Tuesday, December 4, 2012

When I loved
I jumped out
of the car to pee
where we pulled over on Highway 17 
on our way to Santa Cruz.

I breathed in
the fresh wet ferns
and dripping redwood trees
that formed a winter canopy over the side of the road.

She came up behind
me and wrapped her arms
around me and grabbed me firmly
and commanded, “Let go! I want to do it.”

She waved me in wild wintry patterns

at the orange, brown and red 
dampened leaf fall,
the litter of redwood limbs already wet from the rain.

Monday, October 22, 2012

the cinderblock room

i live in a cell of cinderblock
near the ocean
a long window spreads

open into the back yard
full of boxes, buckets and barrels
and if i stand flat footed

toes against the wall
i can reach the bottom
of the window with my chin 

and view 
the ground at eye level.

there are no flowers
just towers of containers
filled with parts, tools and scraps.

it’s a steal, i’m told, for
what you’re getting here
we could get a lot more money

than what you’ve been paying.
the parrot squawks all day long
and its owner screams back:

“shut up, fido! shut up!”
it’s claustrophobic here.

sometimes i feel like i’m buried
underground where the temperatures
stay cool all year round

and no one comes to visit
because there’s no place
to sit and get comfortable

unless we jump onto my 
bed and lean against the cool cinderblock wall.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hunger in fields of plenty

I’m the fourth-to-last person in line at the local food bank; it’s my first trip here. A friend told me about it months ago when I mentioned that I was having trouble fitting food into my budget.

“Go to the food bank, dude! Swallow your pride and go down there and get some food!”

The food bank is sponsored weekly by the community church down town. It offers essential food items such as fresh fruits and vegetables and some canned goods.

I’ve observed the lines of people who wait each Wednesday morning to get their handout and wondered what it must feel like to be standing there because you could not earn enough money to buy food.

I’ve also wondered how anyone could afford to miss work to stand in line at 10 a.m. to get food. Today, I found out. Today, I don’t have work because of the season’s first rain. The ranch boss said to wait until it blows over. I’m glad he felt this way because I really needed to get to the church food bank. I have absolutely nothing but rice to eat, and no money to buy groceries, at least not until next week.

Occasionally, as I drive by the church, I recognize the familiar faces of people who live in the neighborhood waiting their turn for a shot at assembling a bag or two of groceries. “I’m like you, brother,” I’ve thought to myself, “but I don’t have the guts to admit that I can’t afford to buy groceries right now.”

I don’t alarm too easily when my stomach starts to growl. I’ve gone hungry before. I know how it feels to go without food for a few days. I don’t like it but at least I know that I’ll survive. I’ve done it without too much grief or worry but this time it’s different.

As a ranch hand, I’m working harder than ever and I need the calories to burn. I can’t go too long without a meal, I need adequate nourishment to work as hard as I do.

Work has been much harder to find in the last four years, especially for a Boomer like myself who may be seen as irrelevant or too old or too costly to be considered a safe bet for prospective employers. 

I have in a sense put my hand to the plow and found work as a farm and ranch hand. Apparently, there’s plenty of work in agriculture and the military. Beyond that, however, you almost have to be an entrepreneur, create your own job, to stabilize in this economy. 

Much has been batted about regarding the lack of jobs. Blame has been cast here and there and promises made, yet the fact remains that jobs are harder to come by now, and not just for Boomers. Young people too, recent college graduates like my daughter, are having a tough time finding jobs.

I’ve been in publishing most of my adult life and, while employed, lived well and was paid well, at least well enough to have food in the cupboards, money in the bank, and places to go. During downturns, I’ve always managed to scrape enough money together by taking on odd jobs: window washing, landscape maintenance and installation, and lately farm labor.

This is the first time that I can remember not having enough money to buy food for more than a day or two.

When the economy tanked in 2008, employment in the U.S. took a sharp revolutionary turn away from what we had until then known: Plenty of opportunities with full-time hours and lucrative salary, benefits, insurance, vacation and holiday time, the whole package. It seems most of those opportunities have disappeared.

I’ve adjusted to the rigors of mostly day labor jobs to get by these past four years, and have received some benefits from them. 

