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ZYZZYVA nonfiction.

Green Shirt: ZYZZYVA No. 100

ZYZZYVA Issue 100I always wear my crappiest clothes to fly. It’s been my habit for a long time, so long I don’t remember, dating back two decades, quarter of a century. My uniform: well-worn cargoes, brown or khaki, fabric so thin it feels like a bed sheet, soft, threadbare. Old promotional T-shirts, advertising books too ancient, even, to be remaindered; my current favorite highlights an early 1990s exegesis of the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. Button-downs frayed at cuffs and collar, not unlike the ones I wore in high school, although the point then was a certain shabby chic. Such affectations, it should go without saying, no longer compel me, not when I fly or any other time. And yet, perhaps, I am looking for a through line, a link to my younger self, a consistency by which to neutralize my fear.

Fear? I’d be lying if I said it’s not a factor, although this is equally about comfort, since these are the clothes I wear around the house. I am happiest in loose clothes, old, baggy, shapeless, clothes in which I can forget myself. This is a key conflict with flying, as on a plane I never lose touch with my physical existence, my desperation to remain alive. Does that sound overstated? Desperation is a strong emotion, and mostly when I’m in the air, I’m lost in a book, avoiding conversation with my seatmate, trying to crawl outside time a little, to get it over with. Still, I hate to fly—or no, don’t hate it any longer, although I’ll never like it, never feel comfortable strapped into a narrow chair in a long tube full of strangers, shot across the sky like a bullet, all of us aware that we may die. “People are polite on airplanes,” observes Don DeLillo in his play The Day Room. “There’s a whole thrilling layer of politeness, especially in the last few seconds before takeoff, on a transoceanic flight, at sunset, with a crew of sixteen, twenty-four. … Going down the runway, everyone belted in, assigned letters and numbers. The landscape hurtling past, the temperature regulated …We sense the presence of death.”

Here we have the reason flying stirs us, as if we were in a church or synagogue, or any other place where we sit in rows and confront the bitter half-life of our evanescence, pray that we don’t disappear. It’s why air travel used to come attended with such solemnity, why we used to treat it as an occasion of a kind. The first flight I remember—late summer 1967, New York to Los Angeles on an American Airlines 707, movie (Twiggy in The Boy Friend, I want to tell you, although it didn’t come out until four years later) unspooling in sixteen millimeter jags and stutters as the plane traversed the clouds—I wore a tie and blue Brooks Brothers blazer; my mother dressed in pearls and heels. I was six, but even at this age, flying left me edgy: excited, certainly, imagining that we were in a rocket, marveling that the sky could be so static, as if we weren’t moving through it, yet at the same time more than a little unmoored. It was as if some fundamental connection had been severed, and now that we had managed to get up, there was no clear passage for us to come down. The ten-minute rule, I’d later come to understand, since the real danger of flying occurs in the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes, ascent and descent, as we leave the planet and again as we return. There’s a message in all this somewhere, a signifier of release and control. “Be at ‘Full Alert’ During the Critical Periods,” a website called How to Survive a Plane Crash admonishes, but what interests me more is how I might move away from such alertness, how I might, in other words, be reassured.

At six, I already had a full-blown fear of death. My earliest encounter: four years old, in the living room of our small Central Park West apartment, telling my father I envied G.I. Joe because he didn’t have to die. My father was twenty-nine, and not particularly equipped for such a conversation; a decade later, in a different apartment on the other side of the park, he would tell me we were born to be part of the food chain when I asked him, in a fit of adolescent existential torment, what was the purpose of life. On Central Park West, he managed to be softer, either because I was younger or because he himself was not completely formed. Yes, he told me, but then you wouldn’t know the joy of living—a platitude, to be sure, but not untrue, and especially striking given that the joy of living has never been a pleasure he’s embraced. It was two years after that, in our Galaxie 500, driving through an alley in Long Beach, California (where my father had a one-year fellowship; hence, the cross-country flights to visit grandparents, to spend the holidays, to maintain close contact with Manhattan, the glimmering endpoint of my parents’ American Dream), when I had my first experience of (let’s call it) death dread, that pit-of-the stomach panic, like a case of vertigo, when you realize there is no way out. The moment remains as articulated as a film clip, the four of us en route to my father’s cousin’s in the Valley, me leaning over from the back seat, my brother in the corner next to me, playing with a plastic dinosaur, olive green. Even if you could get out of dying, I remember saying, you wouldn’t want to live forever … and then the bottom dropped out of my guts and I was uprooted, without gravity, as if I were in a plane falling from the sky. It wasn’t that one option was impossible and the other inevitable, it was that both were unacceptable, unimaginable, each the inverse of itself. As Philip Roth laments: “The ceaseless perishing. … What an idea! What maniac conceived it?” He’s right, of course, but the real horror is that, even if there were an alternative, it would be just as bad.

Order a copy of Issue No. 100 here.

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Hacks: ZYZZYVA No. 100

ZYZZYVA Issue 100The summer after I graduated from college, I told a bartender that I wanted to be a sportswriter. The bartender claimed to know a sports editor at our local paper, one of the biggest dailies in Southern California. “The dude gets wasted in here all the time,” he said. “I’ll give him your resume.”

A young man is lucky to have these kinds of connections. At the time, I had several paying gigs which, together, nearly amounted to a job. I spent my days coaching at a basketball camp, my nights shelving paperback thrillers at a used bookstore, and on weekends I picked up shifts at the gas station where I had worked throughout high school and college. So I waited on the bartender. It’s worth mentioning that he didn’t work at a cool and seedy bar on the edge of town. He was a bartender at Islands. In any case, he came through. Two weeks after we talked, I got hired as a stringer to cover prep sports. The drunk who passed along my resume got canned just before I arrived, so I never had a chance to thank him for launching my career in journalism.

Before my first assignment—a high school football game in Anaheim between two last place teams—I was approached by one of the senior writers, Walt Brady, who had been covering local prep sports for over two decades. As I would learn, Walt fulfilled every stereotype of the sports desk hack. He was a forty-eight-year-old bachelor with a greasy comb-over. He drove a four-cylinder hatchback and his desk was littered with coffee stained legal pads and toothpicks from club sandwiches.

“Do you know how to do agate?” he asked.

“What’s agate?” I said.

Agate, I learned, simply meant the box scores. That night Walt taught me how to score a high school football game. He pulled up an extra chair to his desk and I sat down next to him. I became instantly familiar with his stench, a sour mixture of sweat and nicotine emanating from the plaid shirt that hung loose off his stooped frame. He talked quickly, in ominous tones, as if imparting some ancient and terrible wisdom, an alchemical formula that would transform my naïve understanding of the world. “In this column, you keep track of rushing yards.”

Nervous, I hung on his every word, and all his pointers would end up being extremely helpful on my first night. He was the only senior writer who bothered to explain howthings worked and what I could expect when I arrived at the game. It was obvious that over the years he had given his agate spiel to dozens, if not hundreds, of stringers. Before I left the office, he advised me to interview as many players as possible.

“They love seeing their name in the paper,” he said. “They’ll cut out your article and keep it the rest of their life.”

Throughout the fall, I spent my Friday nights doing postgame interviews with neckless seventeen-year-olds. “I don’t know what to say,” said one quarterback, pimply and nervous. “I threw it and he caught it.” I loved telling people that I was a sportswriter. It didn’t matter that I was making forty dollars per story and living in my parents’ garage.

After a few months, I became a full-time news assistant, and quit all my other gigs. This was 1998, a million years ago. The sports desk was still arranged in classic horseshoe fashion, copy editors on the rim, copy chief in the slot. All the young news assistants sat off to the side, typing agate and game summaries into an atex mainframe terminal, with its ominous black screen and baroque command functions. Editors handed me proofs and I sent them down to the basement printers via pneumatic tube. I can still hear the “whoosh.”

During the evening lull, I wandered around the sports desk, hoping to bump into the front page columnists. These were the august men I wanted to learn from and emulate, but they were rarely in the office. Instead, they got to fly around the country, covering the Dodgers and Lakers and writing long features about whatever they wanted. One columnist, Scott Gilroy, was in his late twenties. He had a full head of hair and dressed in a rugged and stylish fashion—jeans, boots, corduroy blazer. In the little headshot that appeared next to his byline every week, he exuded an air of hip nonchalance, as if he had arrived on the front page not through effort, but through the irresistible force of his charm and talent. Someday, I imagined, I would be that guy, but in the meantime I was forced to hang out with the ghouls on the copydesk.

They yelled at me to clean up my copy and write better ledes, but mainly they just wanted to get my stories on time so they could slot them and move on to more important things. “Just hit your fucking deadline,” said one guy. “That’s all we care about.” As professionals, the copy editors upheld strict grammatical standards and displayed in their headlines a seemingly inexhaustible genius for pun and alliteration. Suns Scorch Lakers. But as men, they were greedy, flatulent, and depraved. They subsisted on beef jerky and Mountain Dew and they gambled on everything. Through the night, as scores came in from across the country, they’d scream at the television, exhorting underdogs to cover the spread. One night a rim editor looked up from the newswire and pumped his fist.

