Rebecca didn’t bring her famous bread to Thanksgiving this year. Each year, her mom would greet her at the door, each time asking “Did you bring the bread?” even though her mom knew she’d always bring bread. “Yes mom,” she’d reply, holding up the loose paper bag, tented on top of a weathered and seasoned jelly roll pan. Her mom would squeak with joy, make awkward little fists with her thumbs sticking out, and punch them into the air…
When the third police car sped by the small children’s playground at the head of Harbor Road, lights flashing, Bernadette turned to me and said calmly yet slyly, “that’s unusual,” Then an ambulance sped by. Bernadette turned away to watch its trajectory, her hand slowly running through her straight brown hair, pulling it between her shoulders, in slow motion, as if time had gotten stuck and that moment was progressing at half-speed. She then turned back, scanning the playground for her daughter as any watchful mother would do…
The fire had long stopped. The trees stood pole thin. Black charcoal towers jutting slight from the ground and lancing the sky. They creaked, a faint echo of the torrid crackling fire that turned them from lush green plumes into these stilts. The ground was a powder of grey and black. I thought of the astronauts walking on the moon. I paced slowly between the trees, hoping not to drag my sleeves along their skins to become soiled with soot, but after five minutes I relinquished trying to avoid the trees and after fifteen minute I was indistinguishable from the charcoal trees…
I love what Fran Lebowitz has to say. I love the way she says it. Her story-wit brain is always on, ever-ready to pounce on a topic that strikes her. She’s a rock musician of anecdotes, she prefers a groove. She starts with a low grumble, smirking on the details of things. She builds on it with a sly widening lens because she knows where she’s leading us, then reaches her three-chord chorus of what it all means and shouts it out load to a welcoming roar from the crowd. I want to hear her talk and talk and talk…
For the record, Lew is a great, great friend. We no longer live near each other and I miss our time together. He is existential, ruminative, and intellectual. Conversations with Lew run the gamut, but remain anchored to solving the mysteries of “the why.” Why does this happen, and why does this other thing happen too…
We spent the second half of 1996 flat broke, working entry-level internships and retail gigs. We shared one enamel pan and one aluminum pot which we used daily on our two-burner hotplate. Most of the time we ate half-cooked pasta and some sort of sauce. One of my four roommates eventually got a job assisting on photoshoots and he traded a week of work for a full-bore, six-burner gas stove. We then began to roast a chicken nearly every night which we got for under two dollars from the bodega down the block. Sometimes we’d light all six burners just to watch the flames. Luxury.
For fun after dinner we’d drive around Manhattan, packed into a two-door worn-out Ford Bronco looking for obscure doorways that led to less-traveled pubs and underground parties. We’d cruise down Broadway from the Upper West Side all the way to City Hall, the air through the windows cooler than the thick static air of our hot warehouse home.
In the Spring of 1997 we each had somewhat stable jobs, allowing us the treat of a chicken and rice dinner sitting at the bar at The Hat or a few beers at Sonny’s. On most night we’d take the train into the city and pick a neighborhood, walk to a spot we heard about through friends at our jobs, and see what happened after our money ran out.
It must have been April or May of 1997 when we went to The Village Idiot over on west 14th street, which was a good place to get a cheap pitcher of Koch’s beer. I think it was $3 a pitcher, I can’t remember. We’d scrape our quarters and dollars together. That night we had enough for two pitchers. There were five of us living at the warehouse then. Sometimes there’d be six people, sometimes four, but there was a core three of us who lived there for at least two years at a time. I moved out in 2000.
The five of us sipped our heavy glass mugs of cheap beer, gazing out the windows, talking loudly about nonsense. It was a warm night, we were wearing t-shirts. I went to the bar to order our second and final pitcher when a lone person sitting at the window edge of the bar, an equally rough-edged guy about our age, turned to me and asked, “How do you like this place?”
“It’s fine.” I said, “It’s cheap enough for us.”
“Right,” he said, drinking his half mug down in one gulp. “Mind if I join you guys?”
“Not at all,” I said. As the bartended returned the filled pitcher to me and pushed over an additional mug, he winked at me and said, “Watch out for that one, he’s more than you think he is.”
I don’t think he ever told us his name though he shook our hands furiously. The first thing he said as he sat down at our table was, “The next pitcher is on me.”
