A tale of two cities

Bela Lugosi started barking as I fumbled for my key. Yup, I still have a key, and as I walked in, swimming in the dog's wet kisses, I was accidentally standing on one of his squeaky toys.

Up the stairs I went, hoping for a glass of water, but the dishes were stacked so high a cup couldn't squeeze under the faucet, so my water came from the bathroom sink.

Sidestepping a pile of clothes in the hall, I brushed slightly against a stack of books on a window sill, knocking a few to the floor. One landed near a cat, which yowled and ran between my legs, which nudged me into a tall bamboo something that's been leaning disassembled in the corner for months. It toppled, and I jumped out of the way, nearly losing my footing and inadvertently kicking an empty can of dog food Lugosi had dragged from the trash. The can rolled and bounced down the stairs, kerplunking on every step to the bottom.

I was back at the old place in Berkeley. Judith had hired me to scrub the stink out of Cy's old bedroom.

When the five of us shared this huge second-story flat, Cy was the only one of us who smoked. He smoked only in his room, and he was in his room almost 24/7, even working from there. And always smoking.

The door's seal must've been very good, because I never much noticed the stink of cigarettes unless he'd just come out or gone in from the bathroom or kitchen. Now he's moved away like me and Joe, but the scent of Cy's cigarettes lingers on.

My job for the day was to wash it away, so I mopped the ceiling and walls, a slow-motion revelation. I thought the paint was tan, but with ammonia and sweat and several hours of work, the walls were revealed to be an off-shade of white.

I got dripped in the eye only once, and after that I wore goggles. My t-shirt is now dotted with slightly Picasso stains I hope won't wash out, because you can't mop a ceiling without getting all wet, and it dried into art.

Before mopping the floor, there were buckets of liquefied tar and nicotine to flush down the toilet. If I say so myself and I do, though, the room looked substantially brighter when I left than when I got there. 

Didn't say hello to Judith or Jake, because they weren't there. They left me fifty bucks, ten hours pay, and the work only took about seven hours, so I also washed some of the dishes before playing tennis-ball fetch with the dog, and then said farewell again to the empty house and cluttered mess where I'd lived until this month.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Back at the San Francisco rez hotel, my room is a catastrophe under construction, but it's not yet the ghastly stinking cockroach haven it'll probably become. See, once I'm settled in a new place, I never tidy up. If I'm tidying up, it's someone else's place and I'm being paid $5 an hour

For now, I appreciate the general cleanliness of a new room, and a hallway that's wide and uncluttered with trash or tennis balls. There's nothing to stumble over on the stairs, which is nice. I kinda miss having Judith to talk to, but now I'm here instead of there. Nobody to talk to but the bums and derelicts who live here.

♦ ♦ ♦  

'Home' is a slippery concept to define. Is it anywhere you regularly sleep, or is it something more profound and personal than that?

If it's the latter, then I never quite felt at home in Berkeley. The flat was a dump full of people I never got to know really, except for Judith.

And the town, with the exception of a few bohemian blocks of Telegraph Ave, People's Park and maybe Sproul Plaza, is just another slice of middle America. No insult intended, but it's too quiet, too pleasant for me, and some of it feels as artificial as a trip to the mall.

Berkeley is white like the walls of Cy's room after mopping. There are black people, sure, and Asians, Mexicans and every other ethnicity — lots of them actually — but the vibe of the town is always white. White with a splash of color, perhaps.

San Francisco is much more colorful and noticeably LOUDER, more vibrant, strange, multi- or sometimes anti-cultural, and never even an off shade of white. It's always what-have-you, whether you want it or not.

The ruckus of this city hits your eardrums and eyeballs as soon as you step off the subway, and there's never a truly quiet moment except behind locked doors. And it's beautiful, man. San Francisco is alive with life and lowlifes, and the people who love it, who revel in it, are my kind of people.

For so many years, I thought my kind of people was no people at all, but this place has shown me something different, and it keeps showing me something different every day.

What's home, after all? It's hard to put it into words, but for me the zip code is 94110.

From Pathetic Life #23
Tuesday, April 16, 1996

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.

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