Recently, I have scored coffee mugs, an as-new audio cassette dubbing deck, a rocking chair, among other furnishings. My most astounding find of them all occurred only after I had rejected the idea of accepting any sort of donated mattress. I can't help but regard a second-hand mattress as the fossil record of other peoples effluvia, you dig? Yet I needed a replacement for the one I tossed-out as I left my last pad. I was dreading the hassle of shopping for a new one and then getting it home.
When, deus ex machina, the house two doors down put something out with the sidewalk shrubs-- a blindingly white oblong with a sign reading "free mattress." I stopped and looked it over. I fully expected to reject it only to decide it merited closer inspection. It has a pure cotton cover over firm foam layers, and overall can be folded once which I did to get inside under the lamp for examination. All the while blessed darkness obscured my ungainly task.
Incredibly, not only was it immaculate and seemingly never used it even had a quite recent date stamped on its tag. Brought home for guests, it may have been little-used and cumbersome to store. I had to accept it's suitability and to be grateful for the good fortune. It perfectly fits my deck bed with its subliminal drawers full of CDs and on it I have the peaceful slumber of the angels. In fact when I recline on it while watching a film on DVD, uncharacteristic for me, I fall soundly asleep.

My new situation is so quiet and dark at night after what I had been accustomed to, I no longer require earplugs and blindfolds. I sleep at any hour, the direct sunlight softened by the great shifting pepper tree; the lone streetlight absorbed by it at night. The burdensome strata of the care-worn years accumulated on my weary shoulders waft away in the billowing peace behind my eyes.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Return of the the Flaneur: 14 poems of summer

At last our correspondent can see his way clear to resume regular columns in October. Writings will be predominantly in prose and will fulfill the original intention of observing street life in Berkeley, California. The Flaneur has a new residence in a different part of town and he is eager to describe his comings and goings in anecdotal detail.
In the interim, here are a few lines from his lost and somewhat indolent Summer.

* * *

Two brownies alight
at the ashcan near me
Soundless weightless sprites
The lightness of childhood
in June
In sunlight between trees
Up there at this late hour
The rest sinks into deepest green
The nimbus of a squirrel's tail
catches a ray of sun
Crossing a cool glade
on a telephone line

* * *

on a distant hillside
an area still in sunlight
like an unreachable blessed state
an alternative day

floating over the town unaware
the town afloat in fog
a saber-tooth fog
in this never-warm summer

moments when the jewel-like
pepper tree moves in the light
bees coming and going
as seen through a panel of antique lace

hung-up in my tree-house window
receding into the monochrome
gray-green of the overcast world
timelessness the elongated dusk

* * *

asleep but where am I?
gradually zero-in on myself
dozing in a chair in my new pad
jazz drum solo on the radio

* * *

awake at some small hour
look out my new window
as a lone raccoon crosses McGee
backing up even as he walks forward
so sensitive, so cautious

* * *

Turkey in the Straw

chill sunday evening
pink ice cream truck jingles by
no children outdoors

* * *

skeins of clouds
cascade over the gate

break free of the vast
impending fog glacier

and form ghost columns
marching over the still sunny bay

others embody free white sprites
that lead on the immense onslaught

somnolent vales brace themselves as
on come the clouds the cold the night

* * *

a thought that life was over
a cloud skull
turns into a clown

* * *

Berkeley Marina

a hundred boats at rest
no one on them
the sound of the freeway
almost far enough away

to the westernmost point
choral wind in a dense pine
seagulls in cinemascope
sound like rusty hinges

distant fog hovers at the gate
kites never stop pulling
strollers are whisked off
in the wordless wind

in the orchestral quietude

* * *

a line of sailboats scoots
this way across the bay
fleeing a thick marine layer
disappearing into it

* * *

Notes on an Old Dark House

The house cat sleeps out back and is owned by no one
with no fixed name
A dozen years old he has exquisite articulated markings
on his pangolin jacket
He wears a stark white waist coat after dark
lurking behind flowers hidden by leaves
At the far end of the gourdy garden
on ground strewn with straw
He takes a drink from a child's wading pool
under jupiter so brilliant and near

In the pantry a ghost moves one afternoon
shifts imperceptibly as I pass
like a ripple in a mirror
A moth enters in the window
in tranquil night time
Wings turn red on the lamp-lit wall
by the red smoking sign

An early land grant haunting
a house built of old growth trees
Vertiginous windows over the treetops
roof-top mammals look back in at me
Older arbors arch into the maxfield parish sky
the magazine sunset over the sea
Planets and the moon revolve this way
over the yellow hills, over my green green bed

* * *

low sunlight on trees
in front of the dark fog bank
hyper reality

* * *

Stars come into my bedroom
I can't keep them out
film loop of jupiter

* * *

Garden Rhapsody

dragonflies sew my eyelashes shut,
bees venture deeply into my ear canal,
lady bugs decorate my loincloth,
earthworms emigrate into my night soil,
spiders bind my ankles to hoist me perpendicular,
grasshoppers make me jumpy,
infinitesimal ants explore every inch,
butterflies alight on my lips,
clapping their powdery wings
they mock my every utterance

* * *

crows bum rush the sky
flying motorcycle gang
black leather feathers

* * *

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

Big Dream

Strange dislocations and a breakthrough in the Flaneur's fraught dream life.

