It's been an odd week.
Summer is waning but winter is staying well away. One more giant squash and two handfuls of beans. A final blueberry. No more strawberries. The local newspaper runs a story about recovered buried guns, disturbing because of the reported reaction of the 'powers that be.' Hurricanes approach. The Republicans are digging themselves deeper and deeper into the cesspool of inane and dangerous thinking. Schools are back in session, the sunflowers have bloomed themselves to seed, and the trash on the street has gone from sofas to TVs. Not sure why TVs, including some large flat screens, are showing up curbside, but there it is.
As for me, I am confusedly preparing for winter by trying to remember rain.
What goes and What returns
Awake for much of the night, my little dog
bark-barks at shadows, hoping to show me
he’s taking care of business, on the job . . .
I’ve been working – on the road too early,
home late. The hours in between seem long –
to him, to me. He sleeps the in-between,
wakes as it grows dark. I need rest. He barks
and I toss about. When the trains start up,
I know the sky will soon slide silver gold
and I’ll again be trekking down the road.
Between here and there, brutal traffic –
monster trucks blowing smoke, broken pavement,
potholes not to be believed, impatience
anchored fast to speed. I keep windows closed,
crank up the air, tune the radio to jazz.
The first few miles – Stan Getz, with a tune
recorded just before his death, new to me,
but each note floats out wide, and warmth folds me,
holds me, pulls me back to another hour
when I sat, listening through a sheltered light
as he played the sun to bed, coaxing night
to open its arms, ask the moon to dance.
He played for himself alone, not knowing
I sat below, rocking slowly, crooning
to my baby boy drowsing at my breast.
Samba smoothed rough edges from that night,
and I breathed joy as each note slid easily
beneath the swelter of the sun, keeping
the light in shimmer some seconds longer
than the charts had predicted it should be.
Heart music, I thought then, and heart music
I think now, feeling those rounded tones rise
above shrill trucks and taillights going red.
His sax floats above traffic’s razor edge,
wrapping the raw rake of steel on concrete
and holding back the muffled roar of ice
sliding blue and breathless into the sea
somewhere far far away yet close enough
to catch our breath, rewrite our future dreams,
advise us this: attach your hearts to song
live for now, for then, for however long.
It's Monday and raining -- really truly raining. The streets are running if not rivers then streams to gutters, and the trees are looking surprised. It rarely rains in Oakland in June, and if it does, it doesn't rain like this: steadily, greyly, completely.
By now, after hours of rain, these discarded couches, markers of the ongoing displacement of households upset and overturned, must be soggy, dripping wet, looking even more tired, more discouraged as their dust turns to mud, damp puddles in cracks and crevices.
Couches, fat and overstuffed, are the proud peacocks of living rooms, and even when battered and worn, they still represent the luxury of leisure, a breathing space, a place to sit and read, to do nothing, to nap, to dream, but when shoved out the door, dumped unceremoniously on the street, minus their pillows, minus their legs and seats, they are something else -- the epitome of defeat . . . what it is to be too heavy to move, too bulky to stay, left behind. Back to basics.
I find it interesting that these couches are abandoned to sidewalks within three blocks of each other and that two of the three have become frames for graffiti tags.
No room for luxury in our lives.
No salvaging this.
Years ago, I worked as an artist in that most marvelous program that Jimmy Carter's administration invented to support all of us struggling and starving artists in NYC. I taught in the New York City Prisons, the Brooklyn House of D and the Tombs, penned illustrations of silent movie stars for a movie mag in Queens, taught mural painting at FDR High Schools in Brooklyn, ran art workshops at the Bronx museum. I had a lively and lovely time, making art while drifting about the city, but discussing that job is not the reason for this post. Decay, and its unseemly lack, is.
