Sunday, January 31, 2016

Luke


I should probably camouflage his identity. Call him “Luke.”

I thought of him as “walking wounded.” One of life’s people who could never catch a break.

He was gay, and had grown up in Texas, which must have been a tough combination back before we knew him in L.A. I can pinpoint the time because it was right around when President Kennedy was assassinated, 1963.

He had a strong resemblance to the young Abraham Lincoln; tall and rangy, hollow-cheeked. Or maybe it was to Raymond Massey’s portrayal of Lincoln.     The resemblance ended there, of course.

He succeeded in writing some articles about the Old West for some Old West magazines, but he wasn’t “a writer.” He wasn’t anything consistently but picked up work as he could. He’d wash dishes in a friend’s restaurant when business was good and the friend could afford it. Somewhere along the line he had made contact with a fading movie star, and had become her gopher. She exploited him shamelessly but, star-struck, he didn’t see it that way.

We had introduced him to another gay friend (who was spoken for), and Luke affected a transparent and annoying pretense of “forgetting” Richard’s name if the subject came up -- his way of telling us he wasn’t interested. Not at all.

His own sex life, as far as we understood  it, seemed to be a series of encounters from which he usually emerged scathed. Meeting “Gabe” was probably the best thing that had happened to him in a long time, and we were happy to see it develop into a stable relationship. They were an unlikely couple for background and appearance, but it worked. Gabe had a steady job and things settled down.

It really looked like it would go on that way, but Luke had a heart attack. He wasn’t very old, but I imagine the stresses of his life had something to do with it. When we heard about it we visited him in the hospital, and he seemed reasonably alright. But he had no insurance, and I tried to think of some way to bring him in under mine to keep him there. Of course  there was no way, so immediately he was “stabilized” the private hospital shipped him out to County General.  

I don’t mean to make that sound like a death sentence; I’m sure the medical people there try hard to treat people right. But I’m just as sure they must be overwhelmed, because it’s a huge hospital and you have to figure they’re getting the bad cases and a lot of them. Anyway, Luke died there before we ever saw him again. I think we spoke to Gabe once or twice afterward, but that was the end of it.

Fifty-odd years later I still try to think of what we shoulda/coulda/mighta done, but I haven’t come up with anything. Like I said, he was one of life’s losers, and he just wasn’t destined to get any breaks.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Russ

  
He’d been a “club fighter” in his early years in Boston, but somehow had gotten off that path and away from what it might have led to. I knew him as a fellow writer when we worked together at the L.A. Times.

There was still plenty of the tough kid about him, though. When he and the owner of the bar we frequented found themselves in disagreement on some point, they squared off. I, in my innocence, thought they were joking, and did an imitation of a referee separating them in the ring. They weren’t joking, and I had positioned myself to have my teeth unintentionally but effectively rearranged, from either of two directions. That may have been all that prevented things from running their course. I’d never been with the circus, but it was in that grand old tradition: if things start to look ugly you send in the clowns.

At heart he was a sports writer and went on to write and publish a skiing magazine. It was at the time Jean and I and two partners were struggling with a mailorder/handcrafts/giftwares business near Yosemite National Park. He “discovered” us one winter and featured us on his front page for ski enthusiasts heading to Yosemite. I don’t know if it actually created any business for us, but it was a wonderful gesture.

But the greatest thing he did for us came when we finally gave up the business and returned to L.A. It was Russ who took us out, almost the first evening we were back, to dinner at Little Joe’s restaurant and bar downtown. It’s hard to describe the feeling. Fresh from seven years in a backwoods community that hadn’t yet made it out of the 19th century, he transported us to an ambience of soft lights, good food, the buzz of conversation of people who sounded like us, and billows of cigarette smoke. We knew we were really home then.               

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Poncho


The weather is holding remarkably here for January. The rain in the first week lasted about a day, and at the end of the week it was blue skies and warm. It has not really rained since. Of course it can’t last, but it makes for an amazing January while it’s here. Other parts of the country are seeing floods, and I think New York is having unseasonal warmth (the January 11 New Yorker cover portrays people bathing in a warm Rockefeller Center ice-rink-turned-swimming pool). Everything is out of kilter.

In anticipation of a rainy season, which we’re assured is coming, I bought two army surplus rain ponchos several months ago.  That first week’s rain provided the occasion to unwrap them, or maybe “unfurl” would be the better description.