Waking in an apartment in San Francisco where I'm now residing with room mates. I have to catch a bus downtown like in my old Berkeley commute days thirty years ago.
I walk up two blocks to the street where the bus-stop for that direction is located. A bus comes and I get on without checking the direction. I don't pay and sit up front. Then I remember I should pay and attempt to do so. The driver waves me off instead. Oddly the pay box is located to his left near the window.
Before long I realize he is not going on the intended route. It is a huge circuitous journey through non-descript industrial sections along the bay. Eventually we are driving along a flatland by the bay. The waves wash up and over the road but we plow through anyway. There are no more buildings and no other traffic out here. We come to the furthest point, the edge of a parking lot, and then turn back.
Then we are climbing and the view outside is of an Escher-like maze of girders and structures abstract in their complexity. I realize that we are under the Golden Gate bridge. At the apogee of this trajectory we turn back to climb down again. What I see outside the window now appears in a rhomboid-shaped portal surrounded by darkness. It is an astonishing vista of the bay waters and land, incredibly beautiful in color, movement and light.
Before long we are again on drab industrial streets heading in toward downtown, toward more familiar territory.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cleaning House

In an attempt to avoid burial in it, the Flaneur sheds his collector's morbidity to reach a lighter future.

The burden of the past and my tendency to accumulate photos, books, recordings, artifacts, objects of all kinds in addition to one's wardrobe, furniture, cooking equipment, and the many necessities of life, have all been on my mind of late.
Great when your writing criticism or doing research to have the vastness of an obsessive-compulsive library at yr disposal. And of course there is the aleatory joy of discovering a unread great or an old favorite book among one's shelves.
Then there's the insight and nostalgia available in old photographs and the myriad cultural souvenirs of an avid enthusiast's past. But really, it all ends up as the detritus of one's learning, thinking, and unconscious tides. It forms a weight, a dragon one's forward movement, like the Surrealist hero in Le Chien Andalou dragging his yoke of ropes, pulling an accumulation of bound priests, donkey cadavers and a grand piano through a bourgeois drawing room.

Woefully I concede that I am more of a 20th century man than any longer a man of my times. Yet I have finally seen the wisdom and resolve to roll with the new to the best of my ability. All the yellowing culture clutter I'll shed will still be with me and will resurface in my mind as needed. I can always research on-line now when I need to. Of course everything, including all information, will still decay or be lost or destroyed.
The digitally-stored will go just like even the carefully preserved books and drawing of Michelangelo and Blake, the great paintings in oil on canvas, and most art of all kinds will go. Somethings may be unearthed again intact but even the pyramids must one day come to dust.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Year in Mourning

On 8 January 2010, one year after my mother passed on at age 96, I sat outside in the sunshine musing over memories of her. Risking sentimentality, I transcribe here some of what I wrote which is in turn a mere glimpse of the remembrances that I didn't get down.

December nights my Mother and I would venture out in the cold night after supper to see the lights, to see how people had decorated their homes for Christmas. There was an abundance of trees, wreathes, and front porches outlined in the fat-bulb colored lights. Some homes had succumbed to modernist kitsch with silver trees and revolving color-wheel spotlights. We would walk a few residential blocks over to the vicinity of George B. Stone school and back home the same way. My Mother was well-read, intelligent and full of humor and we would carry on conversations as if we were both adults. She would inspire me with her sense of wonder at the adequacy and outright goodness of life, of the profound experience of viewing the starry sky. What ever inklings of wisdom I have today I owe to her nature and her example.

On my first day of pre-primary school at George B. Stone, my Mother stayed along with the other mothers through the morning. The idea was to gradually get the kids used to being apart from their mothers who generally were home with us during our first five years.
When we came in from a recess in the schoolyard, I looked around and quickly saw that she was now gone. I ran straight out of the classroom, out of the front door of the school, up Globe street, and around the corner to Garfield street, yelling "Ma"! I caught up with her mid-block. With her typical good-nature she dutifully walked me back to school. She stayed a while maybe until school was out, but by the next day I had accepted the fact of our separation and was dropped -off while many mothers were still required to stay and placate their jittery kids.

Once we were walking with my brother at an undeveloped area known as the circus grounds. It was a Summer night and dark there--we may have been there for the Fourth of July fireworks. Then without warning my mother stepped in a hole and fell down onto the long grass. It was a new experience for me, a frightening realization that even adults were subject to spills. She was the ship, the rudder and the mast that kept our family afloat. I think I came to a new maturity with the realization that I needed to help her and try to protect her from hazards.
She later told me that when she was a little girl a man had appeared in broad daylight at those circus grounds and attempted to entice her and a friend. She said he eventually exposed himself to them as they ran away.

