I’m from the valley of “like, ya’ know”
From taquerias and latkes,
The sea-salt wind
And the gagging smog.
From movie-reels and drive-ins,
From “quiet on the set” and craft service table,s
Where I chose the broccoli over the M&M’s and mom was so proud.
From Hebrew school where I was a three-year-old dropout,
Mute, and never into a man grown,
And though godless, I’m from Buddhists and Baptists and Jews,
But also from hope and happiness and healthy misgivings.
From garages with amps turned to eleven,
And clubs (all-ages) with 40s in the back,
Where herds of mohawked punks
Smoking and spitting and smashing bottles in alleys
groped and grinnned and growled and returned late for curfew
To trimmed lawns and sparkling swimming pools
And maid-mopped kitchens,
Reeking of malt and hops and rubbing nicotine-stained fingers.
I’m from the marsh grasses that tower overhead,
(grasses, rushes or sedges?)
And the sucking mud that won’t let go,
That burns the skin and infects the soul.
I’m from oysters on the half-shell and a dash of Tabasco,
From the classes of Professor Longhair,
Under the magnolias slick with summer showers,
From the southern parishes where the old folks have lost their tongues,
And where the trawl nets are raised sticky and black.
I’m from English, mais aussi le français,
And I no longer know how to say anything in either tongue,
If I ever did.
I’m from Angles and Saxons and Ostrogoths,
Which is to say I’m White, White, White,
And to prove it further,
I’m from slave-holders,
But from abolitionists too,
(Thanks ol’ mighty forebear John Brown).
I’m from an X chromosome and a Y,
And twenty-two other well-functioning ones too,
And I stand and sit and speak and shit with ease.
I wonder which of these things you see,
Or if it’s impossible to not see them all,
And, I wonder if I’d appear differently
If what I am from was changed,
Deletions were made, and oddities and delicacies included themselves
In my lists,
And where I’d be now if the starting line was changed,
And would the finish line move also?
So I was teaching a lesson on Haiku in French and couldn’t find enough good examples in time so I wrote one instead. I think it’s pretty good:
vite vient printemps
de mon coquelicot
and a translation for the Francophonically impaired:
swiftly spring comes
the bursting scarlet
of my poppy
A wave crests over an altar of rocks ragged, jagged and tide-worn into the points of a crown. The frothy foam hangs cotton-like over the rock enclosure; though nowhere dark, it hangs ominous as though the foretelling of a coming storm: a shroud of white.
Down the coast, a bit to the left and slightly more in the foreground, a surfer in black wetsuit sits over his board, his back rounded slightly. With his hands on his waist he stares out toward the formation of the waves, but his gaze is beyond them, lingering on the horizon. In front of him, closer to the viewer, a wave has broken in a burst of mist and runs in a line unbroken to the nimbus of seafoam that dances frozen above the rock altar.
Farther still down the shore, closer yet, standing at the edge of the steep drop down from the highway to the beach, in red jogging shorts striped with white down the sides and gray sweatshirt, is a bare footed young girl. Her toes are twisted in the stiff seagrass.
A farmhouse outside of Portland, Oregon. A large blackberry bush obscures much of the front of the house, and as a consequence the house has not been repainted since it was erected a little over a hundred years ago, in 1898. Little of the original paint remains; little flakes can still be found in areas where the original surface was covered or protected, like behind the gutters (installed in nineteen ought four), behind the brass numbers that run vertically alongside the frame of the front door, and curiously in a nearly perfect square patch alongside the house under the large kitchen window. Much of the original wood of the house is rotted: flaking, disintegrating. The house could be repaired, brought back to its original glory, and if there were any reason to do so, Mr. Karlin would do so; he has the money and the time. But, according to Mr. Karlin, there isn’t, and so the house decays slowly from the outside in, and Mr. Karlin decays slowly from the inside out.
