An Air of Bad Ease

An air of bad ease descended upon the rooftop gathering as employees of Hotel Julian listened to Minerva explain her predicament, and, by process of detrimental reliance, their own. Commercial buildings, particularly those housing paying guests, were subject to strict codes designed to protect the public against construction dangers inherent in aging and disrepair of physical systems that might result in unforeseen and unexpected loss to property or life. The purpose of updated codes was to minimize the uncertainty of loss. While Minerva tried to focus on the cost of updating, including the interruption to business, which would probably put the employees out of work long enough they would have to find work elsewhere, Julian argued the building should qualify for state and national historical interest and preservation. Either way, Minerva countered, the costs would be a show stopper. But there might be preservation funds or grants available for which they could apply. But the project would require neighborhood support, and that was certainly uncertain. Besides, current guests could ill afford future rates required to sustain a renovated project. Would there come a new clientele? In this neighborhood? Did Julian want to participate in a gentrification project? Dour looks and quiet space filled the conversation, which was, for the most part, between Minerva and her son. Hotel Julian was, after all, a family owned business. And there was the problem of the tunnel, built under the public road without permit or any kind of engineering approval. The tunnel coming to light had afforded the inspectors no end of curiosity and enjoyment. At that, faces with frowns glowered in my direction. Prior renovations to the building, particularly the one of the late 1940s, adulterated its original character to a degree it would be difficult to argue its historical nature or value. And now an elevator would need to be installed. The fire escape ladders could no longer be used to access the rooftop for public tavern use. There wasn’t anything about the rooftop bar that met any kind of code, license, or fee requirement. Seamen had been berthing in the hotel since the late 1800s; surely that provided some proof of historical interest. There was no business plan. They had, in a sense, been stealing from the business, letting the building deteriorate from improper maintenance. They had let it go, much as a person aging might be prone to let their own body go, ignoring exercise, diet, health care. Not that they didn’t care for their body, or their mind, but that the maintenance and upkeep became too much to bear. The old building contained a history of stories few today cared about. Neighborhoods change, and they had simply gone with the flow, in part, though, responsible for the direction that flow had taken. They were not slumlords, but a low rent district had evolved over time in their surrounds. They had adapted. Minerva asked for suggestions and questions. What about turning the building into a maritime museum? Find a new owner, one willing to invest in the old. The air on the rooftop, rarely used during the day, the sun rising, warming, then heating the tar roof, became too hot without umbrellas, and Minerva adjourned the meeting without ceremony or decision. I stayed on the roof, still nursing my morning coffee, walking the perimeter, watching the yachts come and go down in the harbor, and saw a few sailors dressed in white pulling detail on a distant Navy Destroyer deck. I was thinking about what might come next, while the others climbed down to go to work. I felt at ease, even as I felt somewhat bad about that easy feeling that comes from an ability to both care and not to care when presented with a prospect designed for either.

“An Air of Bad Ease” is episode 41 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

The Yachts

Before not long at all, Cajetan got caught in the capture spiral of the fancy riggings of yacht harbor life, seduced by marine varnish and well groomed boats, afternoon Long Island iced teas sipped on a securely docked deck, and untouchable ship’s daughters yearning, not to mention, to hear him tell it, a few ship’s mothers in the bounty. That some best man would certainly unceremoniously cut him adrift should his sycophant stowaway piracies be discovered only seemed to quicken his thirst to drink straight from the yacht hoses – the blower, the bilge, the drain line. He quickly promoted from cleaning boats to supervising the cleaning of boats, and with barely a month’s experience casting about the harbor for starlight opportunities, he started up his own hull cleaning diving company, a one man show, a startup enterprise he was keen to offer me a partnership in as he planned the floating of an initial public offering. All he needed was a bit more capital. I rushed to assure him he had no idea how moody a harbor could be, how skillfully the owners could cast him from dockside to a dirty ocean while they continued to hop yacht to yacht rarely if ever testing their prows against the same seas he grew up in. I told him his two weeks before the mast seemed to have netted him little more than more want, and he’d end up walking some endless plank of broken dreams if he did not soon “heel to his own keel.”