“Yes!” he cried out, and everyone looked at him.

“What is it?” someone asked.

“Mel Torme just died!”


“I had him in my dead pool,” he said. “I just made two hundred bucks!”

Order a copy of ZYZZYVA Issue No. 100 here.

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The Dead Ones

ZYZZYVA Issue 100You came to say goodbye to her because she was your mentor. Years earlier she had given you something precious, and precious things need their recognition. Instead you sit in her kitchen with its flat Californian light washing in while her husband’s energy pulses most talk out the window. He sidles from around the counter to be with the two of you. How often he has stood beside her talent, you wonder, the way each mate in a partnership does, helping to uphold the myth, her husband a mystery now uncloaked. You recall those moments in her work in which lady characters enjoy their satisfying flirtations: a Mexican shop clerk, a gas station owner. The lipstick applied before she went out. The local gas station owner, an appreciator of Portuguese wine, in vivo, has told you of his appreciation of her, whether it was for that quick intelligence or those miniskirts that managed to survive the sixties in Berkeley along with her Jackie O. hair. A legacy of beauty: by chance you realize, hearing the husband’s name, that years ago you took classes with her daughter, long ago, dancing for the first time and all of you at that pubescent cusp.

The daughter with her long flowing hair had seemed to occupy a calmer moment, a different century. One couldn’t forget such calm. While the husband, father of that flowing-haired girl, mate to that wry mentor, is unforgettable from the other end of the spectrum, small with restless eyes, standing while performing an intake of the vitals, manic at the apparition of you, the former student. He has heard much of you, he says, she passed you the baton, right? While talking, he peels and eats in quick succession three hard-boiled eggs.

The eggs matter. He needs the fuel, being a doctor heading to see clients. They will talk to him about their problems in neat forty-five minute segments. Or is it fifty? For each of those segments his ears will remain, in theory, open while his mouth closed, hiding the impatience he stuffs down with those eggs.

He’s a psychiatrist, she tells you, or maybe a psychologist? A psychoanalyst! She lands on the right profession and is triumphant. The flag plants on accuracy.

In other words, her memory is failing. It had failed, it would fail more. What had been charming ellipses and cutoffs in her prose style now are permanently imbricated in her psyche.

She has forgotten much, a wave of her hand says, but the dry humor remains intact. She takes you to a dusty backroom, she the beautiful teacher, her legs stockinged filaments leading you to a library squeezed in between other domestic needs. My study, she says, and in that spot she has something to tell you, something about horror and loss, what she keeps calling her own good-bye party. As she tells you about it, you hear how much she lives in an echo chamber of recall, and how deeply each echo pierces her anew.


Call mentorship a form of death in life. Why? Because our mentors show us that we must feel the quicksilver shooting through our veins. This is the one life we have! Make use of it.

In a neat back-to-back, two dominoes facing out, you can also say death stays our ultimate mentorship. Then the question remains: must we carry the hearts of everyone until our heart, like a ship crowded with the memory of those who have left, eventually also sinks like they all did? Or could memory itself act as a buoy?

There is a black chair with the impress of his body still upon it. As he faded, he liked to sit there while a party took place. The music played louder while he became more of a phantom, inhabiting his skin and bones as if all the better to shrink from them. Occasionally, indignities overcame. With a helper, he had to excuse himself until eventually he excused himself altogether from the greatest indignity, which is living when you can no longer move. Otherwise the chair still sits there: same creased worn spot where the wrist lay, same grease on the reading-lamp’s swivel-switch, same poetry books he favored, the translations on the facing pages, helpful unlike the music of all those parties. Now all of it explains nothing, as phantom as his body, the memory alone speaking in dream-tongue, polyglot but inscrutable.

Order a copy of Issue No. 100 here.

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A Cowboy Crosses the Border in Silence

Gerónimo González Garza was born unable to hear or speak, but this did not keep him from going as a young man to the United States to work and to make a life for himself. Nor did it stop him from returning to Mexico many years later, and traveling over the highways of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, in the middle of the drug war being waged in northeastern Mexico.

Mother throws in the cow stomach and this makes the boiling water jump from the blue tin pot. Now she drops in a little deformed thing that must be a cow’s foot. Then go in the tomatoes, the rosemary, the mint, the garlic and oregano. On weekends Home is fragrant with spices. Nowadays when the aroma of certain natural condiments hits me, I often remember the economic crisis that began in December 1994 in Mexico.

Father wakes up early and empties the stew in the pot onto Styrofoam plates. He carefully puts them in the car, as if they were recently dug-up treasure: so not a single drop spills over, so not a single precious jewel falls, so that the menudo arrives safely at its destination.

In Monterrey it’s typical to eat barbacoa on Sundays, but Father’s friends are true. On those Sunday mornings in 1995, instead of trying barbacoa, they eat the menudo they buy from Father.

During the week, Mother puts other things into the pot that always seems to be boiling water. In go chickens, rice, vegetables. Then Father places the contents into the thin receptacles and the destination of the plates is much, much closer. One goes to the neighbor next door, the other to the neighbor across the street, to those around the corner, to that neighbor who just moved to the other block, to the mean woman who punctures soccer balls and to Mother’s friends, who are also true friends.

The kitchen at Home is the neighborhood kitchen. In northeastern Mexico there are no fondas. The word fonda is not used to describe a cheap, homestyle restaurant like it is in other places in Mexico. But Home is a fonda. A fonda that offers food delivered right to your door.

And the topic everyday at the fonda is Home. For a moment Home has nothing to do with the walls and the ceilings between which my childhood and adolescence transpired. The word Home refers to a problem. Home means uncertainty, the bank, risk, evil, unemployment, struggle and, above all, a strange and very aggressive word: Hipoteca. Hipoteca—mortgage—is the word nobody wants to hear, or to say, at Home.

Some advanced future civilization will have to somehow erase this word from the dictionary.

But in that year, the word Hipoteca is there, in the everyday speech, though it is actually spoken little.

Mother’s boiling pot defies the word Hipoteca. Father’s Styrofoam plates do, too. Yet, in those times of crisis (said to have been all because of an “error made in December” which devalued the peso and sent interest rates sky-high), the word Hipoteca is very powerful. It can’t be defeated by the aroma of the oregano or by the friendships that are true.

For the word Hipoteca to leave us in peace something else would be needed.

One day Tio sends fifteen thousand dollars from the United States. That day the word Hipoteca lost a battle, leaving Home in peace.

Tio is a cowboy who crosses the border in silence. His name is Gerónimo González Garza.

I promised to one day tell his story.


They dismounted. They tied up the horses under the shade of the same tree. They walked, each one with his rifle. They were talking softly and sparely, the alert black eyes of Magdaleno and the alert light brown eyes of Gerónimo. A half hour and some miles later, they couldn’t find any game to shoot. Nothing stirred, not even a tarantula. The hot wind dried up life on the mountain.

They split up to increase their luck while they explored. A while passed and at last the first shot—the only shot—of the hunt was heard. Magdaleno ran into the thicket to look, but instead of an animal lying on the ground, he found Gerónimo’s hat. Gerónimo was kneeling, he had a bullet hole in his neck and it was bleeding. He died soon after.

Magdaleno went back to find the horse. He untied it, and later turned it over, along with his best friend’s hat and body. He described in detail what had happened and said that they could do what they wanted with him. The family banished Magdaleno from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León. He never returned. Some say that he crossed the R.o Bravo and then hanged himself from a mesquite tree on the Texas cattle ranch where he had found work as a ranch hand.

The years passed, and on May 24, 1953, in her house near the city’s bus terminal, María de Jesús Garza gave birth to a baby of little more than four pounds who came into the world with a full head of hair. The baby’s umbilical chord was cut and buried in Monterrey, his birthplace, as was the custom of the day. The father, Guadalupe González, was content that the baby was a boy. He had wanted a son to name Gerónimo, after his brother who had died tragically by a bullet from his best friend’s rifle.


Gerónimo crawls for a few seconds and then slumps to the floor. He seems distracted. Something weird is happening and his parents think they know what it is, but they take him to the hospital to find out for sure. They get up at dawn and are seen by a doctor at the public clinic. He looks over the baby, touches his ears, and speaks in front of him in different high and low tones. Then the doctor becomes grave and asks the parents to go to a laboratory so the baby’s hearing can be studied. Ten days later they return. The doctor receives them with the same serious tone from the time before. He gives them the news that Gerónimo does not hear, nor is he ever going to hear. When he sees things he will not be conscious of their sound: He is totally deaf. Everything for him will be like a silent movie.

They are going to have to speak to him with their hands like mimes, so he doesn’t go crazy. They are going to have to show him that he shouldn’t eat with his mouth open, or that when he needs to drink milk he has to say so with his hand. They will do this, and little Gerónimo will watch them and they will wait for him to imitate them. They have to be patient. It’s no small thing: they will create their own language to communicate with each other. In this way they will gradually show him how to live.

