Down Payment

Women’s March, Oakland, CA, January 21, 2017

A drug dealer helped us with the down payment of our first house, and who was I to say no? M was one of my husband’s best buddies; correction here, not best, but one of his oldest friends. There’s a big difference. They’d grown up together on the lawns of Redwood City where dads back from World War II ranged from alcoholic losers to Boy Scout leaders. M’s dad occupied a third rung, MIA, but I never got filled in on the details.

His mother hailed from a family of lace-curtain Boston Irish, and like many who found themselves clinging to the rocky coastline of Northern California; she was a misfit who’d spent most of her life signing in and out of mental institutions, but remained out for enough time to school her son, who was slim with light brown eyes.

She insisted on three tenets. The first was that it’s not what you know but who you know, and steered him toward the local golf course where he worked as a caddy during his high school years. His job allowed M to hob-nob with any man who could afford the price of membership. Pleased that M had taken so naturally to her instruction, she also began to teach him things that only women learn early in life: how to ingratiate himself to people without groveling, to hand out birthday cards to the town’s elite, a gesture that wouldn’t cost much, but would allow him to stand-out from the riff-raff, and certainly to inquire about the health of a golfer’s family, to light cigarettes and do whatever else it took to cultivate favor, a rule he used in reaching out to my husband, who was a talent in the high school drama club, racking up the lead in every school production, and wowed the student body with his oratorical voice and ability to hoist his singing partner into the air. Unfortunately, he was dimly viewed by the administration for his refusal to pledge allegiance during the War in Vietnam, an act that won him respect from his peers, and brought him to M’s attention.

“Man, you get all the girls.”

“It’s a cinch. Just hang around with me,” he said, not disagreeing with his new friend’s astute observation.

The music teacher had originally come to Redwood City from the East Coast after a successful piano concert career. She had important political connections, so by the time M finished high school, he was awarded a scholarship to community college from the Chamber of Commerce.

The second thing M’s mother knocked into his head was that he had to have a good education because important people didn’t like to associate with dunces, and the third, was that he should never, ever give up in the task of becoming rich so that she would have the last laugh on her snooty relatives in Boston.

For someone with M’s education, dealing drugs became a natural. He started out with the usual petty stuff, built a clientele on football fields and in gym lockers, uppers, downers, red pills, blue pills, pills from his mother’s cabinet, no one too sure what they would do, except they had an equal chance to find out. Then a contact from the golf course saw in M the makings of a brilliant dealer, and tipped him on to bigger things: LSD, heroin, coke, and by the time I was introduced to M as one of my husband’s oldest friends, he asked me where I shopped for my underwear, which I thought was rude, and told him Walmart, just to be a smart ass.

He owned one of the first cellphones always in the palm of his hand, and stepped outside to “to business.” Trips followed to Paris, London. He developed an international network, and in time, became an insomniac, and called my husband in the middle of the night.

“What’s up man?”

“Nothing much.” He was convinced that the mob was after him.

“Crazy. Look out your window. They’re not coming tonight. Now get some sleep.” My husband was glad he’d taken the route to a low-paying job and didn’t have to worry.

During our marriage, M’s mother died from an overdose of drugs she’d mixed together from her cabinet. M had a brain aneurysm after years of not sleeping.

“I own the house,” my husband told me when we began to discuss divorce.

“How do you figure?” I’d been paying all the big bills for years, including child care.

“M gave me the down payment for the house. He was my friend. You had nothing to do with it.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I said.

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Almost, Eddie Palmieri in the Bronx

salsa dancers

Baile!


First-timers who enter my dance studio look past a wall of mirrors and expect to see Arthur Murray standing in a striped bow-tie, but all they get is me wearing my 501s and a black turtleneck, a helluva lot shorter than Mr. Murray, which is why I started to teach in the first place.

More than one choreographer used to tell me, “Al, you’re a great dancer.” If I were such a great dancer why couldn’t I get a part?

“It’s because I’m too short, isn’t it?”

Choreographers handed me off to producers who did another two-step: “We love you, Al, but we can’t use you right now. I’ll be in touch. Promise.”

I believed there was someone out there who could appreciate real talent; all I had to do was to make that connection although everyone in my family thought I wanted to dance because I was gay, stubborn, and full of myself. Actually, only two out of the three were true.

