“Where you think you’ve come
from may not always jibe with
wherefrom you’ve come…”
“That means you’re the problem…”
“How do you figure? I’m not the problem.”
“Then sign with us, walk the walk, show your support…”
“I told you, I don’t sign those things anymore…”
“See? This is what I’m saying…”
“Your bosses get another name to sell. You make another quick buck, and I get nothing but more junk mail—what’s in it for me?”
Couldn’t say I relished this stopped-cold encounter with a snippy, rather militant and confrontational young Cal-Berkeley activist scraping up fall tuition, line by dotted line—for some GreenPlanet Network, no less. He collared me here outside another franchised bagel palace, staying aggressively on message, recycled clipboard and soy ink pen in hand. Around us, long, hungry lines of coed Xers in their college sweats, bunched and munched about the Chestnut Street sidewalk, minding their strollered offspring and offbred dogs. Meanwhile, helmeted nosh hounds waited on the takeout line, their citified motorbikes and cycles compact parked curbside, DPT meters quickly clicking every last sandwich dime and quarter away, maids firing off citations from their Interceptor motorscooters with every flip of the expiration flag.
“Get out clean and green–no more oily Mideast war machine…”
“Yeah? Well, how does that petition of yours accomplish that, exactly?”
“It’s not a petition, it’s an initiative. And if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. That’s the inconvenient truth of it…”
“The what? Hey, I’m not part of the problem, OK? Christ almighty, barely even drive anymore….” I noted various parkers wiping chalkmarks from their tires once the DPT scooters chugged away. “Why don’t you go sign up some dead people like all you petition hustlers do?”
“What, you think this is Chicago or something?”
“Hey, watch it, boy,” I snapped, no getting away from that. But before long, Reese Paulen emerged from the New York deli-styled bagelry, bagging partial remains of a smoked salmon shmear and Andeuille Sausage on braided Challah, handing me a slice of Cinnamon Walnut Strudel to pick and peck. He smiled as though God’s manna and ambrosia had been delivered unto him from on high. “Besides, it’s nothing a new president can’t take care of. ”
“Hmm, Muslim…oil, wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Paulen sauntered over, joining me near a clutter of metal news boxes, the front page of yet another city throwaway leading with a story on how SOMA’s hot-headed mick supervisor had blunted mayoral criticism of Ed Jew by recycling the charges of Newsom’s whispered blow buys. “You know, the young cutie behind the counter there, in the paisley painters coveralls? She told me she just returned from Israel—a tour of early pioneer kibbutzim. God, I’d love to do that.”
“Yeah, no shit,” I ventured, flashing momentarily on that summer retracing my family roots in the ancestral homes and airy dairy barns of Ireland and Scotland. “There’s nothing like visiting your mother country, that’s for sure…”
“Ah, yes, Greater Israel, Land of Promise—the golden hills, luscious orange and olive groves, the glorious Sea of Galilee!”
“One mother of a land, all right. But have you made it over to Italy and France to see your other people?” I particularly recalled resting my soaked, weary head on the brocade pillow of my great-grandfather’s Killarney straw bed.
Seeking more common ground, to draw him out—all the better to bore in deeper to his inclinations and pathologies. Pick a topic, any topic—NASA’s Cassini Mission, Bark Beetle infestation, legalizing reefer, domestic affairs. We could have been talking about anything, anything else, that is. So why the hell weren’t we yet here we were. Still, I was hidebound to hold my own somehow, was just glad I had done some legwork.
“Been there, done that, several times over,” Paulen said, wet-napping his fingers. “Israel’s my new frontier.”
“The wild, wild east, huh? Kind of like that Dylan album picture overlooking Jerusalem—exploring your rewtz.” Better yet, I thought, exploring the those two busty Irish lasses nude sunbathing on a cliff above that secluded harbor outside Skibbereen—a pubescent wet dream come true.
“More on the order of a heritage celebration,” Paulen said curtly, tossing the tissue into a garbage bin, just missing the overripe street dude digging down into the top-covered can up to his armpits, scavenging for leftover pastrami and lox.
“Except for the rockets’ red glare…” Yep, what fireworks those were capping the County Cork fisher-folk festival down below those chicks, putting Muir Beach and San Gregorio on relative notice. Would that all the 32 counties were somehow calming down, coming together by now—if only to set some positive Good Friday example here.
With that, I snapped to as we drifted over to Chestnut’s brighter side. Here we were, Lewis and Clark, Martin and Lewis, Andre and Adrian, Abbot and Costello, Lenin and McCarthy, cross-walking Abbey Road in faithful album jacketed exploration—nervously negotiating between a radio blasting full-dress Harley hog and the return pincer lap of that Ranger’s revving Ninja Z, dodging the claptrap spillover from Steiner Street’s embattled farmers market, skirting the smog-stunted Acacia trees lining Chestnut, against brilliant, increasingly breezy blue skies.
