Center of the Universe (51)
Ceremony of the 14 Bags? Miracle of the 14 Bags? All Bags Day? Whatever you want to call it, we’ve been preparing furiously.
Twice yearly — unbeknownst, it seems, to most Fairfax citizens (but not my small-print-reading bride) — the local waste cartel lets residents put out 14 bags of trash and/or recycling, 12 more than usual, at no extra charge. But more than the thrill of saving the $38 for a spring-cleaning disgorgement at the dump, along with the relief of not having to drive there in a shiny new (psychologically speaking) car stuffed with greasy, grimy, jagged things, the Feast of the 14 Bags turned out to be an unexpected occasion for reflection.
The house hadn’t been seriously culled and cleaned since before our kids left for college, which is more than a decade-and-a-half ago. And since we’d been spending most of our time in the city the last five years, the neglect had seemed to compound. It was a fixer-upper to begin with, half of it added in the wild-west, pre-code era by hammer-happy amateurs, and one we never finished unpacking, let alone fixing up, having long ago decided that we had paintings to paint, writings to write and somewhere in there businesses and children to run — better things to do with our lifespans. So the dust-bunnies propagated licentiously, the towers of books and CDs grew tippier, the stain under the kitchen linoleum creeped ever wider, as the floor got warpier, and the ceiling around the heater dropped paint chips like eggshell snow. And the cobwebs and the cobwebs and the cobwebs.
Meantime, the kids’ old bedrooms got fuller — eventually impenetrable — as the stuff we couldn’t bear to throw out was thrown in with the stuff they couldn’t. And when friends came to call, we made sure to shut the bedroom doors, but not before evacuating the paper-goods heaped on the dinner and coffee tables —“temporarily” stashing bills, catalogues, programs, manuals, magazines with “SAVE” scribbled on the front, business cards, napkins with email addresses, art books, tree books, notebooks and bird-watching guides in new and old heaps under and around the beds. But with no way to say no to a beloved sister-in-law and her two friends, traveling cross-country on Florida teacher pensions, pleading to stay in those bedrooms while we visited our son, now astonishingly grown, in Asheville, we did the one thing we could to avoid abject humiliation: embrace the 14.
El Día de las Catorce Bolsas.
If the prior post was about what I discovered in the Fairfax jungle — birdsong and mountain bikes — this is about the jungle I discovered in our four walls. And sometimes, when big round spiders scrambled out from under an old Amazon box labeled “Important Papers” or I found another worm-like creature stuck to the bottom of a Hertz receipt from Orlando in 2008, they were one and the same. We never found a mouse, thankfully. But we did find a rhinoceros — the little plush one John Morthland, our first-born’s first visitor, gave her in New York — as well as the plush cat we called Stuffed Ivy, because she looked just like our actual black-and-white feline, whose ashes are somewhere on that dusty, jampacked breakfront, one or two shelves above the incinerated remains of her unlikely companion, our Corgi.
We found implements of pot smoking in both kids’ rooms — including a bong in the form of an old-timey gas station pump. And a notebook of adolescent agonizing — a distressing slurry of guilt, fear, poetry and braggadocio — about meth. There were Mel Bay books from when one was studying violin, the other tenor sax. There were posters from movies like “Josie and the Pussycats,” the 2003 Crispin Glover remake of “Willard” and “21 Grams” (with Sean Penn), collected when both were working at the Fairfax Theatre — occasionally serving up popcorn to none other than Mr. Penn, then ensconced in nearby Ross. Somewhere in the strata of t-shirts, sneakers, toys, records, books, DVDs, trophies, and post-pubescent implements of mayhem in our son’s hovel were spools of movie trailers, actual 35 mm film the theatre threw out at the end of a run and that, as a cinephile — with distinct hoarder tendencies — who’d ascended from candy counter to projection booth at 16, he could not pass up.
In every room was a cache of ticket stubs from long-ago concerts: No Doubt at Shoreline (our daughter’s first show, with me as chaperone for her and three classmates), Korn at Oakland Arena (our son’s first), DJ Shadow at the Warfield, Dem Franchize Boyz at the Sonoma County Fair, Guided by Voices at Bottom of the Hill and Bruce Springsteen, solo, at the Paramount in Oakland. That was the time Roni and I dragged our 17-year-old backstage — not then much of a fan of either Bruce or his parents — and Springsteen threw an arm around my shoulder and said to my son: “Boy, I could tell you stories.” Which is one of the stories in my thinly-veiled memoir of a novel.
Point being, what are you supposed to do with ticket stubs? What about memories?
There was an Oscar the Grouch finger-puppet from when they both loved “Sesame Street” and a Lisa Simpson Pez dispenser from when we all loved “The Simpsons.” In our daughter’s mess, there was a My Little Pony — sole survivor of the nine she obsessed over when we lived on Dominga, just around the corner from the combo Chinese/sushi restaurant that would soon become Sorellas. Jumping five years ahead in the pop culture trendline, I found the choke-chain necklace our baby wore the day she defied orders and got her nose pierced, sneaking into the house, awkwardly propping a hand beside her right nostril to conceal it. On her wall was a snapshot of her prom date Stevie and another of her best friend Chelsea — who we lost, inexplicably, long after all the kids seemed safe from the misadventures of youth. In pencil on the wall, a quotation from Bradley Nowell of Sublime, who became the first intimation of loss for the middle school class of ’97 when he OD’d in a motel out by the zoo.
“Good music is good music and that’s all that really matters,” Bradley apparently said. I’m not sure who either of them — Bradley or my daughter — was arguing with at the time (or if that quote would win), but point taken.