Each comes tightly wrapped in a plastic ball about the size of a softball. Once out of its envelope, however, it unfurls into what proves to be a large sheet of black plastic with a hood in the middle. You stick your head through a hole in the plastic sheet and into the hood. A drawstring lets you pull the hood tight around your face. The rest of the sheet then drapes itself  around you shapelessly but effectively. It is impossible to fold it back into that softball-size envelope.

There are multiple snaps and laces, as is typical of army gear, but there is a particularly ingenious aspect to this item: snap two of them together and you have   a tent.


A hat rounds out the ensemble. The “boonie” hat is also black, this time of canvas, with a wide brim to divert the water away from the face. As you would expect, it has a chin strap. I’m not yet clear on whether you perch it atop your hood -- that would seem redundant -- or wear it instead of the hood, maybe in lighter rain. In any case, fully attired in my rain outfit, particularly with that black hood drawn tight around my face, I look like the Grim Reaper, but I am near-impervious to water damage. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Leafblowers


Who invented the leafblower?

The bigger question is “Why?” Rakes and brooms have worked wonderfully for centuries. I’ve watched our gardeners round up fallen leaves with their blowers on days when a fresh wind put everything back where it was before the blower went through.

Still another question -- maybe the fundamental question: “Why gather up fallen leaves at all?”  Ain’t nothin’ more biodegradable than nature’s own artifacts. And wouldn’t leaving them on the ground make mulch? Or do I have it confused with humus?

The blower tradeoff is noise for speed, but it seems a bad one. Rakes and brooms would keep more people in jobs, which we don’t have enough of in today’s economy, and they minimize noise, something of which we have too much. Changing back would be a win-win.

I’ve wondered if there may not be another element in the situation. Is the broom considered a woman’s instrument, not to be wielded when machismo is at stake? The blower is sort of like a gun, and the sound is impossible to ignore if you’re in the same county. Everyone knows you’re there, working; it’s a statement.

The irritation is fresh because a lone gardener has just started up a leafblower about 30 feet from my bench. Working against the wind, he’s managed to blow a scattering of leaves on the walkway into a pile on the greenbelt. As best I can tell he’s doing this so the leaves can be picked up and taken away.

All kinds of new questions occur. Where will the leaves be taken? Is it to a better place than where they’re lying now? Why move them at all? They’re not in the way. They’re a byproduct of having trees, and we all like having trees around.       In fact, those same gardeners work hard the rest of the year at keeping our trees healthy. In an odd way, when the leaves are born the gardeners are midwives.   When the leaves change and die, the gardeners, too, change; they become           grim reapers, with leafblowers for scythes. 




Sunday, January 3, 2016

Random Images


There are images that stick in my mind that are so unimportant I can’t imagine why I remember them. And they stay for decades.

A highschooler in track team uniform puts on a burst of speed to outrun a friend. That’s it. No beginning and no end. I didn’t know either of the people.

It’s something like a dream, but I know it wasn’t. I can show you where I was standing at the time. Besides, dreams can be significant at some level; this image is meaningless for me. But for whatever reason, the shutter in my brain snapped at that moment, and the image was recorded somewhere in its billions of cells.

My uncle is in the Navy, 1943. Visiting us, he goes down the steps from the street taking his whites to the apartment house basement where there’s a washing machine.

We’re walking the family dog in an overgrown lot favored by dog-walkers An exotic-looking butterfly perches on a leaf. To get a closer look at it, a man hits it with the end of the leash in his hand and destroys it.

A day at the beach with friends. The reflection of the sun bounces off the water a particular way. I’ve been to the beach hundreds of times; why do I remember this day? Nothing special happened. Thirty years earlier, a different beach: a lifeguard gathers half-a-dozen of us kids one evening and hands out sets of commemorative stamps showing, if I remember this part right, pictures of state capitols. It’s bizarre; I couldn’t have explained it even then, but I remember it.  

The “snap of the shutter” has to be more than just an analogy; I think something resembling that must really happen, physically or chemically. The image is set in just that moment, and it remains. There’s a lot of research going on today into how the brain works; I’d like to see someone pick up on this. I’d volunteer to strap on the electrodes.  

Does it happen that way to everyone? That would be my guess, but I could be wired in some strange way. Then, too, I’ve heard that one of the first signs of dementia is increasingly vivid memory of past events. I think it’s accompanied by forgetfulness of current ones, but I don’t remember that happening.