Across the street

When Betty won’t walk, I find myself standing at the end of the driveway (with her as far in the opposite direction as her leash allows) staring across the street. Sometimes I’m begging the gods for mercy or raging silently against my fate that has brought Betty to me, but usually I am looking out at the block around me, checking out the neighborhood. I presume my neighbors are behind their half-closed curtains wondering what the hell I’m doing and what the dog’s problem is. I’d like answers to those questions, too.

Since I’ve been standing there, I’ve realized the house a couple doors down is home to a prostitute (upstairs) and a drug dealer (downstairs). It’s funny I didn’t really notice their activities before Betty, but now they’re hard to miss.

The creepy guy who works at the small hardware store down the street came out of a house next door one day. I pretended not to notice, which was made harder when my husband stage whispered, “Is that the drug dealer?” Umm, no. Wrong house.

We have new neighbors directly across: a husband and wife duo who both work in higher ed, as do we. They have an elderly greyhound, a gazelle next to our boxer. They have made the house bright and homey. It’s hard not to look at it, to peep into their warmly lit curtain-less windows to see them happily reading in their fine leather chairs.

Sometimes if the night is especially dark and quiet, and I am adequately charming, Betty will cross the street and so we are able to look back across at our house with its dark curtains, flickering TV, peeling paint over stucco and the dead laurel bush. The moon rises in the south over our garage, and I contemplate our little life in bas relief.

Scar Tissue

As I stood in front of my house, one of our neighbors walked down the street and passed me without speaking. Although we have had pleasant conversations in past months, she seemed not to recognize me.

“Hello, Marie!” I call to her.

She turned back, “Oh! Hello!”

“How have you been? We haven’t seen you and your daughter Frieda for a while.”

We first met them when Frieda was about 2 ½. Marie and her daughter would walk by and Frieda often detoured to climb front our stairs. Our cat Buster always sat looking out the window near the top of them and she looked for him, when she remembered, and squealed with delight when he was there.

“Frieda is doing pretty well, although she has a new sister. An older sister. So it’s a big change.”

“Wow! Congratulations on the addition to your family!”

“We adopted her from Korea. She’s experienced a lot of trauma, especially related to dogs. There were wild dogs running in the streets and she’s horribly afraid of them.

I told Marie about the boxer I’d adopted from a shelter and told her Betty was afraid of a lot of things, especially hoses. We parted ways at the end of the block and over the next few weeks as I walked Betty around the neighborhood; I noticed the changes in the front yard of the little cottage—2 hoola hoops, 2 scooters, 2 of everything.

Lately we’ve had a heat wave and all our windows have been flung wide open. Twice in the last month, I’ve heard a little girl wake up screaming when I sat in the back of the house. Who knows how deep the hurt goes.

There is a Jim-sized Hole in the Heart of Things

Where does one start when writing about a friend who has died? It’s hard to know. So I’m starting with his death, hardly the beginning nor the end.

I met Jim Julin through my friend Sue, or at least I think that’s how it went. I met several people who I thought had Friend Potential when I moved to Rockford, Illinois. Turned out they were all friends with each other and called themselves the Foster Family. It’s a tight, but open group bonded together by love & respect, unhampered by bullshit so far as I can tell, blessed with a love of food, art, bonfires & revelry. Jim was at the center of this group in many ways.

Jim seemed to be at the center of many circles, which may have had something to do with mass. Jim was a big man, so it seemed energetically appropriate that he would be the denser star at the center of our various solar systems, with all the people who loved him orbiting in some established proximity to his radiance.

I feel fortunate that I visited Rockford recently. Before going, I sent an email out to a few of “the group” hoping they’d gather at Octane, a favorite downtown spot where one could often find Jim in the evening. He had a seat at the bar, close to the door, so he was the first person you’d see if he was there—a welcoming presence.  I followed up with Jim individually, because I hadn’t heard from him. Here’s the way that went:

 “Hey Jim! Will I see you on Friday?


It turns out that will be the last email exchange I’ll ever have with Jim. While on the one hand it feels inadequate in its brevity, given its posthumous importance. On the other hand, it is absolutely perfect. It’s Jim in a nutshell.

Within ten days of that email exchange, we learned that Jim had gone into the hospital for one thing, but after surgery the doctors determined he was full of cancer and had days, if lucky, to live. He was in such bad shape that the doctors put him into a medical coma and, according to my sources, did not know if he would ever wake.

Jim did wake and was surrounded by a crowd of family and chosen family, his community of friends. His friends brought wine, Fosters, stories, music and love. They filled his room and his final days. They helped his beloved sister Chris deal with the unthinkable. If nothing else, Jim Julin knew to the very bottom of his soul that he was loved, celebrated, and honored.

