treadmills, exercise bikes,
pick my way
through a forest
gauge how close
or far I wish to be
talk shows, cooking programs,
sports, news, no intelligence,
mute turned on,
stake out a machine
near the Barefoot Contessa
on a brown paper towel
wipe the machine
from its last occupant
set resistance, sweat,
a fitness army
sweat bands around,
ear buds in,
water bottles erect.
Each time I walk
through the door
enter my phone,
scan my fingerprint,
are we getting
in shape for?
This winter I drove across country. Speed limits on these super highways are 75 miles per hour. Along the shoulder, highways are littered with shreds of big rig tires, blow-outs collect like giant snails. After I had crossed the border between Arizona and California, I started to relax. After all, I was getting closer to the Bay Area, my final destination. That’s when my car hit one of these huge clumps of big-rig tire. At 75 miles per hour, I felt a jolt and thud.Immediately, I knew something was wrong. The good news is that I made it back to the Bay Area. I reported the damage to my insurance company. It’s one of those companies that advertise on TV and radio and has a gecko for a mascot.
My daughter recommended a local body shop. She’d taken her own car there several times with good results and I trusted her recommendation. I picked up the rental and expected to have my car back in several weeks.
Back and forth the insurance company’s adjustor questioned every fix required by the body shop to get my car into driving shape. The frame was damaged. The adjustor offered that maybe the car’s alignment issues were caused by another accident. They were slow to approve any repair.
About three weeks later, I flew to Portland to visit my son. One morning in my motel room, I received a call from the insurance company. They advised that the car rental had been extended; however, I needed to re-register. I explained that I was in Portland and could not do so. They insisted I must. Really, what did they expect? As soon as I returned to the Bay Area, I pulled into the rental car office. It didn’t seem to bother anyone that I hadn’t shown up several days before. Instead of engaging in an argument, why hadn’t the insurance company advised me to re-register as soon as I returned to the Bay Area? That would’ve been very simple.
Fifty days later, I still didn’t have my car. To add insult to injury, the insurance company refused to extend the car rental beyond the end of the month. They required me to pay for any extra daily charges. Of course, throughout this back-and-forth, I spoke to the body shop. They kept me informed. At one point, David, the proprietor said, “Don’t worry. I will treat your car as if it were my own. Don’t worry. I’ll make sure that everything that needs to be done, is done.”
On the 52nd day, I received a call from the shop. My car was ready for pick up. Finally. I dropped off the rental, and paid for the extra charges. David was at the shop and handed off the car. I was glad to see my Camry. The car drove beautifully.
When I got home, my next step was to sign up with a different insurance company. My current company had done nothing to make my experience as painless as possible. Instead, they had put their dollars into smoke and mirrors, advertisements and catchy phrases. How had their actions in any way affirmed that they appreciated me as a customer, that they appreciated my business? None that I could tell.
Even if this insurance company already had absorbed a number of drop-offs into their bottom line, word gets out. Do you think that when anyone asks me about my experience I will have anything positive to say, and what about the thousands of other consumers whose claims are treated like mine? As far as the body shop goes, any place that says they will treat my property as if it were like their own, understands communication, which is at the heart of customer service. David even thanked me for being patient.
He told me that the shop hadn’t been fully compensated by the insurance company for all the repairs. “But we’ll deal with it on our end,” he said, and handed over the keys.
I invite you to leave comments about any experiences with the Gecko. By the way, if you live in the East Bay and need a great Body Shop, try 101 Auto Body at 1223 San Pablo Avenue, 510 559-8819. Talk to Dave.
Vegetables were artfully arranged by size and color like models at New York’s Fashion Week. I wanted to eat everything. But this was not a farmer’s market or my friend’s kitchen. I’d happened upon the newest Whole Foods Market that had opened last year on Gilman Street in Berkeley, California. I’d returned to the store after my daughter had brought me there to assemble a salad. No ingredient looked more than three seconds old.