After we finished the fifth pitcher, our new friend having picked up the next three, he said, “Hey, I know a cool place, want to check it out?” The roommates all silently checked with each other by looking into each others eyes, seeing if anyone would object.
“No,” we all said in near unison, “let’s go.”
We half-stumbled out of The Village Idiot and across 14th street and into the Meat Packing District. In 1997 it wasn’t the neighborhood you think of now. It was closer to the 1988 version of the Meat Packing District with dark corners, rotten smells and teenage prostitutes.
We turned a few corners, laughing at some jokes and giddy at our adventure walked face-first into a crowded jumble of people pushing their way up short steps and into some bar. Our new friend walked in first and the crowd parted, creating a clear lane for us to enter. My friend Chris elbowed me hard in the chest, “Check that out.”
As we entered the bar all the faces turned to us to see who we were. We were a ragged looking bunch, up way too late on a workday night, with work dirt on our hands and cheap sneakers. Suddenly there were six opens seats at the bar. Our new friend sat down first, I sat down second. The bartender, a skinny blond lady with a pug nose, tank-top, and trucker cap turns to me, leans across the bar, grabs my face in her bitten-nail hands and yells over the louder-than-hell country music, “I fucked your father!”
Six shots of something clear are placed in front of us with another three for the bartenders. We all raise our glasses and drink. The bartender reaches for my shoulder, pulling my t-shirt halfway to her and yells, “Who let you out of the shit-hole you must be living in?” I turn to our new friend at my right and he looks back at me with a wide grin, “Welcome to Hogs and Heifers.” He makes a swirling gesture with his finger and another round of shots show up. With that the three bartenders jump on the bar and stomp-dance to the music while the packed house cheers them on. Patrons jump on the bar, some get pushed off, some fall, but many remain and throw articles of clothing backwards towards the wall behind the bar. It was loud, and hot, and there was a lot of bare skin in that narrow wedge of a former biker bar that was soon to be discovered by the hip crowd.
I don’t recall when we left, but we didn’t close down the place, we had to be up early enough in the morning to get to our jobs. I looked for our new friend as we left, to thank him, but he had disappeared.
About a month later I was at work at the Strand Bookstore, running the registers. During some downtime I would do the crossword puzzle in the Daily News which I’d buy with a hot tea at the now-gone diner on Broadway just south of 12th street. As I flipped through the pages I saw a small thumbnail picture of our new friend from a month before. It was an obituary.
As I read the obit my heart sank. He was a generous person who wanted to spend time with giddy folks. He liked to drink. It turned out our new friend was Allan Dell, the owner of Hogs and Heifers. He had never let on who he was, though we suspected he was someone important to that place. Later that night I showed the smudged grey-paper page to my roommates. We huddled around our rough dining table, in the near dark of a single light-bulb.
“What a shame,” one of us said.
“What a nice guy, ” said another. We all nodded. I closed the paper.
About five years later I went back to Hogs and Heifers. It was crowded with tourists and people with clean clothes and button-down shirts. I stood by the bar, listening to the voices talk about work and friends and vacations. The crowd pushed at the bar, waving twenty-dollar bills at the tank-topped lady bartenders who stood with their backs to the eager and smirking faces. I finished my beer and left.
My friend Steve is an early-bird and a perfectionist. He measures the tops of his side-tables and cabinets to mathematically determine the ideal location for a-framed photos, cups and plates, and general keepsakes from his extensive travels around the world. His wife Rachel is the polar opposite. She sleeps late, misplaces papers, and keeps things simple. When they met, they joked that their relationship was doomed, but they had been married twenty years when they decided to travel to a secluded, off-the-grid, beach-hut thirty miles south of Cancun.
On the fourth night of their trip, they were sitting on wooden stools at the local “bar.” They shared small shots of tequila with similar sized glassed of lime juice and tomato juice. They’d sip one, then the other, then trade them. They giggled at their joy over these small glasses. Steve lifted one above his head to find the brand, but couldn’t tell if what he saw was a word or a haphazard scratch along the bottom.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, slightly tipsy, “Let’s enjoy this moment.”
“Maybe I’ll buy the glass from this bar, to take home with us.”
“Why bother, we’ll just have to come back.”
