Patricia Bidar: I wish

The two ladies at the nail salon are giggling again. This place is truly a hole in the wall. In fact, it is the kind of place that might even have holes in its walls–although I have never seen any. The salon is a few yards from my house. I go there for pedicures when the urge strikes me, which is to say rarely. But I always smile and wave as I pass, and they always seem tickled to see me.

The topic came up a few months back about a guy they know from the neighborhood. He is Vietnamese, like they are. They have told me in their limited English that he is “crazy,” by which I understand they mean developmentally disabled. They always add that he is ugly. That he looks exactly like “the biggest kind of monkey,” by which I have come to understand they mean the gorilla.

Here are some other things I have learned about him. His name is Tuk. He receives SSI, because he is “crazy.” He is 42, the son of an American GI stationed in Ho Chi Min City during the Vietnam War. His father was African American. Tuk is thoroughly Vietnamese, although you would not know that by looking at him. Anni says he just looks like a poor middle aged black man; the commonest of sights in our neighborhood.

Tuk’s mother abandoned him as soon as he was born. He was raised in “the temple.” Vietnam, Anni and Mai always tell me, is extremely racist. “Mixed” children had little trouble in Vietnam, even though their fathers were gone. But no one wanted the mixed children whose unknown fathers were black. Tuk has never known a family member, ever. What happened was, when the American government began allowing the children of GIs to come to the U.S., he was quickly snapped up by a Vietnamese family who wanted to come here. As soon as they all arrived, they bid him “goodbye forever.”

It is true that Anni and Mai laugh their asses off every time they talk about Tuk’s appearance. But they like him, and always help him. Mai gives him $five dollars for food whenever he stops in. If she has no money, she gives him her lunch. His rent is $550 per month. His SSI check is $700. So he has a place to sleep but has to choose between bus fare and food. Clothing, he only gets if someone at the temple gives it to him.

I showed them on Mai’s i-phone the website detailing where he can get a free lunch in the neighborhood from a St. Vincent de Paul program, four days per week. I said if he could get to the Alameda County Food Bank, they would give him groceries and determine whether he’s eligible for food stamps, now optimistically termed “Cal Fresh.” When I showed Anni and Mai these things, they were super excited to tell him about the resources he might access to have more food.

Today when I came in, they told me he loves the lunches from St. Vincent de Paul and that the Food bank gave him a lot of food, but said he is not eligible for food stamps. Mai said she wishes he could get a job helping out at a Vietnamese business, because he loves to work and is such a good person. But they added that Vietnamese people are so racist that they would never hire him, and would say that he would drive all the Vietnamese customers away.

Tuk wows the African-American ladies who come in to the shop when they hear him speaking Vietnamese, they tell me. Then they repeat that he is soooo ugly, and double over with laughter. Anni adds that people have always “used” Tuk, and that he has had nothing but terrible luck his whole life. Mai manages to get out between giggling fits, “I always tell him he is ugly,” and he always answers, smiling, “Wrong, Mai. I am handsome.”

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

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Patricia Bidar: In the Clouds

Thanksgiving night, I started in on some cheap white wine one of my brothers had brought and we hadn’t gotten around to opening. I had lived alone in my furnished apartment for a couple of months at that point,having begun my graduate studies at the university. My brothers had come down from Portland for the holiday. My ex, Marty, had flown up from California. He was a good boyfriend and every bit as good an ex. He was living at his artist brother’s place in San Francisco.

We’d eaten early and they all hit the road by four. I spent the night picking at the leftover stuffing and sipping from a plastic tumbler of wine. Outside my furnished apartment, my tree-lined street was bereft of green. The sidewalk-colored sky seemed slashed with hard black phone wires. I didn’t want to leave my apartment, even though its very impersonality normally soothed me.

I had this giant old microwave someone had discarded and left in the laundry room. But I burnt the microwave popcorn into a black and smoldering ball, and now my apartment reeked. I was drinking and drinking that ersatz chardonnay, and calling Marty. Now it was seriously late. But I just kept calling and listening to that ringing phone in his brother’s concrete studio, willing myself to register the sound for as long as I could, before the next billowing silence.

It wasn’t that I wished we were a couple again. Hadn’t I just put the brakes on that crazy affair with my old flame from college? It had ended spectacularly, with him driving me to Matador Beach. Me nauseated from the drive. Begging him to take me back home. Stopping at the Westward Ho supermarket in Brentwood, seeing him deliberate over ten dollar bottles of bubbly. I had gotten used to expensive things by then.

