Wednesday, September 1, 2010

* * Hey Jack, Ker-o-ack! * *

Shift #78

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26 -- Desolation Peak -- What’s it matter?


ACHING SHOULDERS
and tingly arms-forearms-hands wake me up. Digital red alarm clock numbers say 4:32 and I lie there for a while thinking how all the typing I’ve done over the years is catching up to me and My god will I ever be able to write again without it hurting me? If not, wouldn’t that be the shits! Already it’s the shits, something you love actually bringing you physical pain... It’s been heading this way for years and years, and I’ve been trying to figure out some way to dodge it, but here it is, waking me up in the night hurting so much. And if I can’t write, how will I find out Who am I? I think thoughts like this until about five and then I’m up feeding the dog Maggie and checking what the sportswriters are saying about my Giants’ ugly stumble in Colorado last night that knocks us back out of first place, half a game behind those damn Padres. Bottom of the ninth big Troy Tulowitzki double off the wall against our All-Star closer Brian Wilson. I put on baggy shorts, my first “shorts day” of the year, supposed to be a hot one. Thank God we’ve finally got summer arriving here finally for what seems like for real finally on September 26. I drive across the Bay Bridge in the dark, moon just two days past full, thinking about my arms and how I definitely should do more exercises and isn’t it too ironic that for nearly three decades I used to do yoga and stretching every day and now that I probably need all that good flexibility stuff more than ever I just can’t hardly make myself do it but about one day a week and only if it hurts real bad that day. At the cab lot there’s another Green Cab driver, Austin, who travels to Asia and Mexico all the time and lately he’s been reading my first book and now he tells me he wants “a case of them” to give as gifts to people he knows. I say Oh my that’s a lot of books, I’ll see what I can do because it’s out of print. And then I’m in my cab and there’s a radio order at Castro and Army a guy standing in the dark on the street in front of his house says he saw my headlights coming over the hill from Market Street, watched me the last ten-twelve blocks, says I had my high beams on the whole way but I don’t think I did. They’re not on now. I don’t ever mention my own writing to him, but it turns out he himself has written a book about the markings on coins and on bars of precious metals or something, it’s kind of a specialty book, he’s got some followers in the world of precious metals who think his book is pretty essential, costs $8.05 I think he said, odd number, and I can find it if I google hallmark research institute. I say that ten years ago the word google didn’t even mean anything to anyone and isn’t it amazing how fast we’re flying along through the twenty-first century 2010 already, which pretty much derails the conversation but we’re already there at the Alemany Street flea market where my fare likes to poke around on Sunday mornings -- $8.05 on the meter, how about that. The flea market’s already messy with people stumbling around in the still-dark 6:15 morning, but now I’m speeding down the freeway after a radio call for a woman named Marianna -- Mah-ree-AH-nah says the dispatcher -- waiting at the Glen Park BART station. She’s going to her clerk job at some store at the Potrero Center at Sixteenth and Bryant and since she doesn’t usually work on Sundays she didn't know BART doesn’t run early today so now I’m driving her. We’re quiet, I don’t know what she’s thinking but it’s probably about money, she’s very young and small and Latina and she works as a clerk and probably doesn’t make much money so she’s probably thinking about how much this is going to cost her all because of BART, and me I’m quiet too only thinking about how my arms ache all the time every day now dammit and How in the world am I going to get through this pain crisis like I got through my two-three years of screaming banshee back pain twenty years ago and who the hell will I be if I can’t write anymore? And wouldn’t my friends who are sick from cancer or Parkinson’s or mysteriously losing their voices and can’t speak but a whisper or the ones who are in wheelchairs and nursing homes -- my own age! -- wouldn’t they just snort if they heard me griping about a little problem with my arms and some bogus hollow existential dramas? But there ain’t no problems like your own problems, and no matter how much I try to feel bad for those other people I feel worse for myself and now I laugh because for sure we’re all going to die anyway and I think we’re all probably I hope going to have a good laugh after we do, and when we get to the end of the ride I tell MaryAhnah that it’s a free ride and she scoots forward up to the edge of the back seat and sits up real straight like she’s in full lotus position and she says soft and sweet, “Really?” I can tell this is wonderful news to her and when I say Yes, Really she says Thank You and just then I hear a radio call back over at Seventeenth and Shotwell and I do a U-turn so that I pass right by MaryAhnah as she’s walking off to her store and she waves to me and smiles real big and sweet and I beep and speed off before anyone else can beat me to the order. But nobody does and there he is a thirty-two-year-old white guy with glasses and some sort of soft cap on his head who for the last six years has been a “surgical tech” at a hospital up in Napa and yesterday he drove down for Oktoberfest with some friends who are all still asleep and last night he left his car over by the ballpark and now he needs to go get it and when I ask him about his hospital work -- has he already seen everything