The original Whole Foods Market had been founded in Austin, Texas in 1980. Whole Foods went on to acquire a bevy of companies that were committed to the same vision of marketing natural foods. But this particular store offered not only the traditional non-GMO and USDA certified organic selections, but a building flashing recycled technology from every porchlight.
Near the bathroom, there’s a plaque explaining how the store is built of reclaimed wood, and glazed brick from post-consumer recycled material. The Gilman store also has upped the ante regarding refrigeration, using a “transcritical CO2 system,” a natural refrigerant that outdoes traditionally used HFC (hydrofluorocarbons) refrigerants resulting in reduced energy consumption. It doesn’t stop there. Floors are made of “marmoleum,” a natural linoleum product manufactured from linseed oil, wood flour, pine resin, jute and limestone; bags at the check-out counter are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and made of 100% recycled paper.
I wanted to get the whole Whole Foods picture. So I returned. There’s an entire aisle devoted to different chips including Kale Krunch and Avocado Oil Potato together with any number of differently prepared pretzels and popped corn. Tom’s Toothpaste totally elbows out Crest and Colgate brands. At the checkout counter I found no candy, only energy bars, no Good Housekeeping or Enquirer magazines. Standing tall were copies of the Harvard Business Review and Naturally.
I bought one item and made my way to the coffee bar run by Allegro roasters, large burlap sacks of beans piled on the floor. On the counter were glass milk bottles filled with differently colored coffee beans. In addition to the usual lattes, cappuccinos, and espressos, I also had a choice of home brewed, Chemex, and a number of other possibilities. My mind froze. I knew about Chemex and decided to go with a Guatemalan blend. Pastries were expensive; I did look twice at the lemon brioche tart and the sesame lime and guava financier. The name itself was a show-stopper.
My coffee was brewed by a young woman with a single blonde braid She talked with her co-worker who wore two sleeves of tattoos, bicycles running up his arm with a set of keys dangling from a spiky biker belt.
Who shops at Whole Foods? I saw mostly young people who looked like they had jobs, moms with kids in strollers, and a few retirees. Organic seems to be the new trendy thing that comes with a hefty price tag. Maybe it’s the tie-dye of a new generation. Anyhow, I applaud Whole Foods for stepping out there as a model, even if I do prefer my own Farmer Joe’s market in Oakland’s Fruitvale District where the produce is fresh and the prices more reasonable.
I carried my jar of chipotle salsa back to the car.
Before the city had cut down pecan trees for the mall, before your brother was diagnosed with cancer, before the crazy woman moved into the fishing cabin, brown earth stretched diagonally toward the bayou topped with stubbles of dried grass sticking out like the hairs of a balding man, orange sun shuddering in a harp of light; before that, I loved you.
She pointed to the bronze and wooden statuettes. The fact that she didn’t think the ghost was my husband, interested me while at the same time, I was happy he wasn’t messing with her mind. His own mind occupied a world of special relationships, mathematical probabilities especially about chess, an analytical cast inherited from his royal Russian forebears as well as the winter snow blowing across the taiga, a cutting sarcasm. But the fact that Woody was still rattling around in the basement saddened me. I was sorry he had been unable to find peace. Or maybe the ghost wasn’t one particular individual, but a collective history putrefying in a basement divided into a catacomb of dirt cells. We’d covered the largest section of the floor with cement. Smaller areas were repurposed into a writing room, an area used for my son’s hobbies, a storage area that on occasion became a Haunted House, and the rest, a place for lazy cats to do their business.
After my husband died of congestive heart failure, I sold the house, moved away, and raised my daughter. I met Jenning years later through a dating service. Casual dating had allowed me to reclaim my social self. I wasn’t expecting a great romance. But when I met him at the movie theater, he hugged me warmly. It felt easy and natural. He was a self-described “boy from the South,” new to the area and wanting to be introduced to the sights and sounds of San Francisco. I was a single mom proofreading essays for my daughter’s college applications. We watched Spiderman3, touted by critics as one of the best in the series, great special effects and acting. When the evening was over, he opened my car door and closed it softly. For our second date, we went to a pinball arcade. I watched him work the flippers, his moves. And as we got to know each other, I looked forward to his phone calls, our dates in the car driving anywhere, listening to music, laughter, eating at our favorite pizza joint, taking walks along Leona Canyon, being together in bed. But after seven years, our relationship fell apart.