The parents listen to the doctor and his advice. More or less they know what they have to do. Graciela, one of their other children, also was born with hereditary deafness. They have investigated and know that deafness runs in the family on Gerónimo’s father’s side, at least two generations back. Due to the profound deafness, Gerónimo will not know sound and won’t be able to use his vocal chords to talk, even though they are not damaged in any way. No person born deaf can use his larynx, his voice.


Guadalupe González works from Monday through Friday at Trailers of Monterrey Corporation. The small company has a storehouse into which noisy trucks coming from the United States are jammed in together every day. As part of their cargo, they carry oily car transmissions, obsolete medical equipment, peeling multicolored wires, broken hydraulic tubing, loose furniture, and other things. Guadalupe’s job is to weigh the junk and bargain as much as possible with the junk collectors.

María de Jesús Garza makes red chorizo that she sells in their neighborhood in Monterrey. Before, they had spent a long time in Rancho Nuevo, a communal land in Los Ramones, Nuevo León, some ninety miles north of the city. It was a good-sized piece of land María de Jesús had inherited, but the soil was broken up and of the kind that doesn’t allow for easy sowing, and so they had to immigrate to the city.

On weekends, to cover the family’s expenses, Guadalupe travels to Rancho Nuevo in his cherry Ford pickup truck, driving through a remote landscape—one mesquite tree here, another over there. There he kills baby goats, which he later sells in Monterrey. If it is the birthday of one of his children or some other truly special occasion, he kills one of the cows that graze on the paltry pastureland at the ranch. Enough barbacoa and menudo comes from the animal to last for days, and it makes everyone happy.

Sometimes there is no time to kill animals at Rancho Nuevo, and the sacrifices are made at the house in the city. It is not unusual for dead goats to appear strung up in the patio of the small home, hanging as if they were recently washed clothes waiting to be dried.

Of the six children in the González Garza family—María de la Luz, Graciela, Teresa, Guadalupe, and Martha—Gerónimo is the one who collaborates most in the weekend slaughters. His siblings study instead, and their chores include helping with the sale of the chorizo and in the butchering and packing of the meat. They treat Gerónimo normally. They run away for hide-and-seek or jump around for hopscotch. Gerónimo spends the first ten years of his life in this way, without him, his parents, or siblings knowing official sign language. All of their communication comes from moving the hands, a voice that doesn’t emit any sound but that can be seen. They use a silent alphabet they created.

Gerónimo’s parents don’t impose on him the world of those who do hear, they try to understand his. It’s a normal, spirited, and happy family.

It’s not unusual to see Gerónimo in bloody jeans after he’s spent the whole day with his father in their improvised slaughterhouse at home. Killing a goat is arduous work: first you have to calm it down, later bury a knife in its jugular, let it die as it screams, hang it up so that all the blood drains from it into a pot, take out its intestines by hand and strip it of its coat. There is one Saturday when Gerónimo, alone, without his father’s help, kills all eighteen goats to be eaten at a wedding to be celebrated that same night in Monterrey. He is ten years old.


Someone knocked on the door on a summer night in 1965. Guadalupe went out to see. A young visitor approached him and gave him a white card on which was printed many small hands drawn in different shapes—the hieroglyphics of the sign language alphabet. On the reverse side there was a message in Spanish: “I am deaf. Please donate to my school.” Ger.nimo’s father took out some change and gave it to the boy. He kept the card and the following afternoon took his son to the address written upon it.

It was a big house on Madero Road, one of the most important avenues in old Monterrey. There they taught Mexican Sign Language. (One might assume there is only one sign language for all deaf people in the world, but that’s not the case. There are many differences even between the sign language of one country and another. Deaf gringos speak American Sign Language. The language of deaf Mexicans even includes its own regional slang, and a deaf person from Monterrey doesn’t speak the same way as a deaf Mayan.) The place had few windows, three rooms, and a large area where in 1951 the first school for the deaf in northeastern Mexico was established. In the entranceway there was a sign that gave its welcome by offering the Greek definition of man: zoon logon ejon, “the animal that has language,” as well as photos of a deaf lucha libre wrestler who, at that time, every once and a while shared the ring with the famous fighters El Santo or Blue Demon. He was called El Prisionero, the Prisoner. There were also images of “Deaf” David Rodr.guez, another lucha libre performer, who was lesser known but a native of Monterrey.

The school was affiliated with the Mexican Association of Deaf-Mutes Corporation. Its symbol was a squirrel. The incessant movement of the hands of the sympathetic nut-eating rodent seemed to the professor Abel Sauza to be similar to the deaf students during their class discussions, and so he adopted it as their logo. It was Professor Sauza who involved Gerónimo in the rest of the activities at the school. The place doubled as a recruitment agency. The young deaf children who traversed the populous neighborhoods of Monterrey asking for money for the school were attentive, so if they came across any other deaf people they would invite them to join the community they were trying to form.

The deaf students, once they learned how to communicate through Mexican Sign Language, would form soccer teams and compete in amateur tournaments, or they would go out together to get to know other cities in Mexico. They would sell key chains, pens, or toys which they offered with cards bearing signed phrases on them, like “Te amo” (right hand with two bent fingers making a type of horns to be placed at the chest, at the height of the heart) or “Que D.os te bendiga” (left hand and right hand symmetrically in the form of horns).

The professors presented these trips to parents as a way to integrate their students into the world, though they had a commercial logic to them as well, as part of the sales went to the school and another, smaller part went to the young deaf entrepreneurs.

Gerónimo made his first trip at 14 years old. It was like going to another planet; the never-ending asphalt of Mexico City contrasted with the loose topsoil of where he had grown up, as much so in Rancho Nuevo as Monterrey. He spent four months there. He made short visits to the other states of Puebla, Aguascalientes, and Guanajuato. He met deaf people from Mexico City who were infamous for being abusive to those from the countryside, but some of them became good friends of his for a long time. The Monument to the Mexican Revolution was Gerónimo’s preferred site to sell key chains. The tourists behaved generously, especially the regular evening customers of the neighboring cantinas. Whereas outside the nearby offices of the Federal Security Department (DFS), a shadowy organization that coordinated paramilitary and “counterterrorism” efforts at the time, the pickings were quite slim.

Before returning to Monterrey, the group traveled to Guadalajara for a few weeks. While he was there, Gerónimo decided he would go as a mojado, or “wetback,” to the United States.

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Out of Notebooks

Late in the P.M. I’m riding BART through its bay waters tunnel, coming home from Berkeley, where whenever I emerge from the Downtown Berkeley station I feel culturally confused and morally disoriented. I’m surrounded by scolding righteousness and a classmotley nuttiness that comports itself as if it were exquisite entitlement. The speedy angry wheelchairs, the ganja aromatics, the dopey cheer of gutterpunks (and their pits and rotts), the streetfolk indistinguishable from grad students—that Shattuck Avenue corner induces a vaguely precious congestive disgust and primes me to find even more disgraceful than usual the other Berkeley where I was headed, the tamped-down, moneyed gentility of College Avenue, where good behavior is on its best behavior. So I’m happy to be going home to San Francisco, when a young woman sits next to me. “Excuse me, sir. Sir? Can I ask you something?” Hard to guess her age. Anglo, heavy-bodied, sweaty, pimples disfiguring her nose and forehead, nicely dressed, but she stinks of piss. “Sir? Tell me, if you knew somebody was going to die tonight. I mean you knew it, and you knew when. And you know the person. What would you do?” Whose life? Anyone’s real life? Is she in her right mind? Does it matter? My existence on earth in an instant contracts to our shared seat. Any words that might pass between us, beyond what she has said, are fraught with urgent intimacy. My head feels pressured by the water around the tunnel our train is pushing through. The sea is just down the street.


If you live a long time with chronic pain, when the levels spike it helps to have a map. Tonight I imagine my body as a night sky, and certain stars are hot spots. They constellate to form a picture, a self-portrait. Star light, star bright.


Poetry is cellular matter, connective tissue, interstitial stuff, not skeletal. “Life,” writes a friend, “is lived in its transitions.” Thus the fatigue of writing: it comes from sustaining that awareness of a life that never quite arrives or leaves.


Daylight Saving Time. Saving Light in Time. Late day, sunlight breaks into the kitchen but along the way diffuses into powdered ores on my unwashed windows. Yesterday, a fat, faintly opaque moon like buff linen. In the A.M. the whiter light of morning spreads west across white buildings to the blue-gray plateau of the Pacific. A raven’s shadow wipes the rooftops.


How I love Schiele. His “Sunflowers” is nature as root cellar, drab greens and browns, all snotty effluvial color, the blooms sickened, failing, and in the middle sky a sun blanched of its fires, its sunfloweriness.