I washed dishes, waited on tables, made calls for some loser trying to sell his jalopies to the rent-a-car business, while I dreamed about taking more classes at the Hunts Point Palace, weekends danced  to the music of Eddie Palmieri, who hooked up his truck around Third Avenue and Southern Boulevard and let the salsa roll before anyone knew it was salsa. At that moment, it was just a bunch of musicians who stood on the back of a flat bed, speakers wired to the railings with cords that looked like they’d been borrowed from someone’s brother-in-law that morning, sweat beading off their foreheads, people dancing around in a cloud of cigarette smoke; hips, feet, and arms, causing such a commotion, you could see the truck bounce up and down in the soft black summer tar of the street. I was beautiful then; a Red Sea of people opened  up as I danced toward the truck, leaping over garbage cans and police barricades in time to the music.

No one discovered me that or any other evening. But I had this cousin who kept his eyes trained on everyone’s business. “Alberto,” he said to me one afternoon. “You ain’t looking too good, brother. Don’t see your two feet dancing.”

My feet were busy at La Isla Cuchifrito where crowds piled in every night for take-out. I’d moved up from waiter to being the host where I handed out menus and passed orders back to the kitchen.

“There’s a storefront,” he said to me, looking around to make sure that no one could overhear his big tip.

Claro. They’re all boarded up.”

“No,  your oportunidad,” he said. My cousin had a lisp. He was taller than I and sprayed my hair with his saliva. “You can rent the place. Build your studio.”

Turned out that my cousin owned the storefront. I paid rent during the first two years until I could buy him out, installed hardwood over the vinyl flooring of what had been an old shoe store; once I tore down the shelving, the back room became the place for lessons, rented out the front for parties, anniversaries, birthdays, even a small wedding where the bride was expecting.

Over the years, those parties helped to build my business.

These days, people who come to Alberto’s Dance Studio have heard about  Eddie Palmieri and his boys smoking their hot stuff here on the dance floor before leaving for their first national tour; they step into the front room, lean up against the back wall and watch feet move on the dance floor. All those high and stacked heels, oxfords, flats from McCann’s, and super-clean white sneakers.

People keep watching before they sign up: seniors, single moms, and neighbors. They come to learn how to dance, but while they’re holding on tight to each other, they find something else.

 

 

 

 

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The Slippery Slope

Screen Shot 2017-01-18 at 9.52.52 AMI’m climbing halfway up the side of a slippery glass mountain, which is one of many I must ascend before approaching a volcanic range that lingers on the horizon. Luckily for me, I’m carrying a tube of Superglue in my backpack and squirted some on the bottom of my Evolv Shaman climbing shoes that Janeen had outfitted me with earlier in the day. The game is like a capsule that envelops me in four dimensions: past, present, future, and whatever else heads my way.

I reach into the backpack every so often for another pump of Superglue. My shoes are sliding and there’s nothing to hold onto except for an orange and brownish looking branch that is extruded in my direction. I wonder if it’s Janeen or Lord Grunion trying to fuck with my mind. I don’t have time to find out. I hear a terrible squeak as I slide down the glass-facing side of a mountain, grab ahold of the extended pole, and it turns into the beak of some pelican-looking bird that plops me inside its pouch and we take off.

 

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Rabbet Joints: Avatar Continua

IMG_1348When I was married, I’d sat at my desk for four months waiting to be transferred to another department, and because none of my superiors exactly knew when that was going to happen and since I no longer belonged to them as a resource who could be counted upon as a full-time equivalent, the best they could do was to ignore me. The truth of the matter is that no one gave a good triplicate form what I did during the day, and this, more than the fact that I had no work to do, came close to corrupting my spirit. I became a desk. Not a real desk, but a piece of furniture quiet with drawers that I retreated into where no one could give me the latest gossip about which department was being dismembered or who was on the cut list. I counted the number of push-pins in my stationary tray and arranged my paper clips so that they faced in the same direction. Sometimes I worked on my computer, but I’d been through the tutorials so many times before that I chose to turn on the screen saver and remain inside my desk. I’ve always been a person who likes to know how things are made.

Rabbet joints are common enough but it’s the fit between two planes of wood that’s crucial—for example, if the wood was originally sanded with several grades of paper, and whether the glue was allowed to set. A handle of one drawer was missing. The handle of another was coming loose, its screw revealed spirals of pink paint.

