Ed: Scroll/Skim/or Skip—S/S/S…
Know more/Know less:
This chapter contains detailed
dialogue regarding comparative spirituality
and the Jewish religious calendar. If you
couldn’t care less, click to the briefer Saturn ‘flyby’.
“Saturn’s not concerned
with denominations, you see,
but with domination.”
“But speaking of religion, what about this Kabbalah business of late?”
“What about it?”
“I simply cannot countenance the neo-falsity of it. Take that Madonna person. There are fakirs, and then there are fakers.”
From Filbert Street on, things got a bit more physical…metaphysical, as well. Reese Paulen’s Velodrome reference was apt enough, given that across from that endive green health food store, a high-performance running wear outlet, was yielding its storefront footage to an even speedier competition cycling club. Sporting a vintage gray Citroen crew van as its welcome wagon, Pedalier was intensely Euro-Touro, streaming gruelling major bike races the world over on wide-screen video walls into the high-end cycling outfittery’s retail space.
Therein stood racks of aerosuit jackets and mesh jerseys—baselayers, bib shorts, Brevel gilets—GT gloves, Apidura musettes, embrocations chamois creams, warmers for an arm and a leg: Everything save for the performance bicycles themselves, served with high-test coffee and paddle sacks of protein carbs.
Out front, a racing team of gran criterion bikers in fully logoed kits sucked on Vitawater bottles like mother’s milk and polished their carbon/titanium Cervillo and Pinarello frames after a rallye up and down Mt. Tam, their cleated shoes clattering like baseball spikes on dugout concrete. Upstairs from Pedalier’s big gray-slate office box, hack-job remodel style building was the office for one of my joblets. This entailed news curating for a political hitman and blogosfear mongerer with a Burton-Boxer clientele—culling periodicals for his clip file, aggregating around the Internet, on casual remote. The part-time gig kept me reading through everything—left and right, right and wrong—fodder for his ricinous campaign pamphlets and assorted hit pieces. Not that I was keen on owning up to the professor here about that.
“Seriously, you’re the one who brought religion into this, Herbert—along with that astro-spiritual bilge about Saturn Return,” Paulen said. “And if you’re thinking in terms of Kabbalah and Madonna, that is not what I am talking about at all.”
“But Madonna just popped into my mind when…”
“Pop indeed, because I can assure you the religion aspect I’ve been exploring runs a whole lot deeper than mere celebrity culture. And I am barely scratching the surface of what there is to know about it.”
“Amen…still, isn’t she Jewish by choice, like Robin Williams is?”
We eased around Team Schwab, cooling down about the storefront, lubing derailleurs and torqueing spokes with Odwalla and Naked juices on hand. Across the way, a mostly empty DVD rental dispensary ground floored a light moss and pewter corner Victorianesque building, victim of Netflix and the BitTorrent download blues. An upstairs suite housed a second-story Spade & Archer-style detective agency with window blinds perpetually drawn—opening so very occasionally, if only a crack. Fraud and infidelities mostly—en delecto flagrante indiscretions: still, rumor was these no-dice private dicks were ever keeping keen eye on all things Fillmore, ear to the street below.
Yet there was nothing that mysterious about the walk-up stairway behind black iron-gated bars: This Eisenhoff Agency had been around since the wanton Sixties, so testified its bleed-out red bay window signage, complete with fingerprint and spyglass iconography. Sy and his broad-beamed PI snoops had putatively cut their teeth on Lucky Strikes and major cases—particularly the haunting and harrowing variety, once flower children began suspiciously pushing up daisies around Buena Vista and Golden Gate Parks.
Safe to say, I had unearthed that little tidbit first hand, working up momentary conversation with the head dick one time while waiting in a locksmith line at the vintage hardware store, there up Fillmore Street. Although on balance, Sy mined studiously more from our exchange; so I had but nodded warily to him in passing ever since. Eisenhoff was known to skulk the neighborhood in his off hours, ever in black suit, vest and topcoat, cowboy boots trimmed in gold.
The chrome trim of his midnight black Acura was even gilded in kind—the whole package making him a perfect noir cartoon caricature of himself, if he weren’t so spot-on Scalia with a porn stash, a real pot boiler in the making, cynically spitting pumpkin seeds into his stained coffee cup. Sy was a little too stocky, a little slicked back; a trifle crooked, known to pack. He knew the cops, he knew the crooks: he knew everything about everybody.
