Boring Old People

It was the first run of the day, a yellow 2 out of lower Lynwood, right off the freeway, starting at 4am. The first stop was a nice couple, probably early 70’s, we’ll call them Henry and Mabel. The other was a single, “Lauren”, several blocks away, maybe a bit past 60. Being locals, they could, and did, discuss the state of potholes, bingo at the senior center…it was so boring, I started driving faster, just so it could end sooner.

But then the conversation took a turn when they discussed hosting students. Lauren said, “I used to do that, but I stopped after I was raped at knife point by a student.” She talked about that for a bit. I couldn’t help it, I slowed down to hear better.

Mabel sympathized: she had once had a job as a bus driver at a mental hospital, and while driving was assaulted by Jimmy, a huge, freckled, gangly, mostly gentle, but occasionally violent, client of the institution. It was still on the grounds; she got the van stopped, tried to defend herself as best she could, but was choked and sustained a broken arm. The security staff heard her honking and came running.

When Jimmy saw them, he snapped back into docility. “I be good, Mabel. Jimmy be good now.”

“Damn right you’re going to be good,” she said, as the badged apes hustled Jimmy off for an impromptu Rolfing session.

This seemed to have blown the doors of the conversation wide open. Lauren talked about her three sons, all of whom became garbage men:

“Larry had a route that went through a rich neighborhood. He used to make out like a bandit at Christmas.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Oh, some of the rich families would get drunk and fight. And then he’d score a $200 sweater from Nordstrom’s, still in the box, sitting on top of the garbage can. Stuff like that.”

Another son, she said, had a lot of sex with women on his route: “Lonely housewives. He kept a collection of dildoes on his dashboard.”

Part of what makes my life interesting is short-term gullibility. I believed her, though somewhere in the back of my mind I was trying to picture having sex while your truck is blocking the street. Henry and Mabel didn’t have much to say about that story.

Then Lauren got onto a story about a plumbing explosion at a summer cabin: “There was shit flying everywhere, shit all over the walls.”

It was getting a bit weird. And—how did the dildoes fit in (so to speak)? Would you bother with toys during quick sex? Would a garbage truck driver really sport a pastoral tableau of dildoes in the window of his truck? (For some reason, I pictured them in a dashboard display of a meadow, a pond, maybe some toy animals contentedly grazing among them.) And how many women would want to have sex with an on-duty garbageman? I was starting to wonder about Lauren’s veracity, if not sanity. I started driving faster. Fortunately, we were now headed up the badly paved road to the airport.

I tried to steer the conversation towards potholes. Sometimes these old people scare me.

The Chirping War of 1776

The fourth of July is not my favorite holiday. I grew up with fireworks, I’ve been to public displays, and no one has ever talked about the ideals of the country, or read from the founding documents. The Fourth of July, as celebrated, seems pornographic: explosion for its own sake, disconnected from the idea or feeling it’s supposed to celebrate. An excuse to blow shit up.

On the positive side, your local car dealer has revolutionary deals, and has declared independence from high prices!

For all its faults, I feel lucky to live in this country, and last year, listening to the mind-dulling crack and thump of fireworks, I thought I would rebel, and read the Bill of Rights. It helped, a lot. There’s a core of genius and decency to this nation.

Another year, and the Fourth rolls around again. Sigh.

This year I decided to read the Declaration of Independence. Wow. In laying out the case for revolution, before the laundry list of complaints, Jefferson lands a solid left hook that knocks the divine right of kings on its ass. And once again, it worked—I felt grateful and inspired. Maybe next year when the fireworks start, I’ll read from the Federalist Papers. It’s my rejection of our annual loveless humping of the American sky.

Anyway, while doing some background reading on the Declaration, I discovered a fascinating but forgotten part of American and British history: Chirping. Normally, to sail from England to America could take 6 weeks or longer. Thus, the flow of information, as well as people and goods, was quite slow.

