After breakfast I call my friend Zoltan in Oakland, write down his new address and tell him I'll be there in a few hours.
"Anything I can bring from Mendo?"
"Aside from a few pounds of sinsemilla? Maybe a few lungfuls of fresh air and a rusty skyhook."
In folktales, it's often the one day of "a year and a day" or the one night of "a thousand and one nights" that proves to be the maiden's salvation or unravels the hero's scheme. Once I heard a con artist in the bullpen of the jail, frisked and fingerprinted, freedomless, say he could do a year standing on his head. It was the "and a day" that gave him the willies, a rainy day without a backbone, a day that wouldn't stand up straight, that would keep flopping around his ankles like a pair of socks borrowed from a dead man with big feet.
Space can be every bit as quirky as its cousin, time. The first hundred and fifty miles of my journey to east Oakland, through the redwoods along the river, past vineyards, over chaparral dotted with live oaks, fly by. It's the last several hundred yards that create the problem. My car seems to be tethered to some invisible string. It winds up and down through a maze of streets laid willy-nilly on the hills. Again and again it stubbornly returns to the same intersection. Wherever I may be, it appears there really is, as Gertrude Stein noted, no there in Oakland.
I pull into the parking lot of a supermarket, find that endangered speciesa public phoneand get more specifics about there from Zoltan, who informs me that nothing steams open envelopes better than one of those home cappuccino machines. Apparently he doesn't trust his new girlfriend, or her correspondents, much.
When I return to the parking lot, my car is blocked in by a semi sporting the copyrighted logo of a major corporation. No driver is in sight, no employees wheeling dollies stacked with cardboard cartons of corn flakes and baked beans. Back inside the supermarket, feeling a bit wilted from the fluorescent lights, I marvel at the bouncy clerk manning the courtesy counter, at the crisp consonants she bites off for the benefit of the foam-covered gizmo a few inches from her glossy lips.
"Paul in produce, please pick up for potatoes on line one."
She could be auditioning for an ingénue's role in a British comedy. She could be rolling her eyes, waiting for a clumsy but polite Mister Right to figure out how to pin the corsage to her dress without touching her breast. Instead, she's wearing a lightweight, high-tech headset that crushes her sheaf of cinnamon hair and babbles into one ear.
"Didn't you read the sign?" she asks when I bring up the matter of the stand-off between my vehicle and the semi. "Rick. Rice-a-roni on four. Relief. Receiving room door. Flats to six. The one that warns about unavoidable delays? On the wall?"
I wonder how she funnels some words into the microphone for the public address system and others for my listening pleasure only. According to her, things are as they are, and should be, and it's all down in black and white. The hazards are clearly delineated for the enlightened, or at least the literate.
I step out into the hazy sunshine. The semi is still there. And the sign, right there on a retaining wall where she said it would be, a metal placard announcing that a customer parking in this area is subject to unavoidable delays due to unscheduled deliveries, or something to that effect.
It's a warm Saturday in this chi-chi neighborhood nestled in the hills, shirt-sleeve weather, about a year after terrorists slammed a pair of jumbo jets into the World Trade Center. Talk of a war with Iraq is in the air, and fumes from countless exhausts. Cycling enthusiasts in colorful, skin-tight Spandex outfits and space-age helmets with tinted visors whiz past on whirring chrome machines fitted with synergistic handlebars and nifty aluminum latte holders. Young mothers glide along the sidewalks, their burbling offspring cushioned by the springs of strollers built better than a Mercedes. The antennas of cell phones, glued like ugly ear-rings to the lobes of pedestrians, gleam in the sun.
I buy an overpriced, frosty six-pack of imports at a corner store, choose a bench with a view of the parking lot, and set up my surveillance. A clunker of a fat-tire, no-gear relic of a bicycle clanks to a halt in front of me. At first I mistake the silver and black of the rider's satin jacket as a sign of loyalty to the Raiders, then I notice the faint outline of what was probably once a rearing dragon, a piece of embroidery the years no doubt erased stitch by colorful stitch.
"That Beck's? My favorite, Beck's. Got an extra?"
Sure. Why not? We all need allies, and it dawns on me that we may be the only folks on the whole block without the passport of designer labels. And maybe the driver of the milk delivery truck that's idling across the street. The unshaven, unhelmeted bicycle rider is himself something of a relic. He leans his cancerous machine against the bench and eases himself into a sitting posture, swinging his gimpy right leg straight in front of him. He unzips his jacket.
"Been sort of off and on cold ever since 'Nam," he explains, twisting the cap off the bottle. "Some bug in the jungle. Thanks."
The former soldier belts down a slug of beer. He knocks a couple coffin nails out of a crumpled pack of Camels and offers me one, then snaps open a silver Zippo with military insignia. No sooner do we have the cigarettes alight than three svelte ladies with strollers stop in front of us. How can we do that? they want to know, poison the air their babies breathe. In public, and there's a law against drinking in public, isn't there? And people break bottles on the sidewalk, it's a real problem, and litter. They stand there triumphantly, as if they've just nabbed a pair of terrorists. They seem convinced that these two backward guys will immediately and shamefacedly stub out their evil weed, then return the offending bottles to their cardboard container.
"About thirty-some years ago," says the soldier in a quiet, steady voice, "before you were born, maybe, this Uncle I had grabbed me by the balls, told me to cough and pronounced me A-1 and fit, ready for a little vacation over there, all at the taxpayer's expense."
He points the neck of the beer bottle over there, due east. That particular there, thousands of miles away, Danang or Hue, a paddy in the Mekong delta or a hostile village near Cho-lon, was arguably much easier to locate than the there in Oakland. They gave you a rifle and dog-tags back then, and helicoptered you first-class right to the spot where they wanted you to be, the very foxhole. The one with the tracer bullets flashing past at night, and mortars tossing up shooks of rice and mud and sometimes a buddy's arm, or half his guts.
The well-made strollers with their precision ball bearings packed in grease edge away noiselessly. So, too, the ladies, though one does toss a cluck and sour look over her shoulder. The soldier pays them no heed.
"Some nights," he says, "face-down in the steaming, stinking muck, wet to the bone with jungle rot and waiting for Charlie to follow the deafening artillery barrage, waiting for him to come sneaking out from behind a patch of palm trees, afraid to light up a ciggie because the glow might be seen, I used to dream about an afternoon like this, about sitting on a bench in a nice, clean neighborhood, nursing a cold beer, smoking to my heart's content while the sun lit up a cheery little ice cream parlor full of kids and foxes in summer dresses sashayed by."
Litter? The soldier lets out
a laugh with a puff of smoke. Those ladies should've seen the litter around
Hamburger Hill. Trouble is, over there they machine-gunned the guys sent
out with body bags to clean up the place. The ladies don't hear. They've
already vanished around a corner, far from the bench with its toxic occupants,
from the soldier who kept his head down, out of harm's way, thinking about
a day like today, nightmare after nightmare, one at a time, over there.
Sunshine pours through the smooth redwood slats of the bench, condensation
trickles along the side of the empty bottle clutched in his paw.
"One more?" he says, reaching into my brown sack for another Beck's, scanning the street as if looking for something, or someone. "What do you think? These folks look ready for the war they're talking about?"