I remember vignettes from that old disappeared way of life in the 1950s--such as the Christmas parties at the American legion Hall downtown. Refreshments and entertainment of the homiest sort prevailed. They gave us kids those old-fashioned red-mesh Christmas stockings, packages for candy and toys that were made-in-Japan. My Mother occasionally spoke, giving a report or something and she was later elected head officer, but I think we were able to skip going ourselves by then.

She would take us, three boys and herself, downtown in a taxi. We would ride as far as a certain beauty salon on Second street and then walk the rest of the way to save funds. We would shop for clothes at McWhirrs department store with it's great wall-plaques with taxidermy sailfish and swordfish. We always had finery for Sunday Mass and other best wear events, and generally were dressed nice enough to draw comments from others.
The downtown then was thriving, lively and a great deal of fun. Huge Christmas decorations were attached to the facades of buildings. The five-and-dimes were packed with everything from 45 RPM singles to pet shops. We always seemed to have parakeets or a canary or two at home and plenty of records which somehow we never got tired of playing.
On occasional Sunday nights, she and I would take a cab to the beauty shop and walk another block to St Mary's church for Mass. Afterward we would go to Adams' drugstore where I would get a reward of a candy bar and a comic book or a Mad magazine.
Some nights after church, I would escort her to the Eagle Annex restaurant. It was sort of a soigne affair. It was my introduction to "fine dining" and I would always get the fried clam plate. We would leave as the orchestra began to play and my Mother's impeccable sense of decorum dictated that it was the right moment. The eagle was transforming into a nightclub for couples, adults only.

On one night still vivid in my memory, we were walking on Stafford road, a high road that capped our street. Our destination was a firehouse where she was turning in the proceeds from some door-to-door appeal she had volunteered for--the March of Dimes or the heart fund or something similar. Men were gathered in a vacant lot across the street, silhouetted against a large bonfire of branches and leaves. She shared my sense of wonder and enjoyment of the nocturnal, autumnal scene slanting toward Hallowe'en.

At some point in my early childhood she began to cook for the nuns at the convent attached to the school I attended, St Patrick's. A half-day's work brought her a small stipend and some foodstuff from the school larder to take home, helping to sustain her three sons. It was strange on the odd occasions when I would see her there, outside of her familiar context, when we were both on best behavior. She enjoyed the increased circulation and became dear friends with a saintly nun named Sister Matthew who didn't join the other nuns as our teachers but stayed at the convent with Mom. Sister Matthew died while I was still at school there, as I was for eight long years. They marched us kids through the convent to see her in her coffin I believe. I know we had done so for Sister Vincent my first grade teacher who died the year afterward--I was in the second half of the baby boom and my class finished off many an out-moded teacher and teaching as we passed through the system. Sister Vincent had been rather mean to me after the unconditional love from my Mother and after the sweet old-maid Miss Taylor who had been my pre-primary teacher at George B. Stone and who lived in an immaculate house on nearby Garfield street. I cannot say I felt terribly sad when I saw Sister Vincent in her casket.
When my Mother started working there, the nuns eased up on punishments for my brothers and me, saying they would tell my Mother instead-- she who rarely punished at all. That was most agreeable to us.
And my Mother's presence at the convent was a great help in one singular incident from my youth. One day a week, we used to withhold the twenty-five cent payment for a cafeteria meal and, under the banner of going home for lunch, go out to local diners. The food was more fun and we would have freedom on the open streets until the bell rang. This sometimes led to a little trouble as it did one frigid winter noon.
Two daring pals and I had walked out on some recent ice over a pond connected to a factory complex. I was recklessly pounding my foot on the ice testing its strength, when it broke though plunging me into the drink. I pushed myself toward the surface only to find a ceiling of dim daylight through the opaque ice over my head. Somehow I struggled and found the hole I came through. I endeavored to push myself back into this day-lit world only to have the edge break again followed by another shallow plunge. One friend came back on the ice to try to help but the whole ice surface began to break up with my desperate activity. I had not even learned to swim by that age, yet somehow I persevered and made it to bank where the friend pulled me up. The other continued to laugh hysterically, because, in that sociopathic way boys can have, he thought it was unbelievably funny.
Dripping wet in the cold noon, I made it back straight to the convent where I knew Mom and the most certain rescue would be. we rode home in taxi and I was dried, rubbed with rubbing alcohol, and given a little brandy as I was put to bed. The brothers came in hear what happened and to laugh at my wet proto-beatle boots. I gained the name "Swampy" from their snarky friends. I didn't mind... everyone knew they admired me for saving my ass with valor.
The next day the nuns busted me for not coming to them first to ask permission to leave school. While I was soaked in ice water walking back in the twenty-degree day I had made a line of survival to my Mom and so questioned their authority. This was despite the fact the nuns knew, my Mother certainly called, and the two other rascals were back in class to tell the tale of my absence.

"Look at the sky tonight, Stephen! Look at that sunset!" My Mother would say.
And I still do. With the love she gave me.
In perpetuity.

(more to come)