Apr 27, 2011

Once again I'm late to the revelation. The other day I made the mistake of seeing The Inside job the other day. I knew the story line well enough: I watched some of the congressional hearings a year ago. I read Krugman et al. I've studied the greed-ridden face of the principals. And I know some people who have been knocked down by it. Directly and indirectly.

I'd also read Matt Damon's reservations about the Obama administration, even Obama himself, and then promptly dismissed them.

The problem is that when you see the drama all laid out, all of a piece, and you see how in administration after administration the villains never go away, much less get called to account — not to mention the insidious link with academe in general and Harvard in particular – it changes your perspective. Or it did mine. I was most struck by Obama's introduction of Larry Summers.

And so you think, well Obama is saving the best for last, he'll deal with it after 2012. But I'm beginning to wonder if that's true.


Apr 24, 2011

Every few months I'm invited downtown to 250 Sutter Street to participate in a focus group. There's always a strange scene or an odd encounter. Last time, during a discussion about potato chips, a woman leaned out of her chair and part way under the conference table to smell her high-heel shoe. She was clever about it but I saw the whole thing.

Tonight, it was a former kindergarten teacher. A very striking woman by the way. She wore hot rod-red lipstick on a chalk-white face. Like a mime or a kabuki dancer. She was about my age. Not Asian. Her hair was grey and wiry like an unshorn sheep. She wore expensive blue-streaked shoes, from Mexico she said. They fit her as though they'd come out of a Tastee Freeze machine and swirled right on to her feet.

At the last minute she and I were not picked to participate in the focus group. We were told to remain for 15 minutes, until it was clear no alternates would be required. Then we would be paid and could leave.

When told she was not chosen this woman, whose name I didn't get, said she was insulted. "Aren't you?" she asked me mockingly.

"I am deeply hurt," I said.

"My husband will be devastated that I'm coming home so early," she went on.

I showed concern.

"We're in therapy," she said. "But it's not going well."

Why not?

"Nothing's working. We've tried everything. Part of the problem is that my husband worked in the district attorney's office for thirty years. Actually, one thing did work, for a while. The therapist told us that we needed to surprise each other more. You know, try to bring back the glow. Don't we all want the glow?"

What did you come up with?

"Lately, mostly new restaurants, weekend trips up the coast. It's all what we were doing before. I'm going to take him to see "No Exit" when that opens next month at A.C.T."

Does he like Sartre?

"He has no idea who Sartre is. But he has a taste for the bizarre."

Clearly, I thought. What's the most memorable surprise he ever gave you?

"He took me to Harbin Hot Springs for a four-day weekend with Neopagans."

How was that?

"A lot of overweight people frankly. A lot of standing around in circles with no clothes on. Surprisingly boring but perverse at the same time. I found that part interesting."

What's the most memorable thing you ever gave him.

"Once, I woke him up at 3 a.m. by playing opera out of a boom box as loud as I could. He hates opera."

She was clearly reliving the thrill.

What opera?

"Boris Gudonov. Mussorgsky's noisiest, if you know it. It was between that and anything sung by Gertrude Grob-Prandl. I think she's considered one of the loudest opera singers of the 20th Century. I literally put right the box right next to his ear."

It occurred to me that despite her wild imagination this might not be the ideal wife.

"But that wasn't the surprise," she went on. "Then I blindfolded him and drove him up to Napa for a balloon ride. But on the way up I almost ran over a dear and when we got there the event was cancelled. It was a bad end but still memorable."

Ten minutes had passed. One of the girls at the front desk told us we could leave. We went up to sign out. Before being given a check we had to show some proof that we had given to a favorite charity — a magnet to put on the frig, a thank you card.

It was at this point that the woman dug into her PBS tote bag and drew out a bloody arm. It was in a shirt sleeve, buttoned at the wrist. From a small man clearly. With stubby fingers and a wedding ring.

"Will this do?" the woman asked. One of the girls behind the desk fell out of her chair.

I had to look at this arm for a long time to realize it was rubber. It even had an odd smell. The blood stains in the shirt where the arm would have been torn from the shoulder were particularly life-like.

"My favorite charity is Doctors Without Borders," said the woman.

We took our checks and got on the elevator.

What do you do for a living, I asked.

"I was a kindergarten teacher for 30 years. Now, I'm just a housewife."

Not just, I said.

"No, not just," she replied, standing in the elevator looking up at the ceiling, the bloody fingers reaching out of her bag.

Apr 16, 2011

Apr 3, 2011

This may have happened to us. It could have. I just don't know. The last thing I remember is arriving at the Clarion Hotel on Sisk Rd. in Modesto around 1 p.m. Three of us. In driving rain. The hotel was empty, dark. Steel plates around every door lock, low ceilings, some of the acoustic panels coming loose, Cinny the sinecure behind the front desk, and then a single figure standing absolutely still in the indoor pool. Turn of the Screw, I thought later. And then the crooked-scent of Pall Malls off the carpets, the snuff-like effect of fresh skid: 50 years of tobacco, sucrose, Propylene Glycol, Glycerol, Licorice extract, Diammonium Phosphate, Ammonium Hydroxide, Cocoa, Carob Bean, and all the artificial flavors. The place had the atmosphere of a minimum security prison; three pools notwithstanding.

