Month: August 2010

In Herb’s Red Socks

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They are a fine-spun woolen sort. Herbert is seven years dead now, and his socks peer down every day at me accusingly from my closet shelf. More than 2000 times they’ve asked: ‘What have you done with him?’   Today, after some somber reflection, I take them down to put on for Christmas. The color, at least, is right for this holiday.  Herb is one of many I know, or knew, who have left behind a world of empty orphan socks.  He, Erik, Jim, and Midge, are on the  orphan sock list only as neighbors; I don’t include the suicides; but the list  still grows inevitably with the addition of relatives and friends.

My father’s father, in his tenth decade, still wrote a book every few years, published 5 or 10 thousand copies, and then went about speaking and selling them himself, signing each laboriously, tremulously, with his long full name. No agent or publisher, no bookstore.  I asked him about very old age. “I like it. I can do most of what I want if I do it slowly. And nothing surprises, or angers or alarms me excepting this: to witness endless births, christenings, graduations, marriages, divorces, remarriages, and deaths among several generations. It is a lonely vigil to be left behind.”   To my regret I saved his orphan books but failed to seek out his orphan socks.

That was before I became so painfully aware of the universe of millions times millions of orphaned socks.  Socks with no thought for their future. No sock insurance, no disposition in a will, no Sock Security despite years of faithful service. Not even the Salvation Army cares.  Not the Legislators. They don’t vote or donate to politicians. In such cases a sock is without a mate:  no right is left; or left is left, right?  Either way, though a left is often a right for most purposes, it’s tragic.  I confess that I, myself, have some lone socks; yet I have never been so heartless as to abandon them. I keep these shards of life in a plastic bag for a friend who finds it a waste of time to match sock colors; she only wears the same color on both feet at one time accidentally;  by pure mathematical chance. The rest of the time, in unmatched orphan socks, she is an embodied statement about both fashion and rationality. About the ecology of socks. About recycling to preserve life on earth. But Herb’s were a matched pair of orphans, and I couldn’t ignore the uber-pathos in that fact.

Looking at the names of sockless dead in the light of a deathless limbo for so many socks, I realize the list’s length is directly proportionate to my own age. The fault, if there is one, is probably my own: living on unreasonably, and unseasonably.  Herbert’s widow Midge lived on until last winter among the relics of the US Army Air Force of WWII, a postwar Japan, their Montana childhood, and a lifetime of earnest doing, collecting, and maintaining. Herb’s motto was ‘Civilization is Maintenance’.  Strange, he neglected to provide for maintenance of his socks, even though his own demise was not sudden or unexpected.   Midge’s mother had come alone to Montana at age 15, homesteaded, adsorbed a man, planted and grew her  land, life and family.

Both Herb and his wife lived long deaths, without complaint, in perfect harmony with their lives, lives almost lost to translation error into the language of today. Words matter while they are living.  Even names can shape a life. My wife’s aunt’s full given name was Justicia Espada (Justice Sword) and she became the first  civil engineer in this hemisphere. My grandfather was of a generation whose names and lives were written in a nominally English, tongue. I say nominally because all languages are living entities, and North American is no longer English. Words,  like people and language  or socks, can be orphaned or lost.  Like many in his time my grandfather read Greek and Latin fluently. Try on those hostile, haughty other worldly grammars if you dare! His first name, Leonidas, despite being rejected by spell-check, belonged to a Spartan king who died with 300 young men in the fall of 480 BC at the pass of Thermopylae resisting Xerxes I and several hundred thousand Persians. Leon’s second name was Lattimer after Louis Lattimer, a black who fought in the Civil War, helped perfect the light bulb, drafted Alexander Graham Bell’s patent for the telephone, and was one of 28 inventors and engineers working with Edison. Perhaps the name was one reason Leon marched with Martin Luther King, and raised money frantically to get him out of jail. He would, nonetheless, be greatly amused to know that the only other Lattimer that Googles to life quickly is John, who reportedly purchased Napoleon’s penis for $40,000.00.  John’s daughter found the relic in a briefcase under Lattimer’s bed. With some orphan socks no doubt.

“He only wore these red socks once. At Christmas.” Herb’s daughter Kim from Kansas said, handing me the socks. “I think he would want you to have these.” I had never seen them before, to my knowledge. Herb’s relatives appeared to place great value in the socks, as they did in thousands of relics from one of a  Greatest Generation’s  Second Great War; so many artifacts that some were offered up at a garage sale.  Herb had only one orphan leg after the war, so perhaps all his socks had particular merit in that they had suffered only half the wear of the usual pair. He suffered from recurring episodes of debilitating phantom pain in his long lost leg; the invisible leg had a mind and a will of its own not subject to medications, curses or incantations.  When the sated pain left, Grendel like, Herbert’s effusive but sometimes exhausting humor and his intense desire to overcome his physical limitations returned immediately. During   50 years, never was he disabled by his disability.

It is with a wistful reverence that I put on the red socks, and wear them this Christmas. I wonder which sock belonged to the lost foot; neither, I suppose. In a community property state the survivor likely inherits both. I think I shall wash and preserve them, while I continue to function. On second thought, I myself am an indefinite who cannot adopt them indefinitely. No.  I must cremate them; socks are the man; the man a time; a generation; a war; a life; all are incomplete without these socks.

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Everything is Covered

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The Melba Notebooks, Chapter XIX

The following Ja entries are from his Standard Diaries:* All remaining entries are from The Melba Notebooks.

Thursday Nov 18, 1999 Ja-  Sophie called with information on Bob’s flight to attend the Big Game between Cal and Stanford. (Ha! I expected the 100th Big game 2 years ago would be Bob’s last. But he never communicates much; this is the 102nd.)    He will fly to Seattle, then to Alameda, where I’ll will meet him. She  arranged for an escort to assist him  at the change of flights, and will check his luggage all the way through.  After the game I will leave him with the airline and the reverse process will be followed. As always, Bob doesn’t give a heads up about such things- But it looks like everything is covered.