Back in Marfa and its high-desert West Texas heat. Winds today at 30+ mph. I’m accustomed to the sea wind in San Francisco—it’s frontal, it comes at you. A windstorm here comes for you. It’s a woman’s voice halooing right outside the door late tonight, trying to slither into the house and harmonize with the Figaro I’m listening to. It shimmies, it turns corners, it bullroars, in this otherwise silent place. How can you not believe that the wind carries the voices of the dead, long interred but now singing again for us to come to them and their sweet fine nothingness.


What if death is just another country of contingency, contingency we can’t imagine, so we have to believe it’s an empire of pure necessity. Then imagine death not as a state, not non-being, but a condition where consciousness is free in a way that it cannot be free in life.


Dreams are the deranged, disguised partners of our clarified waking mental life. A recent twosome:

1: A young Asian woman walking with a much older man, their arms sexily around each other, the image rich with feeling of a lasting passion undeterred.

2: A neurologist shows me three sketches he’s made of the interior of my skull; on each one, a mark indicates the same abnormality: “Priapism.”


Fat Tuesday then Ash Wednesday. Runny pork fat chased by dry charred atonement. An excess of ashes is as inviting as an excess of meat and beads and bacon grease. Poetry treads water in the stream of the process, wet to dry, fat to dust, superfluity to barely surfeit. In my childhood the ashy forehead smudge was more a mark of fallenness than sign or promise of rebirth. We were already—at eight years old—consigned to earth or urn. What had we children done to cause this to be required of us?


Riders on public transit bent to the shape of piety, ensorcelled by smart phone, iPad, BlackBerry. The prayer beads of our time. Checking, checking. How’s the universe doing today?


I’ve decided to sell off or give away most of my books. If I read them well in the first place, I’ll always own them. They have certainly owned me, which is a reason for letting them go. I want them out of my apartment, out of my sight, and me out of their sight, for they’ve watched me—watched over and examined and compassed me—long enough. Time to go now, old friends, old obsessors, forsakers, forget-me-nots. Give me reprieve finally from that life of mind and heart that has come to oppress me. Time for you (and me) to go.


Concentration is a distraction. Hiking the rim of Taos gorge I was looking down so I could get as close as possible to the verge, I wanted to see the river running below where it combed in explosive little bursts over the rocks, I wanted to feel the rush of suddenly falling, but while looking down I missed the two bald eagles my companions saw flying above the river at eye level.


Aspirations. I wanted to write a poetry that enacted what it felt like to live in that impossible moment when a lived instant seems to recapitulate every previous instant—I wanted to engage consciousness as it lived into its own layers or zones. Reading all those books I’ve been selling off was as aspirational as it was instructive. And as a prettily pious Roman Catholic child I muttered my way through who knows how many thousands of aspirations, though a short walk through online dictionaries doesn’t give up that meaning: a prayer or devout utterance that’s no more than a breath.


The country of contingency is full of rain.


In the Museum of Modern Art, my heart’s adrift and achy with thoughts of young sons who lose their fathers when I hear a guard—from the islands, from St. Vincent, it turned out—softly singing to himself what sounded like Gospel, and was Gospel, he said when I asked. The sound of song in public—doesn’t matter if it’s Gospel, opera, tuneless humming, or rap: it thrills the air. (Today in a streetcar, a high school kid improvised a rap he was still pattering when I got off after several stops: as riders entered he worked into his song their clothes or shoes or belongings or skin type.) After that museum song came the formless sorrow I feel before one of Rothko’s dark-smoky pictures, the nocturnal palette, always enchanting and unsettling, and I overhear a father tell his son how R’s pictures were like windows and how you can see or imagine all sorts of feelings looking out windows, right? “He wasn’t a happy man,” he tells the boy. While I’m thinking about wisdom and tradition, R’s mental agony, the hurt heart, I hear somebody call my name (sharply, like a cell phone dropped on a hard surface) but when I look around, nobody’s there.

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A Careful Reading of a Literature’s Underdogs: Larry Beckett’s ‘Beat Poetry’

Beat PoetryThe beat goes on.

Larry Beckett, the one-time songwriter (he famously collaborated with the late Tim Buckley) has long been immersed in an ongoing poetic project called “American Cycle,’’ which takes an ambitious look at the folkloric past—from Paul Bunyan and P.T. Barnum, to Chief Joseph and Amelia Earhart and other figures from the “old weird America.’’

His latest book, simply titled Beat Poetry (Beatdom Books, 150 pages), tries to put into meaningful perspective the oft heralded if frequently over-hyped revolution in American poetry that took birth from the vernacular modesty of that good obstetrician William Carlos Williams and incorporated the spare eloquence of forebears like Li Po.

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The Mr. Smith Syndrome

An act of imagination is an act of self-acceptance.
—Richard Hugo

I was a teenager, and I walked two or three miles down Clairemont Drive to my first steady job—donut cooker at Tas-T Donuts. We had left Tijuana ten years before, and we’d left the heights above Barrio Logan five years after that and homesteaded this white working-class suburb. It was an astonishment tome, because it was the first time I had seen green lawns in front of every house and every apartment. In Tijuana, it was dirt. In Shelltown, it was yellow patches with burr clover and more dirt. Man, I thought these white folks were all millionaires. I was the one infected with Story in my family, and the lawns of Clairemont told me I had entered a new narrative.

Going to work was certainly a new chapter in that tale. Just that evening walk felt epic to me, wrapped in my teen self-pity and general fear—there were no knife-swinging bastards in Clairemont, but still, the old shadows don’t die easily, and every oleander bush could have sprung a homicidal vato. It was a journey that symbolists or Joseph Campbell might have found rich. The hike, in poverty, alone, downhill as the sun set. Far below, ocean. To each side, canyons. Animals and scrub brush. Then houses nicer than my own. Rushing by me, whiplashing me with their wind, the speeding cars of those more fortunate than I. At times, on the dirt path where the sidewalk petered out, these cars rushed quite close to me, perilous and roaring like beasts. Mean dogs on one side, metal creatures on the other and a lone boy going down a dirt path in the dark.

Once there, at Tas-T Donuts, the metaphors continued. It was on a dank alley, a horrid little two-story building with a drive-through hole where cars could insert themselves and collect their donuts and coffee from the downstairs serving window. It was backed by a rundown apartment complex across the alley that gave off bad cooking smells and the cries and shouts of the working-class families and old people who lived there. Among these sad apartment dwellers was the owner of Tas-TDonuts, Mr. Smith.

The donut kitchen was upstairs, and you’d get to it up a rattling, old paint-splintered, wooden staircase. One bare bulb, possibly yellow, over the door.Mr. Smith paid $1.35 an hour, but during training it was only 65 cents. Quite literally, it paid to learn fast.

Inside, it was L-shaped. Cement floor. Wooden pallets to stand on. Down the long arm of the L were two deep-fat fryers on the right and a sink on the left. A cooler for Mr. Smith’s fancy stuff, like cream filling, milk, eggs. Around the corner, in the squat alcove of the L, he kept the mixers and the big sacks of powdered sugar and flour, and the noxious bottles of sugar glaze and horrid chemical “flavors” in psychedelic colors that we would mix into the rank sugar goo and make chocolate, maple, vanilla, orange or lemon frosting. The citrus toxic chemicals had little shaved chunks of peel in them. Sugary bathroom cleaner.

Also down there we had tubs of “coconut” and “cinnamon” and “sprinkles.”A box of stale donuts was to be crushed with sugar and cinnamon and nuts in the mixer to make crunchy coatings for cake donuts.

Brooms. Mops. A squeeze bucket. And, on a long metal pole handle, a flat blade we used to scrape up fat white kernels of dough and lard from the floor.

There was no toilet. Mr. Smith told us to piss in the sink. The same sink where we mixed the various glazes. But we were to wash the urine down only with cold water. Hot water cost money and the steam made everything smell like piss.

If the health inspectors ever knocked on the back door, always closed and locked, we were to immediately call Mr. Smith at home and wait for him to come across the alley. While we waited, we were to do some quick cleaning.


Beside the fryers, we had a dumb waiter accessed by a small folkloric door in the wall. Fairies could have come from it, ghosts, El Cucuy. Instead, racks of donuts went in it like fat commuters jammed in a lift. A little rope-pull elevator.

Mr. Smith would leave his order on the pad: 24 maple, 24 buttermilk, 32 old-fashioned, 12 chocolate cake, 32 glazed, et cetera.We’d fry them up, put them on trays, put the trays on the elevator.More symbolism. The real donut shop was below us. You’d have to go down the dark shaft to get there. And we would. We’d get in the dumb waiter and hand-over-hand ourselves down there. It was where the cash register was. But we didn’t care about the cash register.We just wanted to go where we were forbidden. Where it was dangerous. Cops driving by could see you through the window, if you weren’t careful.

I kept in mind the possible scenario of a San Diego PD officer catching a Tijuana boy in the dumb waiter, breaking and entering Mr. Smith’s rancid wonderland at midnight.

