©1997 by Bill Appledorf
The Yorktown Arms apartment house is situated on a strange stretch of road in Fair Oaks, California where Fair Oaks Boulevard and Winding Way overlap for a mile or so and no one knows the name of the street they're on, just up the road from the Sunflower Cafe.
I pedaled into the courtyard of the Yorktown Arms on a brilliant August afternoon in 1982 and had a look at the manicured lawns and mums. My roommate, a young Hungarian woman by the name of Laura, with whom I had been living for a year or so in Carmichael, was studying to be a teacher and had decided to take a job as a live-in housekeeper close to the University. I was looking for another place to live.
I met Laura through Victoria Edwards, one of Howard Schrager's roommates - Victoria is the woman who taught me how to do massage. I moved into Laura's spare bedroom after she and her boyfriend broke up and she needed help making the rent. Laura and I got along fine for the most part, I think, because she liked me and gave me the benefit of every doubt. The only time I crossed the line with her was when she set a glass in the sink right after I finished doing the dishes and I thundered at her about it crazily. She and I both knew while I was shouting that I was clearly in the wrong - certifiably bonkers actually - but she didn't seem to hold it against me long. Note that I was still shouting in those days. I was 37 years of age.
The resident manager couple at the Yorktown Arms, a crusty East Coast duo, both talked to you in a daringly insulting manner. Neither were the least bit shy about telling you - a perfect stranger - how stupid you are. They knew how to get the relationship off on the right foot, in other words, so that if you needed them to do something for you after you moved in, whatever was wrong would be your fault and it would have to wait.
I selected an apartment at a remote corner of the complex figuring no one would have any reason to pass by near it and assumed it would be isolated and serene. I didn't notice that the entire complex sloped toward my kitchen window, and I didn't realize that every pre-school child on the property, all of whom were seriously emotionally disturbed, would be drawn by gravity to fight and yell and cry all day as close as possible to me.
I tried on a few occasions to help the children solve their problems quietly, but their parents - fat girls wearing housecoats smoking cigarettes waiting for their boyfriends to be released from Folsom Prison - resented my interfering and told me to butt out. I decided to leave their unsupervised kids alone, lower my profile as much as possible, and suffer the rowdy atmosphere docilely, because I felt intimidated by the prospect of an ex-convict whose girlfriend didn't like my attitude coming around to set me straight after his release.
One of the girls' boyfriends hadn't been in Folsom Prison yet. She was enjoying his company before his next inevitable stay at Boy's Ranch. One morning the spot I thought I'd parked my car in the night before was empty. I guessed I had forgotten where I'd left it, and I searched the entire lot for it. Gradually it dawned on me that my car was gone. My first thought was whether I owed some institution money that was allowed to take my car if they wanted to. Fortunately the kid who stole my car, that kid transitioning between trips to Boy's Ranch, was a joy rider, not a member of an organized car chopping ring. The cops were able to find it, on a residential street about 10 miles away, and I got it back. Of course, the kid had bottomed out on a speed bump at 60 mph, run the radiator out of water, and warped my cylinder head. That's why he abandoned it where he did, but I had a car, at least, and it wasn't a total loss. The kid went back to jail.
When the rainy season started in October and the children mercifully began to be confined indoors with their mothers and TV's, a couple of juvenile cats started coming around to my front door drenched to the bone and screaming to be fed. One was black, and one was gray, obviously brothers (they had similarly stunted tails), obviously without a home. I started to feed them a little milk in a saucer when they came to me, and they would slurp it wildly. After a while, I bought a small bag of cat food at the grocery store and started dishing that out to them, too, but I wouldn't let them into my apartment. Who knows what insects or diseases might be jumping up and down all over them?
One day the black one starting coming around alone. I knew the gray one probably was dead, and when I found him flattened like a pancake in the parking lot, I was mad as hell that someone would run him over and just leave him there like that. I didn't want the black one to be flattened, too, so I decided I would let him in. After he had a good sleep on my couch, I opened the door, pointed outside, and told him it was it time for him to leave. He blinked at me and yawned.
Two days later the woman who lived upstairs from me asked me if I had seen "that cat" around. One of the other women in the complex overheard and said that she and her neighbor had been wondering what had become of him, too. It seems half the complex had been feeding Mr. Cat, who apparently had been playing up the orphan thing for all that it was worth. I said I hadn't seen him either - I didn't want any convicts visiting me after they got out of Folsom Prison.
After resting on my couch for a couple more days, Mr. Cat decided to make the rounds of my generous female neighbors again. I guess the cuisine at my place was getting a little old. He sat in front of my door, looked back over his shoulder at me, looked up at the door knob, looked at me again. I peered out the kitchen window to make sure no one would see him leaving my apartment, and I opened up the door.
Mr. Cat was something of a community cat in the eyes of many of my neighbors. I think he considered himself something of a community cat, as well, because he only spent a few nights a week in my apartment. The rest of the time I imagine he was holed up in one or another of my neighbors' apartments. A neighbor or two might even have been trying as I was to get Mr. Cat to start thinking of himself as a single-owner cat - probably hiding it from the rest of us as I was, too. So Mr. Cat would turn up for a while, eat some cat food, nap on my couch, sit in front of the door, and I would let him out.
As the months rolled by, Mr. Cat and I spent a lot of time together in my apartment. I was tutoring high school kids at home, so I was there to let him in or out pretty much any time he wanted me to. He'd sleep on my couch on rainy afternoons. Then he'd perch like a hen at his spot on the back of the couch and look out the window at the dripping trees. I fed him regularly, talked to him as if he understood what I was saying, and got him to bat at strings and things I dangled in front of his face. Boy would he get mad if I was able to lay that string on his tail and keep it there while he reeled around in circle trying to get it with his teeth. I always let him get it good in the end, but he was so funny when I teased him with it, I couldn't resist doing it if I could get away with it. He made me mad, too, by getting me to open that damned door over and over again. He'd cry to go out. Then he'd cry to come in. Then he'd cry to go out. Then he'd cry to come in. Finally I would have to say to him, "Look, Mr. Cat. I'm going to let you in, or I'm going to let you out. But I'm not going to let you out and in and in and out all day! That's it!" He'd just blink at me and sit in front of the door and cry. So I'd let him out. Then he'd cry to come back in.
When the nice weather returned in the Spring and the kids started playing regularly in the courtyard again, I started looking for a place to move. There was no doubt in my mind that Mr. Cat would be moving, too, but I wasn't sure if I would be able to time things well enough to sneak him off with me, so I made a move to publicly identify him as my own. I took him to the vet, got him his shots, and had him neutered. I spent a bunch of money on him in other words.
Neutered cats do not get torn up in fights like tom cats do. They don't spray, and they grow up nice and big if you have it done at the right time. I learned all this from Luella, who had cat-napped Hoolio in 1971 off East Broadway in Vancouver, B.C. one afternoon in broad daylight when he walked up to us and fell down on the sidewalk in front of her to be petted. "Oh, he's a stray!" she said. "See how hungry he is?" What the hell did I know? All I knew about was drinking beer and arguing with people about politics, so I helped her get him into the car.
When Luella left me on Quadra Island a couple of years later, I refused to let her take the cat. I had so little self-confidence I couldn't accept she didn't like me. Demanding that she leave Hoolio and the car is how I punished her for that. She knew I was nuts, but she left on my terms because all she wanted was out. When I moved to Homefree and Hoolio started getting run off by the dogs, I left him with George the Go player from Montreal in his geodesic dome. George promptly drove him into Campbell River and kicked him out of his car. Hoolio was never seen again.
The women at the Yorktown Arms were outraged when I claimed Mr. Cat for my own. I didn't care. There was no way for them to stop me short of hiding him, and as moving day approached I kept him locked in my apartment for longer and longer periods of time hoping he wouldn't wander off for several days just as I was about to leave.
One night there was a hell of a commotion in a building across the way. The police helicopter was circling overhead training its searchlight on an apartment upstairs. More cops than I could count were running around shouting with their guns drawn. Mr. Cat was watching from the sill of the living room picture window, his ears and tail straight up. I rushed into the living room bleary-eyed, wrapped in a bath towel, to see what was going on. He looked at me, looked out the window, looked at me again. "I guess a convict escaped and came here to see his girlfriend," I said to Mr. Cat, "I'm amazed it doesn't happen more."
We moved to a duplex on Shirley Avenue in Carmichael, the only rental on the block. I like that arrangement because it enables me to approximate the lifestyle of a home owner without having to qualify for a mortgage.
On Shirley Avenue, although we were situated less than a quarter mile from Fair Oaks Boulevard, which is an extremely busy thoroughfare, I couldn't hear any traffic noise. The neighborhood is in a barely perceptible hollow, and the noise from Fair Oaks Boulevard was deflected above our heads. Shirley Avenue itself was a dead-end street. A two-car garage separated my unit and the one in back. A couple with a pre-teen boy lived back there. It was peaceful and serene.
I lived in that duplex for more than three years, advancing while I lived there from tutoring high school and college kids in math to having a real job doing computer programming for System Integrators (SII). I was grossly underpaid, of course, but they gave me what I asked for. I just had no concept of what real money was all about. I had been living hand to mouth for so many years that a steady $1500 a month felt like a pile of money coming in.
Mr. Cat found his way up to the roof and established a spot under the eave next to the chimney as his hangout. He could stay up there comfortably in the rain, at night, in the heat of the day - anytime he liked. I would hear him thump from one section of the roof to another when he descended for a bite to eat. That last jump down - from the patio fence - as he hit the ground, he would emit an involuntary "Whirrrr…" I particularly enjoyed hearing him make that sound.
The woman in the back unit, Kelly, always dressed and moved and spoke in the most sexually provocative manner possible. She knew exactly how to reveal just enough of her body to interest you in seeing more, and the way she moved - how she nodded or shook her head, how she held her hands - provided you with a continuous indication of her receptivity or resistance to you sexually. A limp wrist meant indifference. Fondling her trowel palm up signaled interest. If you mentioned anything from a car to a cantaloupe to her in conversation, she would invariably ask, "How big is it?" She showed me her tongue often. I saw the bottom of it many times.
Kelly was not married to Dane, the guy she was living with. Adam, the boy, was his from a previous marriage. Dane actually believed that Kelly found him irresistible. He found himself quite attractive physically with his little wave on the top of his head - he wore his hair like the young Captain Kirk. He had no comprehension whatsoever of the fact that men and women perceive each other differently and assumed that Kelly wanted him for the same reason he wanted her.
Dane had a peculiar way of strutting around the driveway with his head elevated and his chest pushed out, his eyes fixed unblinkingly, patrolling his territory, ready in an instant to defend his "family" or his "honor". Every time I spoke with Dane, he found a way to work in something about what it means to be a "man". He would say things like "A man can't be afraid to fight if someone tries to get in his woman's pants." I can't think of another guy I've been around who brought this man thing up with anything like the blind obsession Dane did. Of course his little carbon copy, Adam, made crazy statements about his masculinity, too, and carried his little body around just like his father carried his.
Who knows why Kelly moved out? Six months or so after I moved in she left. Maybe she met a guy with a nicer truck or a swimming pool in front of the beer cooler at the grocery store. Dane was ready to give her the furniture because he was a "man". He was mad as hell at her for leaving, but he was duty bound by his "man" thing not to hit her, because she was a woman. In fact, according to some "man" rule, he was obliged to help her pay her rent. I guess this made him a good guy, but I still couldn't stand his company, because he pushed that stupid "man" ideology in my face continually and expected me to agree with him that being a "man" is the most important thing in the world.