Enter Chirping, an ultrafast messaging system that could send short messages, or “chirps,” across the Atlantic in as little as 4 days. How did it work?


Lord Evan Stone had the idea, and money, to set up a chain of a dozen or so relatively stationary ships across the Atlantic, and to train pigeons to fly between them. A pigeon can easily travel 400 miles a day at 50 miles per hour; with a quick transfer to a fresh pigeon, at least 800 miles a day was possible. Of course, messages were of necessity short, and expensive. And several pigeons had to carry the copies of the same message, because even a pigeon can have trouble finding a ship at sea. (The story of how Lord Stone got the birds to do that would be a fascinating article in its own right.) Adding to the expense was the constant need to resupply the stationary ships.

Arriving at port, the messages would then be posted publicly on a large board, unless additional fees were paid for a private delivery service. Of course, people would flock to see the Chirps, as Lord Stone intended: it was free advertising. The curious public clustered around the message board like feeding pigeons, which thus became to be known as Ye Feed. It was said that the Feed messages would travel by rumor just as a fast as by a private courier.

Interesting side note: the Chirps were originally called Coos, as the service was intended for the lovelorn gentry to send mash notes to their distant sweethearts. But as we shall see, the service soon became a channel for political bickering, or “Chirping.” I discovered a Log of Chirps between America and England (and some from France), recorded just after the Declaration of Independence arrived in London. (If King George III often seems to get the last word, it’s because he could afford more pigeons.)

Here is an excerpt:


This Declaration of Independence is the work of Indolent Wretches who can only Lose. I call them Lose-ers. Dolorous!

Too short, did not peruse.

Give me Liberty or give me Death!

Pathetic @Phenry, your bold declaration is naught but the squawking of a pea hen, so I dub thee Squawking Pat.

Some day, following the example of the United States of America, there will be a United States of Europe.

And should my distant heirs inherit my Spirit and Brain, they will surely Exit such an Execrable Union. This @GWashington once begged admittance to my Table, but I could see Foul Termites crawling about his wooden teeth. I said no!

I have never met @rexGeorgeIII, nor begged admittance to any man’s table.

This denial is but more Fraudulent News from the Colonial Nest of Ninnies. Dolorous!

If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.

I’ll pay particular care and attention–to your Wherever, Crazy Abigail!

At this point, Lord Stone shut down the service in disgust.

Whale Shark

Call him Whale Shark. But first, let’s talk about her.

She was nerdy-stunning, early 30’s, with dark pinned-up hair and black glasses, clear pale complexion, and a low musical voice from ye faire isle of Britian. First stop of a yellow 2 out of Ballard, about 7:30 in the morning, yet she was as sleepy-eyed as a 3:30 pickup. Not a morning person, but still capable of witty, yet trenchant, pleasantries. I really wanted to talk with her more, but she clearly needed space, so I didn’t push it. Sure enough, she sat in the back row, always the sign of someone who doesn’t want to talk.

(Except for one guy from Everett who went all the way in back, then started a shouted conversation with me over the freeway noise. I finally pulled over so he could move up. I don’t know why, he didn’t have that much to say—I guess I was just tired of being shouted at.)

The other stop, Whale Shark’s, was on Phinney Ridge. “Ridge” is Seattlish for “View”, and “View” translates as “money.” He had the whole kit: two stories of Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains, German cars, the “My Kid Is an Honor Student at Precious Prep” bumper sticker. Dressed in technocrat khaki and an invisible “Smartest Guy in the Room” sweatshirt, he started to sit in the first row, spied her, and switched to the middle row, just in front of her. Wave bye-bye to the wife and kids, champ.

As we pulled away, he tried to strike up a conversation, despite her minimal replies. “Parry” and “deflect” are sword fighting terms that have been drafted into describing conversation, and never has it seemed so literal to me as I watched her fend him off with as little energy as politeness would allow.

