Veteran’s Day, Veterans’ Night

The man at the Market Street Art Fair had Pablo Picasso eyes.  They looked right through you as he peered out from between his easels.  I hunched down to look at his work.  Scattered with abandon across his canvases, all the images struggled to express his abhorrence of the pursuit of money. Each was underwritten with an intricate philosophical proverb whose gist was: “To live from the heart is the only way to a sane life.”  The Picasso eyes widened, in amusement I thought, when I murmured, “Superb!”  “The words come to me first,” he whispered, “then the drawing.”  As I turned away to catch up with my wife and 6 year-old boy our eyes met a last time in a kind of communion. I didn’t buy anything, but then, he didn’t care about money.  And he was probably a nut.  A divine nut.

So is Harold  Nachman, who’s waiting for me as I emerge from a Starbucks near Fisherman’s Wharf.

“Are you Harold ?” I ask, peering at him.

“Arnie!  I just looked inside – I didn’t see you,” he says.

“I was using the bathroom. I had a wonderful experience.”

“Congratulations.”

After 50 years, he tosses the potato right back. What the hell, he’s Jewish. But this man, as my mother would say, is a lawyer. One who resides in San Francisco, and how easy is that these days? Fortunately, he doesn’t harangue me about ducking our Oakland High School 50th anniversary reunion now that I’ve returned from Japan after 20 years.  I’d been back for visits of course, but this time was an attempt to renew my native residence and finally leave a country that, though it had been my financial salvation, had drained my wife and I with its monochromatic vistas, its hurtling trains and reticent, yet hyper-intense people.

The rubbery Semitic smile he wore at 17 is still there hidden behind a lumpy white beard. The chest and shoulders seem too big when we hug. Have I shrunk even smaller than I was then? I lead him across to the cable car terminal to meet my young, inexplicable Japanese wife who stands there looking like a movie star, and he lets out a soft, “Ohhh.”  He recovers, greets her and starts to bond with my little boy. Then he takes control of the situation. He is, after all, a successful attorney.

“I’m giving you a tour – secret places the tour buses don’t go!”

We arrive at his mini-van. Its gold paint has faded. A tornado has been inside, papers and debris scattered everywhere. His vehicle registration lies soiled on the floor behind the driver’s seat.   “I’m gonna take you down the steepest hill in San Francisco, OK?”

In her childhood, Ikuko was traumatized by a father who regularly drove the family around the Mount Fuji foothills at breakneck speed, nauseating her. But she puts on a brave front and gets in the passenger seat next to Harold.  The motor roars to life. “How’d you get the big crack in the windshield?” I ask. It extends halfway across, then divides into two long tributaries.

“Something hit the window just after I bought the van.”

“When was that?”

“2000. I left it. It’s a good luck charm.”

Up we go. Down we go. Up we go. Down again. Little Andy likes it. Mercifully, we arrive at legendary Café Trieste for coffee. An impossibly perfect parking space awaits us on the corner. Inside, he confides, “I don’t make much money. The only way lawyers make money is by ripping off their clients.” His voice fills the café. An old grizzly with a bigger white beard than Harold’s stares knives at me. I shrug. Across the street is my old friend’s first law office, where one day in 1973 I came with my father on business that probably concerned my divorce that year. “You looked so sad that day, man. I never forgot that look on you.”

I could have told him that I’d met the lady in question on the Ides of March, 1968 at a club called Caesar’s, but I didn’t go into it. I explain I lived a “counter-culture life,” playing music in the East Bay till ’92 when I went to Japan to teach English. I make a cautious reference to “substances,” and he says, “Yeah, in my sophomore year I found myself staring blankly at a picture of myself as an infant and thought, ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ So I started studying seriously and found out I was pretty smart. They sent me to Sweden to study, then I came back and went to law school.”

I think back. In my sophomore year my mother ran off with a motorcycle-riding lesbian from Texas.   My little sister and I followed them through three different East Bay apartments until finally I got money for a dorm at Cal. The woman finally shot herself in the head in the basement in ’67 when my mom asked her to leave. I decide not to bring it up.

Out to Noe Valley for lunch. Up the hill. Down the hill. Stop sign. Go. Stop sign. Go. Cornerrrrr…. stop sign! Andy’s and my stomach begin to churn. Harold  reveals he’s the Herb Caen of the Noe Valley Voice. He airs local rumors to his readers. We get a scoop: Noe valley is at the crest of the Techie Invasion Wave. The house across from his just went for 2.1 million, now they’re gutting it again. Mark Zuckerberg sent over some guys  the other day with ten million to buy three houses. Zuck said, “Give them until 5 PM. Take it or leave it.”