I pried that concealed weapon gem out of his operatives, who tossed a measly crumb or two my way every now and then, a lick of opposition research and the like. I scooped them up like Comstock nuggets, hoping to further hustle some Website design work or something on the agency’s behalf.
Now, a dagger-eyed blonde in a black twill anorak descended from the walk-up, through the iron gated door, furtively carrying fiber-taped, bubble-wrapped manila envelopes to the final Saturday pick-up at the local Lombard Street post office—retro old school mail drop, analog style. About then, the yank raising of one of those bay window blinds up there caught my eye, as did the opening of a vent glass panel. Sy’s full shadowy figure peered down toward me, his meaty, black shirted arm extending straight out through the opening—twisting, turning counter-clockwise at me, as if to get a grip, tighten the screw. A not so subtle reminder, perhaps, of my partially pre-paid duty and obligations, staring me in the face. Either that, or he was just flicking away all his cigarette ashes, self winding his two-way watch.
“Hmph, Madonna’s phony as Shabtai Tzvi. Caught up with that Rav Berg huckster peddling Kabbalah as just another Werner ESThard New-Age theosophy. Honestly, what do such glam dabblers and dilettantes know about classical Jewish mysticism and Rabbinical Judaism,” Paulen ducked under branches of a scraggly sidewalk ficus tree that had suffered its share of dog doo. “About Divine Election or the Zohar and 613 Laws? Have they familiarized themselves with the Siddur like I have?”
“Madonna could always do a video about it, I suppose, but…” I dutifully turned my lower back toward the detective agency in grubbing honor and acknowledgement. Yeah, then after this, bring on snoopydix.com, Sy—a little CSS, XHTML and Flash action on the side, anything short of C++ or Ruby on Rails. And I’d ramp your site up but good, some extra WYSIWYG body and header work, yah, I could do that. Had to make my nut here, anyway I can, Sy—livin’ and dyin’ by the basic gig and code.
“Hmph, how could any of them possibly do justice to imitatio Dei or the Torah and Deliberate Choice? Or be aware that the cornerstone of Judaism is justice in this life? Or that the faith doesn’t recognize hell, per se—rather, multi levels of heaven…”
“Uh, totally…” My head was beginning to swell with this unmediated input. A quick passing glance up at Eisenhoff’s Agency netted the sudden down draw of the window’s Venetian blinds. “Deliberate Judaic justice, that sounds about right…”
“On the other hand, what would someone like you know about the Pentateuch or Eighteen Benedictions?”
“Who me? Nada, not a chance,” I sputtered, looking away toward the backbone of a chiropractor’s window display. “But you know, I did go to a Bar Mitzvah once—back in Boulder, believe it or not. Oh, and vaguely recall sitting in on a…saber up in Marin.”
“That would be seder,” Paulen said, giving ground to several German-looking hostellers fixing to jaywalk across Fillmore. “A ritual and feast plate celebrating Pesach…”
“Right, seder…Pesa?” I wondered how we got from Seinfeld to this potential minefield, yet relieved it was about religion, rather than politics.
“Passover, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt to 40 years of wandering the desert—to Moses and Mount Sinai, and onto The Promised Land—the veritable birth of the Jewish people. Rest assured I have become quite well versed in the lunisolar calendar…and the grand holidays I have been missing all these years.”
“I just remember bitter horseradish and holey shingle bread.” My cranial pressure was mounting along with this expanding volume of unsolicited information. C’mon, reveille time, sport—wake up that sleepy, anesthetized melon, slowly swell those EEG waves, get the high-frequency hertz kicking in, reforge those neuro pathways until it hurts if we’re going to get through this unscathed.
“You mean unleavened Matzo…part of the kosher Haggedah,” Paulen replied, smacking his lips. “Passing from the bitter herbs of slavery to the sweet wine of freedom and covenant with God.”
“I think it was, like, a few small cups of Manischewitz,” I recalled, as we negotiated sinuate foot traffic along the gentle sidewalk decline. “We stopped at four. Then somebody said, ‘the Egyptians tried to kill us—we survived—so let’s eat!’”