Also down there was the trash can full of fancy donuts. Mr. Smith alone made those, the jelly-filled and cream-filled. And the goop in them would spoil, so he had to throw them out. The layers of these fancy donuts were divided in the garbage can by sheets of newspaper. So, when we rode  the elevator into the donut mine, we knew to steal the garbage from the top two layers. If it didn’t have coffee grounds all over it, we’d pull donuts out and put them in boxes. We’d take bismarcks and long johns and boston creams home to our moms, never telling them where they came from.


I was training under my Boy Scout best pal, Leon. He was cool. I aspired to be as cool as Leon. He liked John Denver, and I remember first listening to “Rocky Mountain High” while in that foul kitchen. It, along with being a Boy Scout, might have sown the seeds for my later Rocky Mountain mania. There was none of the old music I knew in Tas-T. No
James Brown (called “Chaze Brrong” in our Colonia Independencia accents).

Mr. Smith, like all donut bosses, wisely allowed us to eat all the donuts we wanted. Every extra donut, every mistake, every ugly donut. It took exactly one night to get deeply and utterly sick. We were too stupid to be disgusted by the sink/urinal. We just ate ’til we barfed.

Leon was an old hand at cooking. He was making a head cook’s wage of $1.65 an hour. And he knew all the bad lore of Tas-T Donuts. Like the guy Mr. Smith fired who decided on his last night to piss into the fryer and not the sink, but the hot grease exploded, cooking him and “I swear to God, fried his dick off!”

As a concession to hygiene, Mr. Smith made us wear hairnets.


At the end of my shifts, dictated not by the clock, but by the cooking load, I’d walk back up the long hill. 10:00, 11:00, midnight, 1:00. I could see inside lit windows. Families. Women. Televisions. A cold California glow. A mom in a hallway in her underwear.

Between walks, it was hours of clatter. Fryer. Sink. Mixer. Steel pans on the steel counters. Scraper. The donut machine crank handle. The clash of the metal mesh donut drainer running fat back into the noisy  fryer. Radio. The slamming door of the dumb waiter. Filthy air: a haze of oil, sugar, water, smoke. Dough stench. Grease stench. Glaze stench. Sour fermenting sugar fluid. Spices. Mold. Floor detergent.

Mr. Smith never drained the fryers. The grease was old and sour. His fryer was never turned on when I was at work, so as my fryer heated and the sludge inside liquified and cleared, his stayed clouded and thick. It was an ugly tan/yellow mess that looked like a frozen pond. Big old grease bubbles caught in place.

Flies and roaches would fall into the grease, struggle and sink. This was fascinating to me. It was like a quicksand scene in a Tarzan movie. It didn’t occur to me that the crisp raisins that surfaced and sank repeatedly as I cooked were deep-fried bugs, circling endlessly like fossils in the La Brea Tar Pits.


To make a donut, you’d follow the recipe and mix up the dough in the big hook mixer. Then you’d concoct your vat of toxic glaze. Then you’d pour your batter into the crank, which was kind of a funnel with a handle on the side. It rested at the end of an extendable arm. You had to be smooth on the crank, plot rings of dough in neat patterns to float and fry on the grease. Ideally, you timed it so the last ring of dough plopped in as the first was golden brown on one side. Then you would take two wooden dowels and, pushing down one while lifting with the other, you’d flip the donuts in the same order you’d cranked them. When both sides fried, you’d grab the handles of the submerged mesh platform and lift it out to drip oil back into the boiling sea. Unload ’em, put the mesh back in, crank the next load. Formost donut orders, three crank runs were enough. Then you’d dunk your plain cake donut (basically a delivery vector for the indescribably yummy chemical glaze) into the pans. One twist, out onto the rack. Drip, drip and then into the elevator.

If you screwed up the mix, the donuts were a ruin. Too much water or milk and the dough was drooly and shapeless. Bad wrist action on the crank and loops would fall on each other and fuse into strange archipelagos of fried dough. Your donuts would end up looking like fried underpants.

Now, Mr. Smith himself was as filthy and fiendish as his donut shop. He seemed to be an old man, though if I met him today he might reveal himself to be a spry 55. In my teens, he seemed to be 100.

He didn’t bathe. His hair was thinning, gray and slicked back. But it looked as if it was slicked back because it was dirty, not because he had used hair oil. Dirty glasses, yellowed T-shirts. He chain-smoked and coughed into the donuts. His teeth had fallen out.When he couldn’t afford my $1.35 wage, he bucked me back down to 65 cents for “retraining.” Then, he put me on probation: 35 cents an hour. That’s when I finally quit.


Before I left, Mr. Smith taught me something about writing, and work, and life. Sensei Smith, roshi of the Tas-T zendo. Like many teachers, he didn’t know he was doing it. He didn’t know he was changing my life. He thought he was teaching me about Tas-T Donuts.

Mr. Smith would show up unannounced while I was cooking. He’d get up behind me as I was trying to work the crank. I was bad at it anyway, but he made me so nervous it turned catastrophic.

Cigarette smoke. Body odor. Bad breath. And I’d start to choke on the crank. And he’d start to scold me: “Jesus Christ! Jesus, kid! Do you call that a donut? That ain’t a fucken donut! What the fuck’s the matter with you!”

And, of course, I’d made worse and worse donuts. “Holy shit! You dumb bastard! You retard! What the hell is that called! Because that ain’t a goddamn donut!”

I’d be frantic at this point, and the whole batch would be ruined.

“Can’t any Mexican make a fucken goddamn donut is what I’m asken!”

There would be a huge raft of frying dough in the middle of the grease. Mr. Smith would shove me aside and snap, “Get out of my fucken way, you idiot! I’ll show you how a goddamn donut is made!”

What is the sound of one hand frying?

I learned right there at the fryer that we have three indwelling spirits in our small cage of bones. One of them is unclean. The Angel is that one who sings the pretty songs, who tells you those lovely things you spill out like sunshine and joy when you just don’t know any better. The Editor is your friend, like a good teacher—sometimes severe, but steady. The Editor helps you tighten, toughen, clarify, focus. But then there is that son of a bitch, The Critic. Your own smelly inner Mr. Smith.

He is the one who makes you fail. He scares you. You get nervous. Have you noticed that when a cop pulls up behind you in traffic it makes you start to swerve in your lane as if you were drunk? When you take a test and the teacher stands by your shoulder, you feel as if you’ve been cheating, even if you haven’t, and suddenly your eyes rove to a neighbor’s paper. People pick you last for the basketball team and you call yourself a loser forever.

The Critic is lost in his own horror. His own stench and his own poverty and shame. Like Mr. Smith, he’s going out of business. And tomorrow, for him, holds only ruin. He hates and he’s inside you.

Mr. Smith stands near every person, cursing and yelling, smoking and insulting. You call that a poem? You call that a sentence? What kind of a writer are you? What kind of a person are you? What kind of a wife/husband/child/lover are you? What kind of no-good, useless, idiotic idea is that? You beaner. You fatso. You wimp. You fool. You skinny bitch. You loser.

Your donuts, your lovely pale loops, your perfect circles, start to stick together and become deformed. Ruined. You’ll have to eat that spoiled meal, eat it and eat it until you throw up. And then Mr. Smith will make you re-cook that order all night long until you get it right. You’ll be in Tas-T Donuts for eternity. Mr. Smith will never let you climb up that hill. He will never unlock the door to the kitchen. He’ll never even let you out of the dumb waiter. If you don’t learn to silence Mr. Smith, you will never get home.

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Cuba + Kids – Water

Here was our first sight of our new landlord in Havana: on the landing behind a barricaded white door, a faked sticker on the jamb allowing him to rent, his pimp hat askew, grayed T-shirt too tight, belt buckle too big. My early life in Northern California should have taught me never to trust not Greeks bearing gifts but rather men of any nationality bearing ostentatious belt buckles. That said, there are lessons that lack guidebook, exam or even popularizing self-help book: one gets to keep on making the same mistakes over and over.

From under that pimp hat, Juan Ruiz smiled.

In contrast to everyone else in Cuba, even his Spanish vowels came out with a slow drip, as if incredible pumps of internal pressure and springs of ethical concerns, pushed against the coils of hard life lessons, made him respect the speed of words: they emerged in inverse proportion to the thoughtfulness required just to deal. Because “stoic” and “taciturn” are adjectives rarely wielded in my family about anyone, I had to respect the
guy. After all, I had come to Cuba to research boxing, and the sophrosyne of boxers—sophrosyne being perhaps one of the most beautiful of the four classical virtues, a self-discipline requiring that one hold off from the temptations of lesser wisdom—drew me.

Juan Ruiz, in his self-presentation, exemplified sophrosyne, a trait above and beyond the usual weary endurance of Cubans barely subsisting off the tickets in shrinking ration books.

“You want rent?” he said, because he had rented to other foreigners and liked to practice English.