“You look really good,” a friend told me recently, “really good.” It must be the ranch work, being out doors, getting plenty of fresh air and exercise and a fairly good diet of local foods, I told her. As much as I like working in the fields, I added, it’s kicking my butt. I’m getting too old for this. 

“Looks like whatever you’re doing is working for you.”

Well, thanks, I said, it’s working ok for me. I stayed mum about the fact that I’ve been eating less, which also helps keep the weight off, not because I want to but because my budget won’t allow too many extras at the moment.

The last four years have been a roller coaster ride of plenty versus scarcity, broken promises and relationships brought on by job loss, financial hardships and debt, the sorts of things that will easily bring a person down over an extended period of time.

I’ve managed to stay mostly positive, scaling down my expectations, adjusting to the losses, and building where possible new hopes while learning to be grateful for what I do have. I do ok with these things as long as there’s food to eat.

Few things will bring a man down more quickly than the lack of food. It’s most demoralizing when work is expected and you have little or nothing to run on. I’ve always thought of hunger pangs, which aren’t really hunger, as positive motivation, which they are but not when they continue unabated day after day.

Thankfully, there are good people in the world. “Would you like a coffee?” asked the owner of the local coffee shop this morning where I had just been speaking with the boss in front of her store. Her coffee shop is the best meeting place in town.

I wanted to clear things with the boss about taking the morning off so I could take care of a “personal matter.” I didn’t tell him I needed to go to the food bank. Sure, he said, take the whole day off, it’s going to rain anyhow. That’s fine with me, I need the break.

When I went back inside the coffee shop to say hello, the barista who owns the shop asked if I would like a cup. “No, thank you,” I said, a big lie. 

“Did you already have coffee?” she asked suspiciously, as though I might have already brewed one of my own or gone to the neighboring competitor down the street.

“No,” I answered awkward for a second, “I’d love a coffee but…I…uh…." I lowered my voice, "I can’t afford it right now.”

“That’s ok,” she said, “it’s on me today.” She poured my favorite coffee, two shots in a small cup of dark roast, and gave me a scone. It was pure bliss to sit and watch the season’s first dark clouds burst into a downpour onto the street in front of the cafe.

The favorite saying here, we live in paradise, comes to mind. 

There have been others as equally kind and generous but a person can only go so far drawing from charitable accounts. I'd rather be on the giving end of things.

You wouldn’t think there would be many hungry people, if any, in this small town of 3,500 residents, but there are plenty of them. Some come from neighboring towns and the man who calls the numbers to let people into the food bank announces other sites throughout the county that offer food during the week.

A woman I know from town, a waitress at a local restaurant who lives in a modest apartment above the tavern, leans over and whispers knowingly, “The food bank in Morro Bay is the best one for food.”

“Thanks for the tip,” I say.

I recognize a couple of barflies who live off small pensions and drink cheap beer at the pub, a few laborers who by most appearances seem to be doing well but apparently need the help, as I do, filling their shelves with food. A goodly number of those who wait in line are elderly, who smile knowingly when I pass by. 

I’m happy to be here only so that I can grab some much-needed food items, not for the social aspect, which I wasn't expecting. 

I feel awkward and hope that no one close to me sees me on the way out. But it’s too late for that; I know so many people here already who are close. I’m surprised at how many I do know.

I’ve been putting off going to the food bank for months now, scraping here and there, always managing to pick up a few extra dollars so that I can go to the market.

Food items and gas have gone up so much in the last few months, however, my budget allows me to do little but pay rent. I scramble and hope to make ends meet for the rest. I’m fortunate, in more than one sense, to be working on a ranch.

First, it’s good physical labor and second, there’s lots to eat on a ranch.

I’ve been dining in good fashion up until very recently. In fact, my boss handed me a fine slab of venison at the end of the day last week from a recent kill, which I sliced, pan seared, then cooked with a can of Bush’s black beans, fresh chiles, pepper, garlic and onion.

I also had some avocado that had fallen from the trees at the ranch, which occasionally I get to bring home, and sliced that fresh onto my venison chile.