For the last seven years, Mr. Karlin’s daily routine has been unchanged. He wakes sometime before sunrise, chooses a suit from his closet, lays it out on his bed, irons if ironing needs to be done, and then shaves himself deliberately and carefully, slowly, sometimes spending twenty minutes or more staring at himself int eh mirror, the straight-edge razor pinched lightly between thumb and forefinger of his left hand. When finally satisfied, he mops up his hairs from the sinkbowl, and dresses himself before a cloudy antique mirror. Some mornings he thinks too much about knotting his tie and forgets how to do it completely; at these times he sits down on the bed and weeps lightly to himself. It always returns to him though, and usually within a quarter of an hour he can be found with well-knotted tie and all, seated at the small square table in the kitchen where he has eaten buttered toast with coffee every day for the past eighty-odd months. After washing up, Mr. Karlin takes the long slow stroll down the gravel drive to his mailbox at the intersection of the drive and country road number 34, gathers the newspaper from the yellow plastic newspaper box the Times people installed in some year in the recent past, and trudges back up the drive, taking special care to not muddy up his shoes, particularly if it had been a rather dewy morning. Mr. Karlin begins at the beginning, unfolding the newspaper as he leans back into his pine rocker, and ends at the end. And, when the paper had been read, no word left unperused, Mr. Karlin crumples the paper and uses it to light the fireplace, no matter the time of the year. He prepares for himself a modest lunch, takes stock of the pantry, paints a while, maybe plays the piano in the entryway that needs a bit of tuning, and drinks several glasses of wine before eating a simple dinner and going to sleep with the sun.
On the far edge of the property (the corner of the lot farthest from the gravel drive that leads downhill to country road number 34) a large empty barn can be found. It is all that remains of a once significant orchard of apple trees. It was in this barn that six boys and four girls lost their virginity over the past twenty years. The only things rolling in the hay now are cockroaches and rats, with the occasional cat pouncing after one of the former. In a corner next to the outward-swinging barn doors lay a pile of rusted farm tools. The axe and the shovel are both missing their wooden handles. Rotted away, or eaten by termites. Spiders have taken over everything shoulder height and above. Several years ago the descendants of a family of swallows that had lived in the barn since 1922 took wing and never returned.
If you look through the window at the front of the building, the one with the cat posing in the slanted beam of sun, you’ll see a small cylindrical blue and white vase in which rests a dying three-budded sunflower. One flower, nearly devoid of petals, has dropped the last of its pollen in a golden scattering. Another, nearly completely withered, bows, drained, waiting for the end. The third, is bursting with life, completely unaware that it is unrooted, simply bobbing in week-old water. It burst forth with all the life it can muster, though its life will be fruitless, short, and impossibly doomed from its blossoming. But, the flower opens nonetheless, blooms nonetheless, and will die like its companions, hunched over, dropping its petals, and spilling its pollen aimlessly, indiscriminately.
Next to the parking lot of the pharmacy, in which sits several new and slightly used cars, among them a Toyota, a pair of BMWs, and a Range Rover, sits a worn, dirtied, and most importantly, stolen milk crate. The side of the blue milk crate reads: Berkeley Farms, Mooooo! The milk crate is over turned and covered with a thin and extremely tattered yellow and blue flannel material - possibly the remnant of a picnic blanket or once-warm shirt. In one corner of the flannel is a large non-nondescript dark stain that once smelled distinctly of shit, but now only vaguely smells like decomposing leaves. Perched limply upon the milk crate is what could have once been called a human. Its cheeks are sunken in, porous eyes balance in ditches that were once eye-sockets. And, the man behind this ragged face wouldn’t recognize himself at all if he was handed a mirror, or a nickel, or the reflective gaze of acknowledgement. But, he hasn’t seen these things, feels as invisible as he is. But, not to the cashier, who despite this man’s odor, caked and cracked fingernails, and sweaty nickels, smiles and greets him like any other. His money is good here and the children in line don’t even whisper, don’t even hide behind their mothers’ skirts.
On a street corner in downtown San Francisco stands a young girl. She looks off over and out into the expanse of the bay. A fluted skirt hovers just above her knees. She hemmed the skirt herself, earlier in the day, after her mother had left for work. She’d played sick, coughing and sneezing; her mother had already been too late to fuss over it much, and said only to be a good girl, and that she would be home late since she had to work a double shift at the boutique . The young girl nodded, and waited for the warm moist kiss of her mother’s lips on her forehead, which came quickly, and just before she watched her mother fly out the door.