In this venture toward understanding sophrosyne, in the interest of expanding everyone  else’s horizons, I was in Cuba with semi-willing artist mate and two curious daughters, aged eight and four. It is not that I had lacked a certain amount of propagandizing in selling everyone on the plan. “You could do pen-and-ink studies of Old Havana!” I let slip to artist mate. “Before it becomes Starbucks and McDonalds.” To the oldest daughter, I had suggested the possibility of becoming fluent in Spanish, making friends from a world as removed as possible from our tiny upstate New York hamlet, which no one would ever describe as ethnically diverse, and practicing swimming in the blue waters, a sort of Disneyland approaching embargoland, as if one could accomplish some part of the rubber-raftable ninety miles back to Florida. To the youngest, I was not sure what to say, but she liked the idea of going to Koo-ba, which probably sounded like a cute emporium in which plush teddy bears frolic.

I was talking to Juan Ruiz while standing next to a saintly woman whom I had met in one of the shared ten-peso cabs. Contemporary Cuba runs on two currencies: one is the convertible currency, meant for foreigners, in which one can buy such luxury items as, well, soap, cereal, and, it has to be added, in a proleptic maneuver, water. The other currency is the national currency, in which most Cubans are paid an average of twenty-six dollars a month. With this money, a citizen’s ration book in hand, most go to the government markets, often open-air affairs but sometimes looking like a dark tobacconist’s stall or a big meat warehouse, and for ten cents get a good amount of rice, for the odd twenty cents even some packaged foods, usually imported from China, such as crackers, and whatever vegetables Fidel’s minions have mandated onto the trucks that day: on one day, every stall will be serving up eggplant, unripe pineapple, and onions. A family can survive, almost.

Most families I encountered, living in small apartments into which they had been literally grandfathered, make do with their salaries by such mild rackets as paying off their monthly water or electricity inspectors five dollars in foreign currency, a currency you get from consorting with tourists, relatives abroad, or from sisters married into proto-prostitution with some Italian or Swiss man, a man usually as rich in avoirdupois and emotional autism as he is in gifts of cash. Back on the island, such foreign remissions, whether generated night or day, matter. Five foreign bucks and a whole building can use an infinite amount of electricity or water. The apartments, in which inhabitants conspire with well-revolutionized collectivist zeal, usually boast a reserve water tank on the roof in the event, not infrequent, that the city fails them. Viva la Revolución! scream the banners around the city, or the more oxymoronic 53 Years of Revolution!

That impossibility noted, one of the best aspects of Cuba—despite all the foreign press about its failed transportation system—remains the way you can travel within a city. Your two main choices, if you live close to the way most Cubans live, remain these: you may ride a bus or you may attempt to hail a ten-peso cab.

About the first: never before have I encountered a worldly paradise like that of a Cuban bus. To approach a bus in Cuba with a child or two is to encounter the true moral being of the revolution, the new man about whom Che opined. There the bus, provenance 1972, with its broken windows and ill-fitting tires, screeches up to the corner. Bodies stagger out from the press of others. There you approach, a humble petitioner, your coins and a stroller, perhaps, hanging off one hand, a child off another. Then comes the magic moment of comprehension. Because the mind of the crowd understands: the magi have come.

Miraculously, as if there were room to do this, a path carves through bodies. Hands hoist your child as if she were less bodysurfing punk star circa 1988 and more saintly visitation. Your child, exhilarated with a tiny dose of terror, doglegs past the driver, to be given a prime seat at the front of the bus, often on some grandmother’s lap, a woman who acts as if for this exact moment she had been born, as if holding a little sweaty child on her lap redeems all life’s sufferings. Never mind that the weight of an American child could impair the inevitable varicosity in her legs after years of sugar-and-coffee-fueled backbreaking work at a factory or at one of the dark tobacconists.

No. A child comes and joy lights the faces of all bus riders. This is more than making do; this is humanity as celebration.

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The Winning Crowd

I like football best on television, in my own house, not at a sports bar where drinkers lift their eyes, the color of salmon eggs, when the crowd roars. I appreciate the ease of going to my own refrigerator, assessing what to eat and what to drink, and returning to the television, a Samsung, to watch what’s there to watch—wow, players in the air, no, players injured on the ground!

Then again, I don’t like TV football at all. I abandoned the gladiator spectacle years ago when I discovered there were more commercials than playing time, and discovered that the audience on Sunday (and Monday and Thursday) was young and crude, with faces painted in team colors—or for the Igors of Raiders Nation, sporting silvery spikes, shrunken heads, and fake (or real?) vomit. For some, every game is Halloween.

When my buddy David calls and says, “Let’s get stupid,” what he really means is let’s uncork a bottle of wine, preferably Napa Valley red, and watch football players do their high-paid magic on television, then ask each other, “What’s the score?” We’ll eat a deep-dish Zachary’s pizza, maybe get our veggies in the form of a Caesar salad, contemplate the meaning of life, then gaze up at the TV and ask, “Who’s playing?”

While I don’t really follow football, I have noticed that the crowds have been dressing down for years—slack jerseys hanging over wobbly guts and baseball caps worn backward or sideways but never as they should be. When David got tickets to the last game of the season, one between the San Francisco 49ers and the Carolina Panthers, I decided to turn the sartorial tide, me against 40,000 other fans. The game itself didn’t matter—both teams were out of the playoff picture—but I intended to dress to the nines.

The drive over the Bay Bridge was smooth and the parking pricy but equally smooth. A young woman wielding a lit wand waved us into our parking spot. We got out, both David and I complaining goodheartedly about the cold. The sky was gray as cement, the wind blowing off the bay, seagulls crying above. A plastic bag, white as a gull, filled frantically with wind and was puffed away by the gusts.

But I wasn’t concerned about the weather. I had planned my wardrobe carefully, going item by item through my closet—actually, a mirrored armoire with cubbyholes for shoes and a secret drawer for cufflinks. I was wearing a relatively new purchase from Adam of London, a tastefully designed wool suit that’s chocolate colored, with very faint pinstripes. In another life, I might have been one of the Rolling Stones, circa 1965, when English band members dressed in three-piece suits, totally mod, totally groovy. And my shoes? Polished black leather high-tops, mirror bright at the tips. My hat? A black felt Borsalino, with a feather in its band. It would insulate my brain and conceal my receding hairline—a nice touch.

But you wouldn’t have noticed my suit because it was hidden beneath a long, maroon overcoat made by my wife in the late 1980s, when shoulder pads were all the rage and, in this case, nearly as big as pillows. The thick wool falls to my knees and, because of its heft, wearing the coat is a workout in itself. The buttons are football-shaped, made of polished walnut. The label inside says, “For my Sweetie.” That’s me, and there I was meandering through the parking lot, thirty minutes before kickoff, receiving stares from all the tailgaters—would-be jocks, or former jocks, or just fans out for a good time.

“Dude! Dude!” a bearded chap shouted. “You look hella strange.” He was holding a beer in one hand, a flaccid hotdog in the other—the frankfurter, I noticed, was nearly slipping from its holster of a bun and had a little yellow dot of mustard at the end.

“Go, Niners,” I offered with a clenched fist, ignoring his taunt. I gave him a peace sign, and a grin as I ducked through the smoke wafting from his hibachi. I could endure any insult to my attire, by far the sharpest within miles. And, hey, I might have said, “Look! Gold cufflinks on the T.M. Lewin 100 percent pima-cotton shirt I bought in London.” And over the weenies you’re flaying on the grill, I could have touched my scented throat and added, “Only the best—Le Male cologne.”

I shared more peace signs, then double-barrel peace signs, as I passed row after row of tipsy party goers, and bore with dignity the stares, the quips, “Oh, check out Grandpa,” the sound of beer cans crushed in wrench-like hands (what had I done?), and even a shower of peanuts.

“You’re causing trouble,” David smirked.

“True,” I agreed, dusting my sleeve of a clinging peanut. “A well-dressed man will do that.”

At my age (late fifties), you seldom get a chance to cause trouble, unless you lean on your horn and yell at another driver, “Hey, butt-face, use your turn signal!” Then speed away, eyes in the rearview mirror. Or unless on a lovely Saturday you are pulled over for rolling through a stop sign, and furrow your brow and mutter as you sign the ticket: I’m a naughty old man.

We made our way through security, where I had to unbutton my coat for a quick pat-down and permit security’s peek into my paper bag—two turkey sandwiches prepared by my wife, along with two Fuji apples, two bottles of water, and a small vial of antibacterial hand sanitizer. The bottled water was confiscated—no liquids allowed.

David had bought our tickets through Goldstar, an online retailer that offers 50 to 70 percent off the list price. We like a bargain; we like our entertainment cheap. But our seats were located in a section far from the action, and at such an angle that we were guaranteed stiff necks by halftime.

“Follow me,” I told David, who was shelling a couple of the peanuts he’d caught during the last barrage. I led the way to the lower level, now and then touching the brim of my hat as some fan smiled and pointed at me, the ambassador of good taste. One of the vendors, a young guy with a bluish tattoo on his neck, stopped his sales pitch. Excited, he sang, “You a hit man! You a hit man! Like in the movies, huh!”

