Center of the Universe (67)
The Holes in the Parade
“I love the holes!” said Alex. And having cheered myself hoarse in front of 34 of the 42 Fairfax Festival parades, I instantly knew what he meant. The gaps. The weird spaces between marching units. The inexplicable lulls that make you think the thing is over, when there’s still an hour to go. That’s my funky home. And I know the day the parade marches crisply down Broadway and pivots smartly onto Bolinas, one professionally-painted float, factory-made art car and Disney-cast Cub Scout den after another, with nary a twitch or tarry, will surely be the day it’s all over for Mayberry-on-Acid, the collapse of the offbeat multiverse with a house-made Brazilian-Korean-Italian meatball at its center. This is a town that, every year, first week of June, marches — quantifiably — to the beat of a different drummer. Long may its syncopation wave.
There are no holes in Alex’s parade of conversation. He’s as excitable as I am. He tells me about his obscure mathy work and his recalcitrant teenager and his upcoming family vacation to the coast of Maine and his one after that to New York and local music shows I should go to and the latest on mutual friends from the neighborhood (they live three blocks from us) and from Credo Mobile — the hippie phone company and 14-year customer of our ad agency, where Alex met Lisa, and I met both of them — and goes on to tell me about my own work, or at least my own company, where he spends more time than I do these days, coaching digital strategists on how to carry the 3, or something. Then he makes his annual announcement to the posse that always accompanies him to the parade — among them a recruiter and home brewer named Stacy, who, Alex reports, with all due overexcitement, has just turned her San Anselmo garage into a bar! — about how next year he is going to nominate me, as a local scribe of imagined semi-repute, for parade grand marshal, a prospect I used to find embarrassing, but now secretly wish for, even as it dawns on me — finally — that it’s just a joke. Alex’s wife takes a more measured approach to dispensing information and brings a more jaundiced eye, often resulting in amusing, sotto voce apercus. But this year Lisa said she took my advice and read Milkman — Anna Burns’s beautifully composed, unbearably tense Northern Ireland novel everyone who likes writing should read — and loved it.
We always catch up with Alex and Lisa at the parade. We catch up with a lot of people at the parade, as if filling in the gaps of a life that’s no longer quite so social. We shared embraces with Nick and Katie somewhere between the Boy Scouts’ kielbasa booth and Native Sons’ nine-tap rolling brewpub, and though Roni was worried — since I wrote about them, affectionately, but intimately, in last year’s festival installment — they weren’t mad in any obvious way. So far, no one’s been, in any obvious way, except Giovanni, who to be fair dispatched his vague message of discontent second-hand. We missed Val, who’d texted an hour earlier that she was, stage-right, watching San Geronimo, but ran into one of her 18 kids in the flea market grove. We filled in gaps with the mother of Zoe, Josey’s old pal, at the EcoFest Pavilion (except what her name is) and the parents of Beau, Hardie’s bud, by the Redwood Stage. We even made specific plans, as one does on festival weekend, to fill in the gaps with a couple of San Francisco friends.
Dasha is Russian, brought to the States by her parents in the Soviet aftermath. Shem, another post-Commie immigrant kid, is Polish — his name is actually spelled P-R-Z-E-M. Originally, they were friends of our daughter’s, who met them at a late-night soiree in the Mission and mentioned her brother had been living in Russia for eight years. Later, I recommended Dasha for an accounting gig at our office, and, over the six years she worked at DC, they became our friends, too. When they were planning their wedding six years ago, Dasha asked me, in my role as the agency’s defrocked music critic, if I knew any accordionists who could play both Russian and Polish songs. Did I?! I insisted they come for a Friday at Sorellas and check out this guy Giovanni, who in addition to Italian is fluent in the ceremonial musical shmaltz of Russia and Poland. Germany, too. America, too. He busted out a few of their native faves, and they signed him on the spot (which resulted in Gio summoning me to the stage at the reception to sing “Brown-Eyed Girl,” the tune we often did together at Sorellas and not native at all, but embarrassing for other reasons). They’d also heard a lot from Josey about the Fairfax Festival. So we offered a standing invitation to stay over and see for themselves. This year, they did.