In those days I had a friend, married to one of my fellow art workers, who was a remarkable draftsman, an artist extraordinaire with a strange vision of what needed to be preserved. She drew decay. Each Monday morning, she walked down to Chinatown, bought vegetables -- perhaps an eggplant, Bok Choi, a squash or two, a head of lettuce -- and set them out as a still life on her drawing table. Then, she would sharpen her pencils and create oversize glorious drawings inch by inch, day by day, a new drawing everyday for week, recording with her pencil (and her erasure) the collapse of all that fecund vegetable flesh. The first drawing would be of plump sassy vegetables and fruits, the second the same but showing a bit of wear. By the third drawing, the squash might be collapsing, the lettuce withering. She would keep drawing until everything had dried or melted. The drawings were meticulous, beautiful, and alive with an inexplicable magic.
She left this planet some time ago, but every time I open my refrigerator and see my now nearly four-month-old Romaine lettuce, I think of her. Even she would not have the patience required to draw this slow rate of decay. Living things that never age are boring; lacking shrink or fizzle they drift into a disconcerting sameness, alarmingly flat and subdued. My still perky aging lettuce now has a few brown spots along its ribs, and one leaf is slightly brown on top, but for lettuce cut clean from its roots sometime back in early November, it's still disturbingly fresh.
It doesn't feel magical, just unnatural.
I feel the same way about facelifts, boob jobs, tummy tucks, and cherry red lips on sun broken faces.
Romaine lettuce, purchased mid-November, photographed early March
Out of habit, I almost ate a piece that had broken off in the bag, but I stopped my hand before it reached my mouth. Of course, I have no intention of eating it, and, of course, I will leave it in my refrigerator. Next month, I'll snap another photograph.
I wonder if this head of lettuce will make it to June or beyond. It just might.
Yesterday's rain has passed, and the sky is washed clean. Air smells of damp earth and newness. The clocks are shifted, an hour gained. I enjoy that hour walking about the mostly quiet streets of West Oakland. St. Patrick's has its doors thrown open, and music spills down the steps, voices singing words I cannot understand. It makes me happy just to hear the song.
And then, I turn the corner and discover a pile of trash dumped on the still blooming garden, the beautiful garden planted in the narrow strip of land between the sidewalk and the street.
Two things make this spillage unusual. First the trash has not been dumped at a corner (the more ordinary place for illegal dumping) and second, the objects dumped are not various. Everything dumped here belongs in the life of a small child. A child-sized mattress, wrapped in plastic, lies in the street. A deflated wading pool, neatly rolled, spills from a plastic bucket. A battery-operated motorcycle, minus its front wheel, is on its side on the dirt.
face to the ground
And on the other side of the blooming Scotch Broom, a very clean white teddy bear is face down in the dirt, spilled from a laundry basket that still contains a DVD player and two soggy Disney movie DVDs. I am sobered by this sight, made sad. The dump hints at loss, unspeakable miserable sorrowful.
Who threw away these small pieces of a small life and why? That someone would heave these objects atop of blooming flowers suggests either great anger or great sorrow.
Cover the beauty with great pain.
UPDATE: One hour after taking these pictures, while church members were still inside praying, a 14-year-old was shot maybe twenty feet from the teddy bear with its face to the ground. The block where I walked this morning is now cordoned off with yellow tape, stretching from the chain-link fence outside the school to the wrought iron fence of the church.
FDR is gone, the Dalai Lama torn away, Obama removed.
For a brief time, their portraits, pasted on the support pillar for the BART, graced the street, but now that pillar has been stripped and repainted vanilla cream. The decision to scratch away these finely rendered beautiful portraits and repaint the pillar was, I think, unnecessarily aggressive and insensitive to the surrounding community.
Here's a thought. What if those so concerned that the support pillars remain virginal vanilla put as much effort into picking up the trash blowing under 'their' elevated tracks? Such an effort would be less costly -- no gallons of vanilla paint required -- and certainly more appreciated by the people of West Oakland.
Destroying art wins no friends, and it seems especially stupid to destroy art that served as a gentle reminder to passers-by of the value of creative compassionate thought and dialogue. We need dialogue and creativity to create peaceful and productive community.