By the time we got to my place, I had gathered myself to say at last that I really was leaving for Oregon. That I wanted him to be happy; to meet someone great. A surreal night flowed, with him repeatedly leaving the apartment, then returning. In my sleep-deprived state after those crazy nights of love I was having waking dreams he was coming back again and again. Then, at last, he was gone.

I finally got drunk enough that I stopped calling Marty and lost consciousness in my bed filled with books. The next morning I awoke with a caved in feeling in my skull, belly roiling. The streaming sun made my eyeballs pulse. I was hefting that giant microwave back into the laundry room when I ran into a neighbor I’d met only once before. Tall, good looking, friendly, Gay, of course. I remembered my landlord telling me he was a high-end hair stylist. He surprised me by inviting me to take a bike ride. An invitation so normal, so not-me. I was still pretty green around the gills, as my grandmother would have said.

“Say yes,” he instructed me, so I did. We rode for an hour or so. I had this red Schwinn I’d brought from Santa Monica. This hairdresser guy and I rode down the empty midtown streets, then cut over to the river. I must have told him about my struggle to be happy. My starting graduate school after this crazy affair and how my old flame still wrote to me and telephoned me every day. How he’d informed me that if I was breaking up with him, I needed to do it in person. And then calling from the train station not far from my house, scaring me. How cruel I ended up being to him on the phone.

My building was so quiet I could hear the splash of urine in my upstairs neighbor’s toilet bowl. According to my landlord, he was a Japanese violin maker. But all I ever heard was his soft footfall; his piss. I was trying to begin graduate school life, but it was going badly, with the sleep deprivation and the late night calls.

I guess I told my neighbor the famous visiting editor who was leading my writing workshop had called me out for coming to class unprepared. That I’d torn though all of my material the first-ever class I taught, then realized only twenty minutes had passed. That I’d visited the famous women-owned bookstore in my neighborhood. My idea that I’d work there part-time. Join a community of women, now that I was single. But the cashier had snapped at me that I needed to close the door so the cat wouldn’t get out.

In the clouds, airplanes appeared and reappeared like a line of stitches in laundered-thin quilt. Sitting beside our bikes on the weedy bank, the sun had a chance to warm us. “See that plane up there?” my neighbor said at last. “It seems like everyone on it must have it made. But how much do you want to bet every single passenger is up there asking themselves why does happiness elude me? What am I supposed to be doing. I’d be complete if I could just have that job, that partner, that lucky break.”

I know; I know. It sounds simplistic now. But for some reason, sitting on the warming dirt beside our bikes, I laughed. The night of drink and self-pity began to turn the corner in my mind. I never saw that guy again. It really was an extremely quiet building.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: Connected

At the museum today, a young couple stands before a painting called The Yellow Lampshade. The young couple is dressed inconspicuously, in light colors. Their faces are plain. Their very youth provides their color and aliveness. The painting depicts a couple standing in a corner windowed apartment. A penthouse, I guess you would say. They are standing a distance apart. A good stretch of carpet between them and the big windows with all the gray skyscrapers in them. The young couple at the museum is kissing. With deep love, you might say. But lightly, too. Sweetly but lingering. I am standing near the painting, closest to the man. My husband stands before the next painting over, closest to the woman. We give them their time–young love is to cherish. And when they move away, we come together in front of the painting and kiss, smiling.

Another painting is by Modigliani, a favorite painter of mine. This painting depicts a Polish friend of the artist, Pierre-Edouard Baranowski. Either a poet or a painter; maybe both. The subject is described as having blue eyes. But really, the Pole’s eyes are a complete blank. Even though I read the printed placard beside the painting, I still thought of the subject as being female. The angular face; the tilted head, the pronounced cupid’s bow. I loved that she appeared to be wearing a black jacket and a white shirt with the collar loose. Like Patti Smith, I thought.

Here’s the third: In a gray gravel alley shirtless metal workers called puddlers relax, shirtless. They are pale. Spindly. Not mighty workers of the world. Yet their professional was a skilled one. Later, I learn that the job entails continuously working with boiling iron. Puddlers performed strenuous work, very close to the high heat–a job of skill as well as strength and stamina. In the painting, one’s skin is reddened at his clavicle. All of them are arrayed in poses of stretching, reclining and twisting. Poses recalling classic Greek sculptures. The green onion stink of their skin, their unwashed hair and animal restlessness; palpable to me. Their male-ness, you might call it. In their way they are mighty workers. Still, the factory behind them looms large. If you were here, I would touch your arm to show them to you.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: Jazz

The thing about being a con artist is to be in it for the art. Not for the swindle or the cash payoff. I conned the older ladies at that new wine bar just last night. They bought me dinner, yes. But that wasn’t all. Part of the role I was playing was that I didn’t wear glasses. I subordinated myself to them. Had to, because I really couldn’t see! So I had one of them reading me the list of sandwiches while another waited to resume the story she’d started telling me about her trip to Austin, New Orleans and Memphis. I am old enough I don’t care about looking cool. I told her I wouldn’t mind heading off on one of those senior citizen trips. I don’t know about yours, but in my town, you only have to be 50 to get in on those classes and movie nights and trips.

