Center of the Universe (46)
Breaking News from the Cul-de-sac
That ether-mixed-with-garbage smell is drifting through again. After a minute or two, I have to duck inside, where Roni says, “I feel dizzy.” I don’t say it, won’t say it — because I’m loathe to give in to hypochondria or reinforce even the most sensible worries of others — but I do, too. Second day this week. Doesn’t seem to take much to send you spinning — did it just make me stumble? (And will I get cancer later?) Don’t be neurotic. Couple minutes of ether-trash cloud two or three times a week should be nothing to a guy who used to regularly huff to the edge of pass-out.
But these sweet-and-sour poppers are truly nauseating.
It’s Saturday, and I’m on the deck, per usual. And, per usual, the hammers are banging and power tools buzzing, along with the Spanish conversation, at the construction site catercorner to us. Guy’s been working on his house, a perilously ramshackle two-story piece of shit, for more than a year. And it doesn’t take long to guess, doing so without a permit. That’s why the work and the noise — and now the ether — ramp up Saturdays and Sundays. And why the sheetrock and plywood are delivered late Fridays. Less time to get peeped by an inspector. And when I say he’s working on his house, I mean a dedicated cadre of Latino construction workers is doing it, and he’s nowhere to be seen. Another neighbor told me he’s an architect. Which makes sense. Not only because he could do his own plans and oversee his own construction, but, if he’s from Fairfax, he knows our building inspector, with limited weekday hours, no weekends, is swamped.
As an architect, he would also know how much he could add or re-do without getting nailed in the final inspection that’s mandatory when a house is sold. Which I assume is the goal. To flip the dump. It looks like a big house (though I’ve never been in, and only met one previous resident, who came over to apologize for making flames come out of the socket in Josey’s room). It’s an extra large lot — albeit, vertical — covered with tall, elegant trees — albeit, eucalyptus, whose shallow roots make them first to tumble in a good blow. It also looks like it would have a panoramic view of the Ross Valley from its wraparound deck. And it started as such an obvious piece of cobbled-together-by-stoners crap (we didn’t even bother to walk the 50 feet to the Open House) that they must have bought it for a song. Couple hundred grand at most. And in this county, day and age, even in a stubborn old hippie town too far away, a house like that — if you could make it less obvious of a p.o.s., while making it just a little more solid, you might flip for seven- or eight-hundred. After paying for an off-the-books crew and cheap materials, that’s a tidy profit.
He has what appears to be his wife and a couple of kids in residence, and maybe himself. So I might be wrong about the flipping. And maybe I should be more sympathetic to a young couple bootstrapping into the upper-middle class — though I have never, and would never, complain or narc him to the town. But the chemical warfare is testing my old live-and-let-live. And the whole thing has bugged me at least a little from the git. It infuriates Roni. Who may be a crazy artist, given to the most whimsical observations, but comes from Brooklyn, back when that meant, let’s just say, unsentimental, and has always had more practical sense than me. I think she starts from the notion that these regulations were put in place for a reason.
There are three houses on the cul-de-sac — which on the map is more a blob-like tumor at the hairpin of a meandering string and marks the point where the street changes its name from Anglo-Saxon surname to Spanish for a California shrub. In real life, at scale, the string where we live is still too narrow to be two-way (but is) and almost too sparsely paved to qualify as a road — let alone, as it proclaims in the Anglo section, an “avenue.” Maybe it’s a metaphor. In any case, I won’t name street-names here, on the off chance one of the 38 readers is a local building inspector. If The Man wants directions, she’ll just have to go back through chapters 1–45 and find them herself.
All three houses, it dawns on me, were shit when we moved in. Somehow, even Fairfax-style progress had passed this little map-tumor by. And if our place won on curb appeal, it turned out to be riddled, inside and out, with leaky, leaning, decomposing and imponderable quirks. But it, too, was cheap, and we figured we could squeeze another fifty grand out of the mortgage — also cheap — to make the improvements. Well, home renovation as a financial black hole is a story as old as Mr. Blandings or Tom Hanks, so I won’t burden you. Suffice to say that, while they tell you never to hire friends, we hired the bassist and keyboard player from my band, along with our former downstairs neighbor, then in transition from being a sea captain. And now we’ve spent the last year paying bass and keys all over again to fix just a few of the improvements Cap (now lost at sea) and the boys made decades back.
Confirming, once again, that “they” often know what they’re talking about.