It happened again. Same words, different voice.
Yesterday, it was hot in the East Bay, another Spare-the-Air day, drive only if necessary, no fires, no barbeque, think about the earth, for goodness sake, think about it . . . and so I walked in the park near the lake because of its proximity and because of the cool that rises from the waters. I walked across the green grass and through the children's playground. I love to hear them laugh; that sound triggers pleasant memories of my own children clambering happily over the geodesic dome in Washington Square Park before it was identified as too risky for child's play and removed. It was tall, true . . . much higher than any contemporary play structures, fifteen sixteen feet (maybe more) at its peak, but that height was exactly what made it so exhilarating. Even small kids could could manage to climb upwards from bar to bar and reach the top. How happy they were to climb higher than high where they could sit with only air beneath and survey the parklands below . . . as happy as I had been as a child atop tall trees swaying in a wind combing field grasses until they shifted gold against the sun. Kids need the sky.
These children in yesterday's park had no such soaring structure to climb, but nonetheless they were making their own fun, challenging boundaries, finding ways to color outside the lines. They raced about on the flat ground chasing the geese, always grazing nearby, but the fun of watching those birds pop from the ground with wings outspread soon fizzled out. One boy, maybe five-years-old, tired of the geese waddle, found a new game, a new border to be crossed. He began kicking at the garbage can placed near the playground as a receptacle for candy wrappers, old newspapers, and water bottles. As the can was really a tall open-mouthed quite biodegradable cardboard box and quite light-weight, he soon discovered that even though that box was almost as tall as he was, he could easily move it about. He began to kick at it with a ferocity that made it slide speedily across the grass. It seemed as if he were determined to tip it over. I waited for a parent to say something, but all was silence. Finally, one heavy kick did indeed tip the garbage 'can' on its side and the contents spilled onto the grass and began blowing about. Then, a new game; they all began kicking the trash.
I waited -- again -- expecting parental intervention, but when nothing happened twice (very Beckettian), I stopped. I looked at the boy, and said not unkindly Now that you have emptied the trashcan, please pick up the trash. Then, it happened. The same words -- again -- different (and younger) voice.
He stopped kicking, looked solemnly at me, tipped his head to one side, and said I don't touch trash. The same words but spoken by a much younger child. Something inside me slumped.
I don't touch trash.
But trash touches us all. The boy's father finally appeared,began to pick up the blowing trash, told his son that throwing trash about was not the thing to do, but I don't think he meant it. His voice drowned in the word. It was all too much. Spare the Air, spare the lake, spare the ground. Spare us all.
This morning, I slipped on my vinyl gloves and went out on the street to greet the day by picking up trash, bagging it, and slipping the filled bags into concrete garbage cans provided by the city, cans that are unspillable but too easily filled. In less than thirty minutes, I filled two bags with trash -- empty potato chip bags, candy wrappers, cigarette boxes, newspaper bits, coffee cups, jello cups, and plastic spoons -- and the crossing guard spoke to me for the first time in nearly eight weeks. Thank you, he said. It's a small thing, I said. Then, he told me a story about sweeping the front walk of his childhood home, sweeping with such ferocity that anyone passing by would have thought a dust devil had zipped down from the heavens above but it was only him and his broom. One day, he said, when he was sweeping, he saw an acorn roll tipsy turvy on the walk. He picked it out of the dust pile and planted it at the back of the house. Ten years later that acorn was a tree.
I like small things. I adore kids, love seeds, and stories that spiral skyward like bees that transform to hawks.