Nov  18, 99 8 AM  M: Sophie: Got some things arranged for Dad’s trip. Will call Dot tonight.

Tomorrow, Friday morning ,   to airport

Saturday 20, 21,  Js’s and game

Sunday  21 return

Nov 19, 12 Noon:  Shi: Came to relieve VJ.  … Melba asking about Bob but knows he is at Calif. Melba reading & watching chimney sweep.

Nov 19, 1999 , Ja about 3:30 PM: At  the Alameda/Oakland Airport ; I was surprised that Bob had his suitcase in his hand as he met me because the plan had been to check it.  A lifetime of traveling the world with only carry-ons made that his preference of course. Somehow he had foiled the airline in that regard.

PM Ja We drove to Stanford across the San Mateo Bridge to Atherton,  and El Camino Real. I had not expected to have much trouble finding a place to stay, but ‘no vacancy’ signs ruled the streets; so rather than fight it, under these circumstances,I just popped for the posh well located  Stanford Park Hotel.

“He’s 91,” I thought, “and now unaware of my extravagance. I have this compliant credit card, and can indulge myself to treat him to the best!”

9:00 PM Ja: At dinner the waiter always first addressed Bob; after all he was a most venerable customer.

” My name is Rock, and Ill be your server tonight.  Might I suggest, sir, the raw oyster appetizer? They are very fresh, served with wedges of key lemon, and our special Chesapeake Bay sauce.”  At that and every subsequent suggestion  Dad looked up pleasantly and responded enthusiastically.  Brightly. “Thank you!”, or again, “Yes!” And so we free ranged through the salads, wine, rack of lamb, desserts, after dinner drinks and cappuccinos. Bob ate every bite, as always.  I was pleased, but troubled because obviously Bob was on auto-pilot, all instruments failing excepting his motor skills, his automatic affirming verbal responses, and faithful appetite.

Nov 20, 1999, 1:00 AM Ja: I awoke to a persistent banging of the door as it was forcefully pulled against the safety chain.

“Dad, what are you doing?”

“Trying to get that damn light off.” He had noticed the bright light from the hall shining through the peep-hole.

“Dad, that’s the hall light. This is a hotel. They leave the hall lights on all the time.”   He always was a  hyper sensual being who slept nude. When he used to parade around that way, he was  never shy about his well maintained body or proud manhood. Now he continued to stand there bare-ass naked jerking the door, unable to take the chain off.  Then I did something monumentally stupid.  I removed the chain and opened the door to show him the hall, as proof of my assertion about the hotel. We both went back to sleep.

2: 25 AM: I awakened  to light from the hall streaming  through the open door. Bob had removed the chain following my example.   He was in the hall looking up at the long row of glaring bright ceiling lights.  A good looking young man in suit and tie approached cautiously:

” Good morning sir. I am the night manager. How can I help you, sir?”

“I need to get these damn lights off!”  The thin stringy body stood erect, dressed in wrinkled  sagging 91 year old skin. Absently he covered his genitals with a hand. The left. But he remained fully focused on the manager and the infuriating lights.

Bob continued-“And who are you, anyway?” as in “What are you doing in my house?”

“I am the night manager sir. Another guest has complained of the noise.

“The lights are still on!”

“We keep the lights on all the time at night.”

“Well, I always turn them off!”

I was  able to lead Dad back to bed, explaining again where we were.  He was up at the door four more  times that night, but I wakened immediately and  he responded to my sharp interference  readily; the last two times I merely had to  remind him verbally.

Uncharacteristically, Bob slept  in  beyond his usual 6AM and I gratefully thanked  each and every God and  devil:  I  was in  no condition to offend any of them.

But they all  promptly failed me. Going to his suitcase, which no one  had touched until then, I opened it to get his change of clothes. On lifting the lid I saw a syllabus for a neurosurgery conference, and a number of beautiful carefully rolled up saris, such as a well dressed East Indian woman might wear. I needed to look no further to realize why Bob was carrying his suitcase at the airport.  Always the efficient engineer who traveled light, he  had never checked luggage.  On deplaning yesterday, he found a suitcase  that looked right and took it with him.

The Stanford Axe had been stolen by Cal in 1902 and recovered by 22 Stanford students in what amounted to a bank heist, in  about 1929. Bob was among them , so we sat  with three other survivors  of  The Twenty Two,  in the honorary seats reserved for them. Stanford won the game in fine form. Bob was quiet during the entire event, maintaining a pleasant but vacant smile, with no apparent excitement. In sharp contrast to his life-long custom, he did not enter into any two way conversations, made  no comments, confining  himself to ‘Yeses’  and ,’ Thank yous’, reserving ‘No’ only to deny problems or needs. Immediately after the game  we returned the unfortunate  doctor’s suitcase,and collected Bob’s without any difficulty.  Aside from color, there was very little similarity between the two pieces of luggage.

Nov 21, 1999, Ja.  I reminded the check-in desk attendant  that Bob absolutely required an assisted transfer for the Bellingham  flight in Seattle.  Ignoring the lesson of the day before, I  optimistically relied on the assisted transfer, and checked his  bag through, feeling rather pleased with the  whole visit.  Although we had experienced some  problems, we had concluded  with success.  But this would not  not be  the end the day’s adventure or drama.

Nov 22 1999 12:30   PM Sophie:   Fixed pipes under sink again. Couldn’t fix sprayer without risk of major problems beyond my available plumb. parts.  Mom has had so much trouble getting around tub that I used commode in hallway. It went well once I got myself organized. She needs something to hold on to- I used walker but she got afraid getting up.