“Young man, you have me all wrong,” I answered, slipping my right hand into my coat pocket. “I’m nothing more than a 49er faithful.”

The vendor shaped his hand into a pistol and I played along, my own hand rising pistol-shaped from my coat pocket, the trigger of my thumb pulled back. “Put yours back, buddy,” I warned, “and just walk away slowly.” He smiled and moved along, the bags of peanuts dangling from his fist, evidently unwilling to risk an encounter with this O.G.


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Sight Lines

My mother has hardly any baby pictures of me, and when I once asked her why, she waved her hand vaguely and said I looked funny. Opening a shoebox, she pulled out a handful of small black-and-white photos with pinked edges. There I was, wispy-haired and dimple-kneed, your basic baby, except for the eyes. My eyes turned inward, especially the right one, as if trying to focus on a spot on the bridge of my nose. Or maybe as if they weren’t ready to see what was out there.

I had known, of course, that I was born with crossed eyes. Because of my crooked eyes, I not only look different, I see differently. And there are some things I don’t see at all. This dusty box of old photos was another reminder of what has been hidden from me.


About two percent of newborns have strabismus, meaning one or both eyes aren’t aligned. The muscles that control eye movement and position are imbalanced, so the eyes can’t focus straight ahead. Most strabismic children are born with inward turning eyes, also called esotropia. This is a problem.

Normal vision is “binocular” —both eyes focus on an object or scene, and each eye takes a two-dimensional picture from its perspective. Because of the spacing of your eyes, each picture is taken from a slightly different angle. The brain fuses the two images to create an image that, when interpreted by the brain, seems three dimensional. This fusion, known as stereopsis, creates depth perception.

With strabismus, both eyes take a picture, but because the pupils are off center, so are the images, and the brain can’t fuse them. This means that the brain “sees” two separate images. To avoid seeing double, my brain learned to suppress the picture from the more inward turning right eye.

When I was about a year old, the doctor had my parents put a patch over my left eye. The idea was to strengthen and straighten my right eye by forcing it to work on its own. It wasn’t a cute little pirate patch, but a big Band-aid colored one, secured to my forehead and cheek by a couple strips of white tape. (There aren’t many photos from that time either.) The patching didn’t succeed, so a year later I had surgery. My left eye straightened out pretty well, but the right one shifted from its inward gaze to a position slightly upward and to the right of center.

Without straight eyes, and despite many years of eye exercises as a child to force my right eye to cooperate, I never developed binocular vision. My brain continued to pay attention only to the image from my stronger left eye. I say stronger because it was straighter, but in fact, without glasses, my left eye was about 20/1000. My extreme nearsightedness was made worse by astigmatism—blurriness caused by an asymmetrical cornea. Even with glasses, the vision in my left eye is not very sharp.

* * *

It’s the first dance with the boys’ camp and I want to be pretty. I am twelve, with slim tanned legs and long straight hair, but all I see in the mirror are brown, thick, cat-eye glasses. So tonight I leave my glasses in the cabin and blindly follow the other girls into the dining hall decorated with crepe paper and lanterns. The boys stand awkwardly on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Now a boy is walking toward me—I think—or is he headed toward another girl? He passes her and comes right up to me and asks where I’m from. Up close I can see he’s really cute, with tousled brown hair and spirited eyes. Emboldened, his buddies cross the divide and crowd around me. I am in the center of a group of eager boys. The cute boy asks me to dance, Jim Morrison is singing “Come on baby light my fire,” the room is a blur except for the boy now looking into my eyes. I am Cinderella at the ball: when it is over, I will be able to see again, but he will ignore the girl in the cat-eye glasses.

* * *

Although my right eye sees remarkably better than the left (20/50), my left eye still does all the work. I think of my right eye as a passive participant in my vision; it registers what’s on the right side, but if I want to actually look at something on the right I turn my head so my left eye can interpret it. If I close my left eye, the right eye sees pretty well, but it moves slowly, tires quickly and reads at about the pace of a second grader. Eye doctors never bother to give me a corrective lens for my right eye, because it doesn’t matter.

What I see can perhaps be described as what others see when viewing a movie or photograph. But while my brain can’t perceive depth the way most people’s brains do, I do have some depth perception. My brain (everyone’s brain) uses many cues to judge depth, such as how fast objects move in relation to other objects or how they shift as I move my head. The scientific terms that describe monocular depth perception cues are evocative: kinetic, parallax, distance fog, converging at infinity. The words almost seduce me into thinking these tricks create for me a fully three-dimensional world. In fact, some scientists and doctors believe that people with my type of vision—monocular, one eyed—are only at a disadvantage when seeing things close up.

* * *

Mrs. Powell, my sewing teacher, frowns at me. I lick the end of the kelly green thread and try again. I hold the needle close to my face and slowly bring the thread toward the sliver of light at the needle’s eye; my eyes burn from the effort of focusing. The thread brushes past the needle like strangers passing on a narrow sidewalk. The other girls are sewing rickrack onto their aprons with tidy little stitches but I haven’t started because my needle and thread are in two dimensions and the needle is like a reflection, never exactly where I expect it to be.

* * *

I have always wondered about what normal people see. Take stereoscopes. When I look through one at, say, a photograph of the Eiffel Tower, I see it with my left eye, and I think it looks just like the real Eiffel Tower. When others look through the stereoscope first with one eye, and then with their two normal eyes, they say the Eiffel Tower is suddenly three-dimensional, poised in the space around it, real in a way that a two-dimensional photograph is not. Real is also the word my husband used when we saw a 3-D movie recently. To me, it looked like any other movie. So if the three-dimensional world is real, does that make my world unreal?

A few years ago I read an article suggesting an answer to that question. It was about a woman with strabismus and monovision. She had a type of strabismus in which neither eye is dominant; instead, the brain shifts rapidly between the image from the left eye and the one from the right. She began intensive vision therapy to train her eyes to work together; within weeks she achieved stereovision. Her descriptions of what she sees now versus what she saw with monovision are like the difference between seeing the world in color instead of shades of grey. Objects stick out in space, everything is more textured, sharp, colorful, nuanced. When she goes for a walk, each flower, each leaf she sees seems to stand out by itself. When it snows, she feels as if she is among the snowflakes instead of looking at a flat plane of falling snow.

Vision therapy won’t work for me because my right eye can never be strong enough to get my brain’s full attention: I will never walk inside that snow globe. Reading that article was like reading a travelogue from someone visiting a beautiful country I know I’ll never get to see. It’s a land of stunning vistas, glorious colors, gorgeous sights — but my passport is no good there. For the first time, I understood the enormousness of what I was missing.

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You Don’t Want to Know

I did not recognize her, but then she told me her name: not her grown-up name but the name she had back then, when she ignored me at bar mitzvahs and our parents’ barbecues. Back then she was Jessica Weiss, the elder sister of Marlene Weiss, whom I was supposed to like but loathed, because although Marlene and I were the same age and looked alike and were in the same gifted class at school and our moms played mah jongg together every week, her gaze when she fixed it on me always said, Ewww.

Always. In the shul, on our parents’ patios, in class, Marlene sought me out with eyes that looked exactly like mine and as she bared her teeth that looked like mine with lips that looked like mine forming a smile that would have looked like mine had I known how to smile like that, those eyes said, Ewww.

They said, You look like me but like the gross yucky version of me, like me wearing big orthopedic shoes and sale-rack clothes repaired with staples, me hilariously unable to play dodgeball or Chinese jumprope without falling down, me but with bangs cut retard-short by parents using kitchen scissors and Scotch tape. You look like me but whereas I am sharp and lithe, you are slackjawed. You look like me but whereas other girls ask me to play, you scuff around alone, plucking ball bearings from the ground. You look like me, but my parents don’t yell at me in public; they do not scream and stomp in their rage in parking lots and airplanes and yours do. You look like me but you are always bursting into tears. You look like me but when the teacher calls on me, I answer primly. When she calls on you, you blush and mutter as if you believe everyone hates you, which they do.

Our mothers made us play together on their mah-jongg afternoons. One day I crouched in a corner of Marlene’s room and cried into her quilted bedspread. Doing pull-ups in the doorway, Marlene laughed. I pick my nose at night, she said, and smear it on that spread.

Her eyes that looked like mine right down to the tortoiseshell flecks and short straight lashes said, I know you but I do not know you, but not knowing you means knowing you because you are impossible to know because you are not you, you are not anyone.

I never would have recognized her sister all these decades later because Jessica, who used to be so angular, is soft and cushiony these days, the way you look when your kids are attending universities. But her hair still sweeps past one eye and swings beside her mandibles like pointed wings.

At fourteen she was reedy, taller than the rest of us, with pointy elbows and the kind of thighs girls wished they had back then, which when she stood with knees together did not meet, so a triangular sliver of sunshine flickered through. She ignored me at all those barbecues and Scout events, which was a relief compared to Marlene. Jessica liked to sip through straws.