I remembered as I was about to sit down that I had a 24-ounce bottle of Firestone’s double-barrel ale, a local brew and as fine a beer you can get anywhere, sitting in the fridge. I’d forgotten about it. It had been there for a while. I was glad that I remembered it, and more glad that it was still there. 

I opened it, felt that touch of paradise everyone here likes to talk about, and sat down to a meal fit for anyone with a good appetite.

In a sense, a good food sense, this area is paradise. 

The avocados have been like manna, fruit from heaven, and oranges that have fallen sweet to the ground, have kept me from going totally hungry. 

This is the first time that I can remember, though, when I didn’t have enough cash in my pocket or funds in the bank or aid of friends to have food to get through the day. It’s an unsettling feeling.

The first rain begins to pour down hard on the little awning above our heads as we wait our turns at the food bank. About 50-60 people mill around the steps, dodge the rain, or sit in chairs, and wait for their turns to be called inside.

Each person takes a number assigned to them. The number rotates in order of ten so that everyone gets a turn at being the first in line. Newcomers like me must sign in and get a letter. I get the letter “D.” When I come back next week, I’ll get my own number, and a chance to be first in line.

“There’s isn’t much to choose from this time,” someone whispers, “but the third week of the month is the best day to come. That’s when they bring stuff from the USDA.”

The federal government offers these surplus foods to the needy and apparently there’s plenty of good to be had from them, proteins, canned fruits and vegetables, cheese.

I can see through the door some of the food items that have been placed upon tables set up in horseshoe fashion, where a line of people inspect and select from the goods.  Mostly perishable items such as bananas, onions, spinach and sprouts. 

“I feel bad for people who have to be last, the newcomers,” says the woman who sits at the sign-up table to the man who calls out the numbers. “But,” she adds, “I guess it’s like a right of passage. You gotta pay your dues to get to the front of the line.”

It seems a fair comment, even though I don't like it. The only way I'll get to the front of the line at the food bank will be to pay my dues. I don’t think much of my place in line until it’s my turn to go in and most of the good food stuff has been picked through and taken.

I grab a few onions, a container of drying, wilting sprouts, a bundle of wet spinach, a tomato and some bruised bananas. 

The rain pounds heavily upon the awning cover that amplifies the raindrops into a roar above our heads. “It’s sure a good thing to have this rain,” someone shouts above the din. “We need it. How long’s it been?” §

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blind love

I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.
—Pablo Neruda
At the Camarillo Amtrak station a young blind couple, walking arm-in-arm, slide the red tips of their seeing-eye canes along the platform next to the train.
The tips of their canes make a parallel search of the ground, tapping out the echoes of potential obstacles, swinging this way and that. Between the sliding sticks the pair are joined at their elbows.

I watch them from my vantage point above, through the window where I’m sitting on Train 777, or “Triple Seven,” as the conductor says in his announcements. 

They have just stepped off the train heading north and west where the sun is beginning its low descent over the Pacific Ocean.

The setting sun casts an orange glow on their faces. Together they tap the ground, safely passing sign posts and cement benches, the blind lovingly leading the blind, in perfect tender unison. 

I’ve never seen a blind couple as this making their way together. When I’ve observed the blind, often they have been alone, or accompanied by a service dog or friend whose vision is not impaired.

The pair turns tentatively toward the road, scouting the audibles, as a yellow cab slowly passes by, and they pause momentarily as if to hail the driver but another couple flags the car for themselves. How do they know that it is a cab? What bit of information causes them to turn at the same time to pursue what they cannot see?

They walk so closely and intimately that their bodies and minds seem as one. It’s a stunning scene. It’s touching. How did two blind intimates find each other? What brought them together? Did they meet in school? At a support group for the blind? 

Their closeness, their intimate knowing and safety in being together unseats me, penetrates the armor I’ve worn to avoid the history and hurt of broken intimacies. An aching, bleeding feeling, as if something has begun to melt, washes through me, beginning inside of my chest.

My eyes well up with tears and, like the couple below, I put on a pair of dark sunglasses. I don’t want anyone to see my eyes. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m having a breakdown on the train. I want to avoid the appearance of a touched middle-aged man. 