2:30 Dot: To airport to get Dad- No Dad. Alaska said due to a reroute, he missed the early  flight.

6:00 PM. Now we are still waiting .  Mom ate a sandwich, cottage cheese, & peaches. She is nervous about Dad.  The  800 number’s  ‘Micky’ Noname says  they transported  Bob to the gate as planned but … they left him alone!  (What the hell was the extra charge for!? ) Dad wasn’t there at departure,  didn’t appear despite paging. They are worried.  I  should  hope so! I told Micky Dad was in good health but probably wouldn’t hear a page. I expect they paged in Terminalese of course which no one can understand anyway.  Mickey will contact airport police. I suggested checking the rest rooms.

7:15 Sophie: Leaving for airport)  so Dot can go home.

8:30PM Ja: Hooray!!! Someone found Dad at the United (not Alaska) lost baggage counter, searching for his luggage. Late tonight he arrived in Bellingham, and has been spirited home to his familiar surroundings and to his old double bed by the side of his  faithful but rather scorched lady. She wasn’t totally certain the old college hero hadn’t been sowing some (stale and moldy) wild oats. It wouldn’t  have been the first time;  among other things her old  suspicion of an extra child in Filipinas is alive and well.

11 22 99 8 AM Shi Still  sleeping; 8:45 both up  Bob looks very handsome in new clothes.

4  PM Sophie: Fixed pipes under sink again. Couldn’t fix sprayer without risk of major problems beyond  the capacity of plumbing material.   Mom has had so much trouble getting around the ( corner of the)  tub in her wheelchair that I used  the commode in hallway. It went well once I got myself organized. She needs something to hold on to- I used walker but she got afraid getting up. Once Dad woke up he got lots of exercise turning out lights. He actually turned out the lite in kitchen while Mom and I were petting the cat.  Mom thought that was rather odd. Thoughtful though: asked us to take the cat home if something happened to her.

11 24 99 8AM Shi,  M: Both still sleeping. Good job Sophie you should get a job as a plumber. House very cold this morning heat is turned off. Bob and Melba up Bob talking to Chuck (Shi’s Significant Other) about The Big Game. Of course neither understands the other, or makes any sense .

6:00 PM Sophie:Dad has heated up turkey sands in micro- Mom won’t eat them. She is asking where they should go live. She was very happy after I pointed out that she has the money to stay here. The commode business is tough. She doesn’t want help. So I just grab her(hug style) under arms and lift and turn and down. Mom is extra alert tonight and in good humor. Dad slept all day yesterday.  Mom thought that was rather odd.   She  again asked us to take Cat home if something happened to her! Here is a schedule for Christmas vacation.

M   Tu   We    Th  Fr   Sa   Su

AM   Shi  Di   VJ    VJ  Di    Shi    Shi

PM   Shi    Di   VJ  VJ  VJ   Shi    Shi

11 25 99, 9:00  AM:  Sophie: Mom up- washed- dressed. Has had BM at night in bathroom. She makes such great attempts to clean herself up.  Laundry done- Both fed. Dad has something with his throat. Perhaps Mom too. It is blowing and storming out.

6:30 PM: Put mom to bed at 7:30. It was hard to wash her up as Dad was in bathroom and she was tired; he said, incredibly, I am sick. What!?

11 26 99 9:30 AM, Shi: No one up yet. Fed Cat. Started a fire & got Mom up & dressed. Seems like they are well today. Surprise: Dad was very happy to see me when he got home! Maybe he is actually sick!

Melba remains alert,  inactive, but  communicative  and contented,  hospital -bed-ridden  in her living room  facing her  old  piano and an array of pictures of her children. Bob’s First  Last Big Game, two years before, was  followed   by a time of  increasing confusion, isolation, anger  and aggressiveness. But he gradually has become  more quiet and withdrawn, physically capable and cooperative but often no longer angry, but quietly senile. He  always asks for a good night kiss.

Cat, Bob’s  only remaining blood enemy- aside from Shi- no longer appears in the  notebooks.  The two old tomcats part ways not with glowering, yowling and rancor, but in silence.
.

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*Events that aren’t  described fully  in  the notebooks are taken from the Ja’s  shelf of  bound red   Standard Diaries date  from 1963 onward. 

Unearthing Old Words

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Digging up my journals for ’92 through ‘94 I look for my trips with Dad to the Bay area for The Big Games. I want to find the detail of his flight, the supper and the night at the hotel, and the early morning discovery that his suitcase is full of Saris and a program for a medical anesthesiology meeting. I need those buried words for an essay. But I cut my self on some sharp shards:

At July 6 1992 is a note from A for father’s day:

‘This will entitle the bearer to one all expenses paid weekend scuba trip in Monterey Bay… including lodging, meals, and equipment rental. Should you feel that you are too out of practice for Scuba, a replacement gift will be arranged, you wimp!! Love, XXOO, A.’

I didn’t ever go.

At October 18th 1992 I find a letter from L, age 12…

‘Dear Mommy and Daddy,

I can’t face you or tell you all this person to person, so I will have to write. I was bitterly disappointed today with my performance, but what really makes me feel terrible is that I disappointed you, my wonderful parents. You worked so hard today to make the rep class a success and it seems inconceivable to me that I could have let you down so utterly. I will try harder, because I want to return the love you give me in every way I can. I’m so sorry, mommy and daddy; please forgive me for failing you. I’m sorry. Goodnight.

Love, signed(sic) L, your daughter who will try her best.’

I had read the letter, and saved it. But there is no evidence of my hearing that child voice.

At 23 Marzo 1993 in a journal I bought in Chile, is this:

Tío

Yo le digo tío-pero no es tío mío,

I call him uncle

Lo digo pa’ joder.

But i say it to piss him off.