Sometime later that night, after a few more small glasses of tequila, lime juice and tomato juice they sauntered back to their unwired beach hut. His arms around her waist. Hers around his shoulders. He stooped slightly to the left to allow her arms to fully cross his neck. They passed through the beaded doorway and fell into the hard and dusty mattress.
“Looks like its going to be anther beautiful day tomorrow,” Steve said, “I think I’ll get up early to see the sunset.”
The next morning was their fifth morning at the hut. Starting with the first full day, Steve would wake up early, unfurl a woven mat at a specific spot on the beach near the ocean, practice yoga and then swim in the tranquil clear water until he reached the invisible line of the mouth of the small bay where the hut was situated. The bay had two shoulders nearly equidistant from the hut. The area could have been called “Half-Moon” bay as the bay was nearly a true half moon. He would swim until he reached the invisible edge of the half-moon.
As planned, Steve woke a little bit early in order to catch the sunrise as he practiced his yoga. He laid out his mat, exercised through his routine, and walked deliberately in a straight line towards the ocean, aiming for the midway point between the bay’s shoulders.
The water was not cold, but refreshing. He loved the caribbean for its warm and clear waters. Once he was up to his waist in the water he dove in with his hands then his head and began his freestyle stroke, counting his breaths. He thought of his swimming as a mediation where he would vacate his mind of any extra thought beyond his breathing and strokes in groups of ten. He’d count up to ten, then start again. He would often unintentionally insert the word “zero” as a halfway between ten and one, but he worked to release this thought as well.
He was deep in his meditation, enjoying the water, the air as it entered his lungs, the air as he blew the bubbles into the water. The warmth of the new sun on his back and legs and on the side of his face when he took a breath. It was during one of these breaths where the sun hit his face that he realized he didn’t see the left shoulder of the bay in his peripheral vision. He halted his swimming, looking straight out into the ocean, and he didn’t see either shoulder of the bay in his periphery. He burst around to look back at the beach and then he knew. He had been pulled outside of the bay by a quiet tide. He was nearly four of five times further out in the water than he typically would be and he could tell he was being pulled further out.
He could barely see the small hut. He didn’t see any boats within the horizon either or else he would have started yelling. He floated there, treading water, looking in all directions for something to help him gage the distance he had traveled and at what trajectory he was moving further away.
After what he thought was five minute he tried to swim back, paddling his body at angles to the shore as he had learned as a boy to avoid the riptide. He swam for what he though was fifteen minutes, still using his meditation routine to keep himself calm, but when he tried to measure his success it appeared as if he had stood still. He was growing tired. His arms ached. His hands and feet were numb and tingling.
“Well,” he said aloud to himself, “I guess this is it. This is where it all ends,” and he began to cry, and shake in his misery. He yelled out for help, belting as loud as he could five times. Splashing at the water at his sides. Then the misery passed and he felt an odd clarity.
“What should I do now?” He asked himself. “Enjoy yourself,” he answered himself back. “But how?” he asked himself. “Back float.” He answered himself and turning and stiffening his body he floated on his back and looked up at the clouds. “Beautiful day,” he said aloud. He first started counting the clouds, then he started to identify the meteorological names of the types of clouds, then he started to think of them as characters in a play and wrote lines for them. The sky was a wide blue, the could soft tufts, the sun a pointed orb of hot yellow.
His back hurt and his arms continued to tire, to seem to turn themselves off, to not listen to his brain.
“What should I do now?” he asked himself. “Why not dive and look at the fish?” he answered himself. He turned his body, took a gasp of air, and dove into the water, not using his muscles too much in hopes to conserve his energy. He laughed at himself for the thought of conserving his energy seemed fruitless, but he decided he wanted to see as many fish as he could, and he needed his energy for that.
Under the water surface were schools of fish of all different types and varieties. Some scooped around his feet, others chased after invisible forces further down in the deeps. The fish would appear out of the invisible and then disappear out of his vision. He couldn’t believe how beautiful the underwater happenings were and thought about how many times in his life he had swam above these things without seeing them. He continued to watch the fish and then noticed how one group seemed to disappear behind something dark. He rose his head above the water and didn’t see any hint of a difference on the surface. He dove again and swam towards the shadow.