In the old days, when Ronald Reagan was acting emperor-in-chief, this was a Red Lion Inn and a swinger's paradise. Well-to-do farmers lounged in the indoor pool listening to Dean Martin, watching Jetson reruns, dreaming of Marilyn Chambers while the lettuce pickers hummed Steinbeck.

The boys didn't care about the history of the hotel or the central valley. It all looked good to them. Particularly ika. Plus he was still reliving his goal off a bicycle kick in a state cup game earlier in the day, up in Ripon. Ika's from Georgia, the country, and the back of the country at that. So when we're on the road, no matter where we stay, it always seems like swanktown to him.

I told the boys they should try the sauna and wash their uniforms. I don't do 'valet' anymore.

I went to the weight room. There was a man with a pony tail watching Nancy Grace laboring on about dead prostitutes in Long Island. The man was in his 30s, dressed in tattoos the color of Mystery Oil. He was thin, forbidding. I couldn't figure out how to get the bicycle machine going. It occurred to me that he might have been able to help.

Meanwhile back in our room, out the window, the parking lot is a great puddle, a single car parked, that would be ours, and beyond that HWY 99, Meth route 66, the 18 wheelers running back and forth, belching and blowing, the drivers wide-eyed out of Fresno.

How many times have we been out here? How many games have I watched in Ripon? And always we have a problem. Traffic tickets, bad directions, bad games. Bad things here, always. Whenever I see the water tower I get the shivers.

That night we go to a Mexican restaurant on the other side of Modesto, in a mall full of vacancies. We sit at a corner booth. Ika goes on a rant about some boy in his class that always has a toothpick in his mouth and gives his teacher shit. The waitress rushes us. The table is a mess. You can hear Ika all over the restaurant. The people at the next table are saying that Obama told some woman with eight children she shouldn't have had eight children.

Dash just sees it all for what it is. Hears the face value. He doesn't care about the scene or the context.

We get out of there and back to the tiers in time to watch Saw IV. Then I pass out and in the fall direct the boys to get their crap in the washer and dryer before they sleep. They said they were going to do it much earlier. They said, they said. Finally, they bundle it all up and go off.

The next morning we get up at 9:30. Game is in two and half hours. On the field in one hour. It's still raining but clearing; 99 is still roaring. The mechanical blood of America is still flowing.

The boys go back to the dryer to get their things and return almost an hour later. I have a bad feeling. Sure enough. They come back to say the uniforms are gone, along with underwear, socks, sweats, slacks, about all we have. Why would it be otherwise? Teenagism can never be in remission.

Room disservice has no clue. I go mashugana-man and yell at the sinecure big time. There will be an apology later, but just now we have 40 minutes to get back to the field, which is 10 miles away. They can't play without uniforms. We've talked to the coach. Can't play without uniforms. There are no extras.

The boys talk to housekeeping. I talk to anyone I can find. I knock on doors. I'm thinking of the mind of criminals and the odds. The clock is running. The game starts in 20 minutes. Warm up is over. All players must check in. This is the state cup. Cinny says the night watchman isn't answering his phone. What about the cameras? I ask. "Could you come back next week?" Cinny's manager won't talk to me. The Cinnycure, is cracking.

"Come back on Monday," she says.

You don't understand, I say. Then she tells me someone checking out saw the boys sitting on the dryer at 12:30 a.m. Huh? What boys are we talking about? Someone checking out saw these boys? Who was that.

I think they were asleep closer to 10:30, having played two games the day before and the machines aren't big enough to sit on. But so what if they had been sitting on the dryer, what does that have to do with it?

"They've stolen their own clothes?"

Cinnycure will not look up from the monitor.

Okay now we're down to 15 minutes. At 75 miles an hour we could make it. The head of housekeeping says she's never heard of a theft in all her 10 years of housekeeping. The beer distributor wants to know why Cinny is crying. The coach is calling to say we have 10 minutes.

Suddenly, I realize, we're out of time.

I give up.

We walk back to the room. We pass the kitchen. I see a woman cleaning up. I duck in. I explain. She has a hard face. The eyes are brown and browned and quick. She's wide-bodied. Dirty blond. And oh but she's tired. Done in, too. And not about lost uniforms.

"Look," I say. "You're our last hope." The boys are in my ear about how they've already talked to her. She's washing a griddle top.

"If you were us, where would you look?"

She throws some eyes over her shoulder.

"Well, I'd start with the trash cans. Fact is there's a lot of missing and stolen stuff here. Happens all the time."

Boys shake their heads. They've never heard of such a thing and plus it's not cool to look in the trash. I go for it. Sure enough, five minutes later, fourth can on the other side of the building, just down the stairs from the washing machine room, there are the uniforms. I don't look further. I give the woman $40. She's nodding. She doesn't seem happy or sad.

"Remember this," she says, "and I've been in this business a long, long time. You lose anything in a hotel, no matter what it is, look in the cigarette cans, look in the trash cans. People take things and put 'em in places, somewhere where they can come back to."

She puts the money in her apron pocket, and goes back to cleaning the griddle, reaching far over the stovetop, pushing the grease this way and that and then pulling it into the grease trap....

(We get to the game, win, beat last year's champion; and then the next weekend in some other god forsaken place, up in Sactown, north of the Arco Arena if you know where that is, just the other side of Elveret, a few streets past Eloise, under a glide path, in the semi-finals, on fields as flat as medium surf, they lose in double overtime and just like that it's over. Some of them 10 years together and the coach is gone before the third whistle.. But that's all another story.)