there is to see? -- he says Yep pretty much he has seen it all but just last week they had to amputate somebody’s toe and, strange, that sure made his stomach squirm. I tell him I once asked the same sort of question to a head-neck surgeon who told me he remembered being in med school and one day he and forty-nine other head-neck surgeon wannabes were all led into a refrigerated lab where there were fifty severed human heads sitting up on fifty tables waiting for all of them to practice on, staring ’em down, and he’s never going to forget that sight. Down by the ballpark we can see that the sun is just starting to twirl an orange flamenco skirt above the East Bay hills, the bay water is flat no-wind and the air is already a little toasty and you know it’s going to be hot and I’m glad I wore my shorts today. I drive through downtown, through the financial district where all the cab stands at all the hotels are all full barely even seven o’clock and I drive up Pine Street to the shi-shi Upper Fillmore part of Pacific Heights where there is still a light mist in the air and even though down by the ballpark it might have felt the way it feels at the beginning of a summer scorcher in Tucson or Dallas or Tulsa up here in Pacific Heights it’s cooler and pleasant like you want San Francisco to be and I can see that out toward Ocean Beach there’s just a little scrap of fog still. I park and go into Peet’s and buy a five-buck latte with a half pump of hazelnut and half pump vanilla and then walk across the street (newsrack headline says Legal Marijuana Looking Good in Polls) to Noah’s Bagels and buy a four-buck whole wheat sesame toasted with cream cheese and tomatoes and heated-up mushrooms and spinach please and go sit behind the wheel of Green Cab #914 listening to the dispatcher who isn’t saying much of anything today and my cabulous phone is dead quiet too and I eat and I sip my latte and I read the last ten pages of Dharma Bums which I’ve never read before. I’ve read Kerouac before, On The Road, but that was decades back and now I’m wondering just like I did decades ago How did this guy get published? He’s such a careless haphazard writer, no craft at all just a stream of any old thing he might be thinking, any old thing he wants to say like he was getting paid by the word or the random thought, no editing grammar punctuation like he just tipped his rucksack upside down and shook it and then popped all the drugs that tumbled out and now he’s remembering places he hitchhiked and mountains he sat on top of and parties he and a bunch of his friends had with jugs of wine where most everybody was naked. And I’m thinking, How hard is that? because I’ve been to my share of places and I’ve hitchhiked way more than my share of miles and I’ve sat on much higher mountaintops and I’ve danced at parties with my friends naked and big old jugs of wine -- I mean this Kerouac stuff, it’s like he’s stealing, it’s too easy -- like photography click-click where’s my money? But reading all his lame stories and all his lame musings on Enlightenment is mostly just embarrassing because he was writing all these things when I was five years old when every father in my neighborhood had a crewcut and went off to work for the government every morning and had two or maybe three weeks off every year and spent the other forty-nine or fifty weeks dreaming about climbing mountains and dreaming about seeing more than one woman naked at a time and lying in a meadow with a jug of wine on a bright afternoon and thinking any old damn thing he pleases instead of How’m I gonna get all four of these damn kids through college? It’s almost like Kerouac saw this crazy space and opened it up just a crack and a few years later all these hippie kids just like me, all these sons and daughters of straitjacket 1950s adults just like my parents, we hippie kids suddenly poured through that crack into that crazy space and attacked the world with our drug-filled backpacks and our crazy hair thinking we were doing something new and daring that had never been done before, but Kerouac had already done it all and had already gone ahead and written about all of it. Most all the places he’s writing about I realize are places I’ve been to now, like hiking in Marin or living in Oakland or watching the rocks at Rioanji Temple in Kyoto or hitchhiking all over this-land-is-your-land or going to Mexico -- hell, I went to San Miguel de Allende to write a book but Kerouac was already there thirty-five years before me. I moved to the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest and chopped down trees and built a log cabin but two decades before I even thought about doing that Kerouac spent a summer in a lookout tower on Desolation Peak in Washington state and if he had real good Forest Service binoculars he might’ve probably looked over into Idaho down at the meadow (both photos at right) where I built my cabin twenty years before I built it. Right now it’s too early to call my friend Blake in Corvallis or I would call him because just a couple of weeks ago in Yosemite Blake and I were sitting naked in the sun next to an icy snowmelt river we’d both just climbed out of and he pointed up to a far-off mountain and said, “That’s the mountain Kerouac and Gary Snyder climbed in Dharma Bums -- you should read it -- you might like it.” So as much as I fancy I’m not as lazy a writer as Kerouac and as much as I envy his fame and success mostly what I feel on this too-early-to-call-Blake-morning is just embarrassment. Every thought I ever thought, every place I’ve ever been, every thing I’ve ever done it’s all a repeat. And now outfront of Noah’s Bagels on Fillmore Street I read Kerouac’s last ten pages and think What a fraud I am! It’s clear like a prison searchlight pointing