Jul 21, 2009

Fr. Floyd often spoke of himself in the third person. "Fr. Floyd knows his responsibility to the poor," he would say, "Fr. Floyd also knows the grace of God."

In the beginning, Floyd had an outrageous desire to be graced by the media as well, which is how I met him, more than 20 years ago. Then, he was a dashing Franciscan priest, in his brown robe and proud piety, or else his Giant's warm-up jacket and matching cap.

Next to God he loved celebrities. "Did I tell you I met Obama?" he said to me a few months ago. "A good man. I was impressed. And I was very direct. I asked him, 'what are you going to do about the poor.' He looked me right in the eye, I liked that, he looked me right in the eye and I think it caught him a little, but you know how Fr. Floyd is, and he said it was going to be a real priority.' No, I think he's going to be a great president. I was very impressed. He makes me think of Rooseveldt."

Fr. Floyd could never have worked with the poor had he not had equal access to the rich. For years he had a patron, a Nob Hill matron, a stocky, sexy blonde if I remember, who invited him to dinner and introduced him to the hoity-toity. And they would turn to him at dinner and as much as pat him on the head for his work with St. Anthony's diningroom and living down next to St. Boniface as he did, and then later out in the Mission District. "What is that like, working those people?" they would ask. "How do you do it?"

In fact, he did it very well, although I didn't accept that until the last time I saw him. I took him to a Thai restaurant over behind the Hall of Justice. A few months earlier we'd had dinner and he was off his game. He looked terrified. He had nothing to say.

Today, was his funeral and he would have been happy to see a full house and of course the archbishop, who was separated at birth from Dick Cheney, and a handful of friars, who looked as though they'd been separated at birth from reality, not to mention a comb or a wash cloth, they looked like a disheveled bunch of night afters, folks still on the Bataan death march, and ne'er do wells, not that you have to be a brill cream man to be a friar, but the look of kempt and some projection of hopefullness and well being would have helped, and there was also the Speaker of the House's husband, and various cops and people Floyd worked with at the foundation and people who just came in off the street to see what all the music was about. The whole service was like a musical, as the woman standing next to me said.

They wheeled in the casket and you'd thought he was being buried in Afghanistan; the coffin was that simple. A lot of people got up and said what they could, which wasn't much in most cases. Fr. Finian gave the eulogy and it would have made Floyd weep. No one knew him better than Finian who is the real lineage in the order. What's left of it. Looking at the friars you wondered whether the effort was about over. All of them over middle age, save a few who looked distinctly gay. Fr. Floyd said they were nearly all gay and he was worried about that.

As the incense was pitched to the four corners and sallow-skinned church bureaucrats presided over the mass and the parishonners got their transsubstantiation and people wept, because it was sad, no question, and while police horses pawed at the cement outside and two traffic cops gabbed in the middle of the street, and some kid came up to the side door with his boombox on high, and after Paul Pelosi got up and talked about how wonderful it was that Fr. Floyd had been able to work with 'those people', he actually said that, and you thought, 'Paul, you're not at the Gettys now, you're actually talking to 'those people,' ' but the speaker's husband didn't care, it's just never occurred to him — he had a mustard-colored kerchief in his breast pocket and stood stiffly like a mannikin in a store window — he was just here to say, on Nancy's behalf, what a great loss this is, and thank you to the foundation for all you've done, that was his real thrust, and then Dick Cheney's twin, the archbishop, got up and said he had the last word, and first he had a joke to tell about how Floyd wore a Dodger's shirt under his Giant's jacket, and then he rattled on about Matthew 24 and 34 and you wanted to yell out, "hike," and afterwards he ended with the fearsome promise that God has the last word and there was something in the way he said that left you with the impression that his God does not take personal phone calls and will be out of the office all this week.

"I think Fr. Floyd was well represented here, don't you think?" Floyd would have said to me after the service, and then he would have relished the details, the nuances, the back stories and he would have wondered how the TV stations would play it, because at least two stations were there, and he would have wanted to insure the press releases went out and he would have been miffed that his death was not better played the day after he died, and he would have wept to hear his sister's rememberances...

At that last dinner we had, he didn't speak in the third person. The affectation was gone. The fear in his eyes was gone. Resignation but not fear. Even his loneliness was over. He was face to face. He said, "I don't really believe in it anymore." What's that, I said. "The church, I don't believe in the institution. I love the people but I don't think..." He let the point go.

Later, I dropped him off and I had to help get him in the door, moving between sleeping homeless, and he seemed genuinely happy to be home.

If I'd given the eulogy I would have said how Floyd might have once thought of the poor as 'those people' but at the end he was saying to himself, and believing it for once that, "we are all 'the poor', we are all naked and strangers, we really are no different, and there is no duality and God will grant us His grace and that's all we can believe in but it's enough...."

Jul 12, 2009

I know what you saying: "but all these stories sound the same. It must be the same couple over and over. Why do you find such people interesting? Who cares?"