Mr. Cat didn't have a lot to do with our little family out back, but he loved to crap in their flower beds. Kelly always kept the soil turned and soft before she left, perfect for digging in if you're a cat, so it was only a matter of time before I learned I had a problem. Dane approached me like a "man", of course, but about a week before he did, I found a pile of dried cat turds and some pretty nice looking loam on the steps to my front door. I asked Adam if he'd seen anyone put that stuff there. He said he didn't know anything about it, his cigarette flapping up and down at the side of his mouth, and he swaggered off down the drive. Dane didn't let him smoke, but Adam did it, I suppose, because it made him feel like a "man".
Dane told me about Mr. Cat crapping in his flower beds one afternoon when he came home from work. I immediately offered to take Mr. Cat to the pound. "A man is entitled to his pet," he said and suggested we think of another solution.
The house next door to the south of the duplex looked like a slice of rural Florida. The horse in the backyard was not that out of place because Carmichael was horse country and a lot of people kept horses on their property. The duplex, in fact, came with a fairly good sized pasture to the west, and if any of us had owned a horse, we would have been welcome to have kept it there. Mr. Cat spent a lot of time running around our pasture chasing mice. But the condition of the yard next door - the mud, the broken washing machine, the refrigerator with the hanging door, the rusted Eldorado convertible up on blocks, the piles here and there of used lumber - lent the place the atmosphere of a low rent trailer park.
Bad as the place looked, though, the guy who lived there, Martin, was just as nice as he could be. Yes, he drank a lot of beer, his wife of 29 years walked out on him because he neglected her, and his place was a foregone mess. But he attended to his teenaged daughter's needs devotedly, and he was a friendly, funny guy. He'd been working as a barber for 20 years in Roseville. He was the guy you'd go to for a Farmer Brown haircut for 6 bucks, and he'd tell you jokes you'd never heard before the whole time you were sitting in his chair.
Martin told me that to keep the cat out of those flower beds, I had to lessen those flower beds' appeal. I had no idea how to accomplish that, and he suggested spraying the surface of the area he liked to crap in with ammonia. Wouldn't the ammonia bother the flowers, I asked? No, not in the least. The cat's urine turned to ammonia in there anyway. It was just a question of making the place smell bad enough to Mr. Cat for him to find another place to go. We tried it, and it worked perfectly.
A guy by the name of Leonard lived down the block with his wife and kids. He was about 6' 4", a big, strapping carpenter, a handsome guy. She was quite a looker herself, Michelle, but I never understood how such a tiny woman - she couldn't have been more than 5' tall - and such a large man could be interested in one another physically. I guess they worked it out, of course, since they had a 3-year-old boy, Jeremy, and a toddler, Amber. Their house was an absolute mess every time I visited. Michelle told me they were going to clean it when the kids were 10 years old. I personally could never live like that, but I'm not them, you know?
Leonard helped me build a cabinet for my stereo, and he showed me how to do a few minor repairs in my apartment properly. He didn't mind if Mr. Cat walked around on him when we sat around conversing in my living room, and we became pretty good friends. I felt comfortable dropping around to his and Michelle's place, and I did so fairly regularly.
I noticed a couple of strange things at Leonard and Michelle's, but since I don't have kids of my own, I have no idea whether what I saw means anything or not. Once, while Leonard and I were talking at his litter-strewn kitchen table, Amber climbed onto his knee and he started bouncing her up and down quite violently playing "horsy". Now I've seen kids play horsy - I'm sure I've played it myself - but there was something about the way they were doing it that just didn't look right to me. He had his thigh between her legs. She was facing away from him. He didn't bounce her up and down on her butt. He bounced her up and down on her private parts. Amber rode like a limp rag doll, normally enough, squealing and giggling apparently with delight.
The other strange thing I saw was one hot summer afternoon Amber approached me on the front lawn naked and her vulva appeared markedly swollen and inflamed. Michelle saw the surprised look on my face and told me it was an inflammation she was treating with Vaseline. Leonard told me, when I asked him about it on another occasion, that Michelle was the cause of that inflammation because she routinely applied Vaseline to Amber instead of baby powder. He said she'd caused the same problem with Jeremy when he was a baby and that it was worse with him. Again, I don't know anything about toddling girls' female anatomy - what's right, what's wrong - but a few months later I went over there and Leonard was in jail.
Michelle had been into some extreme fundamentalist Christian organization for quite a while. In fact for a long time I hadn't felt comfortable talking to her. It wasn't only that she seemed to be obsessed with that Jesus thing. She was actually talking crazy about seeing angels and having conversations with God. I don't mean the normal stuff everybody does where we do all the talking and imagine what God would say to us in response. I mean she believed that God was telling her a lot of wild things about what she was supposed to do with regards to her family and her life, like giving her house to her church and moving to the country because the city is ruled by Satan, for example; and she was actually hearing Him say this stuff.
Michelle had called the cops and had Leonard arrested for sexually molesting Amber. She said he was having intercourse with their little girl in the shower on a regular basis. Her evidence was that Leonard was oversexed because she had not had sex with him for months (God had told her to forego the pleasures of the flesh), he had taken to watching pornography videos (of adults), he regularly showered in the nude with Amber, and Michelle had caught him in the shower with Amber with an erection. A social worker for the County concluded from an interview with Amber that Leonard regularly penetrated her. Leonard was in jail, and Michelle was filing for a divorce.
Leonard got out on bail after a while. His side of the story was that Michelle was completely out of her mind and the County's interviewing techniques put words in children's mouths. He denied everything categorically except showering with Amber, insisting it was perfectly normal. I can't say I agree that it is, but on the whole he sounded more convincing to me than Michelle. But I stopped having anything to do with him. That's why I'm telling you his story. There was doubt in my mind about what both Michelle and Leonard said to me, and I just walked away from both of them. If Leonard did turn out to be guilty, I didn't want to be associated with him. But he was a friend, and when he needed my support, I was not able to be there for him. I couldn't support Michelle either, because I found it hard to believe anything she said. I do not expect I will ever know what Leonard did or did not do.
Mr. Cat crossed Shirley Avenue regularly. Cars only passed occasionally. He was scared to death of cars, and if he heard one coming, even a block away, he would run and hide under the bushes.
The guy who lived directly across the street from us, Donald, was so taken with himself I could hardly stand to say hello to him. He was a retired Air Force colonel who had run some kind of a supply unit at McClellan Air Force Base for 15 years or so before he mustered out, set up for life with a nice fat pension check. Donald could not see the world from anyone's point of view but his own. In his opinion, he knew everything. (His kids hated that even more than I did.) He was one of those guys who has a totally simplistic answer for every human problem and no appreciation for subtlety or human frailty. Other people's emotional dilemmas, in his mind, are black and white abstractions with obvious solutions that leave no room for compassion, empathy, or understanding. Donald decided to exercise his "right" - people like him have "rights" - to install a mercury vapor light in front of his garage to deter burglars. He imagined there are people out there who want to break into your garage at night while you and your family are sleeping right there next to it. He'd read some damned FBI report or something and decided he couldn't live without this thing.
One night I went into my ordinarily dark bedroom to go to sleep, and it was light. I looked out the window. Mr. Cat came in and looked out the window, too. "Mow?" he said, as he always did, looking up at me. A million zillion candle power light was glowing across the street in front of Donald's garage. Yes, I did discuss it with him the next morning, and there was no way he would budge from his position. I asked him if he could at least put a shade on top of it to cast a shadow across my window. He pointed to the bushes in front of my "dwelling" and indicated to me that thieves could hide in there if he didn't light the property on which I was living, too. I made the mistake of offering to trim the hedges, which he accepted and which I did, but no shade materialized. He would have lit the block if he could have found a lamp big enough and bright enough to do it.
Donald bragged to me one day that he had $150,000 worth of credit. I think that means he owed $100,000 on his house and he had a wallet full of credit cards you get by mailing back those forms that I always dump in the trash. I carried one card with a $2500 credit line, perfectly adequate for me. Now, 15 years later, I still use that same one card, and my credit line is $9900. I pay my bill in full just about every month.
Next door to Donald lived Ed and Marie and their three kids. This family kept almost entirely to themselves until Ed's mother and father came from England for a visit and the whole neighborhood became involved in the drama of Lester and Agnes' chaotic failing marriage.
Ed did approach me once before his parents ever came to Shirley Avenue. He left me a pile of rabid anti-IRS literature, which I browsed out of curiosity. The gist of the contents was that income tax is unconstitutional, so you don't have to pay it. The reasoning in those articles was based on such a bald over-simplification of common civics sense, it's amazing that anyone found them credible at all.
The thrust of the argument Ed subscribed to is that Article I of the Constitution prohibits the federal government from levying "direct" taxes. These are taxes on one's income or one's property. Only the states are allowed to levy "direct" taxes. The federal government is limited, the argument goes, to "indirect" taxes - taxes such as excise or import taxes - which are associated with the purchase of goods and are meant to be passed along to consumers by suppliers.
Ed actually reached the point, while I was living across the street from him, where he spent the part of his income he was supposed to use to pay his income tax on a new roof for his house and a swimming pool for his yard. He was that indoctrinated into the belief that the federal government are thieves. When the FBI came around to arrest him, they seemed to handle him with a certain gentleness, like you expect they would treat the retarded kid who kills the neighbor's dog accidentally by inserting golf clubs up its ass to find out what that does.
Ed's father, Lester, had been a bottom-rung swabbie on a destroyer escorting convoys in the North Atlantic during WWII. He'd slept in a bunk directly against the hull. He told me he was always aware when he laid in his bunk that the full extent of the sea - and a torpedo with his name on it - were immediately on the other side of a 6-inch-thick steel plate. When the War ended and he got out of the service, Lester took a job pushing pencil for an obscure government ministry, and after 20 years of achieving absolutely nothing, he retired on a handsome monthly check.
Agnes was still working teaching school. She was 8 years younger than Lester, who was 69. Their plan was for her to work through to retirement. Then the two of them would enjoy her pension in addition to his. This sort of explains how their problem started. Lester was hanging out all day without a care in the world, all of his time on his hands, while Agnes was away at work. It wasn't long before a 40-year-old beauty caught old Lester's eye and the bulge in Lester's wallet caught hers.
Have you ever talked to a hopelessly boring lech who was being "brutally honest" with you? You know that awkward feeling you get when you wish he'd feel a little embarrassment rather than to press with such determination to reveal fantasies and thoughts of his you'd prefer not to know anything about? Lester was a knobby-kneed, bulb-nosed, bald, old, fat guy. I didn't want to hear about his sex life. I didn't even want to contemplate the possibility of his having a sex life. You just don't go around thinking about old guys getting naked.
I didn't want to know what he was doing, but Lester had a way of forcing himself on you by being so bald-faced, you couldn't ask him to talk about something else. You were either interested in what he had to say or you were not. If I admitted I was not, the impression he was very good at projecting was he would have no reason to bother continuing to come around. You either took him at face value or he left you is the game he played. So he inflicted his fantasies on me, because I was interested enough in the emotional components of his story to put up with listening to the details I didn't want to hear.