Yo era forastero, solitario,

I was a stranger, alone,

Un poco amargado, resentido-

Quite bitter, resentful.

Pero me trató con sencillez,

But he treated me with openness,

Con cariño como si fuera digno de respeto,

And affection as if I merited respect.

Como si no hubiera cagado muchas veces la vida mía.

As if I hadn’t fucked up my life.

Cuando no soñaba, él me alimentó con sueños suyos.

When I couldn’t dream he fed me his own,

Sueños Gonzalez, raros, bellos,

Gonzalez dreams, strange, and beautiful,

Con vitaminas de locura.

With vitamins of insanity.

Todavía  sueño con la vida más que la muerte,

I still dream of life more than death.

Puedo dar y recibir, soy sano, fuerte.

Can give, receive, am whole, strong.

Y todavía le digo tío,

And still I call him Uncle,

Porque no tengo nombre suficientemente grande,

For there’s no word great enough,

Ni profundo, ni ancho

Or deep enough or wide,

Para este hombre que le digo tío,

For this man I call Uncle,

Pero no es tío mío.

Who is no uncle of mine.

A few years later my Tío got prostate cancer and I advised no aggressive treatment; it’s still there watching quietly. Last time we spoke, eight years after a dense stroke, he was confused, but alert, diapered, and bedridden. He usually feigned good cheer, but often professed an overwhelming sadness; yet he did not recall my assurance, after the cancer diagnosis, that I would interfere personally if he ever requested it.

Disturbed diaries can speak, accuse, or shame. Mine say I have too often ignored what was significant, focusing only on what was important. They ask aloud if a child can overcome an ambitious father’s love, suggesting the grown woman might be handicapped by 12 year old child-eyes, which may see only vanity in vulgarly powerful men.

They accuse me of overlooking the innocent love of a child while focusing on self love.  They say I made promises I cannot keep. I try to defend myself, claiming each day in life is at once smaller, less significant as a part of the whole, yet greater because we learn to know ourselves, and each other.

But I doubt. Abruptly, unwilling  to risk further injury, I close ’92 and ’94, and re-inter them with their kin, at least for now; later, perhaps when I’m prepared. Digging about among old personal words should be done only with an empty stomach, a quiet mind, and a full heart.

Eusibio’s Lonely Hearts Club

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If that’s all there is my friend, let’s keep on dancing.

Tomas Mann vía Peggy Lee

Fifteen strip mall stores stare silently out across two rows of treeless parking, over a neglected sidewalk bordered by dusty drought resistant shrubs, four lanes of spotty traffic, to the fences, rails and wires of public transport. The box stores are not particularly neglected but are dressed in trouble; faded signs and colors, windows faintly clouded by accreted fumes and smog.  A bar. Ethnic Restaurants. A Video and Cigarette shop. A dry clean attached to a Laundromat. A storefront church. Income tax/ Check cashing/ money orders. A Food and Liquor market.  To the east an off brand gas self service gas station. To the west, a temporary fence guarding weed choked cracked cement.  Parked cars are few, excepting at the east end, near a card room called Eusibio’s.

As a child I was introspective, self absorbed, self reliant; as an adult I am devoted mainly to family and work. Even my relaxation is relatively asocial: skiing, backpacking, scuba, flying; I even read and write to myself rather than to others.  No golf. No Baseball, no bars. I write not for others but to explore my inner being, reflect on life.

When our children matured and left home my wife and Oprah both began to allege  that while women form lifelong sustaining personal relationships, men fail to do so, much to our detriment.  I didn’t yearn for friendship. Yet I retired from productive work, and was dissatisfied with those chores that  can suck the body and soul dry.    How could I ignore both Oprah and my wife?

For the next five years I participated in a weekly poker game that had been running for almost 40 years. The game’s founder and sustaining life force was Tony, in his late 80’s, still almost 6 ft. tall. At age 16 he misrepresented his age, and enlisted in the WWII US Navy, claiming to be a cook. In the desperate situation of that all consuming war Tony was soon made head cook on a troop transport. It was a very rough environment but he was a big skinny rough Italian kid, and his fighting, craps, and poker skills were adequate to allow him to accumulate enough by war’s end to buy a restaurant, then a motel.

In time Tony developed a formula, a modus operendi, for running motels profitably, and accumulated four.  Family, or blood, was a big part of the formula, as was his own style of tough love, a combination of great generosity with an unforgiving, unbending hardness toward those who failed him. He made decisions quickly and never changed his mind. He is the titular and economic head of a large American Calabrese family who has never stopped working. But after a broken hip, and advanced diabetes, he is confined to the upper floors of one of his properties, where his apartment and office are situated. There he and his wife live alone. Tony continues to work to live, and live to work; but he is unable to play poker and the Forty Year Game foundered, leaving 8 marooned players adrift in a sea of tedium. We tried for a number of months to find our way back, but failed. Without the Don we were alone.  A few of us still got together for a desultory trip to Cache Creek casino.  To my surprise, I missed not only The Game, but Tony and the Players.  Two of them, Sam and Joe are semipro gamblers, and both suggested I join them at a local card room.

Sam sells golf equipment, requiring him to travel constantly around the state to golf clubs, where is also: What else?  Poker.   He is a single middle aged man quite devoid of social skills, a rather lonely man, who can instantly read the multiple possibilities in any given set of cards in the complex high/low poker split games we used to play.  As a child he knew Amarillo Slim, and now, for better or worse, he lives to gamble, anytime, anyplace anyhow.  He is sustained by a devoted mother, by dreams, by the aura of gambling, the colorful people, the perks, the glitz, and the occasional significant win. His tales are entertaining; he lies dutifully, betrayed only by an occasional request for small loans, which to his credit, he always repays. Sam retains an innocent faith in both his own Christian perfection and in the Big Win that one day will surely come.  He claims he is completely sinless, an assertion he defends fervently, irrationally, and at length.