Today was a five bag morning. After drinking a cup of tea, I slipped on my disposable vinyl gloves and went out onto the street with five plastic bags looped over one arm and little Earnest pulling eagerly on the other. I was determined to clean up the trash littering the bus-stop at 9th and Peralta. Yesterday, walking past blowing newspapers, crumbled candy wrappers, bits and scraps of this and that, I was reminded of another city across oceans thousands of miles away where the trash layered so deep on city lots that the only way to reduce its bulk was to set it aflame, and today I think again of that city without regular or regulated trash disposal. Oakland collects its trash. With weekly pickups of trash here, I can see no reason for accepting trash-strewn streets as normal. I have no way of controlling the behavior of others, no way of knowing why folks choose to toss lunch bags and candy wrappers to the pavement when a trash can sits on the corner, but I can pick up what lies on the street. And so I did.
As I stuffed and stamped the trash into my bags, I thought of another hot dusty morning far far away when I was walking from my office to my classroom in that city across oceans on another continent. A student walked in front of me, sipping orange soda from a can while talking to her friend who was drinking bottled water and laughing. They both seemed so happy, and I smiled. I like happiness. Then, both girls finished their drinks and tossed the empty containers to either side. The aluminum can arced skyward before landing next to a drainage ditch, reeking with sewage and clogged with trash; the clear plastic bottle hit the trunk of a baobob tree. I called out to my student, the girl who had aimed her bottle for the tree, and asked her to pick the bottle up and carry it, please, to the trash can placed conveniently next to the path some thirty feet ahead. She turned and stared at me, only long enough to say distinctly and loud enough for all to hear, I don't touch trash.
When filled with water, her hand could cradle the bottle, bring it to her lips, but when emptied, it instantly transformed to trash, impure and unacceptable. She could not carry trash in her bare hands even for thirty feet, and so she tossed it.
I touch trash. I pick it up, bag and place the filled bags in trash cans that will be emptied by others who will tip the cans into trucks that will carry the compacted trash to landfills where it will fester and decay. Not the best solution, perhaps, but better than waiting until empty lots are ankle deep in trash, ready to be set aflame. Five bags of trash this morning. Five bags less trash on The Street.
I still remember waking, closing the window to keep out the acrid odor of burning plastic, waiting for the jitney with a scarf over my nose and mouth, feeling that oily smoke settling on my skin. When the trash burned even the girl who would not touch trash took the trash into her lungs.
This morning when I stepped out under the overcast sky and onto the street, the first and only sound I heard was the gentle hoo-hoo-hoo of a mourning dove, and that round sound made my whole body smile. After living for so long in Hawai`i, the call of mourning doves, almost background music there, is a magic elixir to me. More than any other bird song, the voice of the mourning dove triggers emotions and memories that are at once complicated, brilliant, and as fragile as the lacework of new ice that forms at the edge of a still running stream.
As I walked down Peralta St, that gentle hoo-hoo-hoo stretched my steps from these littered streets across seas to the beaches and waterfalls of my beloved Hawai`i. Suddenly, I was again sitting at my desk, looking out onto Honolulu Harbor and then walking up on Roundtop, through avenues of bamboo, listening to forest birds harmonize with mourning doves. The concrete beneath my feet gave way to a mud trail embedded with hard kukui seeds and red cinders from the long silent volcano. Then, just as suddenly, I was lifted skyward and settled down at the edge of the cliff, looking down on Manoa Valley, past booming i'e i'e vines, to the University campus below. If I reached out my hand, I touched ripening strawberry guavas hanging over the trail. That the murmured song of a single bird could forge a bridge strong enough and flexible enough to take me across the sea amazed me, but I was grateful to walk ever so briefly on that trail and for that gentle hoo-hoo-hoo that took me there.
Soon enough, however, I was back on Oakland streets, watching the flight of black plastic bags, lifting from gutters and pirouetting across car hoods into plum trees. The dove had flown away and great black crows were caw-caw-cawing from the tops of pine trees with broad voices loud enough to compete with the clatter of the BART train. I laughed. In Nigeria where I taught soon after leaving Hawai`i, at the time of the monsoons, plastic bags just like these would rise just like crows in great flocks from empty lots. Indeed, the first time I saw one of those whirlwinds of black plastic bags, I didn’t recognize the bags as flying trash, thought instead they were a flock of birds flying against the wind. Only when the black plastic handles snagged on tree limbs and the bags were left hanging limp did I realize that my swooping birds I had thought so magical were just empty bags tossed carelessly to the ground, given body and wing only by the wind. Here the bags are not quite as numerous, so when they fly, one by one, they look just like what they are – airborne trash.