Agnes was obviously an intelligent woman, but all of her perceptivity and rationality, which probably radiated joyfully from smiling eyes when she was young, now was twisted into a knot of confusion that was overwhelming her. It was centered on her brow and spread across her face and throughout her body. I had been in the same place Agnes was after Luella committed suicide. You try to think yourself into a more comprehensible reality, but no matter how much intellectual and emotional energy you burn, nothing changes and you are forced again and again to accept what you can't accept.
I made the mistake of explaining that to Agnes. I told her about Luella's suicide. Agnes' eyes lit up to a degree. She wanted to know all about it. I know she didn't hear me when I told her that Luella must have confused wishing for her emotional suffering to end with wishing for her life to end. I'm sure Luella would have preferred to live. But Agnes thought that Luella - and she - preferred to die. She started asking all kinds of questions about cyanide - where she could get some, whether it would work. I didn't know the answers to any of that. I tried to get her to see the value in continuing to live.
"You don't want to die," I said. "Things change. In time you'll see things differently."
She smiled at me with that wide-eyed insane look agitated people give you when they want you to think they're perfectly calm. "Oh, no," she said. "You don't understand. It's better if I do."
One afternoon Lester came to visit me. I kept a piece of tissue paper rolled up with an elastic band wrapped around it that I liked to get Mr. Cat to chase around the room. When he was really small, back at the Yorktown Arms, I would skim it along the kitchen floor, and he would chase it, but he couldn't stop or accelerate from a standing start because his claws slipped on the linoleum. Boy did he make me laugh sliding into the wall at full speed. Sometimes a picture of him doing that would pop into my mind while I was walking down the street or shopping for groceries, and I would burst out laughing. I offered to get Mr. Cat to chase his toy for Lester, but Lester said, "You don't have to make your cat do tricks for me." I was disappointed. Lester started talking about his girlfriend's breasts.
Agnes came to the door. I invited her in. Lester continued carrying on about how firm they were. Agnes started to throw a fit. She leaned back into the couch and moaned with infinite intensity. I begged Lester to let it go, but he insisted on continuing to rhapsodize and fantasize about his girlfriend's breasts. Agnes was tearing her heart out. Her eyes rolled back in her head, her mouth hung limply open wide. She was screeching, motioning with her fists as though she were tearing open her shirt. "What is so FUCKING horrible about these sagging, flaccid breasts?" she cried, "These breasts I used to nurse your fucking CHILDREN!" Lester, simpleton that he was, tried to answer her. "Oh, the firmness of her up-thrust tits." He went on and on. Agnes was absolutely beside herself with agony and rage.
I helped her with great difficulty from my couch and steadied her through the door. She thrust herself against me and begged me with enormous passion to agree with her that he should come to his senses and grow up. There was no possible way for her to let her conflict with Lester go. She was too deeply obsessed with what he was doing to her to have any perspective on it whatsoever. She dug her fingernails into my forearm. I felt her energy grasping to envelope me, her need to be found beautiful desperately clutching to draw me into her emotional space.
That night Agnes swallowed a bottle of some sort of pills over there, and an ambulance carted her off to the hospital. She was committed to a sanitarium by Lester, from what I understand against her will. Lester wouldn't tell me much. I had to read between the lines when I asked him about it a week or so after Agnes was taken away. Lester drifted off eventually. I have no idea what became of him. Ed and Marie remained as distant from me after Lester left as they were before he came.
The mailman on Shirley Avenue was a party animal. He did OK with women, occasionally sold cocaine. I was submerged in the engine compartment of my MGB one day, when he drove up to my mailbox and struck up a conversation with me. Mr. Cat was fighting with a blade of grass.
I hated it when people made small talk with me about working on my car. I wanted a car I didn't have to work on. Guys would come up to me and start listing all the parts they knew about or try to impress me with how familiar they were with the tricks you had to know to put the damned thing back together again. This guy Richard, the mailman, said, "Man, working on those things is a pain the ass," and sat there in his little jeep with the steering wheel on the wrong side smoking a cigarette. I liked him right away.
I had quit using drugs and alcohol in 1977, so I didn't spend much time hanging out at Richard's place. He and his roommate, Alan, and the girls they invited over occasionally were too hard-core for me. But I did like to go over there and shoot a little pool sometimes. Alan, whose table it was, would run all the balls just about every time he had a shot. I didn't enjoy playing with him at all. But I did like playing with Richard. He'd have himself a couple of vodka coolers, maybe a beer or two, and I would whip his ass.
Richard was investigated for some sort of a drug related infraction at the Post Office. I think they tested him for drugs because they thought that he was high, he failed, and he had to join some sort of program. By the time I moved from Shirley Avenue, he'd been caught dealing cocaine - very small-time - fired and sent to jail.
Dane moved to Auburn to be closer to his job. Beverly, the landlady, invited her daughter, who had recently had a baby, and her daughter's boyfriend, Matt, to take over the rear unit. She reassured me they were a quiet couple and I would not be disturbed.
April, Beverly's daughter, had an enormous circle of friends, a half a dozen of whom were visiting with her constantly. With the new baby and all, it was understandable, but the rear unit started to remind me of the car at the circus that clown after clown pile into until you wonder how they can all fit in. The driveway could only accommodate two cars, so April's friends used my lawn for a parking lot. After a while, to get my car out, I had to ask someone to move theirs almost every time. The commotion, the smell of leaking gasoline, the lack of consideration on my neighbors' part, led me quickly to the conclusion that it was time for me to move.
Matt had recently been discharged from the Navy. He'd been sailing around cooped up on a submarine for the last two years, and he set to work turning the garage between our units into a wood working shop. I never realized how paper thin the wall was between my living room and the garage, because no one had ever been in there before. His pounding and the yowling of his power tools increased the urgency with which I felt I had to move.
I did have one interesting conversation with Matt. We were talking in his garage about whether he might be able to run his machines only certain hours of the day (no way), and we got into discussing what a miracle it is to be alive. Matt twisted his head over his shoulder demonstrably, as though he were trying to look down the middle of his back, and said, "We walk around and do things, and we don't even have to be plugged in." I couldn't stand that guy's presence in the garage, but I did enjoy that observation.
Places to live take a lot of time to find. It took me more than a month after April and Matt moved in to find a place to move. I kept going to work each day at System Integrators, returning home around 6 o'clock at night. Mr. Cat always greeted me when I arrived. My car coming down the road must have sounded like a dinner bell to him. He would race from wherever he was in the neighborhood to meet me as I stepped out of my car.
Mr. Cat was a good three years old by the time I moved from Shirley Avenue, and he already was pretty large. This was due in part to his being allergic to fleas' saliva, a problem that wasn't accurately diagnosed until after we moved to San Diego in 1989. While we were living on Shirley Avenue, the veterinarian thought he had "dermatological mites" and gave him regular injections of cortisone for the inflammation. The cortisone shots, in addition to his having been neutered when he was about one year of age, contributed to his becoming one big, fat cat. One of his names, in fact, was "Mr. Cat, King of the Big Fat Kitty Cats". I also called him "Paddle Paws", "Airplane Ears", and lots of other things.
Mr. Cat was hanging out in the pasture one afternoon when I came home from work. As usual, as I drove up to my apartment, he leapt up from the pasture to the fence, leapt down from the fence to the neighbors' lawn, ran up to me, and said, "Mow?" One of April's cousins, a 19-year-old girl who had stopped in to play with the baby on her way home from school, asked me, "What kind of a dog is that?"
"He's a cat," I said.
I had been residing in Carmichael and Fair Oaks since exiting the freeway to visit Howard in July, 1979, but I was spending more and more time hanging out in cafes downtown, so I decided to look for an apartment in "mid-town" Sacramento. That means roughly between 15th Street and what was called at that time Highway 80, from maybe A Street to X Street.
I was trying to get a peek through a curtained window into a little house for rent right next to the railroad tracks at 19th and N, when an impeccably well-groomed, mustachioed man approached from across the street and engaged me in conversation. He told me he owned the Victorian house across the street, that his business offices were located there, and that he had recently reduced his staff to just himself. The second floor, he said, was vacant, had hardwood floors, was freshly painted, and was available for rent by someone just like me. He said he could tell by my clean-cut appearance that I am the sort of person he wanted living there. He wanted someone who would take care of the place, which he had painstakingly restored, and not tear it up.
He was quite a salesman. He made his living in marketing, and if financial success is any measure of someone's competence, he was very good at what he did. He drove a Mercedes - his wife drove a BMW - and he had quit a job that paid more than $100,000 a year. He owned not only the Victorian in question but another one twice as big around the corner in which he and his family lived.
I resisted as well as I could his suggestion that I move in there, but he had a convincing response for every one of my objections. This was a guy who operated on the basis of appearances, and because I looked like the kind of guy who would keep his place looking good, he insisted on having me live in there. But I am a private person. I treasure solitude and peace. I love to listen to the leaves rustling in the breeze, to the birds sing, to the stillness of the night. Yes, his place was far nicer than the ramshackle little house I was trying to get a look inside, but in that little house I would not share a wall with any neighbor. Cleanliness in the end was the deciding factor, and I did agree to rent from him despite my apprehension that the place might not be quiet enough for my liking.
Mr. Cat got lost as soon we moved in. I was afraid I would never see him again, and for three days I searched for him under every bush and in every crevice in the neighborhood. I thought he had wandered out the front door while I was moving in and that he was not able to find his way back home. He was actually holed up in a kitchen cabinet, hiding where he felt safe. I came home despondent after searching the neighborhood unsuccessfully for him yet again, and there he was standing in the middle of the kitchen floor. "Mr. Cat!" I exclaimed and rushed towards him. I scared him by moving towards him so fast, and he scratched open the door to his cubbyhole, which sprang closed behind him as he hopped inside.
My apartment couldn't have been more than 30 feet from the Southern Pacific Railroad track. Freight trains rumbled by frequently and at thoroughly unpredictable times. When a train rolled past, the entire building shook so violently it felt like it might rattle apart. Mr. Cat would be terrified. Eyes wide, looking frantically in every direction, not knowing which way to run, he would freeze in the middle of the floor then rush to his kitchen cabinet and claw his way in furiously. At night, trains' headlights, which sweep back and forth across the track, would shine momentarily on my bed as they passed, and it would feel for an instant as though a train were bearing directly down on me.
The truly amazing thing about living with those trains is that after 6 months had passed, neither Mr. Cat nor I even noticed them anymore. If I was on the phone, I would raise my voice a bit as though I could be heard above the din. If I was listening to the radio, I would strain my ears to hear what could not possibly be heard above the racket they produced. Mr. Cat might occasionally pick his ears up momentarily as a train was going by, but then he'd go back to licking his paws as though nothing unusual was happening at all.
I got the idea in my head that I could earn more money if I found another job. The idea actually came from an overly excitable Romanian émigré - a chronically unemployed mathematician with elaborate political philosophies - by the name of Daniel, who seemed to be sitting around Gelati Robi's reading the newspaper every time I went in there. Daniel would regularly inflict non-stop harangues on me I could only end by walking away from him.
He would ramble on and on to demonstrate how intellectually superior he was to everyone else in the world. He did that, I think, because he was frustrated by his low financial station in life, but he was insightful - paranoid, yes, but in his best moments fairly perceptive - although I do believe he spent far too much of his time ruminating over sweeping generalities he couldn't do anything about. Daniel managed to plant the idea in my mind that I was grossly underpaid and could earn lots more money doing computer programming for another company. In his mind, computer programming was a glamorous big-bucks specialty, not the modern day equivalent it is to pumping gas in the 1950's.
