A Balboa Park Story

Urban Retrospectives - Portland, Oregon Bridge Series at buyolympia.com


That day I had written a letter to the Girl in the City of Twelve Bridges, which I would never send and still have not. It doesn’t have to be; the words became manifest of themselves as if by some conjuration of the pen. Imagine unfolding a paper crane to find within its creases the word ‘yes’.

Come nightfall, the moon was full and there was the fact of trees. “This is the center of gravity” I had written before slipping out the gate. One may make lesser predictions, lesser proclamations. Simply: a round object dimples a swath of fabric. There is not a pull, not a push, but a weight.

The violinist played in between two eucalyptuses. He was rosin and sonor and I was accidental witness: the night had taken me deep into the grove where earlier I had written my cantilevered somethings. “Dearest, that’d you’d know me among the cables, the winged walls, the dozen and beautiful expanses.”

The violinist was a Chagall, floating in the moonlight. I stood hands in pocket, listening, and could there be a moment of greater gravity, I of any greater resolve, poetry would simply rest its nib unwritten.

I made my leave before the player stayed his bow. I walked home as if on vapors, which I would do again, later, petals in my mouth this time, the night a wine-soaked answer to those as yet unsent words. This is the language of gardens, of their accompanying trees, the perhaps tower: it is a language of reply. It is the shout into an empty portico and the voice, different in its return, resounding the desired ‘yes’, and—oh—the ‘yes’ again.  



Amethyst "The Essence of Purple"

I don’t know what it is about University Heights, but its dog walkers are decidedly less friendly than the canine coteries I’m used to greeting down Thorn St. Maybe North Park is the fairer neighborhood –though only two miles distant from University Heights’ center. Maybe it’s just that I exude a little less St. Francis of Assisi these days, more St. Francis de Sales.

The entrepreneur Harvey Bentley used to run an ostrich farm in University Heights proper, milliner that he was, so could the neighborhood corgis sport sartorial feathers instead of doggy sweaters, maybe we could have the old hood back in spades, with dog-walkers the new ambassadors of chi-du-flipping-chi.

“Good morning! How are you?”

“Bon, bon.  Is that egret your lab’s bib and tucker?”

“No—it’s a nice ostrich coque. Good day!”

 As bonus, if the ostriches could reprise their role as rideshare. Bentley’s flock doubled as a fleet of feathered taxis: two-toed, two legged carriages that one could pay monies to ride. Imagine being sidesaddle to a Struthioniform, loping down a yet to be paved Park Blvd. How do you say ‘step on it?’ to an ostrich with a penchant for every now and then burying its head in the sand.  But ,“Your taxi. Your ride” goes the Yellow Cab slogan; I want mine with Bette Davis eyelashes.

The ostrich farm was adjacent to a trolley station, which is at the lip of the Valley. Back when, riders could be captivated by amazing panoramas of the river gorge, a scene now ruined by the rows of Big Box stores in all their urban ubication. A river still runs through it, just one that overflows on the regular and menaces the hemlines of Saks’ pret a porter section. There is no trolley anymore to shuffle along the valley’s edge, to bear witness to the riparian tide of water and concrete, instead there’s Trolley Park which is proof yet again that places are named for the things they replace. 

The trolley has a neon afterlife regardless, gas discharge tubes of red and blue sculpted into the shape of a tram overhanging Park Blvd. Unlike other signs on the Hill, the streetcar generally lacks errata: there is no Bo-levard or -ormal Heights, the Ne gases sit their Geissian cylinders with namesake nobility, beautiful and inert. Maybe the sign is now LED, in which case I’m all wrong. Irrespective of the science, the trolley is a suspended something and it sheds light on the Twigg’s coffee shop, which—like a caffeinated Isidoro—slings the joe with attendant religiosity. Ask for Lindy: she has the curacao hair, which has her looking more barback than barista, but she tends to the eucharistic practice of coffee communion, Torani instead of Jameson. Would that she or any of the other baristas flair-tend when the Javanese Blood of Christ is involved, than there could be the overturning of tables. Or at least the palming of cups.