“Therein lies the problem,” Paulen trashed the remains of his shmear and sausage, stuffing the bagel bag into a phoneco-sponsored garbage can. “Still, I’d like to see for myself all that the common Israelis have to cope with as they go about their daily lives.”
“Why, for criminy sakes?” I said abruptly, having had my tast of war zones and martial coercion. I chillingly recalling sudden detonation that late Bloody Friday morning in Belfast—the close-call relief of just missing those downtown bomb blasts, only learning about the haunting IRA explosions after the fact, in the screaming next morning headlines of a Glasgow newsstand. “Why would you want to take your life in your hands?”
“To gain a first-hand understanding of what it’s like in Jerusalem, for instance… what they hold so precious and dear so as to give their lives for in Haifa…I’m sure you’re still enough of a sociologist to grasp that.”
Nearer to here, however, there were other days I could remember: hot, smoky days, when this street itself was functionally deserted, in the powerless, uncertain shadows of a Marina District gone all Loma Prieta soft and tipsy in 1989. The only real action along Chestnut back then was at the hydrants—fire hoses snaking up and down, criss-crossing the street in front of dark, mostly dormant storefronts, their proprietors anxiously restocking shelves, sweeping up seismic debris. Chestnut itself was pretty much on the faultline between liquefied old landfill and more stable, solid ground.
Still, the damage was done. The district it most directly served was in chaos and ruins, and the sort of neighborhood building, hardware and houseware suppliers it so desperately needed then were long, long gone. So on those earthquake-weather days, mainly hustling taxicabs, news satellite trucks and all categories of emergency and official vehicles cruised Chestnut, locals and outsider lookieloos having other, more urgently compelling things to do, places to see: dousing flare-ups, combing debris, generally mopping up the sudden wreckage of their and others’ lives. Residents wrestling with district-wide distress, instances of distinct valor under duress. But that was then, not here today…
“Ri-ri-right, sociologist. Sociology in the field…or on the run…”
“Point is, I’d like nothing better than to witness first-hand what life in Israel today is all about…kibbutzim, the yeshivot and holy shrines, perhaps even combing the glittering beaches and cafes of Tel Aviv.”
“Right, you mean, what makes it tick…”
“In a manner of speaking,” Paulen sighed, as if probing my demarcations and faultlines, as though conducting a scratch sensitivity analysis. “If you must put it that way…”
“Anyway, what makes you think you can just trip on over there? I mean, aren’t they starting to tighten things up—loyalty oaths and rabbinic courts deciding who’s who and really a Jew, and all that?”
“Right of Return, my friend, going back to 1950,” Paulen asserted. “In any case, I may be going gung ho—sort of reformodortho, if you will, but not quite ultra-Ortho. That is, I embrace the calendar and culture, just not necessarily the Haredim and sidecurls.”
“Really, too extreme?”
“No, the look just doesn’t become me…and hats or kippas give me pressure headaches.”
“OK then, what do you expect there is to see in Israel, sosh-wise,” I asked, still picturing Belfast’s Royal Ulster Constabulary bull pushing away my telephoto camera with the barrel of his semi-automatic rifle. Yah, headaches—here that throbbing again. “I mean safely…or are you just into a terror-tourism thing in your old age…”
“Not at all. Rather, I begin on the premise of how they have managed to build this modern, progressive democracy over there. That they are brilliant innovators in computer software and technology, how they excel at enviro-ag, biomed and electrical engineering. No wonder Israel’s stock market and venture capital industry are going through the roof, even in a volatile environment like that.”
“Gotcha, Israel Inc.–better that than Qassam rockets, huh?” Just trying to keep things light, nervously gallows light. “I mean, going through the roof.”
We soon lit into another snootful of connoisseur-strength cigar smoke, smoldering stubs from an earlier epoch. I immediately choked on it, ingesting the premium-grade stench from stinking shit sticks, wending, ringing forth from a corner Humidorium. Street level as it was in a beige, four-story corrugated egg crate of an apartment building with the obligatory Victorian crown trim, here on Chestnut’s sunnier side.
Even Governator Arnold himself would have savored Humidorium’s Partagas Sabroso Maximos, Monte Cristos and Sancho Panza Extra Fuentes, the slim fire of Sweet Dreams Cherry cigarettes and Djarum Bali Hai Naturales. Paulen paused to look over a window full of oversized, chrome engraved cigar lighters and matching flask sets, inlaid ashtrays and gilded poker chips. I just ceased inhaling, noting a familiar Zippo style while struggling to keep the Walnut Strudel down my piehole.
