III, Chapter One
(aka) Smoldering in Place.
COVIDiary: Some royal Coronation, all right—COVID-19 is gripping The City like sudden-death overtime for the hometown crown.
But I finally had to bust out, had to blow through the lockdown. Wash hands, wipe surfaces, widen to six feet apart. From social distancing orders to sheltering in place on the homefront, the steady Shelter-in-Place sip, sip, sip of Corona stressors is driving me into fevered social desperation.
So I’m spreading ’em out, making way along upper Fillmore Street, fearful of touching, being touched in this season of protective gloves. Pacific Heights’ main drag is deserted, eerily still—even quieter than after the 5:04 pm Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989. To paraphrase a recent adage, you could shoot somebody in the middle of this street and nobody would bat an eye—odious pathological Trumpfoolerly like that.
Barely rending this blanket silence is the sawing and drilling of tailgate carpenters who are gatorboarding up voguish storefront windows like this was ‘Nawlins after Katrina or Northern Ireland after the baby buggy bombs back in the day. Some painted boardovers are even being color-coordinated, with clever ‘Sorry Corona Closed, Hope to See You Soon’ signage, as if for the duration, if not posterity.
How peartly, stylishly San Francisco of these postings—especially at a time when well over one-quarter of the world’s population is now in COVID shutdown mode. Admittedly the Covidoses to follow may represent a small anecdotal pebble on the worldwide Corona beach-head, but it’s the only grain I have these Covidays—the only part of town I essentially call home anymore—and into which I presently dare to de-home.
I pause at Sacramento Street as a screaming patrol car suddenly races by, likely bound for the wilds of the Western Addition. That sets me to scouting about for any essential services left open, coffee-wise—dodging stray strangers, masked or unmasked—determined to gravitate from isolation to re-connection, recollection through shining a fresher light.
On a personal level, time to walk it back, lay bare that I’m still in the game, time to home in on some prior restraints, exercise a bit more self control. So, good thing this whole shebang came along when it did—if nothing else to help get at what got me here today…
“Imitation is the seamiest
form of flattery…”
Okay, let’s strap it on, give this a go…
Then came a full frontal assault, smack in the grille—a black letter/gilt foiled, rejiggered slap in the face. Here I was, in the endorphin zone, having just come off the usual 5-K, a hill-aerobic, gale-blown slog through San Francisco’s greater Presidio, stately Pacific Heights on down—anything to drop a fleshy belt roll or two. Camphorous, peeling eucalyptus groves, olive-drab military history gone bright Spanish white and terra cotta: the route was usually hard-run balm for my atrophying body and increasingly aggravated mind.
“Do I look like I have any money on me?”
“And I do? Just down from Paradise, lost it all up there. Fire is greedy, you know. It takes everything. Fire’s terrible that way.”
But this homeless encounter now brought back memories of Spare-the-Air granular skies and cherry red-dot sunsets—of particulate matter from the infamous Camp Fire, mixing with residual vestiges of previous Tubbs and Nuns. My lungs still ached some from inhaling the effluvium of these seemingly inescapable Indian summer infernos, and a Kincade Fire had come menacing Napa-Sonoma all over again. The firestorms were largely byproduct of hellacious offshore winds downing power lines, exploding overtaxed transformers across the Bay Area come Labor Day, upshot of climbing temps, deeper brush and drought desiccated fuel beds; of bark beetle infestations, denser savannahs and chaparrals. Designated urban firestorms, they were byproduct of hellacious offshores downing power lines, of exploding overtaxed transformers, lightning arresters, sparky three-phase reclosers all across the wine country terrain.
“Uh, really sorry about that,” I looked away, edging to slip aside, again pointing to my ragged blue Asics running shorts and ancient Puma tee. I was thankful for the rising Air Quality Index of late, but that wasn’t tempering my sudden downward mood swing in the slightest. “I can imagine…”
“Oh, you can, can you…” This haggard street stander reached out from the torn pockets of an ill-fitting black trench coat, leaning forward sockless, in scuffed, brown wing-tipped shoes.
“Matter of fact, I can. So have a good one, okay,” I nodded, moving on. For there were still so many horror stories like his—of Venturi swirls, fire tornadoes, high-velocity eddies and vortices slinging sparks and cinders, creating 100 m.p.h. thermal columns, hoovering combustible material as they rose, soon igniting acreage in vast horizontal swaths. Plumas to Paradise, vineyards to the Emerald Triangle: News accounts had mapped the spread of indiscriminate wildfire destruction—charred chassis, cherished heirlooms, spindly Walmart lounge chairs—hillside mansions to overreaching subdivisions and a valley of quondam mobile homes.