Links to my work

Sketchbook Project

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Here Comes Another One

I’m running down the side of this volcanic mountain and I get my toe stuck on this overhang. In the distance, I see a ghoul waving his arms and screaming obscenities. I’m trying to free my foot, but I have to be careful because if I lose my balance, I could fall off the cliff to the pool below which is filled with everyone’s lies. Nasty things, they’ll stick to me with suction cups. Then I’ll have to go to the underworld and plead with Lord Grunion, but he’ll want me to parade around in my bra and panties before all those little nincompoopers. If I were a different avatar, I wouldn’t mind, but Janeen didn’t make me into an exhibitionist. So I rock back and forth, thanking my aikido training for helping me not to panic, even though the ghoul’s getting closer. The thing’s got one eye in the middle of his chin and an orange vinyl perm that rises in ridges from his head. If he gets close, he’s going to spit this acidic goo on me that will cost ten of my lives and I’ve only got that many left. So I unzip a ruby from the inner-lining of my collar, just in case, before the ghoul is about to open its stinking mouth, I free my foot and leap to the other side of the mountain. I’m glad I didn’t have to use up one of my rubies to paralyze the thug. The ghoul stands there on his right leg, drooling. I shout obscenities in Russian letting loose with po’shyol ‘na hui, basically telling the ghoul to fuck off. The coast is clear. I’m so shook up that I forget what I’m supposed to be doing—that’s right—collecting rubies from the slime-toads so I can get off this mountain and back to my house where a vegetarian dinner awaits on the counter. I’d prefer a rib-eye, but I’m not the one who makes the rules.

I throw the glowing jewel to the ground. “Coffee,” I say. There’s a steaming cup and a thick slice of challah. Not fair. A ruby is a lot to pay for a continental breakfast.

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Avatar Creator Drinks Coffee

Doctor said I’m supposed to start my day with a good breakfast. Last visit, my daughter had deposited a ten-pound bag of French roast beans on the kitchen table. Sweet girl. I brewed myself a cup, sliced myself a piece of challah and settled down before I caught a bus, inhaled the steam, the swirl of cream and coffee blending together in a whirlpool as my spoon clinked against the side of the mug; the repetitive sound put me in a meditative state the way coffee does in the early morning, stared out the window and took small sips, my finger perched on my lip, placed the mug back down on the oak table and counted the number of blue flowers stenciled along the outside of the mug, one leaf pointing to the next; I thought about all the years I’ve sat drinking coffee before it was time to leave, the clock hollering, “You’re late!” But after time, my resistance faltered, poured my coffee into an aluminum mug and took it with me in the car.

Heal our hearts.

Heal our hearts.

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The Avatar Talks

fullsizerender-2I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that story plus the parts about his being an alcoholic. When you’re somebody’s avatar, you get to know her more than you’d like. It’s a Vulcan mind meld. Even when she’s in the bathroom, I can hear her farting and believe me, that’s not fun. She’s getting up in years and can barely make it from the bedroom to the kitchen without stopping, while I’m 29 and have competed in several triathlons, took first place in the Madrid games where the olive trees looked like stumps with black fingernails, which is to say I’m 5 feet 9 and in great physical shape, have long blonde hair that I hoist into a thick ponytail, and learned how to speak Spanish fluently but I already know Sanskrit and Aramaic and a little Russian.

Janeen was able to keep up until we got to Level 8. Now it takes days for her to get out of bed and make a move, and in the meantime, what can I did except just stay put? Says her daughter’s in graduate school and doesn’t want her to worry. Get this. Her daughter thinks the English guy is still around paying rent; he actually was the one who put Top Dog on Janeen’s computer. He wanted to show her what he did for a living.

Janeen had asked him, “Why do you want to leave the United States and work for Barclay’s when you can just keep telling these wonderful stories?”

He’d handed her the usual clap-trap about needing money.

The only thing I’ve got on my mind is dodging burning embers or getting smashed into toothpicks by Lord Grunion and his minions, little things like that. I’m not trying to demean what Janeen has to go through on a day-to-day. But there’s this game of survival, and how am I supposed to go head-to-head with Lord Grunion unless Janeen does something? I wish she would download the most current version of Top Dog Ramono. I’d be able to move more quickly. But to be totally honest, keeping her alive is my real mission because if her battery runs down, I’m dead in the water, never mind those clashing mountains. Her casa is my casa. You dig?

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Introducing the Avatar

IMG_0081For the first time in years I could see veins on leaves and recognize moles on faces, which was well worth wearing a patch and completing a month-long regimen of eye drops following cataract surgery, except   something else went wrong—and it wasn’t my eyes. All I heard was: could be, may be, points to. You’d think that after three or four tests, they’d be able to make a diagnosis. The lab thought it had something to do with my heart, but why didn’t the doc have the presence of mind to order an EKG? He said first he needed a blood panel. Fuck a blood panel. Vampires sitting behind an oak table with long needles, probing my arm for a juicy vein. I hated needles, all kinds of needles. Passed out the first time I traveled overseas and had to get a tetanus booster; I even have to look away whenever my cat Knickers gets his shots.