How old do you think I look?

No mirrors in this jazz bar, which is more of a restaurant. They have a hundred types of wine there. Pictures of Django Reinhardt everywhere. Red wallpaper. Gypsy jazz, or Jazz Manouche, playing all the time. None of the ladies were ordering up any wine, so I asked for water. I’d been heading into the main part of the place to see if my girl Conchett’ was there. But I saw a side door open. I’ve always been like that. If I see a side or back door propped with a chair or a matchbook; I have to take a look.

What kind of sandwich? BLT. But without the T, because I can’t stand tomatoes.

So in this side room, there are two dozen older ladies. A club. Retired, most of them, from the looks. And in the door I pop, right when they are winding down the flag salute. And the head lady waves me over. She’s in a cream colored turtleneck and plaid slacks. Those crinkly eyes from smiling a lot. And the ladies at this short side of the table all have name tags and are all standing. I am with them, so I stay standing, too. And then one of them says they are all sorry as can be about Diane. I look around and some of them have their eyes all shiny, thinking about their friend.

“I can hardly think about it,” I say, and I hang my head because I don’t know why I need to con these nice ladies who end buying me dinner and letting me mourn Diane with them. And all the while, I’ve got money in my pocket. A sweet smelling Sicilian girl waiting for me in the main bar.

But my first love’s name was Diane. English girl. I don’t mind telling you I was already in my twenties when she and I met at the bank. The bank where she was working. Younger people don’t believe we used to smoke everywhere back in those days. Supermarkets, movie theatres, banks. But it wasn’t a regular cigarette I slipped to Diane. It was a joint. And it wasn’t a slap on the wrist she got when her boss found it in her cash drawer. I’d long since gone home by the time Diane got shit-canned.

The women are all going around the table telling me the things they liked about their Diane.She’d drive you places. Always brought a pie to their parties. Loved old movies. Cute things like that.

My Diane rang my bell at ten that night. I was painting. My heart racing, the room awash in the stink of gesso and paint and a body revving. Diane had been drinking, for sure. She was a nice girl, but had a taste for the wilder life. Well, she and I dove for each other like…like Stanley and Stella in Streetcar named Desire. You know that scene where he is hollering for her in the rain and she runs out and he picks her up high against him and she runs her nails hard on that wet skin? Diane and I didn’t leave my room for four days. Her daddy came out from Pleasant Hill and fetched her home pretty quick after that.

I give Conchett’ harder things than old school marijuana. And she doesn’t have a dad; at least one that would come and take her from me.

I knew my Siciliana wouldn’t wait for me long. But still I stayed there in the side room, enjoying my sandwich and water, sharing an hour wIth those wholesome mothers. Their grief was a thing of great beauty to me. The pantsuits, the not drinking. All of it. Remembering Diane. It was the oldest one of them all who held me when I cried. Like I was her son, and just as pure as he must have been.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: One Block Away

Jesus the short order cook is stripping off his stinking t-shirt. Stepping out of his chinos and boxer shorts.He wear rubber clogs to work. His are cornflower blue. These, he places side by side next to the basin, beside his leather sandals. He is not Jesus as in a Latino HeyZEUS. Everyone calls him Jesus because of his flowing hair and beatific gaze. Beatific. An old girlfriend had dubbed him Jesus. Even though his name was Gordon.

His very ball sack feels greasy after the long shift. Jesus steps into the steaming bath. It is fucking three o’clock in the morning. His wife and newborn baby are sleeping down the hall. They live together in a duplex apartment. The neighbor’s place and theirs are mirror images.

After he soaks and soaps, Jesus will read for a few minutes–a few minutes is all it will take for his eyes to grow heavy. One time, not long after the baby was born, Jesus was so tired he heard in a daze the paper guy gently removing his house key from where he’d left them in the keyhole. Jesus had frozen, breath caught, half-upright on the couch while the paper guy nudged the door slightly wider. Then set them down just inside, closing the door with a click.