It was a reef or a sandbar or mixture of the two! He swam to the landing, wedged his feet where they could gain traction and stood. His head, shoulders and torso were above the water.
“I’m saved.” he said to himself. “I’m going to make it.” He looked down at his hands under the water, at how pale and wide they looked. He raised them up to his face, splashing water on his mouth and nose.
A little bit at a time he’d lower his face into the water to find and follow the path of the sandbar, making sure he didn’t get too close to the sharp edges of the coral. He realized that this sandbar was making an arc back towards the left shoulder of the bay, as if it was the other half of a full moon. He wondered if the bay was either the former mouth of a volcano or potentially the site of a meteor landing.
He slowly and deliberately made his way back to the left side of the bay, and then walked along the curve of the beach until he reached his wife sleeping on a mat to the left of the mat he placed on the beach earlier in the morning. She was snoring loudly. She had pulled the mosquito net over her entire body and over her heard. On top of that she placed her wide straw hat over her face and neck. He saw that her wrists and tops of her feet were becoming sunburned. He walked the few steps to the hut, pulled a towel from the drying bar, and draped it over her lower half. She woke, and moved the hat from her face to make sure it was him, then plopped it back down. She spoke to him through the layers.
“Hey, there you are. I thought you had decided to go into town or something.”
“No, I was swimming.”
“Oh, I couldn’t see you. Did you take a new route or something? That’s so unlike you.”
“Well, good for you.”
“Yes. I guess it was.”
“Plus, it’s such a beautiful day, it’s a perfect day to be in the water.”
“Yes, it’s definitely a beautiful day.” Steve said, then laid back on the mat and felt the hot air wash over him. Rachel tugged her hand out from under her wraps and found his hand and held it tight. He gripped her hand right back.
Back then the cash registers at the Strand were on an elevated platform at the front of the store. The cashiers stood with their backs to a storefront-wide plate glass window on Broadway. Looking in from the street our loose heads floated above the tiered and dimly lit display of bestsellers, remainders and t-shirts.
It was a hectic and crammed Friday night in July when the air was heavy. We all wished for a thunderstorm to take the weight away, but the day darkened into a hot electric night pregnant with the type of muted trouble only found below 14th street. Behind the tall stone buildings on the west side of Broadway the sky deepened orange then red then grey.
The store was a mess on nights like those. Broke-loose ramblers and lonely half-baked brainiacs would find their way to the store to soak up the specific mojo created by that creaky space and all of those second-hand books. Billions and billions of words piled and pressed and mashed together, filed sideways in a haphazard but respected logic. You could hear the words reading themselves aloud. The words called into the night and the people came to find them.
There was one narrow door in and it was the same door out. People pushed and jammed their way into the store and onto the street. There wasn’t any air conditioning, just giant steel caged fans that buzzed louder than the music and neutralized most possible conversations. Occasionally you’d hear a fleeting break or a squeak above the drone. It was hot. Everyone was sweaty. It smelled like shoes and bark.
One perk of working up at the registers was that you were closest to the fans though they blew directly over your head. You could reach up and touch the cool air with your open palm. As a customer approached the registers they’d see the cashiers standing shoulder to shoulder, occasionally lifting an arm or two in a form of signaling or waving. Sometimes a customer would confuse this for a beckoning or a salute. They’d blush and wave back.
On this Friday Night I was at the far left register, next to the one and only door. I’d hang my right arm over the plywood divider between the cashier platform and the small entranceway to catch any cool air that carried in. That channel of in and out by that door was furious. People knocking people sideways to enter and exit.
“It’s a bookstore.” I’d remind myself, but it was more than that. It could have been built upon sacred ground, upon a long buried magnetic meteor. It was the gyroscopic core of a hallowed universe where the fanatical believers of “don’t judge a book by its cover” convened as far away as possible from all the pretty people and their dancing and their fancy parties.
I stood at my post, scanning the crowd and ringing up customers by reading off codes such as “paper,” or “review.” Just as I was finishing up with the end of my queue, a shoulder length mop of brown hair bobbed and weaved through the crammed aisles towards the front. The faceless figure wore a bold and baggy printed shirt, khaki shorts and combat boots. He marched a bit too furiously, headed for the the door. His hair swung back and forth from shoulder to shoulder like an upside down mop being used as a dance partner.