“The Yachts” is episode 39 of Inventories
a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Note: With episode 30, the title of the novel was changed
from the original working title of “Ball Lightning” to Inventories.

Laurel Canyon Law Library

Lugubrious leather and hardback bound big heavy law books, collections and sets: cases, opinions, decisions, appeals, precedent, jurisdiction, tax, rules of court, forms, procedure, briefs, dictionaries, superseded, encyclopedias, treatises, history, code, session, agreements, administrative, legislative statute, regulatory, indexes, standards, reviews, reports, notes, bound journals, bulging 3 ring binders, looseleaf bins, oral argument, digests, local codes and ordinances, restatements, unpublished cases. Looking around, I thought it probable Cajetan had underbid his first contract job as sole proprietor of the Right On Moving Company. We were to move the private law library of one, Harry D. Luxe, from his home office up in Laurel Canyon down to his law firm office digs on Wilshire Boulevard. And we were to do this lifting and carrying in hands and arms each weighty and valuable tome down a flight of forty winding stone steps to Cajetan’s new van, a 1972 standard cargo Ford Econoline, that, on the way up to the canyon from San Pedro, had smoked, belched, rattled, stalled, incurred a bald tire blowout, and required two gas station stops to refill the overheating radiator with water, all the while Cajetan slip clutch driving stop to stop to conserve what remained of the dangerously thin squealing brake pads. Once we got the van loaded, it would be about a 5 mile drive out of the canyon down to Hollywood Boulevard and over to Fairfax then down to the Miracle Mile. Down there, you can see it from here, Cajetan pointed from the porch of the Laurel Canyon house, which richly afforded a view down the hills into the Los Angeles basin, where the morning fog was now rising like cakelike smog. Not far at all, Cajetan said. Should be able to get this job done in 9 trips, he predicted, predicated on what analysis I had no idea, but I happily picked up a couple of books, one under each arm, and started my first descent of the day down the twisting stairway of stone steps to the waiting van, vaguely wondering if our shocks would survive our first moving gig.

“Laurel Canyon Law Library”
is episode 28 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Turning Down

Housekeeping. The Right on Moving Company. 

Julien, upon hearing I was considering finding some part time work and moving from a weekly to a monthly room in Hotel Julien, told me he might be looking to add to his housekeeping staff now that the fleet was in. When I asked him to talk more about that, I learned his housekeeping staff consisted of two supervisors, two women, twins, who had been with him for years. They both worked seven days a week, one, called Dawn, from 7 in the morning, when the Bunkroom was to be vacated, to 7 in the evening, when the hotel would usually be full for the night, the other, named Eve, from 7 in the evening to 7 in the morning. Their staff consisted of part timers, students, mostly, or single moms from the neighborhood, looking for flexible days and hours and easygoing job sharing and scheduling with few rules or recriminations. Dawn and Eve were permanent employees, the rest of the housekeeping staff was considered temporary and paid under the table in cash. The duties and responsibilities of the housekeepers including turning down rooms, sweeping and vacuuming, working the laundry room, cleaning bathrooms, stocking supplies of sheets, blankets, pillow cases, towels and toiletries, washing windows, and cleaning up the Rooftop – washing dishes, tables, mopping floors. At the same time, Cajetan told me he had invested in some capital – he had purchased a used van and secured a job moving a personal law library from a home in Laurel Canyon to an office on Wilshire. He asked me would I help him out with his first job, about a day or two of manual labor moving books, he estimated. And he had big plans, having painted The Right On Moving Company on the sides of his van. Suddenly I was flush with job opportunities and said yes to both offers. Since I would be busy with Cajetan during the day, Eve suggested I start by helping with the Rooftop cleanups, which began around 11 in the evening and depending on the mess, might last an hour or two, Thursday through Sunday, the four nights a week the bar and grill was open. It’s an odd feeling going suddenly from unemployment to employment, of any kind. I wrote Sylvie a postcard: “Spent most of the day doing nothing, pondering the universe, with no conclusions. Start two part time jobs tomorrow. Determined to turn down the noise of the gods and pay attention to these new people in my life, and the pleasures of work.”