Keyhole; was that even the right word? Verily, he was so tired. He was lucky. Tonight his neighbor Brooks was up late, too. Brooks worked swing shift at the pillow factory on the West side of town. Jesus could hear him very softly plucking his banjo. The apartments had matching wide and shallow closets abutting each other. Sounds carried through. So soothing to the ear. But tonight, his neighbor’s loneliness seeped through the closet doors, too. Jesus felt it in his own hands and chest. Brooks was a good man. The two had grown up together in Nazareth, Tennessee.

Brooks’ playing was so gentle, the night so still Jesus thought he could hear Brooke’s fingertips on the strings. He wished he could turn some water into wine and bring it with some bread and fish over to Brooks. If he could only muster the energy, he’d find the light; the way. Pick his way in robe and sandals atop the little stream that separated their porches. He’d just leave them outside Brooks’ door for his old classmate to find and savor.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: Prove It

Last night, Trinidad and I saw the Handsome Family at Café du Nord. The singer, Rennie, remembered the courtyard complex where they lived in Chicago, where that winter there was always some crazy person or another in the courtyard, yelling in their underpants. Now she and her husband lived in the tallest building in Albuquerque.They still have not seen their entire home, she said, adding that the house’s turrets are sharpened to razor points.

So know I know two Rennies. The one at work is a waxy skinned girl in accounting. This morning, she told me she went through two canisters of asthma inhaler the week she started. Our HR person issued an e-mail memo to the staff, reminding us that we have a scent-free workplace. But the program staff still descend upon our conference room each Tuesday morning, a veritable cartoon cloud of perfumes surrounding them in a flowery nimbus. I know for sure the memo was sent to them. Because our director said that one of the program managers called to ask her about it. The director told her to ignore the memo. “Where are we going to wear our perfume, other than here and church?” she asked.

Today when I entered the accounting office, I smelled something pleasant and familiar. A scent I associated with San Francisco. It was tea tree oil, Accounting Rennie told me. She was spraying down all the accounting office cubicles with it, using a small plastic squirter bottle. Actually, it was tea tree oil, alcohol and water. The alcohol kills dust mites. Was I allergic to dust mites, too? No?

Rennie seemed relieved I wasn’t bothered. I told her about my husband’ asthma, and about how it’s really kicked up since our daughter went to college and we have been moving around so much furniture. We should replace our pillows every six months, she said. She also told me about a lamp I should buy. If I understood her correctly, the lamp would be made of salt. And definitely squirt alcohol all over everything, she said. I said we have four cats and that our walls are lined with books, which clearly horrified her. Then she quickly said she grew up with animals, even though she is terribly allergic. Which made me laugh, because then I remembered that someone else in accounting told me last week that Rennie is allergic to ants, which I didn’t even know was a thing.

The other Rennie, the singer, said last night that if they’d known San Francisco was so close to the water, they never would have come. Right now, we’re surrounded by octopus, she said. Her husband, who is from Odessa, TX, whistled through his teeth lik emy Grandma Mildred and sang mournfully that owls in their house were stealing his pills.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.

Patricia Bidar: THE CRIME

It has been a hot day, and Micheline idly scratches her underaram as she removes her work blouse and replaces it with the t shirt she slept in last night. If she avoids checking e-mail, she might get to bed at a decent hour. Her third work night in a row. Her bodily smell comforts her. Reminds her of creatively fruitful times.

The knock at her front door is unprecedented. It is nearly eleven. The lives on a dirty but reassuringly busy street. Is it better to ignore it, as every particle of her wishes to do? If someone’s out trying locks, best they think someone’s  home. She presses her face against the mail slot. It creaks faintly; the corner hurts her cheek. Her heart skitters. She will call out gruffly, “Who is it?” But no sound comes, as in a dream. There is a man there. He is unusually short. Mustn’t he be, for her to see his profile so close to the mail slot? She sees every white bristle on his face. Which is suddenly pressed against hers. Clean sweat, tongue, wetness, odd sounds. She sees that tan placket at the top of faded Levi 501’s He is gone. Her porch light illuminates dust-furred pots of succulents and that is all. She has tasted another person’s mouth. It has been years.

Now she is left with her hands on the cool wall, regarding the oil painting her grandmother left her, the vertical image of dewy cotton bolls. She presses herself to the mail slot again, hurts her cheek again. Opens her mouth and closes her eyes.

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Bidar means awake. Patricia Bidar is a writer and California native looking forward to life’s third act.