But it's not the same couple over and over. It's that the circumstance is so pervasive. If you ask me to tell a happy marriage story, I can't do it. Which is not to say there aren't any happy stories, it's just I haven't heard any. I don't know those people. What I hear is this: a woman talking about her marriage who says, "I am grieving, I am in a state of grief." Or the woman, at wit's end, who says to her husband, "as soon as she goes away to college (referring to their daughter) I am leaving you."

Or the woman at the next table in a Noe Street restaurant, a very sincere and dignified woman describing the moment last week when her husband, in the middle of the night, after a tumultuous dinner with a one time neighbor, in the middle of the night grabbed her hand, stuffed her fingers in his mouth and bit them. Not hard enough to cause great damage, but hard enough to hurt onr finger badly, bad enough to be struck dead at the shock and the bizarness of it, badenough to be shaking her head for days afterward and not a little fearful of her husband. "I don't know what we've come to," she told her friend.

Still another woman, blonde, in her 60s but looking 40, confided to a friend, "I am not playing by the rules anymore. Enough is enough. I just won't. I've paid my dues."

And so it's as though this city had turned into a 19th Century French novel, as though all your friends, and their friends, had come down with mal-de-siecle. If only Chateaubriand were here. If only Flaubert could see this.

Go to dinner at anyone's home and at some point the conversation always turns to mal. Old and new mal at the same time — and on the surface rooted in lost jobs or the effect of lost jobs, lost properties, lost inheritances, lost social status, lost ambition, higher tuitions. The prospect of never being able to retire. For women, of a certain age, say between 45 and 60, the mal is about fading marriages and the urgency of finding a lover, of either sex, or keeping a lover in need of repair himself, or else finding someone to help them with their much older husband. What seemed to her so far off and possible is now suddenly here and impossible. It was supposed to be life in a DH Lawrence novel, life by a crackling hearth. That was the picture when the man was 55 and the woman was 40. But now he is 70 and she is 55. And he is not Robert Redford at 70, he is either obsessively introspective or ill, or dangerously unaware, or else a Republican, which is the same thing. Meanwhile, she is just coming into still another bloom, rich with sensuality and bravado.

But that's the surface. There is something else. Ennui is not the word for it. Rage is more the word and all its corollaries: resentment, denial, lethargy, mindlessness, lack of confidence, childish yearnings, outrageous sentimentality — along with strange illnesses, fantastic nightmares, sexual listlessness and yet spiritual hope, but with no real desire for enlightenment. As though you'd woken up in a burning house and were too drunk or drugged, or just too worn out to crawl out the door.

Jul 9, 2009

Would you come to dinner? the husband asks. It'll be boys night out.

The next day we arrive at the top of a hill, climb up Victorian stairs, the front door opens, the husband steps back. The livingroom is a wealth of glass and, above a small, carefully flowered backyard, there is all the city, at 7:30 on a summer evening, fog slopping over Twin Peaks, all of downtown in photoshop and craquelure.

Drinks, nuts, more drinks, dinner, 'will you have another?', 'I will,' and then more life stories, still more anecdotes about children, about schools and summer houses, names dropped and picked up, the whole IT of establishing a perspective by which to accept each other. And everything is fine. The animals in the wall paintings, the carefully picked jazz, the faces of young boys at the table, the food itself, everything is safe and sound.

Later and later his wife arrives. Pretty, sensuously European, dark hair, with the gray just arriving, in cashmere and soft wool, layers of browns and deep reds, and very quiet at first. Small, watching eyes. Altogether like a French garden, like her garden, everything at a sharp angle and carefully laid out. She's been out for the evening, a married woman out for the evening by herself, which in her case seemed immediately dangerous, not that she might be harmed physically but that she might become lost emotionally.

In passing, she leaves the word, Landmark.

You mean...

Yes, I think it was called EST. Yes?

Her husband knows very well: The old Werner, now in Indonesia, isn't he, and weren't there charges of financial impropriety and something else. A scandal. No one can remember.

Well how is Landmark? we ask.

It's actually very helpful. I have no baggage but it's interesting to hear others share.

Because, she goes on, I have no one to talk to. And not a coroner's trace of humor. He, she says, looking at her husband: he, doesn't like to communicate. He can't, it's beyond him. He smiles, responds. She, he says. And suddenly there's a triangulation, the guests have become unwitting therapists. He has a last word and did he say, 'well, all you can think about is sex.' Was that what he said? It could not have been. You wouldn't say such a thing in front of children, or in front of guests you hardly know. He could not have said that, it's what the guests heard, it's some problem, some association, they have.

People share things, she goes on, about themselves, it's often about their parents. But it's very brave. These people are really saying things....

The husband looks at us, rolling his eyes. She looks at us, rolling the wine in her glass. Everyone on quicksand, everyone about to be pulled under.