As Triple Seven pulls away from the platform, I watch the pair in a final desperate attempt to see what happens to them, and feel the cauldron of losses bubbling inside of me, streams of tears burning down my face.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing the idea of a blind love that isn’t blind at all but sees everything, knows everything, and moves in unison with the melodious voices of departing passengers, the low hum of cars in the distance, the passing of a cab, and the shared need to find a safe passage home. 

Perhaps I’m a fool for thinking that such passage gains more from the company of another who is willing to share the risks and responsibilities of navigating through the darkness, guided by some other light that cannot be seen.

This coupling desire to be joined at the elbows and to walk in unison with another in a different kind of blind trust doesn’t go away easily, not even after one has passed his prime and love can seem so cruel and foolish.

“When does it stop?” I asked a friend once. “When do you stop wanting the company of a woman? When do you stop feeling like there needs to be another?”

“A great love poet,” he responded, “once said that it wasn’t until he was 70 that he realized the feminine no longer had power over him.”

It’s not merely the feminine, however, that haunts and wields power over me. Something more than charms and pleasure has broken through the walls of my resistance to love.

What moves me now is the formidable intimate knowing that is built on trust, the eagerness to hold space with another, even when there is darkness all around, the willingness to traverse obstacles despite the handicaps, to do with that one what spring does with the cherry trees.

The dark sunglasses do not hide my tears. I remove them to pat my cheeks dry with the sleeve of my jacket. Amtrak Triple Seven roars into the night and my view outside the window is blurred from blinding tears. §

Sunday, July 22, 2012

For women with borderline
personality disorders and
Who enjoy tormenting
their men inside and outside
the bedroom mostly
Where intimacy, another
affinity, slips away quietly 
through cracks in the walls
And floorboards, hangs
in the cobwebs in the corners
until swept into the pan and tossed…
For sweet summer oranges
dripping their sticky juices
into greedy hungry fingers
Whose wetness, if not licked
right way, turns into a mucky 
adhesive that makes 
The skin stick together,
two, maybe three, fingers at a time 
until they are washed clean…
For the wet lover who pulls 
away the belt and says, “I want 
to feel you, taste you, I want to eat
you alive, I want all of you 
inside of me where no one or nothing
will ever tear us apart.”
For the crimson and scandalous
yellow roses pulsing in
fragrances that dance 
Like short summer skirts through the nose
open to the hot wind, and the breeze
the cool ocean breeze…
For oak trees, kestrels
vulvas and breasts
and the creek
Where water this late 
in summer doesn’t usually 
run but today it does…
For cold dark beer
and warm dark women
that go down easy
as the wacky Sac girl who, between breaths
says, “I love the way your cock feels 
getting hard in my mouth”
and turns her
garden into a thorn
patch asking for kudos…
For the howling grief
of a mother who 
loses her baby
And would tear
her heart out of her chest
if she could…
For the skittish survivor
who remembers nothing
of her childhood
Whose love is marred
by the shadows of
men whose faces she does not know
Or wish to remember
whose father is a fugitive hiding
in some dog patch in Mexico
And makes his living
smuggling porn videos
into the poorer neighborhoods of Africa.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Stars diving

Stars diving into 
the rough horizon
horse prints in 
the wet sand
a swollen moon…