As he entered the tidal scrum of the small entranceway by the one narrow door he flipped his hair back and stared right into my eyes with a wired sadness and a mischievous desire. I was frozen. We were frozen in that grip of timelessness when strangers lock eyes and search for something that either isn’t sure of, but spark each to cackle in a laughter of lost friendship or common alignment of stars and situations.
I stood there, locking eyes with Johnny Depp and we read each other’s minds.
He said to me “C’mon man, let’s get the fuck out of here, we’ve got things to do.” And we shared a vision of loud music and dozens of people jumping from hotels beds to couches and tables breaking, tumbled buckets of ice slush and liquor punch spilling widening puddles into high-weave carpets, and so much laughter and rapture that everyone pees their pants.
And I said back “Dude, I can’t leave, I’ll get fired.” And the vision closed up like a wide plume of smoke reverse-escaping back to the bottle where it was born from. Then the bottle top sucked itself back into place with a thump.
And then he said, with a sad tear in his eye and a frown on his lips, ”I hear you man, but I’m gone.” And with that he lowered his eyes, ducked his shoulders, and exited through the one and only door to the store.
The cashier next to me elbowed my left arm and said, “Yo, do you know that dude?”
“Yes. I guess I do.”
“I’ve got friends like that too.”
We each turned around, putting our palms up to catch the cool fan air and for a few seconds looked out into the night and all the blurry faces that rushed by that neither of us would ever see again for the rest of our lives.
The sun was still setting early as if it was winter, and the high grey sky paled to pewter then charcoal when the street lights flickered on. The coolness of the ground seeped up through the lush green shrubs and somehow the flowers glowed vibrant and full. I looked out of the front window of my small house in Columbia City and marveled at the fullness of the green, even in the dark.
A light rain fell, misting up the windows. The heat clicked on, and across the water of lake Washington the twinkling lights of Mercer island could have been stars.
Laying in bed as the night grew colder I pulled my heavy blanket to my chin and thought about my work agenda for the next day. I fell asleep wondering if I had any same-day deliverables.
I woke the next day in the usual pale grey light. By the time I dressed and exited my house and headed towards my car parked at the curb I realized that the sun was out. It was bright on the horizon somewhere behind the trees, but it was bright and warming. Steam lifted from the roads and grass. There was fog between some trees.
Huh, I said to myself. Sun in April. Looks like it will be a beautiful day.
Riding up the elevator at the office building the half dozen of us talked about the sun. We each remarked on the beauty of the light and how it will warm up the day. Someone joked about taking the day off to enjoy it.
There were small conversations about the sun throughout the morning, leading up to lunchtime. Everybody ate outside, along walls and on benches, sitting on their bags to prevent the dampness to seep up from the masonry. The whole city of Bellevue was outdoors and there wasn’t enough room for everyone to sit. The sidewalks were crammed with people strolling slowly in their sleeveless vests and waist-length shells.
Back at my desk, the sun reflected off of the windows of the building across the way. I went to pull down the shades and my office cube neighbors erupted with, “No way!” By 3pm a quarter of the office left early. By 4pm the office half had left, by 5pm there was me, and a few other easter-coasters who hadn’t yet been in the PacNW long enough to understand the high value of these precious daylight hours.
I drove home, back over the route 90 bridge towards Seattle and the light was radiant and heavenly. As I turned off of Mercer island and towards the tunnel that bore under the east side of Seattle the highway slopes down towards the lake. As I drove the light glimmered across all the small waves, it was blindingly bright. Mount Rainier was visible and present and majestic to the south, out of scale with the rest of the world around it. The fish swam to the surface of the lake, bolting from the cold depths and leaping into the sun. They sang and squealed with joy. I sang too.
The stars that night were glorious although the night was cold.
The next day, it was sunny again. My neighbors across the street were outside pointing at the sky. As I open the door to my car I said good morning. They both looked at me, muted at first and said, “This is so usual. We might stay home today.”
Half of my office took the day off. My friend, an ex-pat from Chicago tapped me on my should at my desk. He said, “You realize there are never, and I mean never, two sunny days in a row in April. It’s unheard of.”
