Living Under the Sword

Living Under the Sword

I picked him up at airport around 4 a.m. A Hispanic man, middle height, barrel-chested, could have been either side of 50. A big duffel for luggage. He was an itinerant construction worker—cement was his field—headed for a job up in Everett. It was just him and me, so there would be at least 40 minutes to talk.

He told me about working on a high building early in his career, and how it terrified him, so he went to the library and got a book about fear, and studied it.

“Did that cure it?”

“No, I was still afraid.”

I forget how it came up—but it turned out he’d had a stroke once, and had fully recovered, except for one thing: there was a small blood clot in his neck, a vein too delicate to operate on. The surgeon told him that when it broke loose, it would enter his brain and kill him.

“He told me it could be tomorrow, it could be 20 years from now—no way to tell.”

“Do you think about it often?”

“Every day when I wake up, I wonder, will this be the day?”

The doctor told him he was okay to work, but also let him know (wink wink, nudge nudge) that he was willing write him a recommendation for disability, because he’d gotten such a lousy break. But when the man learned how much money he would get each month, “and the kind of flophouses I’d have to live in,” he decided to take his chances and keep working. It had been about 10 years so far.

I asked if the news had a spiritual effect on him. It did, but not in the way I expected:

“I used to be a Pentecostal, but when I was recovering from the stroke, I started reading about biology to learn what was happening to me. Then I started reading about evolution, and I ended up leaving the church.”

I once heard about a study that showed even highly educated people often cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. I loved and respected his intellectual curiosity and honesty—and his courage—how he would seek answers, and live by the best ones he could find. He was one of my all-time favorite people on the van. The conversation was pretty wide-ranging, but I still remember the last thing he said:

“People are out there trying to build financial empires, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it’s about at all.”

How to Pray

This poem was inspired by a story I heard on KUOW about a young woman who was doing well climbing the corporate ladder. She had a presentation in front of the board, and killed it. But it nearly killed her: she kept hanging around the room, waiting for everyone to leave, so she could throw herself out the window.

       
           How to Pray

No words prepared in advance.
     Never kneel, defenestrate—
     a leap of faith will incubate.
Bring a poppy, break a lance.

Our silver shield bears a whorl and a whore.
     Your soul is metered in volts DC
     and in how you treat the very least.
A window, cleansed or broken, is a door.

Take advantage of the gradient—
     errant in earth’s intertext,
     translate this dimension into the next—
your song or corpse will be radiant.

She didn’t kill herself, however; instead, she quit the job, and became a successful musician: tours, recordings, awards (I wish I could remember her name). Obviously the story isn’t about her, but the idea of “sing or die” must have struck a chord with me. No idea where the knight errantry came from–but that’s one of the most fun things about poetry, images out of nowhere.

Securing a Deck Post with Big Ass Bolt

“Howdy folks,” part of me wants to say. “Today we’re gonna talk deck posts, so giddyup lil’ saw horse, yuppie-mai-tai-o-kay.” Something about Home Improvement begs for a grizzled, gruff-but-kind, suspender-wearing sage.

And something in me rebels. Maybe I’ll use an upper-class British voice: “In addressing issues with veranda fenders, it is critical that one first select the correct gin.”

Or maybe Beat carpentry, from Kerouac or Ginsberg: “I have seen the best deck posts of my generation peel from their joists like naked bananas made limp from the yellowblack rot of bad technique, flinging tiki torches and angelheaded ex-hipsters like mediocre meteors across the suburban Bellevue sky into the Nirvanic Void of drained swimming pools, and while the railing is not safe, you are not safe.”

Let’s just let it rip, shall we? There may be some stylistic swerves.

We dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Code—
We need not bracket Deck Posts—
What could—Possibly—go Wrong?

— Emily Dickenson

The Problem

It was 2:30 in the afternoon when I arrived at the bungalow. Her eyes were as cool as the ice in her Gin Rickey. She wore a thin negligee, and with the air conditioner on, I guessed the rest of her must be cool too. Anyway, one of us had goosebumps.

“Come in, Mr. Bolt. I’m Misty—Misty Carrera.”

“The introduction is hardly necessary, Ms. Carrera—I’m familiar with your oeuvre.”

Her eyes flashed hot in anger: “You know nothing of my ovaries. Besides, I don’t do those kinds of movies anymore.”

“You have a problem with your deck.”