My landlord, Bob, had all sorts of suggestions for how to put my resume on paper. First he convinced me to account for all the intervals of time in which I did not do computer work - the loading dock at CP Transport Halifax, picking fruit in the Okanagan Valley, delivering papers for the Georgia Straight, lab tech at UBC, night watchman on the Quadra Queen, casual labourer for Canada Post, street musician, cartage driver, legal secretary, name compiler, bartender, taxi cab driver, guitar instructor, masseur, tutor, LOGO teacher, part-time Biology instructor - everything I'd ever done. Then he said I should print it on expensive stock with fancy ink.
Bob had quit a job that paid $100,000 a year, and I had never earned more than $1500 in a month. Who was I to argue? So I worked up the copy for my resume and took it to a printer on Fulton Avenue.
Sara was working at her linotype machine behind the counter when I walked in. I fell completely in love with her before I was fully through the door.
Sara was the most captivatingly beautiful woman I have ever seen. The color of her lips and eyes and hair worked perfectly together, so fine and light and fair. Her eyes were pale sky blue. Her hair was delicate light blonde. Her lips were pastel pink. Her skin was creamy white. She was like an alpine meadow floor of flowers in the spring.
She listed out the charges for the print job I requested. Extra for the paper. Extra for the ink. Extra to wash the press because with ink like that you have to wash the press. Extra for the typesetting. Extra to be able to predict within a week when the job would be finished. Minimum 500 resumes because the paper was special order. Extra to get the paper in within 2 weeks. There were some other extras, too. I can't remember them all.
I stared at her and said OK as in a trance to every charge she quoted me. When we were finished, she touched each extra item on her list with a pencil, squinting behind her glasses, to make sure she had not forgotten to charge me for everything she could. I looked her up and down and felt like I needed to lie down as she walked my deposit to the cash register. Her body was perfectly formed. She was nothing but lovely from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. All I wanted was to hold her close and kiss and touch her everywhere.
Sara had to read my resume to typeset it, and when she did, she formulated an image of me in her mind as the footloose independent agent she felt was locked within herself and aspired to set free. She had lived what she thought was a sheltered life, never having lived on her own and never having been away from her hometown, Davis, for more than a couple of days by herself. She'd fallen into a relationship with a guy in her class 5 years previously at the college, didn't express a bit of passion when she mentioned him, and was essentially tagging along with him while she imagined herself living a more suitable, romantic life somewhere far away.
Sara saw herself as an eagle in a wooden cage. She didn't say much, mostly because her mother and father didn't talk to each other or to her when she was a kid, but also because she secretly esteemed herself more prescient than anybody else. Sara strove to sum up all the complexities of life in a single word. Her business card, for example, was completely blank except that centered in the smallest possible point size, almost too small to read, was the word "Communications". When I wrote her from San Diego, years after she had given me the old heave-ho, my unopened letter came back with one word written on it neatly in her hand: "Refused".
Sara didn't realize that I am a homebody who every now and then has to pick up and move out of necessity and that I've left a lot jobs because they didn't pay enough to live on or because I was fired due to my not being any good at subordinating myself to raging despots. I don't travel well. Sometimes I don't even leave my apartment for several days at a time, and I've always wanted to meet one woman I can love and live with until I die.
I dropped around the print shop under clever pretences several times while my job was on order hoping to get something going with Sara. When I blurted out, "Can you go out with me?" she answered that her boyfriend wouldn't like it. That's the line girls were using in Sacramento in 1986. What the hell. It beat "All men are pigs" and "I don't like sex". We did finally spend a fair amount of time together over the course of a few months.
I was smitten to the core by Sara. She was poised, intelligent and educated. She was an artist. She had a job and her own apartment. She didn't smoke, do drugs, or drink. She didn't wear makeup. She took good care of herself, and she was beautiful. Sara also made it clear that she didn't want to be anyone's girlfriend, including mine. I told her she was the loveliest woman in the world.
My expectations and hers could not have been more dramatically opposed, yet we both imagined the other would somehow be exactly what we wished they were. She was the one who had to break it off. She cried bitterly when she said, "You want me to be there for you, and I can't." I stupidly yelled at her, "No you don't!" when she told me in parting that she "cared about" me. I still haven't gotten over her. It's been more than 10 years. But at least I do not stalk her anymore.
Oh, yes, I think you can call it that. I called her parents' house about 6 months after the last time we saw each other and asked her brother if he would forward a note to her for me. He gave me her address and phone number instead. She had moved to Long Beach. Her boyfriend, with whom she had broken up when she was seeing me and with whom she had gotten back together after we were through, must have joined the Navy - a step up from working at a pizzeria - and she went to Long Beach to be close to him. Or maybe she went there to go to graduate school.
I didn't dare to call her on the phone. I was afraid she would stay completely silent until I ended the conversation if I called, like she did the last few times we talked on the phone before she broke it off for good, but I wrote her every now and then from San Diego and from Omaha, Nebraska over the course of the next 7 or 8 years, begging her to let me into her life. After she returned that unopened letter to me in San Diego, I sent her postcards instead to be sure she read what I had to say.
Sara's parents eventually disappeared from the phonebook. The cops probably told them to get an unlisted number to get rid of me. Sara has probably been married with a couple of kids for years. One thing that always confused me about her refusal to communicate with me is that she is out there somewhere alive. Where there's life there's hope. People can work things out. It frustrated me terribly not to be able to talk things over with Luella after she committed suicide. The finality of her death was maddening. But Sara was alive, and she would not respond to me no matter what I did. It's hard to accept someone hating you as much as Sara hated me.
A remarkable number of hobos rode on the trains that passed by under my bedroom window. You could look down and see groups of them standing on gondolas, sitting in boxcars, crouching on flat cars. A large population of transients patrolled the train tracks on foot, too, and they would steal anything that wasn't nailed down. In some cases, like in mine, transients also took what was nailed down. Someone jimmied the door on my Pontiac Firebird and tore the stereo out of my dashboard. It was insured. I actually made money on the settlement and upgraded to a more expensive sound system as a result, but that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with my landlord Bob.
I had a power amplifier installed in my trunk, 240 watts per channel, and I was afraid someone would punch out the lock on my trunk (as though anyone knew what I had in there) and steal it from me. To prevent that from happening, I started backing my car into the driveway in front of the Victorian, right up to the garage door, which opened out. The result was that Bob's wife and daughter, who took things in and out of that garage just about every day, couldn't get into it when I was home, so Bob's wife decided to drive me out.
Betty started nagging Bob that their dogs were shedding all over her new upholstery and managed ultimately to have Bob move the dogs to his office, where Bob at that time was spending no more than a couple of hours a week. The dogs were noisy, vicious, and frighteningly aggressive. Bob had brought them up to act that way, because he knew what living close to the tracks entailed and he didn't want anyone bothering his family or his home. Betty knew that once the dogs were barking their heads off at passersby below me, it would only be a matter of time before I would move.
I think Bob might have been in on it, too, because out of the blue a friend of his started coming to his office about 6 o'clock in the morning every day to use his shower. His friend was going to be in town from Colorado for a while and was living in his truck. He would show up wearing work boots and stomp around for a while before and after using Bob's shower. I am not an early riser. Between the dogs barking at all hours of the day and night in the downstairs unit and no way to get them to stop, and steel-toed boots clomping around on hardwood floors downstairs in the equivalent of the middle of the night, I started to feel so frustrated I began to lose my mind.
In 1986, I was not a master of self-control. True, I had been exposed to some good influences with regards to the principle that my emotions are in me, not in external situations, but I was still a long way from understanding the concept completely, and I had not even begun working on developing the capacity to remain calm in the face of adversity. I was becoming more and more unhinged.
I did discuss the dogs with Betty a couple of times, but her response to me was, in so many words, if I didn't like it, leave. Today, I understand her words to be an honest statement of fact, but in those days, I interpreted words like that as a challenge to a fight. I absolutely required that others consider and make some accommodation to my point of view. I was totally blind to the fact that certain other people do not care two beans about me and that nothing I can do or say will change that in the least. Move on, in my relationship with Betty, was the only alternative there was. It is interesting, of course, that if she and I could have discussed my car, my trunk, the garage door, our misunderstanding would have been resolved, but that was not to be.
I started screaming at her out of my window one afternoon. She was on her way from having a cup of tea to straightening up the den. I am amazed today that I assumed then - completely unconsciously - that Betty was involved with the same degree of intensity as I was in my frustration with her dogs. I assumed she was with me in that, when in fact she had no thoughts about it whatsoever. In her mind, she had told me to get lost and the matter was settled. I must have looked insane to her, yelling at her as though we were in the midst of an argument - which in my mind we were - when in fact the upset raging inside my head did not refer in the least to anything in the outside world spinning calmly all around me.
Bob let me off the hook as far as the cleaning deposit was concerned. He agreed that I was moving "under duress" and facilitated my immediate vacancy when I found a place to move, a 3-bedroom house for $525 a month on a lovely East Sacramento cul-de-sac known as Janey Way.
An Italian woman in her 90's who had lived in it for many years had recently died and bequeathed the house to one of her sons. He had to fight his brother and sister for outright ownership of it after the will was read, because they believed they were each entitled to a share. The neighbors intimated to me that there was something vaguely criminal about the brother and the sister, particularly as exemplified by the larcenous behavior of one of their sons, a real terror who was known for extorting or blatantly stealing money from his aged grandmother. Tom, my landlord, was a straight arrow kind of a guy who had looked in on his mother regularly and helped her keep the place up while she was alive. I've often wondered about family members who are unavailable in life and then hover greedily over a departed loved one's estate. That behavior, to me, invalidates any claim they lay to it.
Mrs. Cristoni, in the manner of all the elderly Italian residents of East Sacramento, had raised a profusion of flowers, fruits, and vegetables on her property. As a matter of respect for her efforts, and to enjoy what she had left, I assigned myself responsibility for maintaining everything she had growing there, and it was a lot. The house was on a 100-foot lot. In the backyard alone there were lemon trees, kumquats, quince, persimmon, nectarines, and pomegranates, not to mention chrysanthemums, honeysuckle, bamboo, maples, and two enormous lodge pole pines.
On moving day, Mr. Cat immediately installed himself on a shelf between the fuchsia and the geraniums on the covered patio out back. I mean immediately, too. When I hefted him into the house from the cab of the U-Haul and set him down on the floor, he lifted his nose and took one sniff, walked purposefully to the back room, exited through the open rear door, and hopped up onto his shelf. He didn't even look around to select a spot, as though he knew before we got there where he was supposed to sit. I loved calling Mr. Cat "You PLANT!" at every opportunity while we lived at that address. He didn't care what I called him as long as he was fed.
Sara was still coming around for a while after I moved in. Our relationship felt what you might call good for probably a month before the tensions between us outweighed her desire to spend any more time with me. "I don't want it to continue," is how she answered the last time I asked her if it was good for her. "I thought I had to," is the reason she gave when I asked her why she went to bed with me.
One afternoon after Sara had not been by for a couple of months, Mr. Cat brought a friend home of his own. I don't know where he found the little guy, but Mr. Cat showed up accompanied by a tiny part-Siamese kitten that couldn't have been more than 6 weeks old. I was out back watering the lawn. Mr. Cat and his little friend came parading along the top of the cinderblock wall at the back of the property on their way from God-knows-where. His little friend was about 6 inches long, mostly dark blonde with a few black splotches, and had blue eyes and a long black tail. Mr. Cat, who weighed 18-pounds, positively dwarfed his little pal.