“Have you never, but never, sinned?”

“Never.”

“Women? Lying? Spilling the seed like Onan? I’ll lay odds haven’t even stopped yet! Even what you think is a sin you know. You think it you did it.”

“ Who’s Onan?”

“Jerking off!”

“Well, I’m Catholic.”

“Oh yeah. Little boys, Sammie. You’re not a priest so that’s surely a sin.  You can’t just say a Hail Mary for that. Or can you?”

“Fuck off!”

“Ha!”

“Saying fuck’s not a sin!” And he changes the subject. As usual, like folding with  a bad hand.

“You gotta try Eusibio’s. He’s a prince. Immigrant from Guanajuato. But legal of course. He’s been right there for more than 25 years”.

“It’s still a card room!” I said, “Felons, prostitutes, cardsharps; malévolos, la putada,  maleantes,  drogadictos, criminales!”

“Not at all.  Eusibio’s is family.  His son, his daughter, even his wife sometimes deal when he needs them, or play house money when a table is short of players.

“Ha!” I said, “House money? How nice is that!”

“It’s not what you think. If a table’s not full, the game is very limited: Lack of players; the rake cuts the pot money.”

“The rake?”

“The house rakes off four dollars of each pot. 20 hands an hour at 4 dollars is $80 for a full table. Ten tables, they rake $800 per hour. They need to keep the tables full.  That’s why they offer incentives to players.

“Incentives. I’ll bet! To take your money, if you don’t lose it in the parking lot!”

“Not at all! I play there!”

“That’s my point, dick head!”

“No:  There’s a security guard in the lot. And inside.  Eusibio is just a very good person. Loans me money no questions asked; just to people he knows,  people like me he trusts.  Serves three meals a day to all players.”

“Well…”  After all, I thought; he is sinless.

“So try it! Joe and I’ll meet you there.” Joe is another 40 Year Game regular, a retired businessman who plays constantly.  Like Sam he is competent, ‘tight’, and wins or loses modestly.  Joe is part owner of a racehorse that has never won much.  Lucky for him he sold his business for more than it was worth, and has a rich wife.

I find myself looking for Sam and Joe in front of that uninviting strip mall at  nine AM the following Wednesday morning. I had never played poker at that time of day. It seemed to me as degraded as a margarita for breakfast.  But perhaps the time  of day is just point of view; as good a time as any to go to ‘work’ like a banker.

To my astonishment, on entering the card room I see people I know playing Omaha Hi/Lo at the first table:  A judge from Yolo County; A doc who had worked in migrant camp clinics I organized in the ‘70’s; he had been in the air force at Travis at the time, now was in Sacramento; A contractor who had occasionally played in Tony’s old game; Another players from Tony’s.

I greet the judge:

“My God George!  It’s been years! What the hell are you doing here!?”

“Great tournaments.”  He waves a had at the posted notices of the promotions and tournaments, and the 15 rules, which  include: No Smoking. No foul language. No aggressive comments or behavior. No foreign language spoken during a hand.  One player to a hand.  Bad beat jackpots. (A bad beat is when a exceptionally fine hand is beaten by a better one.)  “ Every six months the tournament winners play for a new car or a rolex.”

“You don’t need a Rolex or a car.” I said, “You can just collect them for decisions.”

Sam introduces Eusibio, the owner, who, after a decent welcome, touts  the promotions. “The Sunday Hold ‘Em tournament has about 100 players; surviving 20 players  each win $50, and the last 6 winners move up to the tournament winner who takes $750.”  Eusibio is called away and Sam continues:

“The dealers, men and women, almost never leave. Tells you something. Most have families, long term goals; one is studying for the ministry, another to be an accountant. They are people, not just dealers!”

“Well…”  No one wants to hear my Well, and the judge interrupts.

“Tell you the truth, Doc.   I don’t win often. I come here for the place and the people.”

“To escape other places and people?”

“Not really. I like it here.”

I buy chips, sit down and play.  The players are men and women, of diverse age, race, dress; prominent among them are those who commonly seem to enjoy gambling greatly, like older retired folk, and people of Asian descent. There are some tough looking characters, but very few.  Collectively, among elderly poker players are thousands of poker-year’s experience. Bill is one who likes to tell tall poker tales, from his past. When playing he dozes constantly. He claims poor hearing and doesn’t respond at all to questions or comments; but each time he is dealt a hand he opens an eye; when the cards wake him he doesn’t show it until he is in control. He is called the Sleeping Giant. There are youngsters who are formidable, having played an incredible number of hands on line, sometimes playing electronic poker at eight or nine tables simultaneously. They can be deceptively innocent looking but quick and dangerous.

Over the next few months I play about once a week and never see or experience any problem whatsoever. What pleases me most is the atmosphere.  The rooms are relatively quiet, with only the sounds of conversation, bantering, the probing comments of gamblers, and an occasional celebration of a big win; there is none of the harsh assault on the senses typical of large casinos.  Rules are enforced strictly.  Rare alcohol except in an almost sure loser; CaChing!  No abusive or foul language that slips out is ignored, very different from our Forty Year Game, which was often loud and raw, though usually friendly.   TVs are viewable high up around the room, subtitled but without sound, because some players want to track outcomes of games they have bet.

While the joy or pain of losing or winning is relative to one’s economic situation, in most card rooms betting controls and limits make it likely  the average card room poker player  will not lose or win significantly at any one session or. Even most ‘no limit’ poker games have a limit: the money one has on the table, and a maximum one can buy in to play with; no deep pocket bullies allowed, at least until one has accumulated a big stack.