“A flat white stirred with an ostrich feather?”

“The Trolley Car Special with cable dust cacao?”

“A Cortado, silky, and served on silk?”

The latter would not invite too much rebellion—besides its ruckus of Struithiforms and streetcars, the University Heights bluffs housed a fully-fledged silk mill back in the day. On one side Of Adams were the ostriches–across the avenue were William Hilton’s silk throwers and their moths. The Mulberry Mafia (as they are not known—I like to make shit up) was soldiered by housewives in fibroin arms, cottage industrials who grew Bombyx larvae in their backyards. Buffalo Bill had nothing on these moth aficionados. Acherontia, I hardly knew you. The Bombyx moth salivates protein, so essentially that kimono you wear so seductively? Well, it’s moth spit.  This is generally not recorded on the garment label. And—an aside– satin can be silk; silk is not satin. Moody Blues ‘Nights in White Messaline’ just doesn’t have the same ring, though, and oh the slaver (already knew it was drivel).

Back to the dog-walkers. I’m up in the crepuscular hour, walking as if part-canine myself (albeit one on a self-led leash) and I’m juggling a Peperomia plant in between my cold hands, left-right and back again, shoving exposed fingers into pockets whenever possible. It’s cold, which is to say it’s not really—this IS San Diego after all—and meanwhile my DC friends are making snow angels and posting pink-faced pictures on the interwebs. I’d be walking a dog were I to have one, but that’s a different story, one that belongs sorely in a Country and Western song. I pass an ostrich mural, an ostrich plaque; there’s the trolley sign as yet unlit and here Adam Avenue’s myrtle which has long replaced the mulberry. Myrtles are everywhere—they veritably hedge in North Park, my old hood—and they are the doggy messaging boards in absence of fireplugs. Pee-mail, my friend calls it, and the yellow spots in the lawnscapes are estrus-scented telegrams. I say hello to a Lhasa Apso, which is to say I say ‘hello’ to the owner whose smile doesn’t reach the eyes, if indeed there is a smile under that mask somewhere. Duchenne would’ve checked a ‘no’ on his clipboard. The radiator plant in my hands is a cold weight; I see a Frenchie across the street; the talk-box announces I am now crossing Lincoln.

 I visit the Chevron, which is of no historical significance, but it has cheap coffee and Tiller John’s homespun adages. (Actually, when Tiller John is there, he usually waves off my two-dollar offerings and says ‘Happy whatever’).

“How’re you, John?”

John hems a minute and pronounces ‘well’ with superfluous syllables, something High Tider, and pauses before delivering his nightly saw.

“I’ve been shot at and missed; I’ve been shit at and hit.”

“That’s a good one, John. Imma remember that.” I’m unconsciously mirroring his accent. Soon I’ll be rhotically warshing my clothes by the crick.

“And happy whatever,” he summarizes, waving the coffee along with a whisk of the hand. I cradle my Peperomia beneath an arm, and hoist the coffee as ‘cheers.’ The radiator plant—and I have no radiator—cleans the air as it should expelling oxygen over the Special Dark bars. Peperomias are known as good air-cleaners. I should smoke indoors and give it a run for its money. As is, I just burn the Nag on the nightly and keep Sir Walter Raleigh casketed in the bureau drawer.

“And curse Sir Walter Raleigh/ He was such a stupid git.”

Actually, John Lennon, he wasn’t. in inspecting the executioner’s blade that would behead him with two whacks, Raleigh quoted: “This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Speaking of, you can still purchase Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco at Urban Glass, Park Blvd.’s local tobacconist and veritable menagerie keeper of hand-blown wares. It is a compact galaxy of swirling constellating things: borosilicate one-hitters, Medwakhs, shishas, chillums (none of these are for tobacco, by the way, but I digress). Follow the constellations and northwest. There is an orange building with a white door, two stories by architectural surmise, twenty-storied by manner of its residents.