As church bells sounded, I walked happy, amused by my travelling brain. I strolled down to 7th St hoping to find the Revolution Café open and serving coffee but I was too early. The doors were shuttered, but the street alive and laughing with the morning and with the joy of the magnificent collaborative street mural that only grows increasingly more beautiful as time passes. A different kind of fruit, a different kind of song but just as sweet, just as strong.
Yesterday, we had weather many frequently describe as ‘earthquake weather,’ hotter than usual with startling clear cloudless skies, and sure enough last night, shortly before midnight a small earthquake rattled the bay area, not large enough to awaken most Bay Area sleepers but large enough to convince the local possum population that it was time to move about, and move they did. A very large possum decided to seek refuge on my porch, and did so with great fanfare. I was sleeping, but Earnest, of course, heard it milling about and started barking wildly. He had his nose pressed to the door when I stumbled out of bed and peered through the window just in time to see the possum traipsing not so delicately down the stairs, waddling its rear and dragging its heavy tail behind. It was so large, it stretched across the steps two at a time.
Despite having had the poignant experience of watching a mother possum with babies clinging to her back negotiate the back fence at my mother’s house in Florida, I have never been particularly fond of possums. They rate about as highly as do rats with me. I suppose I can be faulted for not wanting them hanging about my yard, baring their little sharp teeth and wandering around in the nude, but I find them unnerving. They look (and act) too much like rats with a terminal skin disease. I opened my front door and Earnest ran out in full pursuit of the critter. He chased it up and over our back fence. Why possums always prefer back fences even though they (like side fences) generally lead to yet another yard is beyond me, but in my limited experience, they do. Are they convinced as are so many humans that wilderness lies behind us? All I can say is that I hope the sharp toothed little beastie makes it back to the wild lands. I’m glad it is gone and has left knowing that a dog with a large jaw and sharp teeth will chase it should it choose to return; it doesn’t belong in my backyard. What kind of life can it enjoy here in this congested neighborhood overrun with humans, dogs, and cats . . . and guns.
I add that bit about guns because of this, which I bury here deep under the silt of the third paragraph because it depresses me. This morning, while Earnest and I were walking on the street, a man was shot only two blocks from where we were walking, wounded only, thank goodness. Because of Earnest’s late night activities chasing possums form the yard, we left the house a bit later, Earnest ready to bark at his friends between here and 8th St and me equipped as always with latex gloves and plastic bags for collecting trash, which was plentiful. As there seemed to be an overwhelming amount of trash on 11th St and then an equal amount on Campbell, I decided to go first around the block, ending my circle at the city trash can, rather than walking immediately down Peralta towards 7th St as I usually do. That decision may just have saved me from running into the gun-toting thugs who confronted their target somewhere nearby and chased him down to 8th and Mandela.
As it took some time to stuff my filled bag of trash into the city trashcan, when we finally started down Peralta, morning traffic had increased. BART was rattling, cars were passing, dogs barking, skateboards wailing past at high speed. With all the hullabaloo, I missed the gunshots, and didn’t think much of the sirens (there are always sirens), but when I happened upon the scene – still fresh, patrol cars with blue lights flashing, the street only recently closed, plastic yellow ribbons stretched from corner to corner, making room for the policemen to complete their investigation – I knew something serious had occurred. Streets are usually only closed when guns are fired, but as I had not heard gunshots, I assumed the fracas must have occurred last night and that I was witnessing the tail end of an investigation of a serious crime. As it turned out, there had been a fatal shooting several blocks to the east at about 9:30 last night, but this investigation was not for that. When I learned that the 22-year-old had been shot shortly after 9 am, as we were walking, I felt a chill run up my spine. This is the hour children walk to school and when workers congregate at the train station, coffee cups in hand.