One day the big winner is a young woman, a math teacher from L A, a long time player at Eusibio’s visiting family. She is on a lucky streak that she wants to ride to the very end, and has played on and off for 36 hours. I know I will never have the devotion or the energy for that; if I’m winning, or losing without deserving to do so, which is the way streaks are, I still leave as planned.  She sits behind an $800 barricade of chips.  I ask,

”What induces an attractive young woman visiting her home town, where her family and childhood friends are, to spend 36 hours playing poker?”

“What indeed.” She reflects. “Actually, whenever I visit we all get together and start a big fight. So I leave them to their fun, and come here. When I go home I just kiss and hug and say good bye. Out the door.”

“You hate your family?”

“Only when I’m with them; all together I mean. I love them one at a time, especially over the phone. I can lose the connection.”

The other card rooms I have played in are quite similar; many are less homey than Eusibio’s but welcoming and clean and filled with people I enjoy playing with and against.  Archetypical are: an unemployed young man whose wife is at work all day; A retired state worker; a recent widower or widow; a soldier on leave from  Iraq;  a  cell phone wired woman who operates an escort service and whose days are empty;  a college student with a light Wednesday schedule; a divorced person; a felon unable to find a job.   The most common denominators are: loneliness; adversity; retirement.  In any given card room, day after day can be found the same players, who make up a social network based on the game. Why? I hope maybe I can get an idea on line.

The Attorney General’s website lists approximately one hundred card rooms in California.   Amazon offers scores of books on gambling. But they all focus on winning, odds, strategy, and occasionally individual high achievers. I can’t find one which addresses the social networking of poker.  Even Amazoning or  googling ‘Friendship and poker or card room doesn’t reveal any sociologic studies of the subculture of cards rooms.

I still play only about once a week, unwilling to give up my real life to a card room subculture. I still don’t cultivate close poker friendships no matter what Oprah says, or get together with anyone after poker for a beer or a meal.  I like the casual connections with these diverse strangers, in this limited way. They are poker adversaries I enjoy, and often admire.  Each is a living world to explore, but like New York, not to live in.  Card rooms are a venue for spontaneously formed  loose social connections; an uncomplicated place to to forget trouble, doubt and loneliness in a far more civil and civilized venue than universities,  bars, or the electromagnetic spectrum of the e.world.  They are local, affordable, welcoming, ordered, and uncritical.  While they rarely tell of the numinous, card rooms proclaim to humanity and to her inventions, pretensions, and transient created gods,

Hasta la Vista Baby! I never loved you anyway.”

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Postscript

T he economic upheaval of 2008 was  challenging for gambling establishments, but card rooms generally are survived.  Eusibio’s expanded in 2011. Yet my interpretation of the clientele as depicted above has been called into question. A  young handsome East Indian woman  intermittently played there, though I didn’t know her  because we played different games.  One morning she was found raped and murdered behind a light rail passenger shelter less than 100 yards from the casino. The perpetrator was identified by the  casino security camera record and arrested.  The River, as the last and most important card in a game of Hold’em is called, revealed that my ingenuous observations about  lonely players seeking company is only partly accurate. But  I still occasionally play there, as do most of the old  group of players.

Holden, Washington: A Company Town

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The 32 Chilean and one Bolivian miner so dramatically rescued in Mina San José were revealed to be admirable, intelligent, hard working people. What was not very obvious is that San José,  its miners and their families, and the mine itself, are all mines and all miners everywhere. Consider the Once-Upon -a-Time Holden  Mine and Company Town, in Holden, Washington:

Googling Holden Village, one finds only a curious little looping line in the Wenatchee National Forest in North central Washington. But the satellite view allows one to zoom down Copper peak to an abandoned mine, mill, and tailing pond. Holden village lies just to the North across Railroad Creek and National Forest development road 8301. Much of the Village itself still survives. There is a one room school, and the former Company Store. There are two story bunk houses where most miners lived, single men attracted by unusually high 1940 pay, upward of $1.25 daily.  Uphill are  8 family homes built for administrators and their families. After the mining company closed it sold the village to the Lutheran Church for $1.

The main Holden family housing area for miners was a half mile down the road to the West; it is gone now because the Forest Service permitted the homes to be built only on condition they be removed when the mine closed. My father built ours with material purchased through Montgomery (‘monkey’) Wards and Sears Roebuck catalogs.

There was only one newspaper available in the company town, which I delivered after school to about 100 subscribers.  The early nightfall of winter often froze my wet corduroy pants into sonorous icy clacking tubes. On Sunday, when I had to deliver the heaver papers, I hired a schoolmate to carry the second double front and back newspaper bag half a mile to the family miner homes. His pay was a five cent candy bar, purchased at the company store. Of course 5 cents bought a very large Hershey then. I netted about $8 or $10 monthly, mostly in big tin Howe Sound company coins. Even so the flimsy light money worked as well as the stuff we use today, also now all base metal. It seems likely our nation has become a company town, though the owners are  called Washington DC. My mother kept the tin coins in a sock in her bedroom. I never saw them again, there being little for a kid to buy there.

When WWII hit the US my father wanted to join the Sea-Bees and take a more active part. But he was declined because he was in a vital industry: copper. He sold the house for $800. We went to Mexico, to another copper mine.

For nine and ten year old boy in Holden it was mostly fun, freedom, food, and fancy. One more mining town. To move every year from one mine, one country, one culture, one language, to another, was normal. It wasn’t easy. But I loved the wildness of small mining towns, the changes, the excitement, the challenge.

In Holden I looked out my little Sears attic window at big soft falling flakes of crystallized Pacific moisture and thought about Flash Gordon. The average winter’s snowfall was 350 inches with 35 inches of rain in the summer. On clear moonlit nights I knew I would one day walk the face of the moon.