This is Amethyst Landing. I carry an amethyst in my pocket. Amythesko from the Koine Greek, which translates to ‘no drunkenness’. In effect, this variety of quartz is a shield from intoxication—the Sobriety Stone. Ancient tipplers used to fashion vessels out of amethyst so as to avoid the more negative consequences of their imbibition—keeping togas out of the trees (how’d that get there?), avoiding the cloacas (watch over me, O Cloacina, Goddess of the Toilet), and keeping one’s peos in one’s perizoma (you get my drift). Anglican bishops wore Episcopal rings of amethyst as well in reverence of the Apostles’ sobriety at the Pentecost. And, the Chinese? It’s a Feng-shui ward against the hazards of daily life, which a heady dose of C2H60 can certainly engender. I carry an amethyst for all said reasons, maybe too little too late: I wound up, after all, at the Landing carried a lifetime away from my Honorary Mayordom in North Park proper. In North Park, I was affectionately called Mr. Fantastic, but I was ferried on vapors. Bacchus? Yes, I have his address. He lives in New Amsterdam—small pad but a helluva rent. It only costs you your dignity.

Amethyst Landing is opposite town from Trolley Park, about a mile distant as the crow flies or—as is more appropriate to UH–the ostrich runs. It is cattycorner to a grocery store and downwind from Tiller Jim’s aphoristic flatus. Christmas Trees still wink in the windows as it is not yet the Epiphany and we can thank our house manager’s liturgical upbringing for that. The corners will look bare come the twelfth night of Christmas, but being We Three Kings’ Day there’s supposed to be a feast. I think. I’m not Pentecostal enough to know though I carry the amethyst; the liturgical order of things is lost on me. There’s the Epiphany, the Descension, the Ascension, seven days, ten days, forty days: it’s like Jesus is an elevator with only three buttons. I’d be a poor operator. I do know some things, though. Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior brought myrrh, frankincense, and gold respectively. Two of these are resins and, should you poll the residents of Amethyst Landing, they are not the resins on the usual curriculum vitae. In which case, we can celebrate the Feast of the Wise Men and still pass a urinalysis test. (I should probably mention Amethyst Landing is a Sober Living home).

The Landing is on Centre St, and I don’t know why the Imperial spelling except maybe to appease the Briton tucked away inside all of us. 4070 is the exact address, and numerologically speaking that number has to do with diligence and dullness. Well, if you believe in angel vibrations and all that. But ‘diligence’ and ‘dullness’—these are pretty alki terms. I mean, according to the Big Book we all “trudge” the road of happy destiny, which sounds about as inviting as clogging one’s way through a fouetté, but “we are not a glum lot” the Book goes on to say. We just require diligence and that, in a different and more abstemious numerology, is quantified by Days, sometimes hours. David Sedaris has racked up about 8000 days thus far and to—O God—go back to one, he laments, is the unthinkable mathematic. Speaking of math, you thought subtracting from zero was hard–there is an as difficult trick to adding from less than zero. To wit: Sir Anthony Hopkins has pushed the abacus to 47 years of sobriety; Sir Elton John claims 32; the decidedly UN-Sir Russel Brand just hit 19. Call them the professors emeriti, but they all started in Negative Integer Land, a pretty rough grade school were there one. The playground is not made of asphalt or tarmacadum, it’s straight-up the stuff of rock-bottoms. All of the aforementioned claim ‘fear of death’ as their last and greatest dissuader, as in: “If I didn’t quit, I was gonna die.”