Like I said, I get excited. And as the weekend approached — me waking every day and having to be talked down by my wife that, no, it wasn’t Friday, it was Monday — I got just that. I like Dasha and Shem, a lot. Among other stellar qualities, I find them warm, funny, smart, lively, honest, down-to-earth, enterprising and exotic — coming from Eastern Europe and beyond — and at the same time, not exotic — coming from, and deeply shaped by, American high school, American college and an American cow town called Sacramento. I also find them young, which compared to me they are — about a year younger than Jo — which means maybe maybe (fingers-crossed) after Sorellas they’ll want to go out to the Fairfax bars, and we can meet freaks, have stupid adventures, share absurd laughs and stockpile tantalizing fragments of anecdote, just like we (me and Roni, not them) used to. I also know that Kang, whom they’d met briefly during the Giovanni audition, will be jazzed to chat international relations (Shem’s major at UC Davis — “IR,” he called it, authoritatively, at dinner) and exchange reflections on growing up in a worker’s paradise, as, remarkably, all three of them — Dasha, Shem, Kang — did. And, honestly, I think for an agitated constitution like mine, it was a mistake, 40-some years ago, to pursue a writing career — much as I love it in the moments the fingers are flying. It’s that writerly sitting in silence, alone, five-to-seven days a week, that leaves me dangerously stir-crazy by the time whatever a writer defines as the weekend rolls around.
There’s a TV commercial for a scary drug designed to treat bipolar (and possibly kill you or make you kill someone else). A young woman gets all hyped up in the middle of the night and orders a dozen expensive DSLR cameras, but after taking her pills sends the cameras back. Well, that’s me and this weekend — without the pills and without sending a single thing back. I ordered a gas grill, outdoor gas heater, several strings of those old-fashiony outdoor lights and a few dozen battery-powered votive candles. I bought enough craft beer, in a variety of shades, black to blond, to drown a UC Davis frat house. I picked up a case of white wine, knowing I already had a couple cases of red, and made sure to charge up the cannabis vape pen I’d bought the week before, this weekend in mind. I purchased a bundle of perforated pans to use on the new grill, having promised the guests al fresco breakfast Sunday, and raced down to Corte Madera for not one, but four bottles of that bloody mary mix, Diane’s, that gave me a tastebud ejaculation at the Virgin Hotel opening a few weeks prior, having promised the guests top-of-the-line hair-of-the-dog, before dashing back to Woodlands to pick up four pounds of thick-cut, butcher-counter bacon, a couple dozen free-range eggs and a bushel, more or less, of fresh fruit. For two people. Four, counting us. Granted, it was a helluva breakfast (and a helluva pricetag). But, I mean, somebody grab the Zyproxanite.
I think this whole Keith Richards thing has got me shook. Not that he died. (He didn’t.) That he may never, now that he’s quit drinking. Just got sorta bored with it, he said. And between the pain of the anticipatory steam, the pain of the post-frolic deflation and all that strobey murk in-between, year after year after year, I sorta know what Keith means. No, I worry I know exactly what he means. More than that, I worry I’m going to do exactly what he did, and how the fuck boring would that be?!? As W.C. Fields famously put it: “I pity the man who doesn’t drink, because when they get up in the morning, it’s as good as they’ll feel all day.” And in this hamlet of 7,500, with five bars delivering a thousand-percent more per-capita feel-good opportunities, classic sticky dives that also offer smoky smoking porches, skunky pot-smoking backyards and, in Peri’s — signed outside with that magnificent white neon flourish on a black glass facade — an Edward Hopper-empty pool room where Giovanni cold-cocked a guy who may have been giving him shit during a friendly contest of eight-ball (I didn’t mention that in the reco to Dasha and Shem), what a waste!