“Seriously, Herbert. That Middle East neighborhood is a perpetual war zone, a desert wasteland of medieval Islamic Sharia thinking that still can’t settle who rightfully heired on the side of Mohammed 1,400 years later,” he said, pulling a sterling Cross pen from his jacket pocket to jot down Humidorium’s number. “What are the odds of developing a vibrant, first world socioeconomy in a lost califate world like that? Poor little Israel is surrounded by people from the Dark Ages, who want to bomb it back there, too. I’d just like to see the country in one piece before they do so, thank you very much.”
“Come on, Israel’s not going anywhere,” I said, bristling all over again at how that Belfast RUC trooper had threatened to confiscate my cameras and run my ass in for bloody vagrancy. “Not when they’ve got Dimona and more nukes than god…”
“Really, says who?” Paulen’s scoffed, ducking behind the de rigueur Israeli curtain of nuclear ambiguity, dating back to at least ’67.
“Says the Prime Minister himself, right?” I yanked out a paper napkin to dab my dripping nose, stuffing same back in my jeans for future deployment. “Stocks of Cruise missile warheads, along with an anti-rocket radar dome?”
“Oh, Olmert, that fraud, what does he know,” Paulen peered into the cigar store’s doorway, pocketing his pen and matchbook, seeming to check out the brands and bands, perhaps indulging a latently acute oral fixation, an odious one, at that. “Look at how that tinif shvindler bungled Lebanon last year. All Ehud’s done is gone and made the whole country more vulnerable, while lining his and his cronies’ pockets in the process.”
“Then how about Mordechai Vanunu? And I’ll bet Mossad knows,” I gestured, ever so abulically sharpening the edges—elbows in, pressing the Times and Nate’s letter tightly to my ribs. “Like, that Pollard spy dude does, too…”
“Jonothan Pollard was railroaded and egregiously sentenced, to be sure. By which I mean, produce the evidence, my friend, let IAEA come up with the concrete evidence of espionage,” Paulen snapped, rather taken off guard. “In the meantime, Iran pushes on with its WMD nuke program and vows that it has begun the countdown to the neo-Holocaustal end of the ‘Zionist regime’. So to whom do you choose to lend credence?” He then ducked justly into the Humidorium to score a Salvia Divinorum and Padilla Miami 8 & 11.
Never much one for a good stogie, I remained outside, to breathe freely and ease gastric distress by shuffling along toward the next shop down. Through the suspiciously Cohiban smokescreen emanating from an illicit backroom Cubador, I noted another legacy relic: an old-time family jewelry store—its plain and simple 70s-style turquoise-tile façade—as if never having passed it before. A Marina hold-out from quieter, more mannerly days, Duchinni Jewelers was modest, timelessly analog, its window cases displaying Longines, Bulova, some budget Seiko models—no Breitling, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin or Jaeger-LeCoultre wound around here.
Paulen rejoined me as I checked out window displays of multi-color replacement watchbands, plexiglas showboxes of clasped earrings and charm bracelets, rows of holy cross necklaces and birthstone rings—nothing special by twenty-ought standards, perhaps best suited to baptismals, Eucharists and other Sunday churchgoing, especially that of traditional Italian style, one which in today’s Marina was so rapidly dying off, going so decidedly out of style.
“In any event,” Paulen resumed, slipping two metal cigar tubes into his jacket pocket. “You must concede Israel has much better things to do than dig bodies out of Intifada-twisted Jerusalem bus wreckage and suicide bombed Tel Aviv cafes.”
“Well, concede, sure…so it would seem…” I found myself comparing the colorful hope of the-26 county Irish Republic to the dreary, bombed out six counties up Ulster north—again striving for common ground.
“Just imagine where that country would be by now if it weren’t constantly under threat by mad, fanatical Arab hordes, or always having to grieve over and bury Star of David-draped coffins.”
“Guess that would make it world class, right? Sure, sort of like the Celtic Tiger, a rich, dreamy bubble born of centuries of division and strife—Flight of the Earls, the Black Forties, starvation orders, and all. As long as it lasts, why not? “Point is, if green Irish Catholics can work things out with the orange Protestant Unionist scourge—anything is possible, there’s gotta be some hope—you know, like striking while the Eire is hot—’cause who knows what troubles lurk over the rainbow?”
“Except there, you haven’t one tribal faction explicitly denying the other’s very right to exist,” Paulen nodded, tapping my arm in affirmation. “Hence Israel’s security fence, defensible borders. With 70% of Israel’s population and power infrastructure, one-third of all Jewry situated within ten by 160-some miles—it’s a foregone necessity, Acre to Ashkelon, let alone Golan Heights to the Gulf of Aqaba. At least as long as the Palestinians stay so busy self-destructing, without lifting a finger to really know and reconcile with Israeli Jews.”
