Well, I guess he passed the test.

Overheard in Emergency Room of a Portland hospital:

NURSE (speaking to ailing, elderly man): “Sir, can you tell me what day of the week it is?

MAN: “Thursday!”

NURSE: (nodding) “OK, now can you tell me who the President is?

MAN: “That black guy.”

I’m not sure if he got points for that answer or not.

It’s true: It gets better.

For anyone who is getting bullied, left out, harassed because of her or his sexual orientation…or really, any “difference” from the so-called norm…this video project initiated by writer Dan Savage will strike a chord. He’s a professional speaker, so his video is more polished than the others, but the theme is the same: We all just want to be accepted for who we are. The project was initiated as a way to honor a young man who took his own life, and it has grown quite quickly. Check it out.

Recalling the recall chat.

We recently had our washing machine recalled. Seven of its sister machines had rudely shocked the owners, innocent people just trying to stay ahead of the t-shirt pile.

Our machine did indeed turn out to be one of the few with the defect. I’d used the thing almost daily for over a year unknowingly risking my life. I tell you, this housewife thing is like combat.

The machine was fixed by a nice man who stuck around to share half my almond-butter sandwich and chat about the risks of wayward appliances and the politics of recalls. We wondered what people get paid when their washer turns on them. We wondered if recalls could be a way to manipulate stock prices. It was the sort of enjoyable conversation that two strangers have when neither one knows anything about the topics discussed. Sort of like a Tea Party gathering, only we weren’t blaming the government for high taxes, cellulite or anything else that has ruined our lives.

I wish the story in yesterday’s New York Times had appeared earlier. It was  headlined “Johnson & Johnson Recalls Hip Implants” and it would have been fascinating to kick around that development with the washer guy. Maybe some other customer will mention it to him.

But, enough about you…

I noticed that the stars who stood on stage at the Oscars last night and delivered their allegedly original and personal thoughts about the nominees for best actors were almost all talking more about themselves than the nominated person.

Now, that puzzled me. I would never selfishly commandeer a moment like that. In fact, all during the Oscar pre-season I kept quiet about the fact that I was way ahead of this sudden Hollywood interest in explosives. The makers of The Hurt Locker (winner for Best Picture; Directing, Film Editing; Sound Editing; Sound Mixing and Original Screenplay) are not the only people who know from bomb squads. But did I rub anyone’s nose in that? No, I did not.

Did I use my influence and power as a blogger to remind everyone that I spent quality time with the Bomb & Arson squad of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department four years ago, and wrote 8,151 words on the experience for the San Diego Reader? No, I did not.

Did I post any sample paragraphs from my story? No, I did not. If you read the following you will notice that it has never before appeared on this blog:

This is the first absolute truth of being a good bomb tech: You must have an abiding respect for every device you face down. There is nothing static about this respectfulness; it is fed by obsessive training, reading, tinkering, and shop-talking. That’s where the second absolute truth comes in: You can have surgeon-steady hands and a pair of solid-brass cojones, but without a brain crammed full of the chemistry, physics, history, sociology, and weaponry specs that make up bomb-smarts, you’re just a guy leaning over a pile of antsy gunpowder, hoping for a spell of good luck. -

-excerpted from “Things that go BOOM,” by Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, San Diego Reader, April 2006.

Last night wasn’t about me; it was the big night for the folks who brought you The Hurt Locker, and I respected that.

Front window: the Mustang

Every weekday morning my street fills up with cars. Most of the drivers who park here work inside a large, beige Art Deco building a couple of blocks away. I’m not sure of the nature of the work there; something combining consulting-advertising-financial advising. I’ve not bothered to find out anything more.

I usually start my day with a cup of coffee and something to read in front of the big second-story window that gives me a wide-angle view of the street. Several regulars park right in front, a pristine white 1964-1/2 Mustang (yes, there is such a thing); green Subaru wagon; bronze-metallic Jeep; a very battered bright-blue Toyota with its entire nose ripped off, leaving the headlights poking out like frightened bug-eyes.  I don’t often see the people themselves; they swoop in, park, and hurry off.

This morning, though, the baritone growl of the Mustang pulled me away from my reading. Good, I thought, I’ll finally get to see who drives that car.  I love those V-8 ‘Stangs because they were everything, good and bad, that cars can’t be anymore. Big engine in an absurdly small package; the cockpit bristling with dangerously pointy stuff, like that Boy-am-I-hot-shit floor shifter. Motown blasting on AM radio in one of these cars is pretty much what heaven will be like.