I had no other plans for the day except to feed Knickers, named by my one-time tenant from Great Britain whose feet were half brown, half white (the cat’s). He’d had earned an MBA at UC Berkeley, then moved back to take a job with Barclay’s leaving me with two dozen Darjeeling teabags on the kitchen counter.

Tea bags actually had nothing to do with it. For months, there hadn’t been a drop of rain. Northern California was in the middle of a drought. Outside my window, trees slumped over the pavement, and even worse, ash from wild fires up north, cast an eerie glow over everything. It’s like we were caught in a magician’s spell. The sunsets were gorgeous, but I wanted clouds to open up the same way a three-year-old rips apart wrapping paper and ribbons on Christmas morning.

If I arrived at my appointment too late, I’d be sitting in the waiting room for an extra hour thumbing through old copies of National Geographic. Outside, my neighbor’s dog did its business on a hydrant. One leg raised high in the air, the mutt seemed oblivious to the outer world, thrilled to take a long piss on a weird piece of metal.

A friend had been recently diagnosed with malignant polyps; another had broken her hip. Up until my cataract surgery, I’d never gone under the knife, but at any moment, I could get that call from the lab telling me to make an urgent appointment. The doctor had said something about fibrillations and lectured me about not taking care of myself. Back when my husband was alive, none of the doctors said a peep about fibrillations. Everything used to be about thrombosis. Certain diseases come and go like designer jeans with rips in them from waistband to ankles.

“How busy can you be that you can’t take care of your health?”

“Busy answering telemarketing calls.”

The doc wouldn’t believe me and I wasn’t going to explain. I’d been building an avatar for a video game called Top Dog Romano. How could I expect her to understand what I was dealing with?

My avatar girl had to be clever enough to go through a bunch of colliding mountains. If she didn’t get squished, then she had to collect gems from slime-toads that were actually people who’ve been turned into creature features by this Lord Grunion who thinks the world is his oyster. The problem is that Grunion’s got an army behind him and every time my spunky avatar drops glowing rubies into the crater of the volcanic colliding mountains, the army comes after her and locks her into a dungeon, and if she doesn’t have the right key in her pocket that she’d won at an arcade game before reaching the mountains, she could die of hunger—shrivel into a stick of beef jerky. But I can think of worse ways to occupy my time like watching the evening news: shootings, bombings, and politicians moaning about the world situation, but doing squat-diddley to do anything about it. Don’t get me started. Look, I’m just trying to create a place where I’ve got an even chance. I named my avatar after my mother and father, Morgan and Rena to become Morena, but she gets all her good looks from me.

My deceased husband had excelled at collecting diseases; I’d always been the healthy one.

“Why do you always have to be doing something?” he’d say. “What’s the problem about staying at home?”

“Why can’t we sometimes go to the movies?”

“We can’t talk there.”

“We never talk to each other.”

“What are we doing right now? What do you call this?”

(to be continued)

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Golem Says Goodbye

Not sure what else to say
except it was too much,
couldn’t be the tough everyone wanted,
no blood coursing through my veins
like humans tinkered together
by He Who Shall Not Be Named,
the same ones who called me into being
with magic up the yin-yang.

On the other hand,
don’t I have arms, legs,
two eyes that see vultures gliding above?
I bury myself beneath a rock where,
if I should live that long,
my love awaits in the solid wet earth.

Links to my work

Sketchbook Project

Author note: Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukah! And so ends the 2016 Golem series.I thank the golem for helping me deal with the orange reality of Donald Trump who will never be my president. And thank you to my readers. Perhaps the golem will return. Until then, a new book of poetry entitled, The Golem, will be available in 2017. Stay posted.

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Coda of Christmas Humbugs

I’ll be answering to myself while I look for him,
he who left the premises so long ago,
but now when I stand inside the parking lot
scanning roofs to pick out my car
from the rest of the humbugs, no golem
with empty pockets and hangnail face
waiting in the passenger seat
for me to drive him to his next crime scene,

willing to be my daemon, my man about town
catapulting from one emergency room
to the next situation with little more
than a nod, knowing we had to do this,
but now that he’s rolled away,
I’m not sure what else to say.

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