Black Beauty

For a couple of years in the late 1980s, I lived in my van. It was all black, inside and outside, and I'd clumsily rigged it with lighting and sound, power, and a toilet that held poop in a plastic bag. There was a futon in the back. It was all pretty damned humble, but there's no place like home.

Later, I divested myself of almost everything I owned, filled that van with what little was left, and drove it to California, sleeping in it on the way.

When I settled in San Francisco, though, the van became unnecessary. Buses, streetcars, cable cars, BART, and CalTrain go everywhere I need to go, without any bills for insurance or repairs, and without any worries about parking.

So after I'd moved into a rez hotel, I drove to a sleepy east Bay suburb called Fremont, at the end of the BART line, where I rented long-term parking for the van. That was almost three years ago, and since then I haven’t visited the van, or even much remembered that I own it. I never even got a California driver's license.

As Stanley (nee George) and I were having breakfast last Saturday, we exchanged bits of our life stories, and when I mentioned my van, he asked what ever happened to it. I told him it was parked, probably forever. After a few more questions, Stanley inquired about buying it.

Well, why not? The old van had been good to me, but it was from the past, not for the present or the future.

Dickering price was an odd experience, new to me. Younger, skinnier, yuppier Doug had bought it new in 1986, when money mattered, but in selling it I didn’t even bother looking up what it might be worth. We agreed on $200, which is 25-grand less than I paid 105,000 miles ago.

This morning we BARTed to Fremont, and I saw my old Black Beauty one last time. Then Stanley called a tow truck, because you can’t park a van for years unattended and expect the engine to start. It rolled away behind a purple tow truck, but the van always treated me right when I treated it right, so I think Stanley will get plenty of miles out of it once it has a new battery and whatever else it needs.

It felt good to lose all that weight, and the biggest thing I’ve ever owned. At thirty bucks a month, I’ve paid more than $1,000 just to park it, so now I'll be ahead by a dollar a day.

Selling the van should feel like something momentous, maybe? Today’s the first day in fifteen years that I don’t own a car, but it’s odd how little it matters to me. Feels like I never owned the van anyway. Like, some other guy bought it, drove it, lived in it — some guy who’s not me any more.

♦ ♦ ♦

To be sure I’d have enough food and soup and nuts to make it through tomorrow without Walgreens, I braved the sidewalks and then Walgreens today. If I’d had a camera with me, this issue of the zine might have had a cover photo to sum up Christmas in America. Picture this:

In front of the store, a street waif was selling mistletoe, and next to her an old beggar was selling misery. Beside them was an empty SFPD patrol car, its officers no doubt eating donuts nearby, or arresting a drunk or a shoplifter. Behind the cop car was a shiny beige Brink’s armored truck, ready to take a few hours worth of holiday greed from the store to the bank. 

Framed and focused right, a snapshot of that would’ve been Norman Rockwell for the modern era.

♦ ♦ ♦

After Stanley ran some errands and got his van into a repair shop, we met again at my hotel. He was armed with dinner, prepped yesterday I think, but fresh microwaved in my room today.

“Holidays should be about doing what you want to do with people you want to be with, not doing things you have to do with people you don't want to see.” With that benediction, dinner was served, and it was better than anything from Julia Child or The Galloping Gourmet. Wild rice, with Brussels sprouts, shallot, potatoes and sweet potatoes, all served with a hot dead bird.

I excused myself from the bird, as I’m still mostly a vegetarian, but feasted on everything else, and it was maybe the best meal I’ve had in ages. Can’t call it Christmas dinner since there was nobody there I hate, but it was a fine Christmas Eve with a friend, with deep conversations about nose picking techniques and women who don't wear brassieres.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

After Stanley had left, I clinked some coins into the phone booth in front of the rez hotel, and called my mom to wish her a happy Christmas. I only got her answering machine, but when it beeped I sang “Jingle Bells” and told her I love her, and I do.

That said, making that obligatory holiday call without having to answer questions about my life, without hearing about Jesus, without any urgent invitations to visit and/or move back to Seattle, was in itself a wonderful Christmas present.

 From Pathetic Life #7
Saturday, December 24, 1994

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

Addendum, 2021: My primitive word processor in 1994 had a spellchecker function, but it had a tiny vocabulary, and of course the internet didn't exist for me back then. Many times I remember thumbing through a well-worn paperback dictionary, but not enough times, apparently.

To my great shame, knickknacks was spelled 'nicknacks' in the original text of this old zine. Typos and misspellings make me mental, so please accept my sincere apologies.

Pathetic Life 

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