Several steps further revealed Chestnut’s more contemporary leanings. Pre-quake, post-quake, old school and new, back in the day to seize the hell out of today: that was this street in a nutshell. The Marina’s main drag was sort of schizy that way, reflecting a district in acute bipolar transition—sun-shade; segued and split screen, freeze frame-fast forward; with multigenerational Gaps, bras and bondeaus to preppy baby clothes, falling into any openings in the commercial clutter, storefronts that seemed to stretch all the way out to the Presidio tree line.
Further along, that analogia transmogrified suddenly, wirelessly digital here, in competing side-by-side showrooms. Necktied young technoids aggressively pushed cels, PDAs, rollover minutes and network coverage plans to neighborhood newbies who knew nothing from earthquakes, much less 49er street celebrations, played out before many of them were born. We fended off fevered pitches for no-strings Treo, Bluetooth and V-cast demonstrations from Red Bull-charged reps hustling us up like Broadway skin-show barkers. Smart phones, camera phones, EV-DO phones, slider phones: The bells and whistles had been hyper activated in both stores—blinking power lights and glowing LCD screens, TiVo Mobile, broadband platforms, video capture, GPS navigation, wireless sync and PIM, wall to wall.
“Really…” My head throbbed with technoverload, as if I could feel all the excess electromagnetism having a field day radiating my brain tissue…yeah, shooting those electric impulses, bursts of colored light show to stoke up the cells and neurons, send in some fresh outside decibel white noise and pixilation, plasticize my ossifying mind. Couldn’t speak for Paulen, but the pressure pitches gave me the germs of technosis and digititis, while leaving me in awe of the gadgetry, playing hopeless catch-up, somewhere between phile and phobe—a zero-sum gamer to be sure.
“Maybe then Israel’s a Semitic tiger in a cage of its own design…”
“Only because it’s an existential matter of sheer life or death, Herbert…been like that from the very beginning…”
“Beginning of what,” I shook off a burning, tumorous sensation over my ears, wondering if those always on the phone could really have minds of their own. “The beginning of time, or beginning of trouble?”
Spinning away from the dueling cellmania, we were quickly blindsided by some blingy middleschoolers uptown from the Bayview via the 22 Fillmore bus line, hip-hopping their way out of a Jamba Juice bar. Cocked caps, ‘team’ colors head to toe, the kids were armed with jumbo Pomegranate Paradises, Mango Mantras and Peenya Kowladas, not to mention Vita and Burner Boosts—the citrus-colored store décor behind them pulsing with Nelly/Beyonce as they bustad their lil’ moves over to that farmer’s market along Steiner Street.
Noticeably twigging the sassed nubility of it all, Paulen grabbed himself another menu, ostensibly for future reference, but was soon poring over the Enlightened Smoothies. Me, I couldn’t pull my nostrils away from the fresh-baked éclairs, Danish and cinnamon twists at the crusty all-hours donut shop still there, holdover from the old days, across the way.
“No, I’m referring to the beginning of Eretz Yisrael, land of Abraham and King David, Moses and King Soloman, the Old Testament Promised land of Zion.”
“Couldn’t be you really mean the beginning of, what do they call it? The Nakba, or ‘Catastrophe Day’,” I said, deliberately stabbing at a hot button, not to mention my back, picking my spots like a cathouse leopard after feeding time. “700,000 Palestinians fleeing their Mandatory homes for their lives.”
“Sorry, I don’t speak that language,” Paulen deflected with a sweeping hand. “Incidentally, you can hardly claim some historical bond of moral equivalency between Ireland and Israel. Your Irish there haven’t exactly been models of hospitality, now have they? Coldly cozying up with Jew haters going back to Eamonn de Valera, carrying on through to Palestinian solidarity shenanigans today.”
“So then why are plenty of Jews still living on the Emerald Isle, Eastern Euro immigrants who settled in Midleton in the late 1800s? They must be drawn to Ireland’s greenery, huh?”
“Surely couldn’t be the climate or local cuisine…”
“Hah,” I snapped, peeling back the civility some, now all thumbs scraping to get under his skin. Not that this head butting had yet to open any probative doors. Meanwhile, wait, I could swear I heard more fire sirens wailing there uphill. “And yet how many Irish are welcome in Israel these days?”
“Cholileh, perish the thought.”
“Yah, well, put a County Cork in it, doc…”
“You don’t have to be a keisenik about it.”
“Now where have I heard that before?”
Care for more?
Chapter Twenty-Four. Enter gender issues,
which are quickly eclipsed by organic issues
on a local scale—feeding more worldly issues
of ancient history and animosities…