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Waiting to see the doctor

My gut hurts, I’ve got hemorrhoids.
It’s the first time I’ve had these ugly little bumps sticking out of my butt that make it feel like I’m sitting on my insides each time I sit down.
“Don’t spend too much time either sitting down or standing in one place,” the nurse advises me over the phone.
“Natalie,” I say, “I never thought you and I would be having this conversation.”
“I know, when you hired me to work at New Times did you ever think I’d be advising you on how to treat hemorrhoids?”
“Not exactly,” I said.
Natalie had been a reporter at the weekly alternative rag in San Luis Obispo, where I did a brief stint as the late Steve Moss’s managing editor. She was one of my first hires at the newspaper. She had classic good looks, was smart and could write a good story. 
I liked her and was pleased with her work but she wasn’t enjoying it. She found the work of a journalist not suited for her and decided to return to school and get a nursing degree.
I’m glad she’s my nurse. I know that I’m in good hands. She works at the Veterans Administration health clinic where I get my indigent healthcare as a veteran.
It’s a bureaucratic system that would probably serve as model for any the government might run in the future for other citizens unable to afford their own healthcare insurance.
I’m glad as heck to have it. But it’s a little slow and laborious. It could probably use a tune up. 
I know the system is overloaded. The place is always busy and the wonderful volunteers and staff who work at the clinic do the best they can to process all of the great needs they see every day. They are always kind and attentive.
It’s not the workers but the system that’s the problem.
I’ve called for two reasons, not just to get relief from hemorrhoids. 
I’ve also asked Natalie about little growths beneath the skin close to where a melanoma was removed from my lower back nearly 10 years ago. Melanoma, if left unattended and not caught early, is one of the deadliest cancers.
I’d seen Dr. Dingler about two weeks ago and he took a quick look, patted around my side, stomach and back, and said: “It’s probably nothing to worry about. If there are any signs of new growth or increase in size, give us a call back.”
I left that appointment feeling less than assured but figured the doc knows what he’s talking about. I’ve had two melanomas and I know better. The little bumps need to be biopsied, or I won’t relax.
“You’ve gotta be the squeaky wheel,” mom says, “that’s the only way you’re going to get the attention you need.”
“I know, mom,” I respond. I hate being the squeaky wheel when it comes to things that to me seem obvious: if a patient expresses concern, then care should be given.
I hate pushing people; I’ll do it, if I have to, but I won’t like it.
“Listen, Natalie, I don’t mean to second-guess Dr. Dingler, I just saw him not long ago but I’d really like him to take a second look, I’d like to be certain of rather than guess the nature of these growths. Is it possible to get a biopsy?”
She explained that a biopsy would have to be done through the West LA facility, about a four-hour drive into the car-crazed southland.
“Do you mean Long Beach?” I hadn’t known there was a facility in West LA.
“No, the biopsies are done out of West LA. Sorry, that’s the only facility.”
It’s not a problem. I can get down there. “How do I set up an appointment? Do I call them down there?”
“No,” Natalie said, “we have to put in a request. you’ll be notified.”
Sometimes I hate bureaucracies, but this is the only healthcare service available to me. I have to wait. I’ll give it a week. 
The second melanoma, which looked like a little hairy piece of veal that came off my leg, will be a good reminder to persist.
The best prevention is early detection. My experience with the veterans healthcare system, however, as glad as I am to have its service, seems to lag in urgency care that might prevent full-blown cancer.
My second melanoma, about seven years ago, put me in the doctor’s crosshairs; she’d have come to my office and dragged me in for surgery herself if I had tried to delay for even one more hour.
“Your biopsy came back positive,” the dermatologist, Dr. Tinkle, had told me on the phone. Her call came during the peak of a tight deadline, just as we were about to roll with the presses. “You need to come to my office right now, if you can.”
“I can’t get out of here until four at the earliest,” I said.
“Good, we’ll see you at four,” she said, and hung up.
She didn’t just do surgery, unlike the previous doctor who removed the earlier cancer from my low back several years before, who was a little bit rough; she, however, was an artisan and performed her work with amazing professionalism and deftness.
There’s no scar where she excised deep into the skin. I’m ever grateful for her precision and care.
“You need to get checked every six months,” she told me after it was over.
I did that for about a year, until I left New Times and my healthcare insurance lapsed because I couldn’t afford it any more. I haven’t seen a dermatologist in nearly four years.
I’m lucky to have access to a doctor’s care as a veteran, and I can usually get in to see a doctor as quickly as necessary.
But in this case, I wish there was a little more urgency, the kind expressed in Dr. Tinkle’s demand that I come to her office without delay, especially where time and early detection are of vital necessity in the prevention of full blown cancer.
My daughter was still young when Natalie worked for me as a reporter. I inform Natalie that Anna has graduated college and recently completed the MCAT for entrance into medical school.
“Well, good for her,” Natalie says, “now you can look forward to talking to your daughter about your hemorrhoids.”
“Thanks, Natalie. Thank you. I cant wait. I’m really looking forward to our next conversation.” §