When Mr. Cat hopped down off that wall, his little friend hopped right off, too. The wall was more than 5 feet tall. His friend was actually able to spring from the ground to the top of that wall, too, apparently effortlessly. He jumped on it and off it several times. He jumped like he had springs inside his feet.
Mr. Cat had been suffering numerous indignities at my hand ever since the Yorktown Arms. Standard treatment, just because he was a cat, was to be cradled in my arms on his back so I could snuggle him and pet his belly. Cats don't like to be turned on their backs. They have to decide it is necessary to submit to that in order to be fed or they won't allow it. When Mr. Cat was small, I guess my size intimidated him to the extent that when I laid him on his back he figured it was futile to resist. Of course, after he got used to it, he liked it. Cats are creatures of habit.
In addition to being laid on his back, Mr. Cat had to put up with being bathed. Bathing cats is another thing I learned from Luella. Before the first time she bathed Hoolio, I didn't know you could give a cat a bath, but again, once you get past the first few battles in the bathroom, cats love being bathed. Mr. Cat for years would patiently stand in chest high lukewarm water while I thoroughly scrubbed him down with flea soap. He'd strut around once he was fully dry feeling like the cleanest guy in town, proud as a panther. He never got over being scared by the faucet when I'd rinse him off, though, and we'd howl at each other as I did it, "Wrrrr-ooooooooooo!" until I was finally through. I always wondered whether the neighbors thought I was torturing him in there. We'd get pretty loud. He didn't like being dried too much either, but I had to do it to keep him from catching cold. After I would squeegee him off with my hands, I'd wrap him up in a towel and rub him back and forth inside it while we hollered at each other at the top of our lungs.
I suppose his getting stoppered up with Fetal Urinary Syndrome while we were living on Shirley Avenue doesn't really count as an indignity. He was just damned sick, and it cost me $268 to save the poor guy's life. He was locked up in the veterinary hospital in a little cage for 4 days until they finally let me take him home. Boy did he stink of urine when he came out. Fortunately he knew all about baths. When I got him home, I gently bathed him to get him to smell a little better. He could hardly stand up in the bathtub while I washed him, but the vet told me it would be OK, and I'm sure Mr. Cat's delicate sense of smell appreciated that I did.
He was always something of a clown in my eyes, a cat. I loved him, and I only called him "You stupid cat" because I thought it sounded funny when I said it. I didn't really think that he was stupid. I just thought that he was funny. I cared for him like it was serious business in order to keep him healthy, but I experienced him mostly with amusement and felt entertained. I think the fact that he allowed himself to be domesticated subtly eroded my respect for him as a beast.
Sometimes I would study Mr. Cat's face carefully for a long time. It freaked him out when I did that, because cats don't like being stared at. If I did it too long, occasionally he would swipe at me lightning fast with his claws and give me a good scratch to let me know he definitely did not enjoy my little game. I would say in an authoritarian tone, "Watch those claws, you paddle paws!" and he'd pull his ears back and hunch his shoulders, but the damage would already have been done.
When I stared at Mr. Cat's face like that, he would remind me of the Wolf Man, as though he were a little person wearing a furry mask. That he was an animal always astonished me. I am a human being, and Mr. Cat was of another species altogether. Sometimes I would wonder why I shared my home with an animal. Other times, he was just Mr. Cat, and I liked having him around.
I told you all that because when Mr. Cat brought home that kitten, he carried himself with an air of dignity I had never seen in him before and I never saw again. He moved deliberately, with confidence, swishing his bushy tail back and forth to spread his scent for his protégé to follow. He led his kitten to the bathroom and sat outside with his back to the door while it found the litter box. He led it into the kitchen and swished his tail above his bowl of crunchies. He seemed so proud and so much in command of the situation, he seemed like an entirely different cat.
The kitten started getting on my nerves in about two days. When I wanted him to come inside, he would hide under the car. When I wanted him to go out, he would hide under the couch. Mr. Cat, who was on a strictly no-ash diet because of his urinary problems, was eating the kitten formula cat food I had bought for his friend, and the kitten was eating his. Finally I decided the kitten had to go. I drove it down to the park about 6 blocks away and left it near a bush. Lots of people used that park. I am sure that the next day one of them took pity on him when he crept out from under that bush screaming to be fed. I felt guilty about depriving Mr. Cat of his companion, though, but what could I do. Time went by. Mr. Cat got over it like he got over everything else.
A few of the neighbors on Janey Way were nuts, of course. The guy at the end of the street, for example, had known everyone on the block for years, but when he drove down the street, he would sit ramrod straight behind the wheel looking straight ahead and not acknowledge anyone. None of us could figure out why he was so stiff. All the rest of us else smiled and waved at each other and made inconsequential conversation at every opportunity. I've seen a lot of guys on the highway like my neighbor, who seem when they get behind the wheel to identify with the power of their machine. The telltale posture is head back, steering arm rigid to the top of the wheel, wrist bent forward hard, and of course that pursed, disdainful frown. If the car were a horse, I could see it. Driving it would require physical skill and strength, but feeling tough by stepping on the gas, to me, is like feeling musically adept by turning up the volume on your stereo. In a car you are just pulled along for the ride. Driving does not require muscle. It requires brains.
I spoke to that guy on a number of occasions and even got to speed around the neighborhood with him in his hot rod once, his hobby being tricking out the power plant in his vintage GTO. I thought it made a lot more noise in proportion to how fast it went than it needed to, but there is no way I was ever going to tell him that. I actually forced myself to compliment his car effusively, nodding and smiling nervously as I spoke, to avoid getting in an argument with him. He was the kind of guy who believed that there is one right way of looking at every question and that every other way is wrong. He, of course, knew - and was forever expounding for you - the right way about everything, but you couldn't argue with the guy. He was very proud of his views and completely inflexible.
Another of my neighbors was the Elvas Street National Guard Armory, situated kitty corner across Janey Way from my house. Accountants and electricians gathered there to learn crowd control or combat skills one weekend a month. The rest of the time, a small number of full-time staff managed the business of the place. A remarkable volume of freight passed through that compound daily. Naturally, as a civilian, I have no idea what it was, but the guy who handled it all with his front-end loader drove me crazy with the stupid beeper that went off every time he put it in reverse. Well, the guy has to back up. OK. But he would put that thing in reverse, get that stupid beeper going, and then go inside for a cup of coffee. He was like my neighbor with the car. Making all that noise - just by engaging a button, mind you - made him feel powerful and strong.
The guy directly across the street was a socially acceptable alcoholic, very charming, always with a glass of bourbon in his hand. He was one of those guys who could pull off the glass-of-booze-as-a-fashion-accessory trick such that no one, including his live-in girlfriend, noticed that he was guzzling whiskey at the rate of about a quart a day. I've met people who live in rural areas - and outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy camping, 4-wheeling, or what have you - who are complete misanthropes. You say something to one of them like, "Boy, it sure is beautiful here at Beaver Lake," and they say something to you like, "Yeah. There's no PEOPLE around for miles in any direction." That's what Chuck was like. He didn't like people, and he swilled an ocean of booze each day.
His girlfriend, Marion, was outspoken, friendly, and smart. I was always piling mountains of vegetable matter in the street in front of my house. The City of Sacramento provided a yard waste pickup service that came around to haul away hedge clippings and grass cuttings with their machinery once a week. My piles of pine needles or tree limbs or bush branches would usually be bigger than my car. The service didn't mind. They had a big truck. Marion would always come over to visit with me while I was piling that stuff up in the street. She liked me. I think she might even have found me kind of cute, because she was always telling me how slim I was. I thought I had a paunch, but I guess she didn't notice it. There's no way I would ever have made a move on her, though. First of all she was living with Chuck. Second, I was so thoroughly brainwashed by the damned feminists, I did not feel at all relaxed about expressing sexual desire - even to Sara when she and I made love.
Next door lived two elderly sisters who couldn't come right out and ask for what they wanted. They had to beat around the bush and hint and nudge you. For example, there was a peach tree just on my side of the property line between our garages. The peaches that tree made were delicious, but for some reason they wouldn't keep for more than a day or two after they were picked - some strange variety or something. These sisters were all bent out of shape because the peaches would drop on their side of the fence and make a mess, but they couldn't say, "Hey, could you help me clean up this mess?" or "Hey, can we trim that peach tree back a bit?" They would say, "Oooh, there are such a lot of PEACHES this year," or "You're certainly getting a lot of PEACHES this year." So I would have to trim the damned peach tree every year. Naturally I would skin my elbows and knees climbing up and down between the garages, but at least I was on good terms with them.
I enjoyed walking to the Ralph's Supermarket a few blocks away on Folsom Boulevard. It gave me the opportunity to visit with any of my elderly Italian neighbors who happened to be fussing around in their front yards. I enjoyed many a Coke and cup of tea in the kitchens on my block and had a good look around in most of the backyards. I felt like I had half a dozen sets of grandparents, and I truly enjoyed the company of each and every person in my neighborhood who extended me such warmth and hospitality.
One of the butchers who worked at the Ralph's was a short guy by the name of Guiseppe who wore thick glasses and was pushing 60. I was buying a half a pound of ground sirloin in those days. Guiseppe would scoop up his best estimate of a half a pound and toss it on the scale. He was always close. I started teasing him about going to the Butcher Olympics and competing in the Hamburg Weight Estimation event, and he would laugh good-naturedly. I always liked seeing that guy. One day he told me he was a Brother in the Franciscan Order, which I think he said is sort of like a lay minister or a deacon, and that he volunteered regularly at the Loaves and Fishes Mission downtown dishing out soup to homeless people. It fit. You could tell this guy was not going through this for himself.
Mr. Cat and I lived on Janey way for about 3 years. In the course of that time I quit working at System Integrators and tried to make a living developing patch editor librarian software at home for electronic musical instruments. I owned some stock at System Integrators through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, and when a group of managers bought the company, I experienced a windfall of about $5,000. That was more money than I had ever had at once in my life, and I spent it all trying to survive as a cottage software development company.
I did sell a bit of product, and I made the acquaintance of a number of people in the music business that I liked - even went to visit a guy and his family outside of Seattle for a week because we thought we had so much in common - but there was no way I was ever going to go anywhere financially with that business, so I decided to hang it up. I was, in effect, working for the gas company, UPS, the telephone company, and the guy who owned my place. All of them got paid. Occasionally I would get a paycheck, too, but as a rule I was just spending what I had saved working at SII. Developing software on my own worked out about the same as when I had tried to make a living doing massage. I believed in what I was doing, but I wasn't going to prosper if I continued, and I had to stop.
I lived around Sacramento County a total of 9 years, essentially because I couldn't figure out where else to go. But Sacramento's climate is not my cup of tea. It is hot and flat in the summer, damp and chilly in the winter. I had tried San Francisco and found it urban, isolating, and cold. The East Coast, where I originally was from, might as well have been on another planet, I had been away from there so long. I couldn't go back to Canada. Even if the Canadians would give me Landed Immigrant Status again, which they would not, I had no money, only a couple of friends up there, and no connection to any jobs in Canada.
I loved Southern California when I had lived there in the 1960's, but Los Angeles had become a foul, ugly nightmare in the intervening 20 years. "But San Diego," my friend Michael Ravera told me. "San Diego is what LA used to be. Beautiful weather. Relaxed, slow paced, friendly." I boxed my things, arranged for one of my neighbors to look after Mr. Cat for a week or so, and drove down to San Diego to look for a place to live.