So what happened to golden aura of yesterday? Carried off by possums? I went to the Goodwill, bought myself a lovely wool coat from Italy, never worn, for $15, came home and made some potato carrot soup. Winter will soon be upon us.
Walking yesterday morning was a bit of a strain as I had much garbage to pick up on the street and few sights in between to direct my eyes and my spirit away from the crushed cigarette cartons or the sodden bits of napkin left from a discarded lunch. As I picked up trash, I had to watch little Earnest to make sure he didn’t pick up any of the chicken bones that invariably get tossed on the sidewalk during the night; so, I was rather preoccupied. Yellow grey skies hung so low and acted both as mufflers, damping down any sounds of planes, and as amplifiers. When the fog hangs low, the BART trains that run across the southern end of my street sound louder and scratchier than usual. On clear days they pass like silken bee hum; on days like today, heavy with clouds, their passing is more like disgruntled long-toothed beasts clawing the edges of their cages, trying desperately to escape.
As I walked, dropping down every third step to pick up paper scraps, I longed to walk instead under canopies of trees near crystal streams wide enough to catch the sparks of sun that spiked their way through the empty corridors above where treetops pulled aside. Ha ha ha. Now that would be a trick. All joking aside, I do love walking next to water, and I’m equally happy on mountaintops, gazing over meadows wide enough to be oceans. I may be less comfortable in city decay, but I find beauty there as well. I have lived most of my adult life deep inside cities, usually in neighborhoods overwhelmed by decay and layers of trash (these are the places I can afford), and so I have made it my practice to look and discover, to inhabit beauty instead of despair. Although I might like to live in quiet isolation deep in the country, I don’t. Nonetheless, daily I seek nature because the natural world sustains me. I walk, picking up trash, looking for the odd flower, the unexpected butterfly or bee, and stop when I see the shadow of a tree, dancing on the sidewalk. Even after all these years, I am moved by the delicacy of that.
After stuffing two largish plastic bags of trash into the one city garbage can near the bus-stop, I walked slowly home. I wondered briefly if the lack of public trashcans contributed to amount of public trash; I didn’t think so. I did not feel ecstatic walking over the cleaned sidewalk; I knew there would be more trash tomorrow, and that thought left me feeling a bit disgruntled. Later, when the sun came out, I set out to do some errands and decided to park my car and walk with Earnest through Oakland’s rose garden, nestled in a natural hollow, almost an amphitheater, that has settled atop the Hayward fault. I had awakened thinking of my father and his rose tattoo, of my mother and her love of roses. Roses were on my mind and seeping beneath my skin when I set out in the morning to pick up trash, which may have contributed to my grumpiness. Crushed cigarette cartons are a poor substitute for roses.
Spending small time in the expanse of the Oakland rose garden seemed like a good idea. It is an old garden, quite beautiful, with many fragrant roses planted on terraces on the hillsides and below on either side of a long reflecting pool fed by a waterfall tumbling from a man-made spring above. Ordinarily, it is a peaceful place with only a few people wandering about while others quietly read on park benches, but yesterday it was bustling with trucks, wheelbarrows, and construction workers armed with power tools. All the paths above had been torn up as had several down below, scraped to bare earth, ready for reconstruction. The pool had been emptied of water, the waterfall was nonexistent, and 8’ tall yellow mesh barriers locked together to form a formidable fence that limited access to all but the main garden. Even there the roses seemed a bit frightened by all the clamor.
We didn’t stay long, but I was glad to have been there. We walked instead through the neighborhood, past rainbows painted on trucks parked on a street named after butterflies, always stopping now and again to smell the roses pushing through fences.
There was no trash to pick up; neither were there any city trashcans.
* * *
As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. -- Henry David Thoreau