Friday, December 17, 2004

Enough darkness...

...for now.

Berkeley, for all its unbelievability as a municipality, has some amazing neighborhoods to walk through. Just this morning, on my way to work, I strolled down Mariposa Street. Mariposa runs in a straight line from Los Angeles Avenue to Amador Street. It is lined with enormous, leafy sycamore trees, and large stately homes from about the late 1920's to the 1930's. It's runs south by southwest through the southern edge of what was once known as Berkeley Heights. It isn't the highest part of the Berkeley Hills, and not that far removed from one of the main north-south arteries leading from downtown to the Thousand Oaks district through the Solano Tunnel. It simply feels removed. It has a stately, quiet air, never more evident than at about 7:30 in the morning. The width of the road befits the homes on either side. Houses like that need space, elbow room, as it were, or they just look like 1930's version of McMansions.

This morning, the street was somewhat misty, and the air was cold. It was very quiet. I could barely hear the traffic noise rising up from Sutter Street as cars and buses barrelled out of the Solano Tunnel. There was a contractor showing up early to work on a remodeling job, and three boys hanging out waiting for a parent to drive them to school. I had been hurrying along, trying to keep warm with my chin tucked down inside my muffler, and my hands in my pockets. Hard to walk quickly when you can't swing you arms, you know. Anyhow, after a few yards, I slowed consciously. Something told me to soak it in. Something said that the day ahead could be like any other, but value this quiet green street. Treat it as an episode of missing time. "You are no longer in the year 2004! The year is 1936. Make the most of it! It will only last until you come to the end of the block!"

It was almost true. When I turned southeast on Amador Street, it became the late Forties. Something just took me out of 1936. I began to think about turning around, wandering down to Hopkins and Sutter, and boarding the F Train to downtown and on over the Bay Bridge to SF, maybe head out to 16th and Bryant and catch the Seals against the Seattle Rainiers, after which I could repair to Tadich Grill for a cocktail and some sand dabs.

Just then, I hit an intersection further south. By this time, it was 1969 and thoughts turned to summer: older brother getting tear-gassed at the intersection of Telegraph and Bancroft, baseball at La Loma Park with P & T Maintenance playing Calvert Typesetting, guzzling endless Shasta sodas at a future blogger's house, and hearing CCR and Crosby, Stills and Nash on the radio.

Sadly, as I rounded the corner onto Walnut, I was shot back to 2004. It was still pleasant. The cold damp kept the noise down, dogs chased each other in Live Oak Park, there was hot coffee in my near future. The main thing was, it was Friday and all bets were least for a while.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Doom on the Open Road

Here is the dark flip side of the romance of the American road trip. There is almost no darker feeling than spending a fine weekend in Vegas, unhinging from the daily drag, throwing money around and generally wallowing in the weirdness of our National Adult Amusement Park, only to find yourself in a miles long, bumper to bumper traffic jam in the stark nothingness of the eastern Mojave.

Imagine you've left Vegas in mid to late afternoon, passed over the border and are rolling toward Baker, looking to make Barstow to check in for the night. You come over a rise between blackened rocks and have to step on the brakes to bring yourself down from 85 mph to 0, jarring your nerves and raising your blood pressure and sinking your spirits. Before you is an endless line of taillights, disappearing over the next rise. The sky is turning a light slate gray as the partially cloudy day turns into a hazy early evening. The air is redolent with exhaust. You're tired, dehydrated, and have a vague but persistent headache despite the decent lunch and the motrin. You're sick of the music on each of the three cds you brought for the trip, and radio stations are few and badly received. There's some banda music on FM from some station in El Centro, fading in and out; hard rock, or whatever passes for that, squawking in abruptly from Vegas; a gospel hour delivered in a faintly southern accent from the Hinkley Valley is all that comes through on AM.

Nothing moves for ten of fifteen minutes. Suddenly, the line begins to roll forward way ahead and you think its finally going to get moving. Taillights switch off as cars go into drive. You're rolling! Wonderful! Finally. You're beginning to feel hungry now and the snacks have been chewed down to highly salty and spiced powder in the bottom of a cellophane bag, but that's OK because the line is mov- AHHHHH! F**K!

Everything has come to a halt. After maybe...maybe half a mile, everyone comes to a complete halt.

Another fifteen minutes passes, it happens again. This time, you get as high as ten mph before you have to stop. Your fingers begin to leave impressions in the wheel. The headache has taken complete control of your entire skull, from the bridge of your nose all the way back to your foramen magnum. Your very brain stem throbs with a dull pain. It's getting later...darker. No sign of Baker. Barstow seems a light year away.

Barstow, fer chrissakes! It used to be a joke (except to those of us lucky enough to be born there, or nearby)! Known far and wide as a really good place to take a piss on the way to Vegas. Now, it seems like your own personal Mecca.

What would you do? As the night progressed, and your progress did not, would you begin to have visions of pulling off into the desert and hulling down for the night, taking the chance that wandering freaks or feral pig hunters would happen upon you as you snore away the night? Would you allow your own personal snarling beast to reach out from its cage and slash the world to bits and drive violently up the center strip until the CHP ran you down like a rabid coyote? Would you endure, meditate, count the little reflecto thingies on the centerstripe, and visualize an ice cold beer in Baker. Would you try to find the hardware store where Raoul Duke somehow discovered the cold six pack of Ballantine Ale? Or would you cross over to the east bound side, and high tail it for Sam's Place, determine not to gamble the night away and to be back on the road at 5AM?

That last would be the smart way to go, but we didn't. In fact, we didn't even spend the night in Barstow. We picked up some sodium saturated glop from McDonald's and drove on through the night; topping Cajon Pass and sliding down into the brightly lit night of San Berdoo to pick up I-10 west. By the time we turned south on 405 we were still mumbling at one another in a not unfriendly way. We nearly cried with relief when we crawled out of the car and across the sidewalk to her front porch. We nearly fell asleep on her front room carpet. Acrylic shag never felt so good.

Friday, December 03, 2004


Hip Liz recently took a Thanksgiving cruise from San Pedro to Ensenada and back. A fine idea, and one that I wish we could have had and followed through on. It also put me in mind of another thing I've always wanted to do, voyaging on a tramp steamer, a Royal Mail steamer, a Mail Vessel, or a banana boat, or what have you. There's something alluring about the lack of sophisticated bars and the strange drinks, organized shore tours, on board swimming pools, and the like. There's got to be something therapeutic about sitting and reading on the afterdeck of a mail vessel like this one, sipping a glass of rum and now and then scanning the horizon with a pair of powerful binoculars, keeping the e'es peeled for the occasional whale spout, or the dangerous, dark, sleek prow of the pirate ship. Garn! Pirates! Run out the guns! Draw your cutlasses, me Hearties! Prepare to repel boarders! We'll have their guts for ratlines, so we will, har har! Pfftui!