The other cul-de-sac house, which looms over us, just above the trail, makes the amateur construction of ours look like Jay Z’s crib in the Hamptons. Not sure it’s been painted, plastered or caulked since the first Nixon administration — though I’m pretty sure it got a new hot water heater, because the old one’s been laying in the driveway for ten years. And while I can hang with that, I do worry the house is going to slide the few steep yards onto our roof one day. Or somehow set both houses alight. But live and let live, right? And the funk of his joint was no doubt a factor in the low price of ours. And, until now, I’ve gotten along with the owner, a crusty old hunting enthusiast who’s lived in the house forever — since (I gather) he inherited it — who never really leaves the house — except pre-dawn with his retriever to hunt and fish — who, in the unlikely event he ever voted, would definitely be choosing a candidate based on capacity for vitriol — an Orange Supremacist, for example — and who is not technically old, but my age. He’s also, I discovered, a supremacist in his own right. Or maybe, like so many, just freshly emboldened.
There was a ruckus in the cul-de-sac, which is rare. I ignored it because I prefer to keep doing what I’m doing — which is often something like this and requires a certain sustained focus. And, generally, a ruckus in this neighborhood turns out to be boring. Pure, stupid distraction. Although the last time I was moved to bestir myself, mid-chapter, it was the high-decibel impact of two teenagers not quite making the hairpin and crashing a stolen pickup into the wooden guardrail. When I emerged on the scene then, I found the driver’s door open, engine running, teens nowhere to be found (not yet) and front wheels dangling over the blackberry-choked pit that’s secretly part of our property. This time the noise was less percussive, but more sustained, still going on when I glimpsed through gauzy/dirty curtains the pulsing blue of local justice.
Time to investigate.
I should explain that the parking situation in the cul-de-sac is less than ideal, but custom long ago established whose car goes where, and the retired symphony violinist who lives in the next house down, gets to park his white truck beneath the hairpin in the nook he carved himself. It’s a shitty spot and makes the narrow road more so, and our firefighter friend Otis told us the real problem is that firetrucks might not be able to make the turn, and it drives Roni crazy because she swears there used to be a No Parking sign there. And now a gray van was parked right in front of Carl’s truck, and somebody was in the street shouting. But not Carl, who mostly lets his bow do the talking.
It was the Great White Hunter.
What I’d missed earlier is that, before he’d tucked in with Carl, the hapless van driver had tried to park behind the 20-year-old blue pickup — the dirty one with the busted shell and NRA sticker — that belongs, of course, to the Hunter. And in these parts, that’s close to a capital crime. And it doesn’t even have to be right behind, actually blocking. It only has to be partly blocking or threatening to block. And it doesn’t have to be for long. A quick pick-up or drop-off will do (as our visiting friends have learned well). Because apparently one of the things our Great White neighbor is doing when barricaded in his fortress of simmering solitude is waiting for someone to go near his nasty old truck. And it doesn’t matter who.
Until it does.
Because here, with a cop in the middle, he was excoriating a brown-skinned man — familiar as one of the construction workers — who might have been forgiven for not understanding — I mean on a human level — what had gotten whitey so mad, but who probably understood better than a gringo could in any language. The ruckus had been going for a good five minutes, a long five minutes, when I figured out what it was really about and stepped out the front door. I imagined that his neighbor bearing witness might shame a neighbor.
“Why don’t you go the hell back home!” he raged at the impassive workman. “Get the hell out of here, you people…”
And he wasn’t talking about construction workers.
Not only had an un-white working stiff displayed the unmitigated, un-American gall to encroach on Carl’s dubious spot, he’d first had the gall to try and park near a raggedy blue truck.The rant went on five more minutes, before, in the face of an officer and a witness, the Hunter reluctantly let it go. And as the white cop returned to writing a parking ticket for the brown man, my neighbor turned to recruit me.
“These people…” he started in, puffing from the orgasm of unhingement. But when I declined to take his side, he tried a new tack.
“These people!” he exclaimed, turning again to address the cul-de-sac. Actually, it was the same old tack. And seemed to have another minute or two of life.
I didn’t walk away, because I was surprised at what I was hearing — in a stubborn old hippie town — and slightly fearful for the construction worker, and not at all bored — just depressed at another ugly sign of the times. And eventually the workman went back to work and the cop drove off and the G.W.H. casually turned the conversation to the burgeoning coyote population here on the hill.
Shuffling closer, widening his eyes, he leaned in to confide, “Shot three of ’em last month!”
“Here? In the cul-de-sac?” I asked, not fully masking my alarm.
“Three of ‘em! Right there — “ He pointed to a nearby spot on the trail, which also happened to be near my kids’ old bedrooms and, more recently, my end of the couch. “Shot ’em with my .22.”
“There?” I said, with as much disbelief as I thought safe to show. And he nodded his head sharply and cackled. “Three!”
And that, sorry to say, is the news from the cul-de-sac.
Back to you.