“Turning Down”
is episode 27 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Wheels Within Wheels

Canvassing. Jobs. Day Labor. Off the Grid.

Fearlessly knocking on doors in the nearby maritime industry, canvassing about the harbor for a part time job, I found I could not land anything. I thought I might find something washing boats, or something to do with dock and wharf maintenance, but with no connections, references, or background, even washing dishes or sweeping floors seemed out of reach. Having no access to independent transportation didn’t help. I learned from a Bunkroom guest, Cajetan, at Hotel Julian, in conversation on the rooftop one night, of stretches of sidewalk in Los Angeles where one might stand mornings in the hopes of being picked up for some temporary work need – no questions asked. One got paid under the table in cash. The jobs were usually for day laborers, but anything was possible. The stretch of sidewalk might change location though, and one had to stay in touch somehow with the informal system that fed the enterprise. According to Cajetan, living entirely off the grid was impossible. There were grids within grids, he explained, systems within systems, wheels within wheels. Every turning of one wheel turned another. Attempts to escape systems often led to spider web crisscrossing entrapments in systems themselves located off the grid. One might hide, but no one was independent.

“Wheels Within Wheels”
is episode 25 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Occultation

Inventory. Queen Anne house. Job. 

Had I more resources at hand, my horizon might not have looked so limited. I took inventory: 2 pairs of jeans; 2 shirts; 2 pairs of socks; 1 pair of good walking shoes; a small shaving kit with toothbrush; 2 towels; 1 notebook, 1 pen, 1 pencil; cell phone and charger; $300 cash and some change; 1 piece of identification, an expired driver’s license; 1 bank card. Also in my duffle, a space blanket, a wool lifeguard blanket, both part of an emergency kit: electric torch, matches in waterproof box, first aid kit, iodine pills, scissors, a fat pocket knife, a green glow stick, a bright orange whistle. A small box with fishing line and hooks, a plastic jar of pink salmon eggs. A plastic folding cup. I pictured my wardrobe in the house on Queen Anne – the suits, the ties, the shoes for every occasion, belts, hats, gloves, stacks of laundered shirts, drawers full of socks, a closet full of jackets, coats, vests, pullovers, sweaters, shorts, jeans, bathing suits, wetsuit. In the garage, surfboards, the Vespa, my pickup truck, the station wagon, bicycles, baseball equipment, golf clubs, fishing gear, camping tents and sleeping bags. I walked through the house: books in every room; kitchen stuffed with dishes, pantry stuffed with canned goods, boxes of pasta, bags of coffee; breadbox in the nook; fruit basket. Shelves stuffed with herbs, condiments, cookbooks, oatmeal, rice, sugar, oils, red wine vinegar, chocolates, salts and peppers. In the basement, a freezer stuffed with salmon from our recent float plane trip to Alaska, frozen jams and bags of tomatoes, sides of bacon, rib eye steaks, a couple of roasts, a turkey, chicken breasts and chicken legs, butter, cheeses, breads, bags of frozen vegetables. All around the house, chairs, couches, tables, more chairs. Beds. Closets stuffed with stuff. Bathrooms smelling of lavender and honey. Medicine chests stuffed with pills, toothpaste, blades, creams, ointments, oils. Attic smelling of musk and dust, stuffed with old furniture, mirrors, costumes, chests stuffed with knicknacks, ornaments, toys, stuffed animals, dolls, vinyl record albums warped from heat. In the entry, parlor, living room – bouquets of flowers, houseplants, cats sleeping on warm window sills. Walls covered with paintings, photographs, lithographs, wreaths of dried flowers. A grand piano, its lid closed. I came back to my room in the Hotel Julian and thought again of the possibility of finding some part time work. Time for a bit of mindfulness. Nothing like living in the moment. But I had no resume, no references, no degrees or certificates of training of any kind, no background, no past. The only information I might put on a job application was my name and temporary address. If you’ve no past, you’ve no future. What would I say in an interview? I was a god? I was Risk Manager to the gods. I spent a few minutes role playing with myself an interview scenario. A god of what? A retired god. Oh, I see. I looked through the help wanted ads. Employers were looking for specialists. I had no specialty. And I was only part human. That part of me had not existed once before, a time I did not remember, then a life – family, school, military, work, family again, then retirement, an early retirement – then again that part I cannot remember would presumably return. Then a transubstantiation back to bread and wine, only the appearance of a god remaining. Who would hire such a creature?