He was growing desperate, and started talking about his visit to the Atlanta Aquarium, and their stupendous whale sharks. “Biggest fish in the sea: forty feet long, 20 tons, and you’re right there looking at them. Amazing. I mean, forty feet…”

We were at a red light, and I glanced back in the rearview mirror. She had had enough. With the efficiency of a master swordfighter, she pierced his heart (or loins) with the tiniest of gestures: she closed her eyes. He was frozen with disbelief for a few seconds, then turned around and stared morosely out the window for the rest of the trip.

When we got to the airport, I unloaded her luggage, and she signed her credit card slip. A good-humored look passed between us: acknowledgement of what had happened with Whale Shark, an appreciation on her part that I was letting her be a sleepy morning traveler, without asking for more. And maybe something else, a sense of kindred spirits, an acknowledgement of the conversation that could have been. A special bond, perhaps.

That night, I told Tess the story of the trip, including the exchanged look with her at the end of it. “Oh God,” she said, “you’re as pathetic as he is.”

Whale Shark, my brother!

If You’re Not Obsessed, You’re Not Alive

We have a dog in our lives now, Harvey, our housemate’s pet. He’s a tall black mix of bird dog, probably Irish setter, and border collie. (Happily, he got the border collie smarts and the setter’s graceful athleticism. One is reminded of the [apocryphal] story of G. B. Shaw’s reply when a beautiful woman said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a child with your brains and my beauty?” “But what a tragedy, my dear, if the reverse were true.”)

One of Harvey’s favorite games is when Tennis Ball Fetch devolves into me chasing him around the yard. He just can’t get enough of it. It’s a good workout for me, because it involves running fast with quick changes of direction—not my usual jog. But if I played as much as he wanted me to, it’d be a full time job. He’s obsessed.

This evening we were planning dinner and trying to figure out something fun to do afterwards—maybe Lemon Drops and cribbage? A movie? I was struck by an idea: “What about tennis at Seward Park?” Suddenly, we both knew that was it. We used to love playing tennis, but somehow fell out of the habit; we hadn’t played for about eight years. It took about 15 minutes of digging in the garage for rackets, and a trip to the store for non-dog chewed balls. Dinner could wait.

The courts at Seward Park have been rebuilt since the drainage project; they sit right on the edge of Lake Washington with a view of Mt. Rainier. (In fact, I played barefoot for about 15 minutes while waiting for my shoes to dry after retrieving an errant ball from the lake.) Eagles are a frequent distraction. We were very fortunate that one of the two courts was open. In contrast to our bumbling, a couple of tennis blackbelts, a man and a woman, were zapping balls at each other like throwing stars in a martial arts movie.

We didn’t play any games, just hit the ball back and forth. At first, it was hard to get past 3 volleys without going into the net or out of bounds. Or in the lake. But, we kept improving. After about 45 minutes, Tess said, “Do you realize we’ve been grinning the whole time?” What I love is chasing down difficult balls, and occasionally getting a successful racket on them. No matter how difficult, I’ll chase it. (I think chasing Harvey helped me snag a few of them.) Much later, as the court was fully shadowed, we thought maybe we should leave soon. Okay; let’s just have a rally of six shots, then we’ll go.

Too easy. Try nine. Twelve. Fifteen. We were over twenty playable shots before we finally packed it in, sore and happy. Walking back to the car, we marveled at summer. Kids dancing to hip hop, the pungent smell of pot (it’s Seattle), families picnicking on the lawns, the chiming ice cream truck with the same songs from childhood: Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Mary Had a Little Lamb…and the variety of adults and kids lining up, Asian, Hispanic, a woman in a hijab, African American, European American, 31 flavors of American.

We pulled over on the way to Flying Squirrel Pizza to watch an eagle try to snag a fish from Andrews Bay, while another eagle hovered in position to steal it. My hands were black from the decayed tape on the racket handle, and I had to wash them in the restaurant’s bathroom before paying for the pizza.

We’ll be back. We’re obsessed.