right in my eyes every thought I’ve ever thought has already been thought by at least a billion people, every place I’ve ever been has already been trampled over by at least a billion billion more and then written about by at least half a billion billion of them. Every hope and dream I’ve ever hoped and dreamed has already been endlessly hoped and endlessly dreamed, and every ache and pain I’ve ever ached and pained has already been ached and pained by a zillion zillion others. How did I ever delude myself that it was possible I might ever do something original? Save the world? Make some difference? Write a book that’ll always be remembered? All I’m going to do on this plane of existence is breathe some as-yet-uncertain number of breaths and then move on maybe to some other plane or to nowhere and nothing at all. I think again about calling Blake, but it’s too early, he’s got his family house full of kids and who really wants a call from some cab driver in San Francisco talking this kind of crap at 7:30 on any morning? But it’s definitely embarrassing reading all these stories about hitchhiking and traveling and Kerouac’s sophomoric enlightenment musings, just like mine, but maybe better. I’m so upset, really, that I switch on my gas-electric-hybrid engine and glide Green Cab #914 up Fillmore Street thinking I might just swing down through the Marina, maybe catch an airport fare off the radio, and if I don’t catch an airport fare I might just head on out to the Golden Gate Bridge and if I feel like it I might just keep on driving across and go on up to Desolation Peak or over to Idaho to visit my old cabin (right), but if I don’t feel like it I might just park on this side of the bridge and either get out and walk to the middle the way I sometimes do on slow Sunday mornings or else I’ll just sit there and look up at the bridge and dictate some of these Jack Kerouac thoughts of mine to my laptop. But when I hit the crest of Pacific Heights and I’m looking out between the Broadway mansions and down the ski jump steep part of Fillmore Street I see that even though the mist and fog have burned off from the whole city now, the Bridge itself is still smothered by a big tube of fog that’s pouring right through the Golden Gate and screaming across the Bay like one of those freight trains Kerouac hopped and which I never did, it’s big and fat and white and up above there’s nothing but more big and fat and blue and underneath there’s a bright stripe of the Marina green but all I can see of the bridge is the very tops of the two red towers sticking up out of Kerouac’s creamy freight train. If I park by the bridge I’ll just be sitting in fog. I look up the hill at Nancy Pelosi’s house which sometimes I drive past so I can count how many newspapers are scattered on her front sidewalk when she’s in DC or so I can look and see if the Secret Service is sitting out front inside one of their tinted black SUVs. But my heart’s not in any of that and I turn back toward downtown and drive through the Tenderloin until I’m flagged by a woman on Taylor at Geary right beside the Hilton Towers and first blink I think prostitute. She’s wearing a catchy little black and white schoolgirl thing that also kind of looks like a sailor’s outfit and she’s got a tough little face but she’s not wearing any makeup like most hookers I see so maybe she isn’t one after all. She says she needs to go to Seventh and Howard and when I start with my questions she tells me she was “born right up there at UCSF and raised right here in San Francisco” and the farthest away she has ever traveled is Arizona. She asks me how long I’ve been driving a cab and I give her my line about “I just started…twenty-five years ago” and she laughs and asks don’t I ever get tired of all the drunks and I say no not really. I don’t say Are you drunk and I don’t say Are you a prostitute and I don’t tell her that I’m so fucking sick-tired of my goddam arms hurting that I could cry and then we’re on Sixth Street, the old skid row Kerouac wrote about in Dharma Bums, I think he bought donuts there sometime when he was drunk one night, and suddenly I hear my little tough-faced schoolgirl’s voice coming from way down low like she’s maybe on the floor of my cab “I didn’t know you were going to go down Sixth Street!” I turn around and look and see that she has slid down as far as she can, she’s flat on her back on the backseat looking up at me with her no-makeup face like she’s laying down in some pine needle soft clearing in the woods or something but the important thing is that her head is not sticking up above the window frame any more so no one on Sixth Street can see her going past in a cab so now I know she really is a hooker and she’s hiding from her hooker friends or her pimp or whoever but she doesn’t want me to know so she tells me a different story. She says, “I don’t like Sixth Street” and I say “Oh really” and she says “Some of the people here are crazy -- some girl tried to jump me here last night for no reason at all” and I say “Oh really” and she says, “No reason at all -- women in San Francisco are unpredictable and scandalous.” And I say, “Oh, say that again. Please.” And she says it again, “Women in San Francisco are unpredictable and scandalous.” We only have another two blocks to Seventh and Howard and the whole time I’m repeating it to myself, and I’m thinking Jesus Christ my arms ache and at the same time I’m telling myself don’t forget her words unpredictable and scandalous, those are original words, I’ve been alive for fifty-nine years and eleven days and my arms have been aching for seven or eight years already, and in all that time I’ve never heard those same words put together in that particular order.

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