“It’s beautiful here in the sun.” I said back. Over his shoulder was a view of the Olympics in the distance. Sharp and snowcapped. To my right were the Cascades. The Puget sound sat in the center of a giant torque-spring bear trap, surrounded by the jagged teeth of rock and stone. It was so breathtakingly beautiful I understood why everyone lived here.
Wednesday was another sunny day. I received an email just before I was going to leave that house that the office was closed due to the sun. The simple note from our considerate CEO stated simply that it was to beauteous of a day to let it slip by. Especially for those of us who were vitamin D deficient. She closed her email with smiley face emotion.
I went into town, everything was closed. The bank was closed. Many of the restaurants had only a few people on hand for staff. Caravans of cars passed by with canoes and skis strapped to their racks. I sat outside at my favorite bakery, sipping on a cappuccino. The cool air blew the swirls of steam from the mug until they evaporated in shafts of bright light that piled through the gaps between the buildings and the trees.
“You’re not from here are you?” The waitress asked me.
“No, I’m not. Why?”
“Because you’d be doing something other than sitting here if you were.”
“But I am outdoors.”
Later that day, back home, I sat on my my front steps and my retired neighbor waved to me from his driveway.
“Beautiful day.” He said,”Never seen three days of sun in a row in April. Maybe in February, but never in April.”
“That’s what I hear.” I said.
“There’s nothing like Seattle when it’s sunny,” his smile so wide his teeth glinted and shone. Up above a flock of birds circled and swerved across the bright blue sky. The day was so clear I could see their lined feather and their small solid eyes. They dashed among the tall green trees and flew out of sight, over a hill, and into the evening when the clouds would return.
It was a warm, muggy August day, last summer. As I walked home from the train station, taking the simplest route down the straight avenue that led from town to my house, I saw a couple in the distance. At first I thought it was a father and a daughter. They were walking in my direction, I was walking in theirs. They slowly came into clearer focus.
They weren’t a father and daughter. They were two men, walking with their arms interlocked. Their posture was similar to a father walking his daughter down a wedding aisle. They walked slow-paced, each step careful and considered. The taller, older gentleman on the left stood firm, head high, shoulders back. The shorter, younger man hunched. He was leaning into the older one appearing to take comfort in their closeness, until I realized that the older man was having difficulty walking. The younger man was supporting the older man. The younger man was wearing a robe, the older man was wearing a loose fitting t-shirt and loose-fitting jeans. They both wore sandals.
When they were within half a block of where I was walking it became clear the younger man was a buddhist monk, wearing an orange and rust colored robe. His head shaven. The older man had the undefinable look of age. He could be 70, he could be 80.
When we were within ten feet of each other I could see the older man’s eyes. They twinkled with a wetness that could be confused for tears, but were probably a sensitivity to the bright light of the day. The younger man looks at me, sizing me up. I could have stood aside to let them pass, but instead I said, “Hello, I live just down the block, who are you?” which might have sounded rude, but I did my best to make it sound welcoming.
The older man stopped though the monk seemed to tug at him to keep moving. The monk looked up at the older man’s face to check for a signal. The corner of the older man’s lips twisted up in a modest smile. The monk then looked at me and said, “This is Rinpoche, he’s a world renowned scholar, a friend to the Dalai Lama, a friend to heads of state. He’s a former monk, he was a monk like I am. He is my mentor.”
“He was a monk?” I ask.
“Yes, he decided to retire from being a monk on his 94th birthday. He had joined the monastery when he was a child.” Rinpoche then stands even straighter, pushing his shoulders farther back and begins to wiggle his arm away from the grip of the monk.
“Wow,” I say, “that’s a dedicated life.” Neither of them reply. Rinpoche continues to look in my direction though his eyes appear to be focused on the distance behind me. The monk looks directly into my eyes, then looks past me, as if waiting for my permission for him to continue with his walk. I think about 90 years in a monastery. 90 years doing anything consistently. I think on my life and the stops and starts, the zig zag path, the mindless commutes, and the daily routines.
I ask one more question, “Rinpoche, after being a monk for so many years, since you were a child, why did you decide to stop being a monk?”
His lips straighten the smile away and his face tenses up. He has a difficult time speaking. He takes a breath and his eyes shift to mine. As he answers the monk begins to take a step past me, pulling at the arm of Rinpoche.
As he too takes a step, putting him directly at my side, he whispers near my ear…
“Because life is short.”