“Life is nothing if you’re not obsessed.” –John Waters’ movie Pecker, 1998

Jacqui Naylor at Frankie’s, Vancouver BC 6.17.17

Tess and I are both fans of jazz singer Jacqui Naylor, so when we were planning a trip to Vancouver, we picked the weekend she was playing there. To say she’s a jazz singer doesn’t capture everything she does, though: she also writes original tunes that are sort of folk-rock, and with her musical and life partner Art Khu, she does something she calls “acoustic smashing”: she’ll sing the melody of one song over the groove of another, often mixing genres. For example, she’ll sing the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime over Weather Report’s Birdland, or Nina Simone’s Feeling Good over Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff. It works better than it has a right to; she’s the Gregor Mendel of musical hybridization.

For this concert, Ms. Naylor wore clothes. Well, she always does in concert, as far as I know; it’s just that the charming man next to us (who generously gave us a taste of his wine when we were trying to choose one) was going on about why she dressed in a certain color. Funny, I never see that much attention devoted to a male singer’s clothing. But, we also had a civil and interesting conversation with him about politics, which is apparently possible to do in Canada.

Anyway, although plagued by an elusive hum from the PA that took a few songs to eliminate, she found her groove soon enough. Her strong, expressive, wide ranging voice is always a pleasure to listen to. The most delightful song of the evening was when she sang Surrey With the Fringe on Top over Gabor Szabo’s Breezin’ (which became a hit for George Benson [which Szabo hated]). If acoustic smashing ever goes on artistic trial, this could be Exhibit A for the defense.

I think it works so well because of the geometry of the songs: Breezin’ is very horizontal, in that the notes don’t go up or down very much, and they’re also very even in length; it’s a forward-leaning, propulsive tune. Surrey, on the other hand, is quite vertical, notes going up and down, with a kind of bouncy rhythm—you can almost see the upright carriage and prancing horses, just from the music. They don’t fight for the same space. The timing of the two songs was genius: when she sang the chorus of Surrey, the quicksilver guitar riff from Breezin’ would swoop in and push it along.

However, I felt something was missing. I’d heard her in Seattle a few years ago, and I was struck by how she had different voices: there was a Rickie Lee waif, a world-wise Tracy Chapman, a tough-gal low voice, and others. One or more of them would pop into a song for a cameo, and it was like having different characters tell the story of the song. This night, it was “only” her regular Jacqui Naylor voice, which is wondrous in its own right. But getting those different points of view in one song is, to me, more interesting than acoustic smashing. I like the acoustic smashing, it’s fun, and I think says something general about the surprising shared DNA of different musics; but getting those other voices/viewpoints expands the specific emotion and world of a song.

I started wondering if I’d just imagined her “multiple voices”, because I couldn’t understand why she’d drop that, but I’m sure I didn’t. (Pretty sure, anyway—I did have an imaginary friend when I was a kid, so who knows.)

One interesting thing about Naylor was that she’d talk to fans on the break and after the show; not just “Hi how are ya,” but actual long conversations. (Maybe people she knew?) We thought about talking to her, but decided not to wait around.

Her partner Art Khu, however, was the opposite: we thanked him on the way out, and he seemed like a classic introvert: very present, but not into the schmooze. I mentioned that I thought a tune they played, “Sunshine and Rain”, would smash well with Jobim’s Agua de Berber (which I badly pronounced, and briefly mumble-sang a bar of). He nodded politely, and we said good night and walked to the door, me feeling foolish.

As I was about to step outside, he called after me: “Good point.” Musicians amaze me: in the 4 or 5 seconds it took for me to walk to the door, his mind figured out what the hell song I was talking about, extracted the relevant riff, ran it through some simulations with the other song, and decided it had enough merit to mention.

We stepped out into the cool Vancouver night and headed for the bus, full of good wine, average food, excellent music, and the pleasure of each other’s company. It doesn’t need to get much better than that.

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


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.