This is not foreign to me. Before hailing a black Mercedes out of the Del Mar hinterlands—a death cab if ever there was one—I signed exit papers at La Casa Palmera, a tony rehab in San Diego’s North County. It was against doctor’s advisal. I had to sign my name under the medical admonition: ‘with consequence of relapse or death.’ At that point I didn’t care. I signed with a maybe flourish, scored a Steel Reserve at the Del Mar Chevron where Tiller John was decidedly not in attendance (though his aphorism, “Shit at and hit” was highly appropriate to the moment), and rode home, my alcoholic breath fogging the window in blue concentrics. I was prepared to sleep on the stoop, I was prepared to take a Shun to the ulnar; I fought with my wife, I slept on the couch. I’ve been figuratively sleeping on the couch ever since. There is no comfortable bed my size—the one I made for myself is the unfortunate fit. And, well shit, I’m not a good carpenter.

The beds at Amethyst are single-size, or whatever you sleep in when still a child. I’m so far from a queenie with an attendant wife. These, after all, are the riches of the poor and save for my semi-precious amethyst, my life is not exactly opulent. I get my $2.75 Lindy Special at the Twiggs before the cold-cathode lights switch off, before the trolley sign gets all happy-red and blue. No cortado for me; I sip my cuppa while telling the folks in the Twiggs’ Green Room that, yes, I am still indeed an alcoholic, just one with another 24 hours. What else can I say? I’m doing the New Math. (About 1200 hours as of this writing, which I can demonstrate in spent cigarettes, ginger beer empties, and about 220,000 steps through the greater Hillcrest/University Heights area).

Next door to Twiggs is the Buddhist Temple cum Library/gift shop. You can buy singing bowls here, of which I have one–I just haven’t given it voice in a while—and I think there’s meditation on Saturdays. Don’t ask me to sit still longer than one ‘ohm’ requires, though. I need to move, much like Einstein who hiked the Alpine lowlands—characteristically sockless—with his ever-present pipe, with his mind simultaneously empty and full. Call it moving meditation—it’s an exercise measured by footfalls and not curated breath—a simple joie de vivre in blue suede shoes.

And joie de vivre is what I maintain at the core, though the core is necessarily hidden by an ever-shifting mantle—it sometimes takes a keen and dedicated geologist to know that the core even exists. People in my life have tired of the constant need for excavation. Wouldn’t you be? By my wife’s admission, she didn’t know who she was going to get on any given day. Manic one day, at the bottom of a glass the next. This does not make for a solid foundation, the mantle doing its tectonic shifts while the frustrated geologist tries to keep a read on the core. At some point the geologist has to run for shelter lest the ground give way. Pack up base camp, we’re out.

The core can be explosive, too: just ask a volcano. Better yet, ask Pliny the Elder, the famous Vesuvian victim of whom Plinian volcanic eruptions are named. According to Brittanica:

In this type of eruption [Plinian], gases boiling out of gas-rich magma generate enormous and nearly continuous jetting blasts that core out the magma conduit and rip it apart. The uprushing gases and volcanic fragments resemble a gigantic rocket blast directed vertically upward. Plinian eruption clouds can rise into the stratosphere and are sometimes continuously produced for several hours. Lightning strikes caused by a buildup of static electricity are common close to Plinian ash clouds, adding one more element of terror to the eruption.

Funny, Pliny the Elder is among my favorite beers, rather was. And too much imbibition of said substance produces figurative molten flows, atmospheric lightning. It’s all about acetaldehyde and dopamine, amygdalas and cortices if we’re in a science mode. That joie de vivre when flair-tended, shaken, and stirred can make for something volatile.  Same volatility when the brain inflames and serotonin and dopamine are dysregulated and you wind up shaking the hand of God, as in a manic episode.

But, let’s not get so reductive. It’d be like explaining away a rainbow as a simple phenomenon of optics, or love as just a bag full of agreeable chemicals. There’s gotta be something else going on. The heart says so in defiance of the head. I mean, how do you account for coincidence? Best explanation I heard is that coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous. Like how the amethyst in my pocket was likely found in igneous rock, a result of volcanic activity now here to shield me from further and deleterious eruption. I’d probably be at any other given Sober Living were it not for the name Amethyst Landing. I told my house manager so today. He’s the one, remember, who’s keeping the Christmas trees up till Epiphany, and don’t we all want epiphany in some form or other. I hope the X-mas firs get replaced with miniature bodhis. I could use some enlightenment.