The worst such firestorm in California history, Camp had gutted the lives, precious lands and material treasures of locals like him, who fled extreme events with go-bags in the middle of the night, facing ferocious Diablo winds and ember flows, horrific hot-flash reckonings and door pounding evacuation orders by the municipal scores. This while evacuees choked on the toxic smaze from charred tiles and roofing, thick wood smoke spiked with torched polymers, viscid ash—a carbonic stew of flame retardant and spent fuels—spilling all the way down to The City. Nothing that a good atmospheric river wouldn’t liquidate, minus the mudslides. Still, it made a person wonder where thousands of displaced victims like this guy would be sheltering through years of cleanup, recovery and missed compensation deadlines, having as I did some residual skin in that game.
Otherwise, it was grief and pain and pray for rain: Blame PG&E, rampant overdevelopment or climate change for these horrific fire seasons, power shutdowns and red flag warnings they bring. Not that a decent winter season and cooler temperatures hadn’t eased the infernal threat some lately, All the same, I was suddenly burning even hotter in the here and now.
“Unbelievable,” I gasped—oh, no, not this.
“That’s one way of putting it, to be sure…”
“No, I mean, this can’t really be happening…”
“Oh, but it can, sir,” she beamed, “went up just today.”
By the same token, replay of the NorCal conflagrations had further kindled my recollective cortex. Earlier flashbacks began amid second and third winds along the dune grassy flats of leaden Crissy Field, where long-scuppered thoughts surfaced like channel buoys on the choppy San Francisco Bay, merely a slivered beach away. Despite sucking in sand, long-tail ash and heavy salt-marine air out there, I chugged along powerless to deny an abiding endorphin addiction in any way, shape or form.
Top of mind was how Reese Paulen and I had blown up and out of our whole Anti-Buddies routine since 2008. I’d replayed step by labored step the way our Middle East peace train had gone off the rails. Rhetorically stalemated and polarized our own selves, we were getting cheered and hissed, shouted down and booed off debate stages from Mt. Holyoke to Humboldt State. There were the angry protest placards at Rutgers, sit-ins at Brandeis, counter/counter demonstrations at Columbia, trigger warnings and safe zones at Oberlin and Madison, the cross-bred bomb threats at UC Irvine and Westwood. We got accused of everything offensive—fake prophesy to cheap seats provocation. In retrospect, better we’d never brought the whole thing up in the first place. But somebody had to try to find some common ground. And so we did, notwithstanding all the political pyrotechnics and geo-barriers, at least until the donations dried up.
We had even tissued out a website, which would eventually have been hacked and trolled anyhow. Moreover we tinkered with a podcast, diddled around with the codings of a killer app, at least until the seed feed ended in a round-one TKO. That was about when our secular, well meaning discourse exited stages left and right. Post mortem: Paulen himself couldn’t sell security and settlements; I couldn’t credibly unpack the Palestinian infighting and morass. Sad to say, it was a long shot from the ’08 moment we were sprung from 850 Bryant Street after being cleared of felony charges, due to lack of incriminating testimony or smoking guns. In retrospect, odd what a guilty conscience can make a body do, and get done to, for that matter.
“But such an incredible hype job…”
“Big launch, for a big figure,” the woman tidied up a stack in passing. “Larger than life, wouldn’t you say?”
“Barely larger than lowlife, maybe. But the jury’s still out on that…”
“Sorry, I don’t quite…”
Jogging along Crissy, I had revisited as how Professor Paulen resettled in Berkeley with his daughter to found his Anti-Buddies Research Center with a MOOC component and seminars at the JCCs—despite so little having changed for the better anywhere in the Levant. Rather, Israeli-Palestinian circumstances had spun into an unremitting southern trajectory and standoff with no peaceable closure on the Mideast horizon. So much disputed territory, borders to breach and defend: I figured doc had his hands full, what with the Two-State Illusion likely never to materialize as envisioned for so long. Meantime, one-state, two-state—instigate, insinuate—witness a binary boondoggle if there ever was one. I just needed to pot down those fractious voices in my head again—wishing the level best for the Middle East—that all parties might secure their sense of peace and place in this world, yet pretty much suspecting where it was headed.
Nevertheless, we did crack crab now and then to keep doors open on that, brainstorm some other heady projects, compare where we were at the moment and rue the past. At least that was how I could re-piece it all together in my ever-running mind. That is, anytime doc more or less popped back in. As if that were the last I’d hear of it, as if I couldn’t pretty much guess where it all was really headed. Beyond that, I had long come to grips with Dame Thornia’s demise, and the sui generis entrails that ensued. So by now I was content to cool down with recovery calm and good post-aerobic telomeres, head to toe. Then came this potboiled affront.
“Uh, nothing, no matter,” I said, focusing on what was in store. “Must just be your window display or… ”
“Yes, well, it’s his latest, you know,” rallied the studious sales clerk, who had sidled up to dust the new fiction table, center floor at Bookworthy’s, this literary staple of a Marina District that hadn’t suffered such AQI vapors since Loma Prieta 1989.