Having convinced you I’m a dedicated drunkard, in dire need of intervention, let me complicate the picture by saying I’ve also abstained for extended patches. I don’t bruit it about much, in deference to my persona, but most of the 20 years we were raising kids I didn’t drink a dram. Because, amid vulnerable babies — unable themselves to reach the brake or gas — and a stubborn bride from Brooklyn who’d grown up riding subways, buses and taxis and failed to see much of a point, I was the only one ready, willing and able to drive. Figured I had to stay sober for the midnight ER run. And for most of the past six months, in deference to my supermodeling, I’ve been trying not to drink during the week — the “trying” signifying that I succeed at least three of those days. Sometimes two.
But I assure you, dear reader, I was that dedicated drunkard in my youth, dedicated enough that the drunkards around me felt compelled to warn I was either going to kill myself or get killed. To me in those days, a night out worthy of the name was one where — forget strobey, think ink-black — my friend Eddie had to tell me what I’d done. And there were many of those in any one week. I reasoned, as other impulsive, immature, troubled sorts before and after me have, that the purpose of drinking was to get drunk. And the purpose of getting drunk was to be funnier, sexier, bolder, more free. More than any other mofo on the mofo planet, mofo! I assured a former principal, as I slammed him to the paint in a headlock. So, yes, I was bad. And surpassingly obnoxious.
At this late date, I could argue, it’s not so much I’m afraid of abandoning alcohol as abandoning all that. Youth, hope and — no matter how misplaced — passion. What about time travel? Set the controls for the heart of the seventies. Back to the skinny longhair peeking over the top of this blog. Blob. But to what end? To push the end away — even as the fermented toxins hasten it? To do it all again? Fill in holes?
But when I’m up in my mania, I don’t listen, not to scary drug ads, not even to Keef. So we strolled down to Sorellas with Dasha and Shem, where Shem laid his “I.R.” mojo on Kang, and John Molloy said you gotta see my friend’s amazing band, and Tim the other bass player and Mary, an editor, came by the table and said they were on their way. And, after uncounted bottles of Joy Juice Siciliano, we skipped, danced and stumbled behind them down to Peri’s. When Mary found the smoking porch too smoky, Tim said let’s go out in the backyard, where we hardly ever go. And I never noticed that the ping-pong table back there is actually a regular picnic table, about half the width of regulation, that someone clamped a net on. And we chatted about church with some earnest drunken ladies out in their looking-for-love plungiest. And some lumber-jack beardos who came over to peep. But mostly it was Sea of Holes.
What I do remember is the weather was perfect in the backyard, and it was wonderful sitting on some kind of local log and looking up at the stars and at the large lighted shamrock left over from St. Patrick’s Day 1982, forty feet up in the redwood behind the bar down the block. And it never even occurred to any of us to go back inside for John’s friend’s amazing band. And at some late hour, we left, I impute, and climbed the 45-degree hill home, which must have been a bitch. And I served up more beer and/or wine on our back deck and, since it had turned chilly, tried to light the new outdoor heater. Click-click-click-click. And after I gave up, Shem — embodying yet another quality I admire: competence — figured it out. “You didn’t turn on the gas,” he called through the haze. And then, as I am wont to do when it’s well past the point, I pulled out the diligently charged vape pen, took a hit and instantly, mid-sentence — or so my associates have testified — chin into chest, self into hole.
Sunday morning was a little rough, I’ll confess. And having shot my mouth off about breakfast, I got up early and tried to deliver on the promise. Eventually our guests emerged and the meal was scrumptious — I mean, how can you argue with four pounds of crispy bacon from the grill? — and the top-of-the-line hair-of-the-dog restored some illusory semblance of health and we sat around and talked for hours, about not much, mostly just appreciating each other’s company, until we stopped, depleted from the night, every one of us, no more gas in the propane tank, and, yes, maybe even a little bored. And eventually a good son of Poland had the sheer competence to say, “Look at the time…”
And Sunday night, sometime after nine, as I was sitting outside solo, stuck, still trying to snap the Legos back together, but enjoying relief from the king-hell heatwave that had arrived that day, I was thinking about holes — in your life and liver and parade — and started tapping this out on the laptop and felt, all at once, enormously better. Intoxicated, even. And to prove it, just before I wearied of slapping mosquitos (a disturbing new feature of life in NorCal this record rainfall year) and packed it in, I came up with an ending that, at the time, felt like pure, blinding ninja:
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.