Speaking of, the amethyst is vehicle for insight: at that Buddhist gift store you can purchase prayer malas made of the purple quartz. The mala is the Eastern equivalent of a rosary except instead of saying a ‘Hail Mary’ or an ‘Our Father’, you recite a specific mantra as you finger each stone. The beauty of a mantra as that it is self-chosen. No liturgical mandate. Though—in  defense of the Our Father—I dig: “and forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.” That’s a neat collapsing of Steps 6 through 9 in AA if we’re using more modern parlance: ‘Humbly asked [insert Higher Power here] to remove all our shortcomings’, followed with the chaser ‘Made direct amends.’ I like Step 9 because who doesn’t like being debt-free, whether of the school of Bill or no, in the existential scheme of things?

Sign me up; I’m sorry.

Sorries can be confessed at four churches in University Heights, two of which are named after St. John, patron saint of love and friendship and writing. St. John of Chevron who, you’ll remember, was ‘shit at and hit’ as his particular martyrdom does not necessarily accept confessions (though he does accept Mastercard) and, at last check, distributes cigarettes over simonious indulgence. Cigarettes are currency in some circles, mind you, but won’t buy you out of Purgatory. Its guardian, Cato the Younger, doesn’t smoke—he predates Lucky Strikes by a few centuries at least and chose a knife to the gut as his form of suicide, not the slow burn of an errant loosey. So Cato is out when it comes to nicotine simony, but one can still pray outside his gates.

A good prayer: [Higher Power], give me the strength and direction to do the right thing no matter what the consequences may be. Help me to consider others and not harm them in any way. Help me to consult with others before I take any actions that would cause me to be sorry. Help me to not repeat such behaviors. 

Succinct, and I would say it on a mala. As is, I worry the amethyst in my pocket while cruising University Heights and appreciate having landed at the Landing (though there’s no place to park my ostrich). Seven steps lead up to the front door, and there’s probably something significant to that what with there being seven seas and seven seals and—of course—Seven Deadly Sins.  My sin of gluttony—and I went out on three fifths of vodka before checking in to residence—is the sin that would have me at home on Purgatorio’s Sixth Terrace. The penitent glutton of T6 is supposed to be forever deprived of the bounty which otherwise dangles from the terrazo’s abundant fruit trees.  There are no trees at Amethyst, though, save for those of the Christmas persuasion, and the scale proves I’m not going hungry.

Yet in Purgatory I remain, among the dog-walkers and café-goers; the ghosts of winged moths and two-toed birds; the cable cars, its trolley barns; Medwakhs, malas and the shot at and missed v. the shat at and hit. To which, I say good morning to it all, and good evening. Amethyst, show  me home.


From Point A to Point B, and the In Between

“Well,” I say, pocketing my phone, “I guess it’s you and me for a while, Hurley.” And Hurley looks up at me, panting, with his juggernaut of a head and white muzzle; he snorts approvingly in true canine fashion, then resumes his wavery gait. Chocolate Lab, hip dysplasia, withered haunches, obviously lost. His owner isn’t answering the phone, so Hurley’s ID tag just jingles uselessly as he wanders the streets of Burlingame, me the sudden and accidental shepherd.(By the way, this story begins with Hurley and ends with me cradling a woman on the sidewalk with a busted skull. The New Year has been strange).Hurley is old, but has good teeth and gums, so I figure him well taken care of. He’s a worthy companion, if slow. Reminds me of walking with my grandpa on the beach, were Hurley wearing loafers and having the ability to cross his forepaws behind his back: laconic, a bit myopic, but determined to stroll. We cross all the side streets and I’m hoping Hurley’s taking me home. He sits occasionally and I see all his ribs, which is in juxtaposition to the rest of his stalwart forebody, still muscled, and I’m hoping he has the stamina for this jaunt through the red sidewalks of North Park. He won’t stop panting. <whew> he says, figuratively, and eventually we find a driveway that he slouches up before he collapses at the backdoor. He looks at me as if to say, “What? This is where I was going the entire time.”(The owner called back; she was thankful. Apparently Hurley had taken his first detour in YEARS through Switzer Canyon before haunting Burlingame).