“Occultation”
is episode 24 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Rumors

Capital. Jobs. Detrimental reliance.

Rumored it is the gods have lost power over time, and it’s true many of them have exchanged their berths in Heaven for capital on Earth. Nevertheless, many lesser gods remain, living on Earth, though adulterated with traces of human genome. And it’s difficult to determine if the god has absorbed some of the human or the human some of a god. Either way, a tiny insertion of one or deletion of another can result in unpredictable change in behavior, altruistic and selfish. As I made my way daily to and from the pier to fish, waiting for word from Sot, I saw that the South Bay was full of lesser gods: bellhops; waiters and waitresses; truck farmers with vegetables, flowers, and herbs; car wash attendants; house painters; roofers; cab drivers; dishwashers; bicycle and wheeled and track vehicle mechanics; maids, housekeepers, concierges; sex workers; au pairs; gas station attendants, clerks, bussers, baristas, bartenders. The theory goes the gods have lost power because human belief in them has waned, dwindled to a trickle. The symbiotic relationship has weakened, belief in one another deemed necessary for the continuance of both. Detrimental reliance has upset the cart. Rumor has it there’s to be a giant baseball game, good versus evil, lightning balls thrown and hit, and the losers will be cast from Earth into space. But it’s just another rumor. I don’t know how these things get started.

“Rumors”
is episode 18 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Gold in these pines

“We look before and after,” Shelley told his quiet skylark, “and pine for what is not.” Shakespeare would have enjoyed Percy’s pun, knowing naught comes from knot, “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” this from the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and of Hamlet’s replies, “a happiness that often madness hits on,” follows from the bumbling fool of wise quotes, Polonius. Hamlet suffers the curse of anxiety, and one imagines the prince of plotters distracted by his Facebooking and Twittering, there staging his feigned feelings, for his mood is not hopeful.

And to what do we owe this staged post? To Jill Lepore’s “Dickens in Eden: Summer vacation with ‘Great Expectations.’” But just this, Jill quoting from one Andrew Miller, academic from Indiana, who, Jill says, “…argued that the novel [Great Expectations] is defined by ‘the optative mode of self-understanding,’ an experience of modern life, in which everything is what it is but could have been something else” (New Yorker, 29 Aug. 56). Ah, where’s a physicist when you need one? For how does one understand oneself when one’s creation is a matter of chance? But the mood of chance may be ever hopeful for a changed ending, a substitute ending, a revised ending.

And this is McTeague country, Naturalism, where Trina wins a lottery, an experience of modern life, for she might have lost, as everyone else does, and is not winning the equivalent to losing? And we were still considering the Greenblatt  (New Yorker, 8 Aug.), wondering if Rerum Natura might still come at a bargain, “By chance…By chance…By chance…” (29). But if everything happens by chance, why bother introducing any event as having happened by chance? Anyway, the chance of naught creates part of Hamlet’s anxiety, certainly, but even if he takes a Lucretius pill he still has his bad dreams – thus the not of the nutshell and infinite space.

In the pine, Shelley’s bird sings of jobs, of the disappearance of guilds, for what is not, and of winter in summer and the irony of discontent. This is the anxiety of our time, that it didn’t have to be this way; it “could have been something else.” Yet the physicist tells us that not only could it have been something else, it was something else; in fact, it was what it is and everything else. This is why we tell stories – like one of Leonard Cohen’s “lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes,” who would “like to tell my story before I turn into gold,” where gold is an antidote to anxiety.