The investment in time, money, sweat, and blood required to find, develop, and operate a mine is huge. It takes years. It includes scouring remote areas to discover where a mineral resource is likely; drilling hundreds of rock core samples; analyzing the cores. If there is mineral, that is only the beginning. The real cost balloons: establishing access to the mine site through roads, conveyor belts, lift lines; providing for housing, schooling for children, health care, entertainment. (Holden, like many big mines in those days, had  a school,  bowling alley, dance hall, a  baseball diamond.); providing water,  sewage, electricity. Then one must add the costs of infrastructure and of mining, extracting, milling the ore,  dealing with waste rock and tailings, dust, toxic smoke,  possible ligation,  and of complying with myriad known and unknown governmental  regulations; and selling the product…  Only then might one see the first penny of income.  Profit, if any, comes years later.

Holden was one of the biggest copper mines in the nation at the time.  But in the 1950′s the ore body was exhausted, the war was over, and it closed. That is the fate of all mines. Yet often the infrastructure remains in a very remote and lovely place. Holden, like many other mining towns, survived the demise of the mine; consider the upscale resorts in Colorado, and Arizona. Old mining towns at  El Teniente and Chuquicamata  in Chile are World Heritage sites.  ( see http://lufboro.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/chuquicamata-and-el-teniente/) We ourselves lived in a number of mining towns that still live on after death of the mine: Balatoc and  Baguio, Filipinas,  tiny Manhattan, Nevada, and Holden,Washington.

We little understood one another, my father and I. Perhaps that’s not unusual; the generations live in different worlds, even  if the place is the same. He seemed irritated because life came easy to me. And I was grateful that it was so; I could always arrogantly choose the course that was most exciting, selfish, exotic, and at the same time seemed to me most ethical, consistent with my religious heritage: I knew life was good and God was fair. Only later was I taught of His mining sins; we had been poor,  our Holden house, most all our houses, should have been condemned by multiple layers of government as unfit; my parents were neglectful and abusive to allow me so much unsupervised freedom  to roam the earth, and its old mines, caves, jungles, deserts and high mountains where mines are found; that mining companies  abuse poor ignorant miners and pillage the earth.

My father never did ‘get it’, what I learned from my time. At 88 he still consulted with remote and soon to be bankrupt mine operators who agreed to fly him to a place like Borneo to talk about their underground water problem. They would pay him off with a big party and roasted suckling pig. He was always just a conservative, always working, driving around in his old wreck of a car, never wasting, never wanting, wearing his old clothes and acting like Thoreau. But of course the generations never understand one another any better than we understand ourselves. Too bad.  As to Holden, while he sweated in the deeps of Copper Peak, I found it to be paradise. But what else could anyone expect of an ignorant kid who is a child of a gentrified  U S God, every miner and every mine?

A Last Big Game

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The  Melba Notebooks* chapter X

http://axecomm.stanford.edu/axebook/capture1.html

11/20/97 8:10 AM Sophie: Dad called this morning at 7:00.  Told me he was going to go to California. Left orders of things he needs done. WOW!  He says Di is going to “put in a few extra hours.”  Called left message.  Dot must have just about driven off the road when she got her call. Mother in chair- couldn’t answer phone when I called. Took her cordless.  Di not here yet. Dot can come tonight if needed.

Dot: 10:10 PM Can you believe the absurdity of this?   When I got here Mom was sitting in Chair & her walker was in kitchen- so she absolutely would not get up from the chair- Very safe, Dad!  I’m here for the night but am off to work at 7:30 AM.  Hope all goes well Friday. I’ll be back for the night  Fri. 10:00.  Mom got up when I went to say goodbye.  Gave her 2 aspirin to see if that might help her Stiffness.

Sophie: 10:25  PM Well. Dad’s in CA to see Dr Stamey and go to the Cal Stanford game.  Friday he will see the Dr.  Sat he will go to the game.  Sunday he will fly home.

Li or Di here at 10:00

S will visit at 1:00

Dot back at 4:30

Melba ate breakfast.

Dot: 11:00 PM Went out for dinner- the wheel chair cart makes it easier. Watched “Sling Blade” with Ni.  I told Mom I’d be leaving before she gets up (7 AM) but she keeps forgetting.  I think she’ll be fine- She does keep thinking that Dad should be home any minute.  Clothes for tomorrow are on the bed.  I turned heat on at 7 AM when I left

11/21/1997  7:30 AM Di: Call from Jeff at SF newspaper re:  AX story.  He will call back.

The newspaper calls are the first Di hears of the Ax or that Bob is going to the “Big Game” between Stanford and U C Berkeley. I’m to meet him at the Oakland airport at 6:45 PM on the 20th to take him to his appointment with Dr. Stamey on Friday the 21st, and to the Big Game Saturday 22nd.  We had last gone two years before.  This time Bob didn’t mention, or didn’t fully realize he would take part in the 100th anniversary celebration of the Big Game. He is one of only four surviving members of the storied “21”,  Stanford students who in 1930 recaptured the Stanford  Axe  from U C Berkeley in a caper that amounted to a bank robbery. Bob had ended up with the axe head under his sweater after the robbery.

 

11/22/97 10:00 AM Di: Melba confused about Bob.  Ate about 2 waffles-cantalope, hot dog. Dryer not done. Clothes in washer also. She seemed lonesome followed me and talked.

11:20 AM Upset some- Wants to know why Dad has not called her.

1:30 PM: Sign (Another one in living room and bathroom.)

A sign is hardly transcendental in the ordinary sense of the word. But here it’s evidence Melba has been unable to reach the toilet in time; a sign that she was mortified and tried desperately to hide the mess. 1:30 PM this day, when the sign appears, is just shortly after the start of  the 100th Big Game, i 900 miles away.  

11/22/1997   6:30 PM, Stanford  Ja: ( From Ja’s journal rather than the notebooks.) 