So, speaking of Switzer, I’m walking back toward home and the chaparral is fragrant and full; it is midday and the canyon is flanked on both sides by endless pedestrian sidewalks. 30th Street, which runs down the middle, is zoned for cars as well as bicyclists, with there being spray-painted cycle signs in the middle of the thoroughfare designating it safe for vehicles whether two-wheeled or four. I have my Airbuds in, walking on the east side of the street; a couple across the way, is walking opposite. They are septuagenarians by the look of it, holding hands, and I automatically say, “How sweet” because it is a crisp New Year and I appreciate love in its myriad offerings. The air and mood is interrupted suddenly by a hurtling bicyclist, fixed gear, who—as opposed to riding in the swath of concrete designated to him and to him alone on this particular stretch—is flying down THE SIDEWALK with a hundred yard view ahead of him. (It is a straightaway). I take out my Airbuds the second I see this jackass, hear him yelling: “Outta my way! Bicycle!”The husband sidesteps left, the wife is confused and doesn’t move effectively to either side, and the fixie jerk, with no brakes and no wherewithal to hop off the sidewalk, plows soundly into the woman knocking her onto her head. She crumples immediately, like a load of laundry onto the sidewalk, and when I come to, the husband and the bicyclist are yelling at me to call an ambulance. I fumble with my phone and navigate crossing 30th while some cars are starting to pull up. The wife isn’t responding, and the husband has his own phone on point; between the two of us we had emergency services on their way stat.I join another onlooker, who—from her car—produces a terrycloth towel; together we cradle the wife’s head, moving it as little as possible, and apply pressure to the back of her head. She is bleeding and her eyes remain closed.

“What happened?” she eventually asks while the husband deals with 911, and while the bicyclist is doing his best to sound contrite, though meanwhile panickily calling his friends: “Dude: I hit this woman on the road!” The lady and I holding the wife’s head gesture for him to get the fuck out of the way, he making things all the worse by the minute. “What’s your name? What day is it? What city are you in?” And the lady who cradles the left side of the wife’s head while I cradle the right, says: “The ambulance is coming. You’re going to be asked a lot of questions again. Don’t worry—you’ll be ok.”The wife’s name is Barbara. She is dressed in a lovely pink sweater, her grey hair neatly coifed; her fingers are bleeding from having hit the pavement, and the back of her head is bloodied from taking a fall. I am angry as hell at the bicyclist, and I say through grit teeth when he is offering his hundredth apology: “Shouldn’t have been riding on the sidewalk.” Especially with a fixie. When the police show up, I hope the worst for him, which is not a thought that often escapes my head, let alone my mouth.The ambulance arrives; the lady and I are relieved by the EMT’s. Because things can never be that simple, a man rides up on a bicycle and begins yelling at the cops: “Damn, Man! I’ve been saying this road is dangerous for bicyclists, and goddamn drivers ruin everything!” The cop holds up two fingers, Jedi style, and says, “This is not what happened.” The interjecting bicyclist takes offense, starts calling the policeman racist, and rides out into the middle of the street where—promptly—he almost gets hit by a car.Barbara is loaded onto an ambulance and whisked away; police are left at the scene with the bicyclist who can’t produce an ID, and I just wait my turn to make a statement with blood on my hands.Somewhere Hurley sits at a backdoor, having had his own adventure, content with streets he crossed in the company of a shepherd; Barbara is concussive somewhere when just attempting to get from point A to point B, and how the New Year begins is a conundrum to me.

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