“So that’s good for you!” I comment.

“Well, I have a place to live.”

“I mean, you know, for your kids.”

“Yeah, they’ll have a place to live.”

I drop it.  But it’s so strange to be given a tour of a city I know so well.  We pass Delores Park, where on July 20, 1969, saxophone in hand as I performed with a paradoxically named rock-soul group called the Brothers And, I looked up at a daytime moon knowing that men were walking around on its surface.  In the 70’s I crashed, Tom Waits-like in a Geary Street hotel, then I’d bus out to the Doggie Diner to serve up hot dogs.  Later I traversed The City’s streets in great detail driving a step-van delivery truck.  Though an East Bay greaser, I had known the Queen of the West pretty well.  Now, I gaze out at her high-tech glitter like an glassed-in darky.

By the time we’re seated at the restaurant, our stomachs have recovered. The chicken salad is good. After, I pull out my wallet and money comes out. He pulls out his and says, “Gee, I thought I had more cash. Here, take this.” I refuse his seven dollars.

“OK, up there’s where we’re going next!”  He points to Twin Peaks looming above the city.

“Oh, man, sorry, we have to get back to Oakland.”

“That’s right, you’re having dinner with Apostolos. Well, all good things must come to an end,” he observes back at Fisherman’s Wharf as we part, and zooms off in his van.  He is a sweet and warm-hearted man, but I begin to realize that 50-year gulfs are not bridged an an hour or two.

It is still Veteran’s Day, the 11th of November, 11 days before the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. I remember walking through Sather Gate at Cal overhearing the news that began those years when everything changed in America. At dusk I leave the hotel in Alameda to meet my very best friend in high school. I’d suggested a Greek restaurant to match his cultural background, and he’d found one just two doors down from my father’s old failed music store on Grand Avenue. I wait inside for a while until he appears at the door, instantly recognizable. “You look like a million bucks,” I say.

“You haven’t changed at all,” he says. The required verbiage, but I meant mine. We embrace, as in a dream I’d had a month before. We’re shown to a tiny table where we sit facing each other. I glance carefully up from the menu and begin to cry, but I control it. That face. It’s Paul, a perfect 67. There is fulfillment, completion and no deterioration in his features. It must be the years resonating invisibly in between us that’s breaking my heart. I mean, it’s Paulie, sitting there again, like it’s no big deal. It’s not that we were that close. I slept over at his house a few times in the 12th grade. Big old mansion his dad owned downtown on Jackson Street. We didn’t run the streets or make out with chicks in his ’62 Chevy. Just a couple of low-key guys who enjoyed each other. I was the academic frontrunner, he was the one always trying to catch up. I was the class speaker at graduation with three scholarships, headed off to Berkeley. He made it into St. Mary’s, over the East Bay hills in Moraga. We used to joke about how I got my As at OHS by filling my assignments with impressive verbiage. B.S., we called it.

Once, towards graduation, he sighed, “Man, if it wasn’t for all that B.S., you could do almost anything,” a casual comment that stuck with me all my life. That was the last I saw of him. Now, as if by default, he launches into a review of his career, not in a self-important way, just as one professional to, it is assumed, another. He majored in psychology, I knew that. So did I. Gradually, his overview feels like a blizzard or a jetliner idling its engines. Graduate school in Utah, or was it Chicago, an internship at UCLA, or was he training interns there. Directing a program for this agency, revamping policies in another. Research, dissertations, proposals, overhauling organizations to increase fairness in ethnic family support services. Then he got bored and flew to L.A. on weekends to get his MBA. And ongoing therapy with individuals, of course. I was talking to a therapist, which is always a little weird, for as with Heisenberg’s atomic particles, our behavior is affected by their observation of us, be it real or imagined. He doesn’t look like he sees through me, but maybe he does.

Yet on this night my central experience of the man is his uncanny embodiment of the Greek notion of virtue, of moral excellence. He has been diligent and persevered, he has been of service to his community, he radiates honesty and kindness. One thinks of Lysias’ words in the 5th century B.C.:  “…to be law abiding and self-controlled and neither to be dominated by pleasure nor driven by the prospect of profit…” Anyway, that’s my impression.