Why is it that my only memory of anything specific that she ever said or did is so embarrassing that, meeting her again last weekend unexpectedly, I blurted I remember but could not go on? She was with her daughters last weekend, buying trowels. Even had we been alone, would I have intoned like a sibyl, a sleuth or the Ancient Mariner: One night in the back of your mother’s station wagon en route to a Scout event when you were fourteen and I was twelve, you discussed menstruation with Pam Silberstein. Pam said, Sometimes I run out of Tampax when I am flowing like Niagara Falls. You said, Me too, and when that happens I stuff Kleenex in my panties and I make a little mess in there.

Why of all things do I remember this and only this? Streetlights slashing her face, striping her stretchy V-neck top and skinny flares, in a car full of girls she spoke those words as loudly and plainly as you would when ordering dinner at a restaurant. I cringed when she said make a little mess. Mess was one of those words I could not say and still cannot, because I hear it roaring in my ears the way I heard it first, the way I learned it as Mom and Dad kicked toys back and forth across my bedroom floor shouting, You are a pig and this room is a mess. Mom clasped my collar as she wept into my face You’re just like me, a fucking mess. Not just a room could be a mess but so could human beings. Horrid ones, I realized. Mom slurred mess as if her mouth held every putrescent globule in the world.

When Jessica said in the station wagon make a little mess, I squirmed, throat clenching and spine flexing as if miming flight. Jessica said it in a light, proprietary way as if a mess was an achievement, like a garden or a work of art. Flicking her hair, Pam Silberstein said, Yeah. The station wagon suddenly felt hotter. I thought I smelled blood.

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In a Car, Far Away From Here

I should be suspicious a few weeks later when my sister asks right after dinner if I’d like to go get ice cream. She never asks me to go anywhere, never even comes out of her room. Despite the statewide manhunt for Cooper, our parents have allowed her back in her own bed at night. It’s not like she’s busy on the phone talking boys with friends. She doesn’t have any. Ever since we moved to Chino, she keeps more and more to herself. She misses too much school because she’s tired. And the few friends she did make have all but given up calling to find out what’s wrong. My parents now pay a shrink in L.A. to figure out what they can’t.

As I reach the car I call shotgun, forgetting in my excitement that I’m to be the only passenger.

We ride in her 280-Z, my father’s old sports car. It was a gift for having aced her driver’s test. The car is intended to be an incentive for her to drive to school, providing her with another kind of license—to show off. Before accepting it, she insisted that the maroon car be painted white like the Z the cool photographer drives in Madonna’s “Borderline” video.

My sister takes me to Baskin-Robbins and buys me a double scoop of chocolate chip. For some reason she doesn’t give me time to eat it there. Never before has she let me eat or drink in her beloved car.

I hang behind in the store, convinced this is some sort of trap.

“Are you sure?”

Rhea has the lightest-colored eyes in the family. They’re hazel, and they change colors depending upon the light in them. Something dark is in them now, something deliberate and dead set that’s doing more than clouding her judgment.

“C’mon, Paula,” she says. “Let’s just go.”

On the way out, I grab a wad of napkins.

Instead of returning home, she speeds south down Central Avenue, toward the outskirts of the city. We pass Chino Grain and Feed, built like a gigantic aluminum shed, where my parents pick up bales of hay and straw for the horses. We pass the grass field and wooden bleachers that is the Chino Fairgrounds. I don’t like where we’re headed. The prison is less than a block away.

“Where are we going?”

“I told you. We’re going on a drive.” She looks over at me in disgust. “It’s dripping.” My sister no longer likes food. She used to be overweight, so overweight that our grandmother, our yia yia, would sew her polyester pants with an elastic waist. In the last six months, she’s dropped more than fifty pounds. Now too thin, her weight still eats at her in other ways and she subsists on nothing but Tab and Cup o’ Noodles.

Quickly, I lick around the sides of the cone and stare out the window. The prison is surrounded by chain link, which is how it got its nickname “the prison with no walls.” Barbed wire is coiled across the top, though Cooper didn’t risk climbing over it and cutting up his hands. He didn’t have to. According to my father, he walked right out through a hole in the fence. “Either he cut it himself or somebody else had before him,” my father explained. “Naturally, they’re trying to keep that part out of the papers.”

All of the front towers are unlit, except for one where a man in a dark gray baseball cap is visible. Even at this distance, I can tell he isn’t looking where he should be. He’s focused on something inside the tower, maybe watching a baseball game or a game show on one of those portable TV’s.

I lean toward the dash and point at the guard.

“How come he isn’t on the lookout? He’s watching TV, I can tell. Don’t you see him?”

My sister bats my arm out of her line of sight.

“He’s probably watching the monitors, Paula.”

At the stoplight, she turns right, in the direction of the hills and there is now no denying where she is taking us. I roll down the window. The night air blows hard and fast in my face, and I can’t catch my breath. Ice cream melts cold down my fingers. I toss out the cone, hoping a cop will see it and cite her a thousand bucks for littering. Anything to make her stop.

The 280-Z doesn’t have power steering and she needs both hands to make this next sharp turn. There are no street lights so I’m not sure how she knows this is the right road. It’s made of dirt and gravel and at the sound of the spoiler scraping the ground, I’m convinced she’ll change her mind and back right down. Instead she downshifts into first gear and steps harder on the gas.

Hurriedly, I roll up the window as if being separated by glass is an actual form of protection.

“Turn around,” I say. “Please, Rhea.”

“You need to confront your fears.” Her tone is polished, adult sounding, possibly like her new L.A. shrink.

The house is just a dark bulky shape and I tell myself my sister might’ve gotten the addresses mixed up. This house could belong to a family that is off on vacation or simply out to the movies. The front yard is in need of trimming.

She stops the car in the circular driveway and outstretches her arm as if she’s performed a magic trick.

“You see? Nobody’s here.”

If this isn’t the spot where the worst mass murder in San Bernardino County took place, others have apparently made the same mistake as my sister. Beer bottles and fast food wrappers litter the front yard. In less than a couple of months, the house has become a creepy hangout spot for teenagers. It seems too soon. The cops should’ve secured it longer, but there’s no trace they were even here. No yellow police tape sealing shut the front door or fingerprint dust around the windows and doorknobs. No obvious signs of the bloody slaughter that occurred inside.

Cooper attacked the father first because he was the strongest, an ex-Marine who would’ve fought back on instinct. He stabbed and struck the father’s head and chest so many times that one of the man’s fingers was later found inside the closet. Next, Cooper turned the knife and hatchet on the wife who only got as far as the foot of the bed. The children, awakening to her screams, must’ve run toward the bedroom where Cooper hid like a shadow in the dark.

“I want to go home now,” I say.

“Or else what?”

My sister is taunting me by bringing me here. It has nothing to do with overcoming my fears. All she wants is to scare me.

Maybe it’s my anger that forces me out of the car and makes me grab an empty beer can. Although the lip of it is too smooth to do any real damage, I have a plan. The tab twists off easily and there it is, a tiny, jagged stump. I hold it against the car door, the custom paint job that my father jokingly said cost him an early appearance in L.A. Superior Court with a perverted high school gym teacher. The man was caught, his silk running shorts around his ankles, in the back seat of his Prelude during lunch period with a seventeen-year-old girl. Luckily for him, the student thought she was in love and clammed up. My father got the charges dropped, arguing that although he exercised poor judgment, the gym teacher did nothing criminally wrong by showing this girl how to avoid a groin pull.

I rattle my threat for effect.

“A long curly swirl would look cool,” I say. “Or maybe my name in cursive.”

Even in the dark, I think I see her eyes change color.

“You little skatofatsa.”

Cursing me in Greek, calling me a shitface, is just a start. Part of me is scared because I could be in for a serious beating. Sometimes she play fights with me, almost always getting too rough, and I wind up locking myself in my room, hating her, with a reddened cheek or a welt on my forearm. It occurs to me that my sister might even ditch me here on Cooper’s murdering ground.

“Don’t think I won’t do it,” I warn, thinking up my own Greek curse word I’ve heard my father use. “From taillight to headlight, palio hondree.”

I’m not sure what I’ve called her. My father shouted those two words once on our way back from an Angels game when we were cut off on the freeway by a female driver. They are successful in getting a reaction out of my sister. She reaches into the glove compartment, pops a pill from a prescription bottle, and downs it with a gulp of Diet Coke. I’ve only seen her take medication if she has a cold. This is different, and I worry if what she’s just swallowed is going to make her sleepy. Already, she looks worn out.

“Christ,” she says. “Just get in.”

I wait until we’re safely back on Central before I dare ask what I called her.

My sister smiles, though it’s an uneasy one. The pill has relaxed her some.

“You called me a fat ass.”

The worst I’ve ever yelled at her is vlaka. Moron is nothing compared to what I just said.

“Sorry,” I say. “You’re not fat.” And although I mean it, my apology comes too late.


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