San Diego is not the most beautiful place in the world. Billowing fruit trees blooming white or pink in knee-high grass among yellow mustard flowers in the orchards of the Sacramento Valley in the spring are beautiful. The Gulf Islands of British Columbia stacked in jagged blue-green tiers below the granite faces of snow-capped Coast Range mountains in the brilliant July sun are beautiful. Polished silver granite cliffs descending thousands of feet to jade-green glacial lakes in the Athabasca Lands in the Canadian Rockies are beautiful. But the beach and sky are lovely in San Diego, and the weather there is more consistently pleasant year-round than anywhere else in the world. Along the Coastal Strip, you open your windows in May and close them in November. It's mostly sunny 300 days a year. The temperature is usually around 73 degrees Fahrenheit, humidity around 45%, day after day after day.
I rented a south-facing upstairs unit in a small apartment house managed on-site by an elderly couple on a quiet block in North Pacific Beach. Beyond the rooftops, from my kitchen window, I could see Mission Bay. From my bedroom window, in the distance I could see the downtown skyline and glimpse the ocean, 10 blocks to the west. Sky and sunshine poured into my apartment from every direction. The sea breeze wisped through constantly.
I flew back to Sacramento to get my things and Mr. Cat and drove back to San Diego in a U-Haul truck. Mr. Cat crouched on the floor on the passenger side the entire way. I managed to get some crunchies and water into him during the trip, and he figured out how to use his cat box a couple of times. When we arrived on Chalcedony Street, my new neighbor Randy, across the street, helped me carry the heavy stuff upstairs. Four years later, when I was struggling mightily because of the recession and had to leave town to work, Randy helped me haul what I never used to the dump and what I wished to save to a storage facility in Rose Canyon.
I committed myself when I arrived to settle permanently in San Diego. I never would have left Venice Beach 20 years previously if I had not been drafted, and I felt like I was finally returning to the part of the world where I belong. I love the weather in Southern California, and I love the beach. I was also determined to stay in one place long enough to give relationships a chance to develop. It takes time to get to know people, and I wanted friends.
True, I had more friends in Sacramento than I realized, but I could not commit myself to stay there permanently and thus experienced my friendships as temporary. I lived in Sacramento for 9 years, but I always felt like a stranger there, as though I were passing through, because it didn't feel like home to me. Also, I was 44 years of age and still hadn't met my female counterpart. I finally figured out that you can't just target a stranger, as I had done with Sara, and instantly have a relationship with that person that satisfies your deepest longings. Infatuation had led me to such misery so many times I finally realized that a good relationship between a man and a woman can only develop gradually over time. So I wanted to stay put.
But by 1993 I was stone broke again and sinking alarmingly into debt. Dire conditions that struck San Diego's economy necessitated my accepting a contract programming position I was fortunate enough to be offered in Omaha, Nebraska. It broke my heart to have to leave the beach again, but what else could I do?
Mr. Cat transitioned in San Diego from being an indoor-outdoor cat to being a strictly indoor cat. Again, the initial change upset him greatly, but once he had adjusted to staying in the house all day, I couldn't push him out the door. When we first arrived in San Diego, I let him hang around outside as he was used to doing, but it wasn't long before a fiercely territorial and vicious tom cat started to attack him, obviously determined to kill him. Mr. Cat was a good fighter and had never been driven out of his territory by another cat in Sacramento, but that tom managed to get the best of him, and Mr. Cat developed a nasty abscess that certainly might have killed him if I hadn't taken him to the vet to have it lanced.
I don't know if Dr. Harvazinsky found all of her patients as amusing as Mr. Cat, but she would laugh ebulliently every time she said his name and seemed to be as entertained by Mr. Cat as I was. She and I did not mean to insult him when we spoke to him with big grins on our faces laughing goofily; but affectionately as we viewed him, we always found ourselves treating him like a buffoon. Mr. Cat seemed to realize he was stuck with being the butt of our running joke and that he could not do anything about it, so he would stare stupidly, embarrassed, while we joked and laughed and attended carefully to his medical needs.
Mr. Cat had long thick fur. I had been grooming him for years, teasing away the mats of hair that regularly developed under his arms and on his abdomen. Dr. Harvazinsky made the rather obvious suggestion to me that I get in the habit of brushing Mr. Cat to prevent those mats from forming in the first place. It worked like a charm. She also clipped his nails. The day I brought him in to be treated for that abscess, he glowered at us from the examination table, took a swipe at me with his claws, and cut me pretty good. Dr. Harvazinsky without hesitation grabbed her animal nail clippers and popped the business end of each razor sharp claw off of Mr. Cat.
"You're an indoor cat now, Mr. Cat," she scolded him gaily.
I was horrified. Not only did I consider permanently confining Mr. Cat to the house the ultimate cruelty, but I also thought that trimming his nails would mess up his mind irreparably. It turns out that keeping Mr. Cat indoors is the best thing I ever did for him. As for getting his nails trimmed, that's just something he had to learn to put up with, because I liked not getting scratches all over my hands anymore.
In Sacramento, even though I regularly bathed Mr. Cat with pyrethrins, flea bombed the house, and sprayed the yard with diazinon, he would eventually get bitten by a flea. The itching would drive him crazy, and he would start biting himself on his back. His skin would get inflamed where he was biting himself, and his hair in that area would start falling out. The itching, if left untreated, would drive him entirely out of his mind, and he would have what are called "flea fits". That means he would growl and scream uncontrollably, even losing control of his bladder if allowed to progress that far, while biting his back viciously and rolling around on the floor. Once I understood the symptoms, I would get Mr. Cat to the vet, where he would be injected with cortisone, as soon as I decided he'd been bitten by a flea. Cortisone stopped the itch and helped his skin to heal if he'd been gnawing it. Mr. Cat's being allergic to fleas was a constant pain for both of us; but once he started staying in the house all the time, he would go for years without getting bitten, which was good for his health and easy on my bank account.
One of my neighbors in San Diego had a serious problem living within earshot of me, because she didn't like hearing me play my guitar. I am not a great guitar player. I play the blues at an intermediate amateur level, but I love to play, and for more than 35 years I have played my guitar for a while almost every day. From the time I was 5 years old until I graduated high school, I played trumpet, but the college I went to didn't have a band and you didn't play Beatles songs on the trumpet, so I learned how to play guitar. My next door neighbor in the apartment house on Chalcedony absolutely did not like hearing my guitar. It was rough on her and it was rough on me that we were never able to see eye to eye about that. She could hear me because we lived in such close proximity to one another, not because I cranked it up or anything like that.
Two-bedroom apartments in Pacific Beach, like the ones that my neighbor and I lived in on Chalcedony, average less than 700 square feet. Depending on what block you live on, because everyone's residence is so small and everyone's windows are usually wide open, you might live within earshot of 35 or 40 people. Genuine rowdiness, of which there is a fair amount because the beach attracts a young crowd and because a party atmosphere pervades any recreational area like the beach, can be extremely annoying; but as a rule, especially during the week, because everyone has to work to stay alive, the neighborhood was remarkably peaceful considering how densely packed it is.
My neighbor couldn't stand to have the silence in her apartment interrupted by my playing my guitar. In a way, having her around gave me a taste of my own medicine. I'd never hesitated to ask any of my neighbors anywhere to turn their stereos down or take their conversation inside. In retrospect I would have to say that I was probably as unreasonable as she was, although I believed I only complained when things were out of hand.
When I lived in that apartment on Chalcedony, I still had a way to go to learn how to get along with people. I had started life talking behind people's back because I assumed there would be no discussion if I asserted my views to someone with whom I disagreed. Then I became belligerent and argumentative while I was living in LA. That felt to me like I was expressing my views, but in fact I was only being inflexible. I didn't feel secure enough in my ability to be understood at that time to dare to treat other people with respect or negotiate a mutually satisfactory solution with anyone with whom I disagreed. When I lived on Chalcedony, I reacted to my unfriendly neighbor by behaving in a passive aggressive manner. I stomped up and down the stairs deliberately every time I came and went as if to say, "You think I'm a noisy guy? Well how is this for being a noisy guy?"
She wanted me to close my window when I played my guitar, but the fact is that my apartment would become awfully stuffy if I did. I also must stress that I was not yet able at that stage of my development to make that sort of concession to someone comfortably, to make myself inaudible simply because she didn't want to hear me. Interestingly, I was miles ahead of the rest of the world by then when it came to deferring voluntarily to people who were not even aware that I was doing anything for them - driving ultra slow in parking lots so as not to startle a pedestrian, letting individuals get completely across the street before allowing my car to move in their direction, being careful not to block the line of sight of a driver who is looking left at a stop sign in the midst of a right hand turn when I am going straight. I felt good about containing the effects on others of the things I do, provided I was the one who decided to do the containing, but I did not yet feel at all comfortable acceding to someone else's request that I limit myself for them. I still perceived that as someone telling me what to do, which for me has always been the ultimate violation of my privacy.
Over the course of a year or more, things got bad between my neighbor on Chalcedony and me. She didn't like me to sit on the catwalk on the second floor, where a sliver of sunlight shone. To tell you the truth, I think she just plain didn't like me. Who knows what her problem was? One day she came upstairs with her clean clothes folded in her laundry basket. I was sitting at the top of the stairs. In body language she made a big show of how hard it was for her to pass and deliberately bopped me on the top of my head with her laundry as she wriggled by. I had tried to get out of her way, but she didn't slow down to let me move. That would have been too easy.
Her laundry didn't do any damage to my head. She just wanted to make the statement that I was in her way and treat me like I wasn't there. Next day, I went to the courthouse and got a temporary restraining order to keep her away from me.
The way restraining orders work is if you ask for one, the judge gives it to you. If you want to make it permanent, you have to go back and argue both sides of the case in court. Then the judge decides whether to extend it or not. I didn't want her coming around telling me that playing my guitar quietly in the middle of the day was bothering her anymore, so I tried to make the restraining order permanent.
My strongest piece of evidence was that her boyfriend had confided to me that he kind of liked the sound of my guitar and he thought his girlfriend was overreacting for some reason he didn't understand. In my deposition I quoted what he'd told me to that effect. In his deposition he said that it bothered him, too. What are you going to do? People lie. They eventually moved, but it wasn't long after they were gone that I wound up having to go to Omaha, Nebraska. I look at the entire episode with that lady as a diplomatic relations test I failed. It's OK, though, because there are an unlimited number of tests out there, and you get to fail as many of them as necessary until you finally figure out how to get along with people.
The manager couple lived in the apartment below mine. John was born in 1900, so his age was the last two digits of the year. His wife, Beth, was born in 1904. They had lived through the electrification of rural America, the invention of the automobile, the First World War, the stock market crash of 1929, the Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War. They were personally influenced by the introduction of every technology that changed the way people live and work in the 20th Century, from electricity, to cars, to television, to computers. They met in college in New Jersey in 1920.
John told me that the first automobile he ever saw was delivered in a box. You had to assemble it yourself. Beth remembered wearing button-up shoes, dancing with John, and seeing the Milky Way from town. They were both too old to walk anywhere anymore, but before they had slowed down, they loved to walk, as I did every day, to the beach and back. I actually walked to the South Mission Beach jetty and back every day religiously for a year, about 6 miles. The ocean and the sky, the sand and the birds, even the shells that washed up on the shore, were never the same from one day to the next.