“My deck is fine. I have a problem with an inspector—that awful Inspector Pinckney. Follow me.”

I sighed. Pinckney—James “Picky” Pinckney. We went out onto the deck.

“Look, Ms. Carrera, everyone has a problem with Picky. He’d hold up the opening of the Taj Mahal if the acidity of the elephant shit in the alley was off.”

A familiar fedora appeared above the floor of the deck, followed by the rest of his rare roast beef face. “Big Ass—I should have known you’d show up. Sorry I can’t test you for acidity, I left my pH kit at the office.”

She glanced at my butt with arched eyebrows: “Big Ass? You look more like a Titus to me.”

I’ve given up trying to explain—my parents named me Bhigas—a revered name in the old country, something to do with owning lots of land. That which doesn’t kill me.

“Let’s cut to the chase. Something about a dryer vent? C’mon Picky, let the nice lady enjoy her deck.”

“Not a chance. She coulda bolted the post into the wall of the house, but no, she’s got to be cute and let the railing float. But with the dryer vent in the way, there’s no room to screw in a bracket. And you’re not going to find a way around this one, Big. Oh, I’m sorry–I should have said, ‘Ass’.”

This is what I hate most about Picky. I’m the rebel outsider, he’s the stuffed shirt from City Hall, yet somehow he comes up with all the good lines.

Anyway, there it was: a deck post without a bracket, the smoking gun. People think that deck posts break or something, if they bother to think about them at all. But that’s not how they fail. They’re bolted to the rim joist, and they act like a lever—get enough force leaning on the top rail, and it’ll pry the joist off like a pop top on a cheap beer. Brackets create a secure “load path” to an inner joist.

I shook my head. Stoned rail-leaners on high decks, taking in the view. Lots of people have died of the view.

I turned to Misty. “So why not remove the dryer vent?”

“Are you kidding me? I had a hard enough time getting it through the foundation wall, but getting to those quarter-inch hex screws so I could secure the vent cover? I finally had to use my little 90 degree screwdriver without a bit in it—I was just lucky the standard shaft size is also a quarter-inch hex.”

I passed on the obvious joke about a quarter-inch being a standard shaft size. I was impressed—I figured she hired some Joe to do her dirty work. She was tough, and resourceful. More to her than I realized.

“I’ll take a look.”

Picky was smirking. He knew he had me.

It was worse than I thought. It was tighter than—okay, that’s two jokes I’m passing on. Even a 90-degree attachment on a power screwdriver wouldn’t fit. Her trick with the little driver was good, but these were structural screws going into wood, not sheet metal.

The Solution

The way to do the impossible is to do the impossible. If the goal is to tie to an inner joist—just do it. But how? There wasn’t room for much more than a bolt.

Maybe it was the joke I didn’t make about the tiny quarter-inch shaft. Suddenly, I knew what to do.

“Be right back.” I went out my car and came back with a namesake. They were exchanging barbs. She saw me over his shoulder.

“Wow—that’s a big-ass bolt,” she said. He turned to me, puzzled, and then his jaw dropped. He knew. I was packing 24 inches of ¾” galvanized steel—enough to go through the post, the rim joist, and through the next inner joist. The head alone was 3 inches wide.

The bright kids at Virginia Tech had figured out the loads on posts, and it got put into code: 500 lbs. My bolt had a tensile strength in the thousands of pounds.

It didn’t take long to pull the old bolt, drill the larger hole, and install the new one. I even put in blocking and bracketed the bolt to the next inner joist, just to rub it in. Picky signed the permit, spat out “Be sure to use an approved deck sealer,” and slunk away.

She turned to me, amused. “Would you care to come in and have a drink? Perhaps we can discuss my oeuvre.” She said it with a perfect French accent. There were many layers to her, and I wanted to peel them all off. Slowly.

Note: This article is written for your dining and dancing pleasure only. Want to know how to properly secure a deck post? Check out this article in DeckMagazine.com:
http://www.deckmagazine.com/design-construction/railings/code-compliant-guardrail-posts_o

Bumbershoot

The last time I went to Bumbershoot was back in the early 90’s with my musician friend Dave. I’ve always been a bit crowdophobic—even back then it was like wading through chunky peanut butter, and I hear it’s even worse now. But still, there were some memorable highlights.