We arrive without any problem despite the traffic, are directed to a privileged lane, skirting the parking area crowded with tail gate acolytes and RV-ers who congregate biannually for several days to worship the past, drown the present in alcohol, calories and dubious memories.   Thanks to Bob’s exalted status we we’re directed to reserved parking close to the stadium entrance, then escorted to the privileged seats reserved for survivors of the ’21’.

At halftime the bands perform first. The Cal marching band is no doubt among the finest in the country, elegantly attired, performing faultless formations and music. The Stanford band, whether fearful of competition or hoping to refute their image of rich spoiled kids, fields a ragged crew of people in a variety of dress/ undress who play marches passably, and are as shocking and vulgar  permitted.

The Big Game Centennial ceremony lasts about 40 minutes, for which the Stanford team was assessed a delay of game penalty declined by Cal.  After fireworks and more band antics, fly-overs in biplanes, and a performance by the navy seals parachute team, the history of the big game and the axe is recounted at some length. Then the three 21 survivors are paraded around the field in a golf cart and deposited on an Olympic style platform at mid field to the ovation of the spectators.

Bob admits the day has been OK, except he was taken from his seat just before half time, and missed about 10 minutes of the game due to a delay returning! Stanford wins this year and I feel very fortunate to be with dad for his last Big Game. In the old photo below, Bob, somberly handsome, is in the back row second from right.  

Involvement with the axe was a family matter. It was originally stolen from the custody of Bob’s uncle Leon at the second Stanford Cal baseball game, in 1897.  He became a linguist, a poet, an artist, and an Art and English teacher who always shaved his head after serving with US Army Intelligence  in Turkey during WWI.

 

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* Five spiral bound Melba Notebooks, dated from 1995 to 2002, contain the hand written entries of numerous caregivers and family who make it possible for this couple, whose lives spanned the entire last century, to live in their home until their ashes are scattered in places meaningful to them. The notebook entries were the way caregivers communicated with one another, not only to help Bob and Melba to avoid nursing home care, but to shelter Melba from the idiosyncrasies of her difficult and beloved husband Bob.  This scene is adapted from one of the hundreds of episodes recorded therein.  The Notebooks tell, often in moving or hilarious terms, of getting old and dying; of being a child or a caregiver to the very aged whose death approaches.  Names and places are altered, but the voices are genuine. Italics are the author’s comments.

 

Arctic Dreaming

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Though we leave very early it is a long drive to the trailhead, and by the time we reach the open ridge it is one PM.  All his life Bob has refused to eat or drink when hiking; that does not change in his 90th year. But is he mistaken? The current dogma of hikers and physiologists is totally contrary;  yet all too often today’s immutable truth become tomorrow’s scorned superstition.

The day is cool and sunny with scattered rising cumulus. The North ridge trail starts high; from there it is a gentle up-climb, shaded until one reaches the tree line in view of glacial ice. Thinking it best to let Bob set the pace, we don’t push him, but follow at a considerate distance.

Yet he does amazingly well; slow, but steady, with that pursed lip exhalation; it gives him just a little more partial pressure of oxygen, helping his mine dust scarred lungs to keep up with his rock hard will.  He is in character, almost oblivious of those with him, preferring a private communion with the mountain to talk with companions. But Bill has for the past hour been suggesting we stop and eat.

Leaving the tree line, follow a long open ridge as the glacial ice draws us ever closer.  Just before snowline our trail turns to the right skirting around a small hill.  But Dad has always preferred the most difficult and upward path; without a glance back to us he moves upward, spurning the clearly marked trail. With Bob in sight we keep to the trail reaching an open area on the other side, and take out our lunch.

I greet him as he descends:

“Dad, let’s rest here; Bill and I will finish our lunch.”

“Alright!” with that familiar flat half inverted smile and pained look. He prefers not to argue, but to act. There is no discussion.

“Really” I say aside, “he’s very tired.  If we just continue here, he’ll join us.” But no. He turns and peers for a brief instant at the slope he just came down, and starts back up, unaware he was now headed home.  “Shit.”  I say. “Tell you what; you go back ’round the hill the way we came, I’ll go up after him; and we’ll meet you on that side.  It’s time we turn around anyway.”  And that is exactly what happens.

Bob is exhausted and moves slowly. That is the way of the mountain, as with life itself: going down is harder than climbing up. Dad begins to stop, lying down on his back closing his eyes, immediately asleep under his distressed woolen lumberman’s cap, heedless of the crazed mosquitoes. Each time, after about five minutes, I waken him, urge him to get up. It shocks me that he is so frail I can lift him to his feet.  On the long ride back, Bob sleeps, still refusing food or water, and wordlessly collapses as we arrive home.

That evening I am uneasy. Why was Dad so insistent on this hike? He has always loved to conquer the mountain. Was it to make  one more climb?  I reflect on Bob’s late ninth and early tenth decade: Unable hear without the cursed hearing aid; progressively more isolated; unable to hide his caseous mind even from himself and able to feign reading, but not to understand; Though he lived in an abandoned touring car during his first year of college, his disreputable old Plymouth has abandoned him; Shiela is the major new caregiver placed over him by power of attorney; she is strong, assertive, unflappable, tolerant, even fat, all he dislikes in a woman. She is. He is not.   

Late that night I am restless and mindlessly flip on a PBS program about Alaska.  Very aged Inuit people are said to walk alone into the arctic cold to a self determined non violent guiltless death. Of Course! Dad hoped to leave us all behind, without a word as always, find the snowline, or the highest spot he could reach, and stay there. His confusion and failed strength prevented him from taking that path out of his own life.  Would I have been so aggressive as to interfere? I’ll never know. Ahead of him  now are two angry difficult years, which will end only when he reaches the snow line of quiet unknowing .