A truer, beige-on-tan Victorian stood—more accurately leaned, next door to Sy’s agency like Pisa tower in repose, gimpy no doubt from too many termite binges or minor aftershocks. At street level, on its equally weak foundation, was a black hole of a Comet lounge that had long been reputed to bear watching by somebody. Propping the three-story Vic up on its lee side was a squat stucco-frame bandbox, mustard yellow with wood stain trim—those days a Scandia design store, furnishings rustic yet urbanely clean of line.
But a sidewalk plaque standing out front an adjacent Taco Loco bar commemorated an earlier incarnation. Paulen seemed far too religiously absorbed to recall that a plain square two-story retail space across Fillmore had once been home to the Six Gallery, which so long ago hosted a poetry night to Beat the band.
For OMing over here from North Beach that epopic evening was no less than a 29 year-old philosopher king, Allen Ginsberg—who stood up, stroked his beard prophetically, Saturnally, then unleashed ‘Howl’ on a dissolutioned new generation. His first full-length public reading of the provocative poem spanked the sleepy 1950s to life, sowed the rebellious 1960s—potent, plaintive verse that still pulled hopeless romantics everywhere into the existential alienation first expressed so freely that legendary night:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed
by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning
for the ancient heavenly connection…”
In the here and now, however, German hostellers bowed before, studied the reverent brass memorial, its pedestal Sakrete reinforced and sunk two feet deep into the cement sidewalk to keep uninhibited GenNext drunks from trashing or carrying the sucker away for dorm-room trophy display. Poetic justice, one Frankforter wisecracked aloud, still deifying these degenerates? What hell-raising hath Howl wrought, even as the transcendent Ginsberg spirit still rang youthfully worldwide, and fellow traveler Ferlinghetti continued raking in the dead Beat Era’s literary spoils under bright City Lights?
“But I have to admit it was a pretty awesome spread up there in Marin,” I reconnected, getting past searing memories of that CHP checkpoint headache near Nicasio as the Passover seder of Her cousins toasted to a close.
“Not to mention the Shavout harvest festival to top it all off,” Paulen marveled, taking in the long view up Fillmore, all the way to a patchy telephoto snippet of the Marina Green open space and San Francisco Bay beyond. “Oh, the fasts and feasts cycle is so inspiring, don’t you think? Little wonder most observant Jews spend the summer months fasting in preparation.”
“Now that one doesn’t happen to register in my memory bank.” I myself avoided a vista that was all too painfully familiar, instead just glimpsing the broader background Belvuron hills. “Then again, I can barely keep track of no-fish Fridays or when Easter rolls around.”
“Yes, I’ve discovered there in fact are five fasts, from June through Labor Day,” Paulen recited, from rote. “Let’s see: Asara be-Tevet commemorating the siege of Jerusalem through Tammuz, Av and Gedaliah honoring the disastrous sacking of the temples and such. Now pay attention, a spot quiz may follow.”
“Wow, you’ve generated the bandwidth to study about all this?” I breathed in the vapors from Orgasmic Pizza wafting down Fillmore Street. “Makes me hungry just thinking about it, preferably for pepperoni and mushroom.”
“Yes, well, don’t get too fat and sassy, because right around the corner come the Ten Days of Penitence and introspection ushering in the New Year. That runs from Rosh Hashana in early autumn to Yom Kippur, the last and most solemn of the Days of Judgment—no washing, eating, working, eating or drinking allowed on this holiest of holidays—or sex, for that matter.”
“Right, celibacy, the root of all upheaval…”
“Ahh, but the festivals. I’ve learned Rosh Hashana days are a lavish remembrance and celebration, after all that—complete with sweetbreads and apples dipped in honey as part of the delectable meals…”
“Hmph and all I get for my confessions are a measly wafer and sip of weak vino.” My appetite was tempered some by this cerebral grip infecting my instincts, stirring my emotions—the whole psycho-survival stew “Fascinating, doc, but you’re killin’ me with info overload here. Seriously, when it comes to this kind of stuff, I don’t have a prayer…”
“To be sure, I know my high holidays, now you do too. See, I’m endeavoring to keep you honest, Herbert. You wanted religion? You’re getting religion.”