One of the things that I come back to is that I wish I had savored more conversation with Jim the last time I saw him. I have not yet outgrown the naïve, or maybe optimistic, belief that there will always be a next time, that our paths will cross again, that life is long. I need to do better in savoring the moments, even as I scramble to “get it all done.” What is most important to the heart and soul must be prioritized, as much as possible.

Life may not have gone exactly the way Jim would have wanted. There was a time I know that he longed for female companionship and regretted the lack of it in his life. But he also loved life more than almost anyone I know. He seemed amused and pleased by all of it and all of us on some level. What a great operating philosophy or way of life.

Jim marked a place in the community and it had the feeling of Home. It’s hard to imagine the sudden loss of that, but here we are.

See you on the other side, Jim. It will be one hell of a party when we all catch up with you.

Photo credit: Nels Akerlund Photography

Oh the Humanity!

Every now and then I feel amazed that I live in a place as populous as the Bay Area. Since moving here from Maine in my twenties, I have often needed to manage feelings of being overwhelmed by the abundance of humanity. Whether hiking deep in the woods, on the beach at a sleepless 5:00 AM, driving a midnight freeway–I don’t think I have ever been alone in my chosen home of California. Sometimes I long for a bit of spatial, psychological, auditory aloneness.

And then there are days like Wednesday.

On Wednesday, I left work and jumped on a BART train that zipped me under the bay and into San Francisco to see my favorite witch doctor. She calls herself a chiropractor, but trust me; she is a healer and a witch doctor of the highest order. But I digress.

Taking BART can be the best of times and the worst of times. Sometimes it just makes you feel like this:

As I stood waiting in line for the train, I heard echoes bouncing off the bare cement walls of someone ranting. Although it seemed like the ranter was speaking English, it was completely indecipherable and, of course, heading in my direction. For once, the train pulled in at exactly the right moment: the ranter, a husky-voiced stout little woman, draped in an Indian sari came into view. She got on the train and sat down next to a young, bright-eyed Millennial. As the train pulled out, the ranter’s eyes bulged and her head craned 90 degrees to look at her seatmate and I heard spooky organ music in minor chords. Bon voyage, happy travelers!

Chuckling to myself, I wandered up 16th Street, destination Castro. I love 16th Street. There are still a few commerce holders-on that have been here since the days of my youth when this was “my” neighborhood, like the Roxy Theater, Pancho Villa Taqueria (burritos bigger than a baby’s head…), and Kilowatt dive bar extraordinaire, but there are always new and interesting places popping up. Eye Candy for the Curious! Or the Candy Store Collective, if you prefer (how the heck do they do that thing with the succulents?):

Anyway, as I was walking to my appointment, soaking up all the Mission I could stand, this wild cacophony came from above and was everywhere at once. In those seconds the brain takes to process stimuli, I was confused and disoriented, but then I remembered: Parrots! I looked up in time to see a small flock fly overhead, squawking for all they were worth. San Francisco is home to several flocks of wild parrots. As crazy as that is, it’s also perfectly San Francisco, unless of course they live in your neighborhood. Those parrots have got to be the noisiest neighbors in The City!

After my visit with Dr. Ferraro, I was famished. I made my way back toward the BART station & stopped for a sausage and beer at Gestalt Haus. As luck would have it, the table beside me was full of 20-somethings having a meeting. My ears perked like antennae while I maintained my disinterested demeanor–it was the Occupy movement of San Francisco plotting their next action.

The location (Barnes & Noble) and the issue (399 remaining tigers–where, what type, I don’t know) had been established. The challenge, as I understood it, was to link these two things and develop catchy phrases and a chant. After a process that was a combination of support and challenge, they seemed to have a loose link between the bookstore and de-forestation (I think) and a phrase, “Barnes and Noble, Be Noble.”

And with that, I pushed my stool away from the bar and headed home sated, satisfied, and content to swim in the human soup.

Moments of Wonder

One of the best things about working in Downtown Oakland, in my humble opinion, is being close to Lake Merritt. I was surprised to learn the lake was North America’s first Wildlife Refuge (in 1870). Prior to that, it had been used as a large natural sewer. The horror! Then-mayor, Dr. Samuel Merritt, who happened to own land on the lake’s shore, took a special interest in the lake. Regardless of self-interest, his action has served all of Oakland in the intervening years.

Walking around the lake at noon, one sees an amazing cross section of the Oakland citizenry. These are just a few of the characters I’ve seen: Mayor Quan having her portrait taken; Sr. Rosemary Delaney, Sister of the Holy Names, who is in her 70s and runs around the lake three times for her daily work out; David, a lawyer I recently met at a Marin Crab Boil (!) who works in my building and who circles the lake in suit and athletic shoes. At least once a month I see a movie or a music video being filmed—look for me in the background! It’s also a great way to find out who the lunch partners of your colleagues are. There is no shortage of interesting human behavior to witness.