John and Beth wondered what happened to people in the years they lived their lives. People had seemed so nice when they were young, so generous and kind. Now it seemed everyone was in a hurry, rude, and only concerned with themselves.
I pronounced Chalcedony "Chal-seh-DOH-nee" when I first moved in. After John told me the right pronunciation is "Chal-SEH-doh-nee", Mr. Cat acquired the nickname "Mr. CHAAAL-seh-DOH-nee".
I got a call on January 29, 1993, to start work in Omaha, Nebraska on February 8. Aside from being heartbroken about having to leave the beach and not wanting to go, I had an impossibly short amount time to vacate my apartment, get my stuff into storage, and make additional arrangements to complete my move. I worked like crazy getting everything boxed up, separated into what went to the dump, what went to storage, what was to be shipped to me once I had an address in Nebraska, what I was going to take with me in the car. I made trips to the dump, trips to the storage facility, cleaned my apartment. I was so exhausted from carrying boxes and being stressed that the night before I left for Omaha, I filled up the bathtub with hot water and lay down in it.
When I hit that hot water, all the tension I was carrying came gushing out in a loud, involuntary moan. At first I was afraid my neighbors would hear me and think I was crazy. Then I decided, what the hell, I am crazy! I started moaning in that hot water at the top of my lungs, then laughing, then whooping - moaning, whooping, laughing, shouting - I had a nice yell in there for about 20 minutes, and came out feeling thoroughly relaxed.
Next morning at 6 am I got in my car and drove out of San Diego. I'd looked for Omaha on a map and found that it was a lot further north than I anticipated, just about at the center of the contiguous United States. I didn't know what to expect when I got there. I just drove like hell. The San Diego weather forecast was 75 degrees and sunny when I left. When I arrived in Omaha three days later, the world was buried in ice, and it was 5 degrees below zero. I was cold, and I was already depressed because I missed the beach. I worked in Omaha for the following 28 months.
The day before I left for Omaha, I dropped Mr. Cat off at a cat kennel on Washington Street in San Diego. I asked the lady that ran the place to talk to him and play with him as much as possible instead of just leaving him cooped up in a little cage until I found a place and she could fly him out to me. When I called her on the phone from Omaha, she said he was doing fine. Next morning she put him on a plane. That evening I drove out to Eppley Field to pick him up.
I had to sign some papers. Then the cargo agent told me to go wait in front of an aluminum roll-up door in the main foyer of the terminal. I stood where he said and waited for a while. Then I heard the motor of a baggage truck approaching from behind the door. Above the sound of the motor I could just barely discern Mr. Cat screaming at the top of his lungs. The door flew open momentarily. Mr. Cat's cat taxi slid backwards down a short ramp toward me, revolving a quarter turn as it approached. Mr. Cat was howling loudly. "Waaaaaaahhhh, " he wailed in a low indignant voice. He seemed to be saying, "All right, already, guys. I have had enough of this!"
I grasped the handle on the top of his cage and turned it so his little door was facing me. Mr. Cat's eyes were wide open. His pupils were huge. The hairs on his face and neck were soaked with his drinking water, which had spilled all over him, and spread out in clumps. He was crying angrily, his feelings hurt terribly, scared and cold and lost. "Hey, you," I said cheerfully. "It's me, Mr. Cat." He recognized me, I am sure. He stopped crying helplessly into the impersonal void and started yelling at me, madder than he had ever been.
All the way back to our new apartment in the car, I talked to him as I drove, trying to soothe his feelings. He'd listen for a while, then he'd say, "Wah-AHHHHHH," loudly, his voice descending a major second. "I know, I know. Those guys were pretty rough. But you're here with me now, Mr. Cat. Everything is going to be OK." Outside, salt and dirt sprayed from the road in a corrosive mist all over my car as we sped down Highway 80 towards the 84th Street exit.
I had rented a furnished studio apartment in Ralston, about 5 miles from my job, for $325 a month. My contract was for 11 months. My plan was to camp out in a cheap apartment to save money and return to San Diego at the end of the year with 40 or 50 thousand dollars in the bank. Twenty months later, just prior to the start of my third winter in Omaha, I moved to a one-bedroom apartment less than a mile drive from my job. I carried Mr. Cat upstairs.
The studio had one south facing floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door that opened onto a tiny balcony. The balcony and the entire scene visible through that door - the hills of the Applewood golf course, the rooftops of the neighboring apartment houses, the leafless trees on the grounds of the Willow Park Apartments, where I lived - were sheathed in a pale, cold layer of ice and snow. The sky was gray, the dim, white sun clinging weakly to a slippery spot low in the southern sky. Against the door, where Mr. Cat sat looking incredulously at Nebraska, the snow was one foot deep.
Mr. Cat sat looking through that door for at least a minute, stunned. He had no idea what he was looking at and even less of an idea where he was. Eventually, he looked over his shoulder at me quizzically. "Welcome to Nebraska," I said, and he turned and looked out at the snow again. He sat in front of that door for days. Every now and then he would look at me and say, "Mow?" I explained what he was looking at, where we were, what we were doing there, but off course he had no idea what I was talking about.
In San Diego I had spent all of my free time at the beach. When the water was warm in the summer, I paddled out with fins and a boogie board and rode the waves. Year round I pedaled my bike on the boardwalk and walked the water's edge. One year I got into running on the beach. Whenever I needed to clear my head, I walked the shore from Crystal Pier to Belmont Park and back. I walked or rode my bike around Pacific Beach and rarely drove my car. I never had to think about what to wear or whether it might rain or snow. If I wanted to go out, I went out, any time of the day or night, any day of the year.
But in Omaha, the weather is an ever-present factor that can never be ignored. TV stations compete with one another to convince the viewing public who has the most reliable, most comprehensive, most current weather news. Cold air masses streaming south from Canada collide with warm humid air streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico. Wild variations in the weather ensue, 50 degrees one day, minus 20 degrees the next. Violent storms, howling winds, rain, snow, sleet, and freezing rain occur. Some nights, my first winter in Omaha, "life threatening" cold was forecast. Unprotected skin would freeze in 30 seconds, and people were urged to stay indoors. The weather and the geography of that place resulted in many differences in lifestyle between Omaha and San Diego. I felt homesick in the extreme.
For recreation, I began playing pool with a few friends from work. I went bowling on a few occasions, learned how to play darts and cards. In contrast to San Diego, where for recreation you do things outside, in Omaha you do everything inside - except for golf, which does not interest me and is wildly popular in the Midwest in the spring and summer months, and hunting, which I also do not do. And people smoke in Omaha. The rooms people gather in to play pool or darts or cards or bowl were thick with the smoke of cigarettes. My hair and clothes reeked of smoke when I would come home at night. To air my coat out, I would lay it on the balcony overnight in the cold night air. Occasionally fog or some other sort of precipitation late at night would soak my coat, which I would have to wear to work in the morning anyway, because it was so cold.
I parked my car outside. It would be covered with frost when I went downstairs to start it in the morning, its vital fluids thick from having sat in 20 below zero Fahrenheit weather overnight. Sometimes, when freezing drizzle fell at night, the ground would be covered in the morning with a slick sheet of ice you could barely stand on, and my car would be frozen under a smooth layer of ice I had to beat on with my fists to crack to be able to open up the door. To melt the ice enough so I could scrape it off my windshield, I would idle my car with the defroster on full blast for 20 minutes or so. I would run downstairs and start my car when I woke up every morning, then come back upstairs to shower and eat breakfast, after which I would go back down and scrape it off and drive to work.
Indoors was always nice and warm. Restaurants, work, people at home, recreational businesses all kept the heat turned up so you felt comfortable wearing jeans and a shirt, and that's what everyone wore. In Southern California people as a rule are concerned with how they look, dressing fashionably, keeping their cars clean, but in Omaha, people wore functional clothing, and the almost constant spray from the road made even thinking about keeping your car clean ridiculous. Some people drove around in cars completely covered in road dirt except for where their windshield wipers swiped away a peephole to see out, although most people rinsed their cars off - only to be immediately covered again by the salty, dirty spray from the road - at drive-through car washes available at a lot of gas stations around town. I never fully adjusted to not being able to keep my car clean and dry after washing it, and I washed my car a couple of times a week.
People eat differently in Omaha than in San Diego, too. Omaha is the "steak capital" of the world. Nebraska corn fed beef is the tenderest most flavorful beef there is, and Nebraskans eat a lot of it. Vegetables have to be shipped in from far away, so they are not as available or as tasty as they are in California. The net result is that people in Omaha eat a lot of meat and potatoes and not a lot of vegetables. People tended to dismiss vegetarianism as a weird aberration while I was living there.
You have to wear a lot of clothes in Nebraska, because the winter is so long and cold. People's bodies are not routinely seen by others as they are in a warm climate like in San Diego, so Nebraskans are not that concerned with how their bodies look, and Nebraskans eat a lot of beef. So you see a lot of fat people around Nebraska, some of whom are impressively obese. I saw people in Omaha who were as big as farm animals, and I don't say that to be insulting. I had never seen people so hugely overweight before. After I lived in Omaha for a year, I started eating beef myself, and my waist size increased from 30 inches, which it was when I left San Diego, to 34 inches, when I left Omaha in July, 1995. Prime rib, for example, is delicious, but it is very fattening.
It probably sounds like Omaha is a horrible place. The climate is forbidding. (I always wondered how aboriginal people who lived there without modern technology could even survive the winters there.) But the people who live in Omaha are the warmest, friendliest people I have ever met. Living in the Midwest opened up my eyes to what getting along with other people is all about. It is about having the time to be interested in someone besides yourself.
One of my co-workers on the job in Omaha was from California. I think she summed it up best when she said, "In Nebraska, people treat you like you wish people would treat you." If you are walking down the street and you encounter someone coming in the opposite direction, no matter where you are, that person will say, "Hi. How you doin'?" or something like that. This is not the random observation of a stranger who happened to run into a few friendly people. This is a deliberately cultivated social norm that is regarded positively and taught by the current generation to the next. People have time to engage in conversation with you. Anywhere you go, you can get into a lengthy conversation about nothing in particular just by saying hello to a stranger and saying, "How you doin'?" People are always interested in passing the time of day with you.
In the Midwest, the climate and the geography offer so little in the way of pleasure and diversion, there is really nothing left but to enjoy the company of other people, and the techniques for enjoying other people's company have been refined and elevated to an art. I met dozens of people there who were interested in me, who genuinely cared to know my feelings and my thoughts, and who were happy to reveal themselves to me. The atmosphere was low key and down to earth. People didn't try to impress me or misrepresent themselves to me to make themselves look richer or more important than they were. If someone was a clerk at the K-Mart, he said, "I'm a clerk at the K-Mart." No one looked down his nose at him for doing that. Each individual person is someone to get to know, to appreciate, to care about, and to enjoy.
In California and in big cities in general, strangers are not to be trusted. People establish high standards to which one must conform before they'll look at you, and people only talk to you if they want something from you. TV and the newspaper play up the danger inherent in trusting strangers, too. I suppose to a certain extent what they say is true, but far more people are OK than not, and on the coasts we don't enjoy one another's company as we would if we greeted strangers like people do in the Midwest. People do greet you in California, of course, but when they do, they tend to force a feeling of excited animation on you. The simple down-to-earth fact of encountering another human being, which Midwesterners feel completely comfortable with, is lost in Californians' relentless quest to be stimulated and entertained. If you are greeted in California, you are perceived as a source of stimulation, not a human being.