There was our son’s Pog collection — boxes and boxes of the silver-dollar-sized plastic disks that were as mysteriously valuable to schoolkids in that day as bitcoin is to finance bros in this — as well as his extensive baseball card collection, which became twice as extensive when our friend Kevin Berger on the threshold of middle-age decided he could finally part with his. There was the skateboard that earned our boy his first ticket — for skating home from the theatre on the sidewalk — which he fought and won. There was one wood and one aluminum baseball bat, along with a ball signed by Will “The Thrill” Clark, from when, after dropping his sister down south at arts camp, the three of us motored on to Giants’ spring training in Arizona. And secreted in a sock in a cigar box, stuffed way under his bed, was a chrome pistol. It took me a startled minute or two to figure out if it was as real as it looked (first thing I did, summoning my training from cop shows, was check it wasn’t loaded), but finally decided it must be a starter pistol. Or that’s what I told Roni.
And what do you do with that?
The truth is, we kept a lot of things. I assembled a box for each of the kids labeled with their initials and the designation “Important Stuff.” And after I filled those, I started filling others. And I’m not mentioning all the useless crap of mine and Roni’s that may or may not have made it to the bags. For instance, a Wall Street Journal article from 17 years ago about how MTV so deftly keeps up with The Youth and a photocopy of an editorial from the Memphis Commercial-Appeal that my mother — and others from the Dixie side of the family — send me every Easter when it’s reprinted. “Jesus, the Perfect Man” is the headline, but I’m not sure I ever read beyond that. It was written by managing editor C.P.J. Mooney, my great-grandfather, who would later win the paper a Pulitzer for inveighing against the KKK. There was a dispiriting letter from one of my editors about one of my books — a quickie, written for fast cash, about dead rock stars — who said the lyrics cited in the manuscript would cost a fortune and take forever to secure. He urged a complete rewrite. And there were notebooks filled with brilliant notions for other books, movies, TV shows, magazine stories and mock-operas that seem now about as brilliant as the tarnished bathroom fixtures. Tucked into a corner were the skis, boots and poles I bought with heedless overenthusiasm when our agency won the Heavenly account — even though I didn’t really know how to ski and never would. There were dozens of Mix magazines, from when I was trying to set up a studio downstairs and gooning out on music gear, and almost as many of Mountain Bike and Fat Tire Flyer, from when I was commuting through the woods to the Larkspur ferry and, on occasion, all the way to my cubicle at Levi’s Plaza. 23 miles.
Roni found forgotten drawings, paintings and correspondence — including from Tony Politi, her lifelong suitor, when he was in Vietnam — before he was in prison — and photos that blew our minds, including that cropped, crime-scene Polaroid of me shaved (not on my head) and gruesomely stitched, post-appendectomy. In a folder under a pile in her closet was our kid’s acceptance letter to Reed, confetti still inside. X-rays of her father’s back. X-rays of her own knee when she tore the ligament. A handkerchief with a big, embroidered L left by Lottie, well-deserved favorite among Roni’s vast mob of aunts. And an uncashed check for $5 from Patti Smith, long before her old New York pal was serenading the Nobel ceremony and installed in any Hall of Fame (payback for when Roni picked up the tab at the Pink Teacup, the late-night soul-food dive off Bleecker).
We found my old black leather jacket in one pile. And then in another a snapshot of me, 50 pounds younger, standing on a coastal bluff in the jacket, wind in my hair. When I had hair. There were hand-hewn holiday cards from the kids, goofy, telling crayon portraits, embellished with glittering stars, framed with popsicle sticks. There was the Marge Simpson doll our daughter gave her mom for Mother’s Day, and the hermit crab terrarium our son brought home for her birthday — when he was young enough to be sweet, but clearly on his way to cheeky. And there were flashlights, in every nook and burial mound. Enough flashlights, in enough shapes, colors and sizes — big, little, waterproof, freestanding, flexible — to start a flashlight museum. Which, come to think of it, might want to share a Rem Koolhaas building with our cellphone museum, because we found a lot of those, too — bricks, flips, Razrs. Roni found that, once upon a time, we tried to grow up and write a will — along with official instructions to the children on when to pull the plug — and after popping for an actual lawyer, filed the documents in a secure, but memorable, place that we could never remember. Until now.
But you’re not gonna put that in a trash bag.
We had enough other junk that it wasn’t hard to fill up the bags, especially after Steve—bassist extraordinaire for Wendy’s band, of course — and his contractor buddy Chris replaced the disintegrating kitchen floor (that was worth a couple bags). And at the end of every long, dusty day — physically and emotionally trashed — we would count how many bags were left.
There was junk we almost didn’t find because it had been there so long. Hiding in plain sight. It wasn’t until I thought our bedroom was entirely clean, cleaner than it had been in 15 years, that I noticed there were two big boxes piled in front of my bedside table, making it impossible — for most of those years — to open the drawers. In the top one was a clipping from my father, who preferred to communicate with his children like a kidnapper, with cut-up newspapers. This message arrived on the occasion of our purchase, 19 years before, 10 years before he passed, of a fixer-upper on a hill in Fairfax. The article, an odd choice for my all-business pa, was a kind of household hints piece and said it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to make your house look good and can really pay off (everything in pop’s world had to pay off) when the boss comes for dinner. Per usual, the story was copiously underlined, with lots of exclamations and checkmarks. In the margin at the top, in a print-like hand, he’d written: “Ideas for Bob!” I studied it way too long, at the end of a long, dusty week, looking in part for evidence of dementia — the nonsensical underlines and annotations that marked his missives toward the end — before realizing that my father’s handwriting would be the last thing I saw as I cinched bag 14.