The Lake is also home or resting place to an amazing variety of wild birds. The picture above features a couple snowy egrets who stole my heart. I love birds. I find them endlessly interesting and entertaining. For example, when ducks dive under the water for lunch & their butts are in the air—they crack me up. Who knows why?

For the longest time, I kept seeing these grayish birds, about 12 to 18” high when perching. Having no idea what kind of bird they were, I called them my “No Neck Friends.” Thanks to fellow bird lover Sue Stephens, I came to understand that the rest of the world knows them as “midnight herons.”

The bird world inspires a sense of wonder in me. They are so different one species from the next and yet live in relative harmony here in the middle of Oakland. Despite my fondness for birds generally, sea gulls have never seemed very interesting. There has never been much mystery with that squawky, bossy, hungry bunch. But just when you think you know a bird…

I recently saw a sea gull dancing a jig. You know those Irish cloggers? The kick-up-your-heels-and-dance people? I saw a seagull who thought he was trying out for River Dance.

The dancing sea gull stopped me in my tracks. Fortunately I had my iPhone with me at the time. If you want to see this dancing marvel, please visit my Facebook page. I can’t add the actual video here. And if you are interested, I’ll even tell you how the jig ends. 😉

Do you know the trees in your neighborhood?

I woke up this morning to the sound of chainsaws and my first thought was, “Oh dear. I hope there’s not going to be an incident.”

I’ve given a lot of thought to Trees. I have a list of Writing Ideas and one topic is “The Trees in my Life.” Apparently, I have had some pretty strong ties to trees through the years.

There was a specific cluster of pine trees where I’d go & hide when I was little. They were so close together that in the center, the ground was bare, save a carpet of pine needles. It was the coziest imaginary home! There was a maple that I loved to climb, and I spent hours pretending that it was my sky rise apartment in some big city where my life was very cool, never mind I’d never been to a city nor in a really tall building!

When, at last, I did live in a real city studio apartment (just one floor up, though), there was a huge redwood tree growing in the tiny backyard. It felt like the solid long-term resident who kept everything cool in the ‘hood. Its hugeness turned down the volume of the honking soundtrack speeding by around us and was a thriving ecosystem to hummingbirds, sparrows, bees and the like. I don’t think I could have lived there, save for that calming presence.

Trees, specifically and generally, are important to me. Their souls speak to my soul, if you will. And while, for example, I presume my tree hugging friend John Dennis might feel the presence of these gentle giants in a personal way, I hadn’t extended that thinking out to the general public. I didn’t really consider that this type of love for trees might be present in the hearts of my neighbors.

Until the chainsaw incident last spring.

I was walking down the driveway, coming home from work, and could hear the busy work of a chainsaw in one of the several backyards adjoining ours. When I stood on our steps to go into the kitchen, I could see across the way a big bare area in the three-story high pine tree. I hadn’t known what the houses over there looked like until this moment. Now that they had a straight view to my kitchen, I presumed they’d be getting to know us pretty well, at least the versions of us in our pajamas with crazy bed head making coffee like zombies. Hope they wouldn’t mind if I didn’t wave to them or anything, I thought with a mental smirk & a sigh. Urban living; we’re all in this together, like it or not.

And then one of my other neighbors got home and began screaming at whoever was holding the chainsaw. Police were called. City government was called. Threats were made. Real tears were shed. I heard all of this from my backyard and I shared the sentiment, not knowing the people or who was lawfully on the right side of the situation.

Then there was the Halloween massacre.

Alameda is an island. It most closely resembles Mayberry RFD. I love this about it, not that it can’t be a little oppressive. It’s quaint. It’s a small community. We have tree-lined streets and small shops & restaurants. You can walk places.

Park Street, business and tree-lined, is where most commerce occurs. In places, the trees were very large and the sidewalks rather small for such a bustling area. The city government had public planning meetings a few years ago (before I lived there) and it was agreed that they would widen the sidewalks and re-plant urban-appropriate trees.

One day in October, without prior communication to the island-dwellers, they cut down every tree in the primary 3-block section of Park.  The island-dwellers cried out in horror. Police were called. City Hall was called. We spoke harshly and with disgust. Memorial candles and handwritten notes were placed on stumps, lamenting the lives that had been lost. On Halloween, ghosts of the trees of Alameda floated up and down the block, rattling their lifeless dried leaves.

I woke up this morning to the sound of chainsaws. It reminded me of how much we share, whether it be environment, quietude, landscape, or cherished friendships in unexpected places. Despite our separate little plots and acres, we really are in this together. And “we” is a lot more inclusive than you might think.