I left Louisiana in the early morning. It was still dark. My boxes were packed along the back wall of the garage waiting for a trucking company to pick them up at a later time. It rained all the way through Texas. I stopped for breakfast in Canton outside of Dallas at a restaurant that was half “World Famous Hamburgers” serving beef, duck and elk burgers, and half a “World Famous Dairy Palace” serving 32 flavors of hand-dipped ice cream. I was glad they also served breakfast and poured coffee. Both were excellent. At the cash register they gave out emery boards imprinted with the restaurant’s name. Plastic poinsettias were stuck inside boxes of plastic philodendrons. I’d been driving for hours and sat in a red-padded booth. Seating areas were packed close. In front of me sat a couple; a woman faced me, her hair carefully coiffed. She looked to be all about business. “What do you do on the weekend? What kind of chores do you do?”
The man answered without hesitation. He was prepared. “Oh, I like to relax, not do much. Sit around and listen to music. Putter. Fix things. Sunday I go shopping, laundry. Things like that. Like to pour myself a beer. I watch football, but I’m not an addict.”
Satisfied, she volleyed with, “Are you a thrower? Are you jealous?” He discussed his relationship style, no, he preferred to talk things out rather than hurl plates through the air, “I’m a communicator,” and while he was capable of jealously and hated to see someone he had loved go out with another man, he tried not to be a total asshole. They both seemed satisfied. From there, the conversation drifted to real estate and politics. At first I thought this woman was a real loser; I’d never heard of anyone interviewing a prospective lover about relationship style. But after I thought about it, her approach made perfect sense. Maybe they were considering moving in together. Maybe she wanted to know what to expect. He didn’t ask her any questions. At least not right then.
Emails of online surveys: Geico, Kaiser, AT&T. A database addition on a scale of one to five. But I need customer service to tell me everything will be all right after a fender bender on the freeway one exit before my own get-away, before everything piled up on me broken: the desk, doors, sink disposal, guitar string, heart, everywhere people holding hands, dog owners walking with shepherds, collies, golden retrievers. The Customer Service Department for Allied Movers called, wants yes or no answers to ten questions. This is not customer service, people. This is harassment.
My mouth dropped. Never had I expected her to utter those words. “Yes,” I said, feeling an immediate kinship with a woman who was standing in front of me on the cement pavement at the bottom of the driveway of my old house where I had raised my children and where she now lived. “When we first moved here,” I explained, “for the first three years or so we heard something; the house had a bad feeling. Something foul. There was an ooze, something ancient that didn’t care for our intrusion. My husband used to hear chains rattling at night in the basement. But I wasn’t sure if I believed him. He used to dress up as Richard III for Halloween and recited Shakespeare on the front porch standing before the spider webs we wove around the banister. My son said he saw the ghost, a heavy presence like a water balloon about to burst its skin. All I know is that I had a feeling of discomfort. I’d always look around before I placed my foot on the last step to the basement.” She seemed relieved, nodded for me to continue. “But after awhile,” I said, “the ghost went away. We were happy for a time living in this house, raising our children. Maybe that made the ghost happy.”
Cam had stirred up twenty-five years inside me. I thought the ghost must be Woody or Forest, which had been the name on all official documents, husband of the woman whom we had originally bought the Oakland house from for $65,000. Some said he had committed suicide, died in the bathtub; neighbors revealed the story more than six months after we had lived there. “He was an alcoholic,” said some. “Killed in a car crash,” reported others. His wife, Jane, as I recall, taught at the University of California at Berkeley, or maybe it was the other way around; her house was filled with artwork, vibrant colors, paintings with a Mazatlan sensibility; outside she grew cactus. Living there, I came to believe that there was something clinging to the foundation. But after I had replaced the green Kenmore that never worked well with an antique Wedgewood, and also listened to a dream where my mother instructed me to hang my family’s photos in the kitchen, that creepy sensibility dissipated.