“Topping the lists already, is it,” I asked, having been faceplanted to the legal thriller section, my New Balance supinators on their old, worn-through heels.
“You bet, like a Saudi oil well,” she tidied up two high hardcover stacks, prominently front and middle on the display counter, which crowded out other New York Times best sellers like Exxon at a Gulf rights bidding war. “He just keeps pumping them out every year.”
“Seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?” I picked up a top copy of ‘Verdict Street’, flipping past its glittery gold-on-mean streets emblazoned cover to the ISBN and acknowledgement pages—lightly fingering through the aroma of black letter ink and bindery glue, cracking and creaking of its virgin spine—finding little or no consolation.
“Yes, it is almost Pavlovian automatic, like with all his others—such a commanding body of work…” She looked on with all due proprietary concern.
Bookworthy’s was by no means a megastore, but wasn’t a cozy little lit nook either—not insignificant in a day when such brick and mortar retail outlets scarcely survived the Amazon onslaught. Long wall shelves of fiction and non-fiction, of genre after genre sections for every decent taste including war stories and tell-all tomes. Beyond front window banners heralding James Marion Hassett’s latest, this voluminous fiction table was thick with his publisher’s thematic bunting, bookmarks and flyers.
Fortifying that promotional push were gushing Sharpie marker store picks, two strategically centered stacks, four more on adjacent floor display at the foot of a nearly life-size cutout of the writer himself, in a leather bomber jacket and Special Forces ballcap, justice scales prominently in hand. Otherwise, Bookworthy’s prime retail real estate offered racks of local to global periodicals, row upon row of home design, cookbooks, coffee table pictorials, bios/autobios, travel, romance and sci fi—of guides, gifts, posters, kitty calendars, clasped diaries, coffee mugs, studio greeting cards and sheeny wrappings. Nevertheless, mega-author Hassett currently lorded over it all.
“Uh-huh, how do you figure he keeps coming up with these story ideas,” I asked, barely stifling the urge to toss the formulaic 400-page legal procedural at Hassett’s cutout like some Dunk-the-Clown booth on an old Playland midway.
“That’s his pure genius, now isn’t it…” The clerk patted the renowned author’s cardboard shoulder, smile as prim as her pastel H&S separates and tight blond bun.
“Guess you could call it that,” I said, weighing the novel’s tactile heft with a jounce of the hands like a rangy reliever palming his resin bag.
“Sooo, find what you were looking for?” Seemed as if she sniffed a whiff of dissent on my part; either that or she finally caught wind of my poly latex saturation and low-grade bodily functions.
“Yes, ’fraid so…”
“Excellent, now you’ll have to excuse me,” she said in withdrawal, with a glance and nod toward the store manager/cashier, Mahler and Mendelssohn mood speakering about.
The opening grabber read, ‘Fields of green begat streams of red’. What kind of stale garbage was this?! Hmm, otherwise looked similar, title was almost a dead ringer, read awfully damn close, trail of my synopsis and teaser excerpts and pulls. Damn, look at that, a couple of characters were named the same. Even the cover image was straight out of my line of sight, fruit of my overworked imagination. He might as well have given me an ‘as told by’ co-credit, citation on the verso ISBN page, or at least a thank you or liner blurb.
So blindsided, so violated: There was little to do but slam the thing down like a towaway parking citation, and storm out of the store essentially empty handed, hoping not to trip its security alarms. Petty theft, backatcha—all the way out the doors. Negativity bias, cortisol flow: suddenly gone was the endorphin high. Old anterior cruciates were screaming for an MRI. I could feel the burn from my ligaments to lungs: Time to dial things up a notch, and all the rest of it…
Still I paused, and turned to fixate once more on the Hassett hype and idol worship, misplaced though it manifestly was. Christ, what possessed me to start down this road in the first place? Stumble through some hellish hard knocks, scheming about grinding a book out of it. Book, shit, great un-American novel, best seller bound, shopping the slop around like a Market Street meth hero peddling demented guitar licks with Orpheum and Shoreline sell-outs in his drippy custard eyes. Mailing queries, synopses and sample chapters back east, down coast—agent to agent, house to house—lot damn better I’d been faring my own self.
Really, all that Kinko copying and SASE two-way postage, thinking it was actually going to get me somewhere, basically giving the goods away, paying the freight for that warped, weighted hard-copy game, getting form rejections way too long after the fact, with nary a nibble or two. When I might as well have gone the vanity press route anyway—bought into the fees, false hope and self-delusional hokum of outfits like Xlibris or authorHouse, with the bored lit-major housewives, retired K-12 teachers and decommissioned brass.
Yet for all the non-responses and piled up stock reject slips, this sucker was different as I let it burn in. It was more personal, much deeper and more asymmetrical, even crookedly diabolical—this one stuck to my ribs.
Care for More?
CHAPTER TWO. Up the street,
Apple polishing, savoring some
some glittery cherries, then a
turn of a corner into the darkness…