When the spring came, I was disoriented by surprise. The winter was so miserable and so long, I unconsciously assumed that Omaha was always going to be cold and buried under ice and snow. But the spring did come, and it was colorful and mild. I fell in love, but I can't tell you anything about the woman I was seeing. I can't tell you her name or where she worked or how we met or where we went or anything like that, because our relationship was a secret. I didn't want it to be a secret. I wanted us to be openly affectionate to one another for all the world to see. I wanted her to leave her husband and come with me. She wanted it to be secret, though, because she did not want to give up the security of her marriage and she was only looking for a fling.
We met the way you meet anyone in Omaha. I smiled at her and said hello. She responded, as people in Omaha do. We made small talk, and it came out that she was going through some anxiety regarding her son's health, a chronic sinus condition. I was prepared to listen to her because I was extremely attracted to her and loved being near her. I think also that some of the friendliness of Omaha had genuinely rubbed off on me and I was beginning to learn how to listen better. She appreciated my sympathetic ear.
She was so beautiful, with her doe-like eyes and other features I can't describe without giving away her identity, she was so soft spoken and intelligent, I imagined she must be married to a wonderfully sensitive guy.
"I bet you really love him," I said after we'd spoken a few times.
"I suppose," she said without emotion.
"I mean, the communication between you two must be so good," I continued.
"Well, that depends on what you believe is possible in a relationship," she said. "I don't have any illusions about that," she added.
I told her I wanted to meet her husband, that I envisioned myself being friends with this ultra-cool couple, having a good communication with people I genuinely liked. I didn't pay much attention to the distance between them she expressed. I figured that for her to like him, he must be a quite a guy. She invited me home to dinner.
Her husband turned out to be one of those guys who thinks he knows everything and is really hard to be around because he always has to be right. He would argue a nit to the death because he could not allow himself ever to lose an argument, which in itself didn't bother me that much - except I thought he was a bore - but he also had to bolster his high opinion of himself by never having a kind word for anyone, particularly his wife and kid. He was so damned hard to please. He'd never figured out how good it feels to spread a little positive energy around, to share a little good cheer. He was so insecure about proving he was a worthwhile human being, he was always demonstrating his competence, always showing you how smart he was, always telling you how right he was, and nothing his wife or kid ever did was good enough. I hate to see that sort of thing inflicted on a kid. I tried to talk to my nameless woman friend about it.
She was fiercely loyal to her husband. As a matter of principle, interestingly, because of the vows they'd shared, she felt it was her duty to defend him. She never said that to me, but it clearly was the case. Her not admitting how her husband's problems were screwing up her kid was a major bone of contention between us. She thought this guy was quite the intellect, and you could tell she wanted him to view her as an equal. Of course he subtly never did, which kept her striving and striving for his complete acceptance. He kept dangling the emotional carrot of his approval in front of her nose and beating her with the stick of finding fault. Even if he did ever fully accept his wife, I am sure he would never be able to express it, because he didn't know how. He was too blinded by his insecurities. He didn't know that he belongs here and it's OK for him to be alive. He thought he had to earn that. He thought his wife and kid had to earn that too, from him. It was pretty sad.
She and I had our moments, crazy furtive kisses at her job, tender moments I can't tell you where and I can't tell you when, but eventually she decided she was through with me, and it was over. While it lasted, she would take as much as I was willing to give her and not give me anything in return. I was in such a state of euphoria that she even hung out with me at all, I didn't realize she was strictly enjoying the attention and not giving anything to me. She was knock-down gorgeous, exactly the kind of woman I am always falling for and having my heart broken by.
After quite a lengthy healing process dissecting and agonizing over things I thought that I'd done wrong, I realized that she and he were perfect for one another, peas in a pod really. Neither were able to open their heart completely and let that joy rush out to bestow on another freely because it feels so good to be alive. They each guarded themselves carefully and needed to be in control. She was a one-way street. Nothing I could do would ever make that change.
Summer in Omaha is about as bad as winter. It is very hot and very, very humid. Powerful thunderstorms that rumble through spew huge lightning bolts, ear shatteringly loud thunder claps, hail, heavy rain, frightening winds. Mosquitoes are thick and omnipresent. You have to run your air conditioner from May to November, just about parallel to when you throw your windows open in San Diego. It's impossible to schedule outdoor activities, even putting aside the uncomfortable conditions, because it can rain at any time. I got used to making big, contractor's money (in 1994 I made $104,000) and just kept working at that job, stashing away as much as possible as expeditiously as I could.
Mr. Cat started getting on my nerves. Some cats cover up after themselves when they use their cat box. Others don't. Cats that don't never will. Mr. Cat was a cat who never will. I had been living in that studio apartment for almost a year and a half, and the smell of Mr. Cat's poop filled the place every time he went. Of course, I only had to smell it when I was there. He had to smell it every time he went, whether I was home or not. In the morning, Mr. Cat would wait until I got into the shower to use his cat box. It was situated precisely next to the shower. Maybe he figured if he annoyed me enough with that smell, I would figure out a way to fix things so he would not to have to smell it himself every time he went. I tried to show him how to cover up his poops. I held his little hand in mine and scooped his kitty litter with it, but every time I tried that he got mad and ran away.
I also felt bad that he was sitting in that apartment by himself all day. Sometimes, if I went out after work, he would be alone in there all day and late into the night. I started thinking he might be happier if I could find him a home with another cat. Ideally I thought he would enjoy a family who had kids, but I figured another cat at least would liven up his life, and I started asking around to see if I could find someone with a cat who would take him in.
Mr. Cat was 12 years old and weighed 18 pounds. He was healthy, but to keep him that way required a lot of effort. He ate special food. He had to stay indoors, because he was allergic to fleas' saliva. He had to be brushed and bathed and have his toenails clipped. It was hard to find anyone willing to take on that kind of responsibility, especially for a cat so old. I ran an ad in the newspaper, but I didn't get any replies until after I had already given him away. I was tempted when I got that call to ask John, the guy I gave him to, to give him to those other people, but I didn't feel comfortable telling him I didn't trust him with Mr. Cat. Besides, the people that called me needed a replacement cat because they had lost theirs when they took it camping. I wondered what would keep them from losing Mr. Cat.
This guy John was not the ideal person to give Mr. Cat, but I convinced myself it would be OK. He did, after all, keep a cat, Leroy, who seemed healthy enough. John seemed to like his cat and told me that he wanted a companion to keep Leroy company when he went travelling every year. He owned a ramshackle, mostly unfinished house, but it was a lot bigger and a more varied space than I could provide Mr. Cat. But I was kidding myself.
John was a Jesus freak of the most politically deranged variety. I say he was a Jesus freak instead of saying he was a Christian, because he manifested zero loving kindness, had not even a rudimentary understanding of compassion, and was so conflicted inwardly he was incapable of forgiveness. John told me that the only reason for this plane of existence is to figure out you're supposed to "take Jesus as your savior". That way, when you die, instead of being damned eternally, you go to heaven, where you "sit with God" forever. I asked him why he bothered staying on this plane of existence since he had figured out that Jesus was his savior, and he told me it was to convince other people to believe in Jesus so they would be saved, too. The travels he went on every year were to work as a missionary for his church in Third World countries. I asked him what he figured he would do with God all day after he went to heaven. He said he didn't have any idea except he knew it would be a lot better than living here. This place is run by the devil, he said, and he was very mad about all sorts of things the devil makes us do. From what I could gather, John believed that everything besides telling people Jesus died for your sins is inspired by the devil.
John's cat, Leroy, didn't like Mr. Cat at all. When I took him over there, Leroy chased Mr. Cat under the couch. John was a big believer in cats taking care of themselves and working their own problems out. I ignored things he said that should have warned me he was not going to take adequate care of Mr. Cat. The first time he expressed that "cats fending for themselves" line, I should have backed out of the deal. I didn't, though, and angry and weird as this guy John came across to me, I was so determined to get rid of Mr. Cat, I left him there.
Over the course of a few weeks, I went over to check on him maybe half a dozen times. Leroy and Mr. Cat were far from friends, but at least they were not fighting. Leroy had the back of the easy chair. Mr. Cat had the arm of the couch. You couldn't make them touch each other's noses, though. John had given them separate food and water bowls. The situation wasn't ideal, but I convinced myself Mr. Cat was going to be OK. He looked brushed. John knew all about his special needs.
John and I decided it was best for me not to come around and visit anymore. We didn't want Mr. Cat to sit around waiting for me to take him home. We wanted him to start thinking that was where he lived. I did sneak around one time around a month later and left a 25 pound bag of his special cat food on the back steps. John didn't have a lot of money.
A month later, I moved. I had all my stuff shipped out from San Diego and set up housekeeping in a one-bedroom, no-pets apartment very close to work. The bathroom was directly attached to the bedroom. Even if Mr. Cat were allowed to live there, his cat box would stink up my bedroom something fierce at night. It was strange to live without him. I missed him a lot. I would see him out of the corner of my eye sometimes, but what I saw would turn out to be a pile of clothes or something. I thought I heard him crying for me a couple of times, but I figured it was my imagination.
After a while I began to enjoy not having to take care of Mr. Cat, and since I had gotten used to thinking of myself as a travelling consultant, I felt I had done the right thing gearing myself for less complicated travel here and there to work on future contract programming assignments.
I stayed on that contract for an additional eight months. Gradually I got the idea that I had acquired such good experience on that job I could probably land a job in San Diego without too much trouble. I knew from previous experience looking for work in San Diego that to find a job there you have to live in town. So many tourists who come to San Diego test the waters to see if they can relocate there that local companies tend not to pay too much attention to resumes with an out-of-town address. I decided to move back to San Diego. I also decided that since I was going to look for permanent work in San Diego - and would not be traveling anymore - I would offer John a couple hundred bucks and see if he'd let me take Mr. Cat back home with me. I was going to buy a house in San Diego, too. This contract had set me up with all sorts of advantages - marketable experience (I thought) and a pretty serious bank account. I was going to avail myself of my opportunities.
John had a strange way of answering the phone. Instead of saying, "Hello," he would bark at you, in the monotonic voice in which he spoke, "You may speak." I mentioned that to some people, and although they agreed it was strange, it seems everyone knew someone who answered the phone a little funny.
"Hi, John," I said. "How's it going?"
"Your cat is dead," he barked.
I was stunned. It took me a few seconds to gather myself together. "What happened?" I asked.
"His hair started falling out, and he died."
Mr. Cat had probably been bitten by a flea. I had explained all the symptoms of Mr. Cat's allergy to fleas to John before I brought him over there. Reminding him about that now wouldn't bring back Mr. Cat. I stood quiet.
"I thought you told me he wasn't sick," he barked.
"I didn't think he was," I said, not permitting any of my anger to show. "Did you have him put to sleep?"
"He died," John brayed. I winced inaudibly.
"How long ago did it happen?" I asked.
"About a month."
I didn't ask him why he didn't call.
"OK, John. Good-bye," I said.
I sat at my kitchen table wide-eyed feeling weak and sad.
In June, 1995, I drove onto the freeway in Omaha, Nebraska for the last time, heading west. Three days later I rented an apartment in Pacific Beach. I had quit a job that paid more than $100,000 a year. I had $90,000 in the bank. Mr. Cat was dead. I had made a terrible mistake.
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