“I don’t think the ghost was your husband. He bounced up and down on my bed and pulled back the covers. He scared me. That’s why I put Buddhas all around the windowsill.”
Down a driveway of cement cobblestones, I talked to her about ghosts. Cam was my height, which means short, mostly black hair gathered in a ponytail, silver and grey on top bordered by red and blue streaks. She was Asian, maybe Vietnamese, renting a basement room, which at various times had served as my son and daughter’s living space. On this particular day I’d pulled up to the house where I’d lived with my husband for twenty-five years, the same house where he had died, the same house where I’d raised my children, where we’d eaten meals together at the kitchen table and stepped on the porch at night to look at stars. But on this particular day I was feeling nostalgic. I slowed down at the curb of my old house about twenty minutes from where I currently lived, wanting to catch a glimpse of the garden where for years I had waged a battle with ferocious weeds, transforming patches of Bermuda grass into stays of Pacific Coast Iris, a wisteria vine, an herb and vegetable garden, daffodils in the spring.
Bay Laurel trees in my new neighborhood were beginning to tease the air with spikey leaves; it wasn’t yet quite spring. I wondered if the apple tree I had planted in our backyard was still there. I wondered if I’d see any daffodils with two-tone cream cups. I’d recently returned to the Bay Area following an almost three-year sojourn in the south. I think my unplanned visit was part of a reintegration, reacquainting myself with the path I’d traveled in the hope of creating a new one.
She said it was okay for me to look at the garden even though Lester, the man whom I’d sold the house to, wasn’t at home. I only wanted to look at the garden, I said to her, not go inside the house, and while I was standing there, recognized the rosemary bush I’d planted, remembered walking down to the garden with a scissors to snip a bunch to use in dinner preparation. I saw a crowd of agapanthus, Lily of the Nile. The original plants were small pots I’d originally brought back from a Lake Merritt Garden show, purplish-blue and white blossoms. She nodded and said it was okay and opened the gate. I stepped inside. There was a gazebo just beyond the backyard stairs, a raised garden bed filled with kale, collards, and lettuce (this may have been Lester’s winter garden), succulents with thickly padded leaves, a clipped grapevine that twined around the back stairs (possibly the one I had planted in another section of the garden), an area with roses, fuchsias, jasmine, a brick walk-way possibly built with the ones we had left in a pile following the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, a pergola near the back fence, actually a stone wall that my kids and their friends had decorated with drawings. I recognized my Pacific Coast Iris in the same spot where I’d planted them. But I realized that this garden was not mine. Yet Lester had used the plants and the ideas I’d left behind, and in that way, I had contributed to the garden. I clicked pictures with my cellphone and stepped back outside through the gate.
“Can I ask you something?” said Cam. She had allowed a moment for me to ferry my thoughts from past to the present.
“How long did you live here?” She held a small notebook and a pencil in one hand. She seemed like she was about to take notes.
“Have you ever seen ghosts in the house?”
Gentle Readers: Through the magic of Google Analytics, I know there are several hundred dedicated readers of this blog. Thank you for your interest. Who are you in Baton Rouge, Mohegan Lake (Judi is that you?), Oakland, San Francisco, Natchitoches, Las Vegas, and Houston? Who are my readers in China, France? Leave a reply below. Join the party!
got them into this mess—
a rag of wings
a bindle of legs
angels on a goof setting off a debate whose bright idea the whole thing had been anyway, to forsake a clock tower several blocks away from where they’d offered free target practice to pigeons for years, but gave in to redevelopment, waited for someone to climb the stairs to where they were now encased, to stroke a torn wing bud, to kiss each ding with garlicky breath
Gentle Angels: Through the magic of Google Analytics, I know there are several hundred dedicated readers of this blog. Thank you for your interest. Who are you in Baton Rouge, Mohegan Lake (Judi is that you?), Oakland, San Francisco, Natchitoches, Las Vegas, and Houston? Who are my readers in China, France? Leave a reply below. Join the party!