It started out early at Memorial Stadium–so early, in fact, that the enormous 20-foot tall inflatable Miller Lite bottles flanking the stage were still only half-full, their tops flopped over. We were there for bluesman Buddy Guy, a must-see for me. I’d seen him and Junior Wells several years earlier, tearing the roof off a small club.

Okay, detour: that was in Santa Fe, I was standing in the front of the Club West crowd with my guitarist friend Tim Gagan, and at some point I couldn’t help but clap to the beat. Junior pointed at me and said, “I want y’all to do what he’s doing–soul clappin’.” I was so shocked, I stopped. He said, “No, keep it up.” So I did, and everyone else joined in. Junior listened for a minute, then said, “I don’t like the way you clap,” and launched into a kick-ass harmonica solo. Talk about not pandering to an audience (looking at you, Tony).

Anyway, when Buddy Guy took the stage, we weren’t disappointed. How good was he? Suffice it to say, by the time the set was over, the Miller Lite bottles were fully erect. (Ah, beer-filled penises: the perfect symbol of summer.) My one complaint was that even in this short 40-minute set, he still left the stage so we could kneel and plead for an encore, which, after our obligatory fellatio, he eventually deigned to provide. I guess if you get a musician up before noon, he’s going to make you pay.

One thing I like about festivals, though, is the nibbling. Nibbling at Vietnamese, Guatemalan, and Thai food; nibbling at the guitars and horns and drums, singers and dancers; salsa for the tongue, for the ears, for the feet. Even nibbling at a sour accordion (wash that one down with a beer).

Ali Farka Toure was great too, playing in the hot sun in his deep purple robe. I wondered how he could stand it, but he’s from Mali—the Seattle version of hot was probably like the dead of winter for him. (“Damn, wish I’d brought my warm robe.”) There was something regal about him, though, and he sort of presided over the show, if one can preside funkily. And the Malian percussion is wondrous—it has chops like Indian percussion, but it feels like it’s hotwired into the streetlamp of life, rather than being properly connected to an ornate temple.

The day turned into night, and we ended up at Aaron Neville’s show. Very danceable. At one point they played a medley, and I turned to Dave and said, “Isn’t this great?”

“Um, not really. I’m not into medleys—they take these tunes with their own unique identities, and compress them all into the same key and tempo.” I realized he was right, and immediately stopped enjoying myself. Don’t you love going to shows with musicians?

Near the end, I found myself dancing next to a tall woman with light brown hair. It felt timeless, as if we were big birds, maybe storks, doing a flappy ritual mating dance on some African plain. Being unattached at the time, I had hopes. But I guess I didn’t have the right moves, or pheromones, or whatever. Oh well, I thought, maybe next year.

Pee Bitch

I picked her up at a low-rent apartment warren in Kent: she was in her 50’s, Hispanic, short, round features; the years had marked and weathered her, but she had an impish vivacity that made age moot. She sat in the first row of the van, the first passenger on a Yellow 2. (“Yellow 2” was a radio code, based on stoplight colors; followed by a number, it indicated how many stops you were assigned. Once, I was taking an Asian student to the U district, and I got paged an assignment. I radioed confirmation to dispatch: “This is 832, I’m Yellow 1.” I thought I felt a chill from behind me, and wondered if I should explain that “Yellow 1” wasn’t racist, but that seemed awkward, so we just drove along in silence. Awkwardly.)

Anyway, she reminded me a lot of my brother: it turned out she was also the oldest sibling, and she had the same kind of megawatt personality, the open, say-anything fearlessness. She was so easy to talk with, and although it wasn’t that far to next stop in Fairwood, the conversation covered a lot of ground.
It was her birthday, she was dying of cancer, and was flying out to see her little sister for the last time.

She had been quite the party girl, a long dance with drink and drugs. Regrets, sure, but she had had a lot of fun as well. Wondering about God. I said I didn’t think she had anything to worry about on that score. I know she had dark moments, but she was yet another one of those people who astound me with their bravery, even with finality’s teeth sunk deep in their arm.

The Fairwood stop was two people, an upwardly mobile couple transitioning from hip to middle class. Traveling abroad. They sat behind her, we chatted a bit, then she and I continued talking. We were a few minutes out from the airport when she said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I really need to pee. Could you stop at a gas station?”
“Let me think about it for a sec.” Let’s see, one possible exit coming up, but the traffic lights… while I was mentally mapping it out, she turned to the couple and said, “I’m sorry the pee bitch ruined your trip.”