I keep him going, asking interested questions, probing lightly, fencing off the moment when it will be my turn. His dad, who used to play Santa Claus in the AC Transit Christmas parades, lived to be 99 and his mother, who gave us Greek dishes for dinner, made it to 98. Me, I provide no overview. Things come out in little spurts. I mention doing the 1981 Monterey Jazz Festival and how I’d helped Richie Cole escape from a screwed-up solo by jumping in with mine. I make occasional allusions to challenges I’ve faced. At some point he asks, “You decided not to attend the reunion. What’s up with that?” Yeah, I’m thinking, I need a class reunion. I need someone I don’t remember to walk up and say, “Arnie!  Didn’t I see you driving around Berkeley in the 80’s in an old Ford 250 with wooden sides and a lawn mower, rakes and a weedwacker in back?” And if a person does go to the reunion, odds are he has a home. Another awkward topic. But why go there with Lysias himself in a nice Greek restaurant next to your dad’s old record store? What’s he supposed to do, pass judgment? He doesn’t need my balls in his court. We should be talking nostalgically about high school memories – first girlfriends, all the hair we had on our legs, how much more intense orgasms were back then. Light stuff. I tell him my avoiding the reunion involves “issues of self-esteem.” Let him fill in the blanks. He probably already has. He’s a professional.

He asks if I’ve been a risk-taker. Well, back in ’68, there were these two roads that diverged in the wood, OK?  John Perona, the acid-head-in-residence at our dorm was standing there on Telegraph Avenue staring at me in the aftermath of a Berkeley riot, saying, “Arnie, they’re looking for a sax player down at the Lucky 13.” That has made all the difference. Of course, of every hundred souls who set out to be artists or musicians, 98 fail. Writers? Forget about it. Lawyers and psychologists have their societies and protocols, those of artists are obscure and ephemeral. When they knock you down it can take a long time to get up.  After a while, maybe you don’t anymore.  Or if you’re lucky you can you stagger off to Japan to teach English to salarymen. All you can do looking back is forgive the thick-headed youth you were and hope he’s finally gotten his head screwed on straight. And who knows? Paul might have a few skeletons skulking in a closet somewhere.  We all have our regrets, our mistakes.

Paul kindly offers that my life might be more interesting than his, but by now we’re pretty much done. I glance down at my unfinished moussaka.  His is gone.  He grabs the tab. Outside, I look up at the restaurant’s name: Ikaros.  What the hell is that in English?  Oh, yes…Icarus.  Dude flew too close to the sun, fell into the sea.  Lysias would never pull a stunt like that.

“Be well,” Paul says at my parked car and fades into the Oakland night.

I leave the Bay Area under clouded skies, reminded again that groovy towns like Berkeley and Frisco, easy to reside in before I left the States, are now inaccessible to all but the well-heeled. We wanted to stay in California, but, as we stop in Albany to munch a classic Caspar’s Hot Dog, we know we can’t cut the mustard.

Back in the forested hills above Nevada City, I start in raking up the 50,000 oak leaves scattered across my brother-in-law’s long driveway. God, stroking a rake through leaves again feels good. My sister rolls up, stops for a trip report and hearing it, comments, “Oh, Arnie, you have such a habit of putting yourself down!”

“Yes, that might be, and…” not missing a beat as a stranger approaches and rounds the car, I direct my words toward the guy…“you know that about me too, right?”

“Know what?” the guy asks in confusion.

“Oh Blake,” sister sighs, “this is my brother.  He’s here from Japan.”

“Actually, I’m from Oakland.”

“Really? I am too.”

“Where in Oakland?”

“MacArthur and Park Boulevard.”

“That’s the corner of Oakland High School.”

Our eyebrows elevate. I step toward him. We shake hands. “What year?”

“1968.”

“1963,” I respond. “I just had dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen for fifty years.”

“That’s amazing,” he says. “I was just now going up the hill to email someone to find out why my old Oakland High rugby coach just died. Coach Margolis. He influenced me so much. I saw him two years ago and he looked great. I think he was like 75. ‘Who are you, Jack La Lanne?’ I’d asked him.  Now he’s gone.”

“You never know.”

“I think we shouldn’t let a single day go by without reaching out to family and telling them we love them,” says Blake, and heads up the hill toward his mansion, a sprawling estate surrounded by huge cedars and oaks.

Later in the evening little Andy and I are rolling around on the couch. He needs tickling. Tonight there’s extra affection and a lot of hugging involved. It feels as if we’re getting closer now that he’s a six year-old and can express so much. This intimacy makes me happy, joyous, even. Sister Andrea comes over with hot tea, the New Age kind with words of wisdom on the bag. Andy, who reads like he’s nine, recites it to me:  “Joy is the essence of success.”

So now I’m a success? Analyze that.

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