The skirt was too short and showed too much of the young girl’s thighs. Now and then a gusty breeze would barrel over the bay and catch her fluted skirt like a sail, and lift the hem several inches higher. It was at one of these moments, on the corner of a street, in a part of town she didn’t really know, when her the hem of her skirt floated some five to six inches above her knee, that a car pulled up to her and a window rolled down and a man said something to the young girl and she said something to the man, and the young girl got into the car and the car drove off.
As she lay in the back seat, the car parked in an alley in a part of the city she didn’t really know, with the man on top of her, rocking her back and forth, the back of her head knocking rhythmically against an ashtray, crumpling crisp new bills in her palm, she began to cry. The man hesitated for a moment, grew noticeably limp inside her, seemed worried, and then as quickly as he had stopped, had begun again and was now moaning into her hair as he was coming into her, and he rolled off her, tossed her his handkerchief and she wiped his semen from her leg and got out of the car.
The young girl was laughing now, had changed somewhere along the way from crying to laughing, and hadn’t noticed the difference. She was standing on a street corner in a part of the city she didn’t know very well with one hand full of crisp new crumpled bills, and another full of a stranger’s semen soaked up in a handkerchief, balled up in the palm of her hand, and she was laughing with tears streaming from her eyes, down her cheeks, and she wasn’t sure, wasn’t sure she had yet enough cash to buy her boyfriend an anniversary gift.
Sometimes when you let something sit for too long, it gets too cold to eat. It rots maybe. Flies lay eggs in it. The eggs burst open like in Aliens, jetting maggots far and near. Don’t choke on it.
No. It doesn’t quite have the ring of Oak-town, but the consonant heavy Berk does seem to capture something of the oddity that this place has to offer: something like the pastel-colored Hawaiian shirt your grandmother wears. Yeah. Like that.
I think back to the lyrics of ‘California Uber Alles’ by the Dead Kennedys:
"Zen fascists will control you
You will jog for the master race
And always wear the happy face
Close your eyes, can’t happen here
Big Bro’ on white horse is near
The hippies won’t come back you say
Mellow out or you will pay
Mellow out or you will pay!”
Jello must have been hanging out in Berk-town when he wrote those. And, Jerry Brown is Governor. Again.
Old bourgeois bohemians. Hippie sell-outs polishing their bald spots and their BMWs.
But then, I’m concentrating on the negative. The flora is lush; I haven’t seen this many shades of green in years. Flowers derobed and proud in their nudity. Hills, fucking hills!
The sun slips through the fog late in the morning and lands in quadrilateral patches on the carpet - quickly occupied by crescent cats curling in the solar rays. This is the Berk-town of my morning. Chocolatey coffee and a breeze through the cracked window. I feel like a dust mote, egoless, happy to be pulled along in the changing currents, without a will, but glowing in the morning sun. This is the Berk-town of my morning.
No, this will not be an existential rant, but rather an explanation of purpose. I have too many words. I must give them away now.
Let’s begin this as all good things are begun, with a statement: that ain’t red beans and rice, motherfucker.
Newly arrived in Berkeley, California, still dripping with the sweat of loading a rental truck at 6 am in New Orleans, Louisiana, my lady and I were unreasonably excited to find that not only was there a restaurant in the neighborhood that claimed to sell “Louisiana” cuisine, but alas, to our further surprise they were having a crawfish boil! At which they sold a pound of crawfish, one boiled potato, and two dreary little pieces of corn for $18.99. Okay, you’ve had it shipped across the country. Fine. But to charge that and not fucking season them, well sir, thank you for that kick in the balls. Thankfully, they provided us with a tiny bottle of Crystal hot sauce which we promptly took shots of between bites in order to grind the wool firmly into our eyes so that we could actually finish our meal.
You’d need access to a heavily slavic language to find the right word for the pathetic bowl of red beans and rice we received. What’s a red beans without a rue? The consistency was more like a chili; dry rice floating like dead bloated maggots in the sea, surrounded by kidney bean life preservers. Wait, did you say kidney beans? Yes, sadly I did. Granted, I don’t know exactly what kind of bean a ‘red bean’ is, but anyone who has ever actually been to New Orleans knows that it ain’t a kidney bean, my man. I don’t know who you are fooling, chef of so-called Louisiana kitchen, but not only are you misrepresenting Louisiana cuisine, but you’re making New Orleanians homesick for a good bowl of Blue Runner Creole Cream Red Beans. (Someone send us a case, quick!)