I watched them in the mirror; they were pretty cool, didn’t say anything, just looked at each other with raised eyebrows: Well, that just happened. I said to her, “Actually, if you can just hang on for about four minutes, the airport is faster than any stop we could make.”

She thanked me and we continued talking. When were on the airport drive, she said to me, formally, “I would like to see you after I return, sir.” What should I say? What happens internally when you have to make a decision on the spot like that? My Danger Robot was flailing its accordion-pleated tubular arms, my Spiritual Wanderer was wagging a finger, telling me accept everyone, and my Company Man was waving the rule book: no contact with guests outside work. I tell myself it wasn’t Company Man who won; it was just not wanting the complication, and feeling like what we had had was all it needed to be.

So I demurred, and she asked one more time, again with “sir.” I evaded. And then we were at Southwest Air. The young couple dashed off. I took her suitcase to the curbside check-in where she was talking to the Southwest agent. She didn’t seem to be in a hurry to find a bathroom.

Maybe Company Man didn’t win, because I did something very unprofessional: I gave her a good-bye hug. I suddenly realized, seeing how the agent was looking at her, that maybe she was drunk or high. I wondered if they were going to let her on the plane, if she would get to see her little sister.

I called Clear on the radio, and got a yellow 3 out of Ravenna.

The Music of David Bowie–Tony Vincent with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra- January 10 2017

I was hesitant about going to a tribute to David Bowie. I’ve never gone to a see a tribute band before, much less a tribute orchestra. If you’re patient, you’ll eventually see your favorite act from the past at the Emerald Queen Casino (“Live in Corset Concert!”). A bit sad when they become a tribute band to their younger selves, which the ever-restless Bowie never did.

Aside from that, there’s the troubling question of authenticity. You treasure an artist’s unique sound and vibe—would a clone be the same? Or even close? But then, how many counterfeit paintings are hanging in museums? Would it lessen your pleasure to know that you were looking at a fake? Could you tell it from the original? What if you liked the fake better? Would you have to hate yourself then?

Yet, when my friend Cubby offered me a ticket to the David Bowie retrospective at the Seattle Symphony, I decided not to overthink it (for once in my life) and just go. I trusted her taste—it probably wouldn’t be a cheesefest. And mostly, it wasn’t.

It started out oddly: it was just the guitar player shredding, unaccompanied, for a few minutes. I didn’t hear anything in his playing that related to Bowie—just kick-ass rock guitar playing. Very talented, and he would go on to play Bowie’s music perfectly, but I was mystified by the meandering solo wank. Oh well, everyone else seemed to like it.

Once the songs began, I relaxed into the music. The singer had an excellent voice for Bowie, especially the Ziggy-era songs, a little less so for the more resonant ones, like Ashes to Ashes or Changes. They wisely didn’t attempt any Blackstar era material, and stuck to the 60’s/70’s/80’s catalog. I can think of a lot of Bowie songs I’d rather hear than Fashion (like Stay), but aside from that, I had no playlist complaints.

The band was superb, and the symphony…um, they did their job very well. It was funny, some of them looked like they were serving detention after school, while some, like the clarinetists who dressed up (or down) for the occasion, seemed totally into it. We were in the very first row, and there was a mini-monitor right in front of us broadcasting just the band, so we were hearing less of the orchestra than those behind us. Still, what was great was how the orchestra filled out Bowie’s music—I felt a deeper appreciation for his songwriting–sudden swerves in the music were highlighted against the dark velvet harmony.

They missed a golden opportunity, however, with the distorted radio signal sounds at the end of Major Tom (originally done with just a guitar). They didn’t even attempt them. But can you imagine the orchestra doing that, with violins, piccolos? Sort of like the inspired symphonic fuckery in the Beatle’s A Day in the Life? Sigh.

The big fly in the ointment was the singer’s stage manner. He was fine performing the songs, but there was way too much, “Put your hands together, Seattle”, “I can’t hear you, Seattle!” “You’re awesome, Seattle! Give yourself a hand Seattle!” I haven’t heard so many “Seattle’s” since the last time I took the Underground Tour. What bugged me was that it was like being at the dreaded high school pep rally. I was a smart, lost, bisexual weirdo in high school, and David Bowie beamed down into my radio and told me I was okay. Cool, even. To hear him curated by an enthusiasm nazi was painful.