“Sounds tempting, all right. But I have enough problems with a religion of my own…” I glanced back over my shoulder, toward the steeple of Saint Vincente’s Church. But no more time for sidestepping sensitivities and splitting hairs; for some ungodly reason, the pressure was on. I was out of my depth here, let alone my comfort zone. Still, I had to dial it up a notch, pay closer attention, get up to speed, so to speak. Time to deliver as planned, even if it that forced me to poke and provoke…
At that moment, I spotted a dowdy neighborhood poet, familiarly gray frizz-haired, loosely clad in denim on denim—a perennial Beat Era throwback, osteo-slumped over her walking stick, pausing for wind at the Ginsberg plaque with a wistful, mystical grin. I’d crossed paths with her for years, not least up at the house. She’d taken on a shrunken, cronish posture all too familiar, enough to make me look askance, up Fillmore, toward that retrofitted first block beyond Chestnut Street.
“As did I, until I saw the light and heard Shofar’s ram’s horn,” the professor appeared more mindful of the caped, henna-haired young acolyte helping her along by the elbow. “And I haven’t even touched upon Sukkot music and fall harvest feasting in Tabernacle tents. Then comes Hanukkah: How could one night’s worth of Temple lamp oil last eight? An absolute Maccabbean miracle against the Seleucid empire—ergo, the lighting of a menorah candle for each Kislev evening. Devotional? You bet, but along with that rolls out an ongoing festival of treats, songs, gifts and games—well before Santa Claus is even dusting off his sleigh.”
“So you’re saying that makes Christmas, what, irrelevant? You’re baggin’ on Christmas now?”
“No, I’m simply saying that Hannukah makes it somewhat…awkward and painful—gratuitous, if you will…”
“Painful,” I heaved, noting I couldn’t have said it better my own self. I reflected upon Yules past up on Boulder’s University Hill—one chilly, a later one downright chilling. “Suppose a bummer Christmas can hit a body especially hard.”
Yet this was a markedly different Fillmore Street by now. Sure, there was an acupuncture/RX office and kiddie clothes store in that nondescript cube of a commercial building we were presently passing. But aside from a corner brown-green Victorian across the way, with its timeless Japanese print and silkscreen shop, we were coming upon Pixley Street, the threshold of a wide-scale spiritual and demographic shift.
Architecturally, we had all but reached the end of the Victorian era; culturally speaking, the Beats were history—banished back to North Beach’s Kerouac Alley. We were treading guard-down into seculand: a different, youthful energy altogether, attitudinally and anatomically into another place and time—likely as not unmoved that Paulen and I kept bangin’ on this religious vibe.
“What’s more, you can work off some excess Hanukkah calories after the first of the year in the Fast of Esther. But you’ll likely pack it back on again during the Purim festival.”
“Pour ‘em?” That seemed to be the operative phrase hereabouts. Still, I kept my wits just enough to remind myself that as long as he was gonna keep laying an epic lecture like this on me, I might as well begin pushing his buttons a little, to see what shakes. Maybe even play contrarian—for sake of argument, for sake of the arrangement, let alone arraignment—with whatever hell to there’d be to pay…
“Pu-rim,” Paulsen replied. “It commemorates the sparing of Persian Jews from yet another pogrom by Mordecai and the King’s Jewish wife…none other than Esther. This is a time of reading from the Megilla scroll and more joyful celebration—beaucoup food, wine and sun, plays and masquerades, the merriment can last for days. Yes indeed, the Jewish calendar is a year-round delight.”
“Hey, who said it wasn’t, right?” Really, I couldn’t remember exactly how I got roped into this, but the deal was: make note, take names, mandated reporting, get it down cold. Wasn’t gonna get paid another thin sandwich dime unless I delivered the dish. So fake it, if we must…
“Precisely what I’d like to know,” he pressed, as we abruptly pulled up to the half-block intersection of cozy little Pixley Street, a pumpkin Audi TT ragtop blew through the narrow crosswalk, hanging a hard-body right. “In any case, add Rosh Hodesh festivals and weekly Sabbath observances, and one pretty much has the whole religious lifecycle, year after year—from bris to Bar Mitzvah to Shiv’a, Kaddish and burial. In all, it makes for one glorious faith, wouldn’t you say?”
“L’chaim, you get the holy megillah,” I grabbed his elbow to void us being hit on the roadster’s drive thru. “But where does the feast of Madonna come in?”
“You’ll have to ask right Reverend Ted Haggard…gadsakes!”
Lofty as hell, but we probably should have been looking closer to home, as reality would soon hit street level—tripping us up like the cracks in a tipsy, jagged sidewalk…
Care for more?
Chapter Eighteen. High culture or low culture,
there was no backing down to the beat,
or bowing out on a high note right about now…