Mr. Vincent also painted himself as a bit of a Bowie scholar. His takeaway on Young Americans? “There are many interpretations of this song, but what I think he was saying is that we’re all blessed to live in this country.” Really? Cruise ship boosterism like that belongs on a floating lounge far, far out to sea.

He was at his best when he talked about his personal connection to the songs, like the wonder of being a kid and hearing “the grandiose, dark, strange” Major Tom for the first time on his dad’s car radio. The first Bowie song he’d ever heard, was also on the first colored vinyl record he’d ever seen—he didn’t know either one was a thing (back before things were “things”). Tony Vincent, you have a beautiful soul, so just be yourself, man. David gives you permission.

At the end of the evening, all quibbles aside, I loved hearing the songs. Ah, the songs, the songs. If it wasn’t David Bowie, it was at least a wonderful David Bowie bubble bath, which, after the election, is exactly what I needed to cleanse and lift my spirit. Radical self-care, as Dr. Cubby recommended, in advance of the long fight ahead.

It’s been said before: may you not rest, David, but endlessly create, in peace.

Take the Airline Confirmation Number Personality Test

So you’re trying to spell out a confirmation number into a cell phone, and to make sure there are no mistakes, you say words that begin with each of the letters. There’s a standard one the military uses, something about Foxtrots and Tangoes (what’s up with NATO and ballroom dancing?), but you don’t really know that, so you make something up.

Go ahead, try this 6-digit confirmation number. But first, do some method acting: you’re going on an important flight, and you need to fix the reservation, but you’re running late, and now the shuttle van is here. You get on, and you’re self-conscious about something you don’t like about yourself: hair/weight/ age/income, whatever. You feel everyone’s judging you. Got it? Okay, make the call…they want the confirmation number…don’t think, just say whatever word comes up for each letter:

G F 3 L B 7

She was in her 50’s, a large white woman, about 300 pounds. Hers was the last stop before the airport, a modest house in the Lynwood suburbs. There was something incredibly decent and likeable about her; she seemed like someone who was fair-minded, always trying to do the right thing, kind to those around her. (These are judgements you make while meeting, greeting, taking their luggage, etc.) After we got going, she politely excused herself to make a call to the airline, and they asked for her confirmation number. In her phonetic alphabet, it was “God Fat three Love Blame seven.”

Colliding Metaphors

She was a gregarious young white woman, early 20’s, a brunette pixie out from the midwest to visit her boyfriend. She sat directly behind me, the only passenger; she asked me when we’d arrive and called her boyfriend to let him know. Then we had a lively, if not deep, conversation. At one point she stopped to take a call from a girlfriend. She started talking about her job.

Sometimes you start out on one train of thought, only to derail into another. Maybe you start to say “he blew his top,” but switch to “he had a cow.” That’s what happened to her: she was talking about a problem at her job and said, “Like, Jason, the assistant manager? He got so mad, he blew a cow.”

I held the steering wheel in a death grip. Do not laugh out loud. Do not drive into the ditch. Fortunately, because she was right behind me, she couldn’t see the war between hilarity and professionalism taking place on my face.

This was early in my shuttle career, and I chose a poor route that made us about 15 minutes late. The boyfriend seemed angry, and kept looking at me suspiciously. Good thing we weren’t near a cow pasture–who knows what might have happened?

The Difference Between the Germans and the French

Several years ago, I had a German woman riding shotgun on the van. She pointed to my coffee cup and said, “In Germany, we don’t have cup holders in our cars. We feel that drinking coffee will distract you from driving.” I thought about it and said, “That makes sense—you’re doing 180 on the Autobahn, you probably shouldn’t be sipping a latte.”

Later that year, Tess and I went to France. I was driving our rented Peugeot on the Autoroute, and we pulled over into an aire—like a rest area, but with gas and a restaurant (do not think Stuckey’s)—and went into the café after filling up. The tomato and mozzarella sandwich was delicious. I decided I wanted some coffee for the road, but the woman behind the counter didn’t have any to-go cups: she said, “You know, you really shouldn’t drink coffee and drive—the driving will distract you from the flavor of the coffee.”

Updates:

I told this story to an Italian man, and he said, “For us Italians, coffee is communal thing—a chance to get together and talk.”

Since then, someone told me the Germans now have cup holders in their cars. I’m disappointed.