I watched while the driver climbed out, and even before I saw her face, I knew she was young, in her 20s. She slid out of the low-slung bucket seat and stood in one smooth motion. She didn’t heft herself up with a hand or hold onto the door. In fact, both hands were full: silver thermal coffee mug in one, canvas tote bag in the other.  Her long brown hair was still wet.

As I watch, she locks the Mustang’s door—the old-fashioned way, by pushing the button down and slamming the door–hefts the tote bag higher on her shoulder, and heads down the street.

I take in the details of her outfit. She’s wearing an above-the-knee green-print skirt, sheer stockings, black shoes with a high, but not perilous heel.  Her tan trench coat (brand-new, looks like) is shorter than the skirt by a few inches, a fashion trend that decisively separates her generation from mine. She looks nice.

It reminds me of how long it’s been since I worked in an office; a place where things like new coat lengths were filed in my brain without my even realizing it.

I wonder how many of her co-workers know she drives that cool car.

I’m proud of him

Many years ago when James was five, his mother asked him what he wanted for Christmas.  He drew himself up, lifted his chin, and answered:

“I would like a striped bathrobe. ” (Long pause.) “With a hood.

By then we were already used to his dramatic presentation and his affinity for things difficult to obtain.  We tended to ignore the former and acquiesce to the latter. That year my sister scoured the retail landscape  until she found the requested article of clothing.

Christmas Day dawned and James was soon sweeping through the house in his hooded robe looking like a small, self-assured Bedouin.

Now nearly 20 years later, he’s a man; one with a past full of roadblocks skirted, challenges faced down, painful losses mourned.  He spends his days doing mysterious things to the faces of women and men who are pursing the Holy Grail of perfect skin. He sells them expensive potions full of botanical rarities and sheep placenta. He’s very good at it all. He hasn’t given up his dream of being an actor; his clients are just audience members lying down with cucumber slices on their eyes. Imagine a deep-cleansing facial from Rex Harrison and you’ve just about got it.

When the poor economy and a layoff swept James into sudden unemployment, he took his salesmanship to the street, in his case, Madison Avenue, and promptly landed another position with an even more exclusive house of epidermis-worship.

He was excited when he called to tell me about his new job. In his telling the interview became a soliloquy, the job-offer a love scene. Knowing there were a hundred more applicants ready to pounce, he coolly requested a bump in salary.  I’m guessing he will get it sooner rather than later.

When we hung up, I sat there for a long time, remembering the small boy standing in that living room, describing exactly what he wanted, confident it would come to him.

Listening in the ‘hood

There’s a woman walking along the sidewalk out front, and she’s yowling. She sounds exactly like an angry tomcat.

I’ve heard her many times before: squeaking, repeating the same odd phrase over and over. One day last month she was cawing like a crow.

In my head I call this woman Maeve, a name I’m shy of trying to pronounce out loud, but one that I’ve always thought looks quite smart in print. Words with an a next to an e have a whiff of the classics. I wonder: Do they still teach students “agricola, agricolae” as the first vocabulary word in Intro Latin? Or maybe someone with pull in the world of language arts has realized that “farmer” is a non-starter as a new noun.

But, back to Maeve.

She’s in her 50s probably. Her light-brown ponytail looks like a clump of dry weeds hanging midway down her back. She’s not heavy, but big-boned and broad of beam. Her face is gaunt in a way that doesn’t match the rest of her. She’s dressed in the same grey-brown-green palette worn by nearly everyone else in Portland. She never carries anything. The first inking that something is off-center about Maeve is the way she holds her arms: stiffly pressed to her sides, fists rapidly opening and closing.

Today I realized something about Maeve’s soundtrack. Hours ago, very early this morning, I heard a cat carrying on–I know it was an actual cat because I could see it, scolding some other animal hiding under the neighbor’s front porch. By afternoon Maeve was replaying the cat’s monologue, pitch-perfect. When I think about it, I recollect crows visiting the street too. Two sets of real sounds recorded in Maeve’s brain and played back.

I’m wondering where the human phrases come from. I’ve not often been able to make them out completely, but these one-liners always seem to end in exclamation points and involve breaches of etiquette: “She didn’t say you could come over today!”

I’m working up the nerve to lean out the window and call out a hello. Then, maybe sometime later, I’ll hear exactly what I sound like.

Admiring a master

I found myself at the nearby enormous Fred Meyer store on Christmas Eve morning, something I would normally avoid like a hot-tub full of Republicans.

But my watch battery died and that night’s cake recipe called for chocolate chips…and Freddy’s is the place where one can find both necessities. In fact, this particular store is so big that it has a full-size jewelry store inside it.

There was a queue for the watch-repair man, a very tall fellow with a German accent, who was attracting the sort of attention usually reserved for a magician. He changed watch batteries, untangled gold chains, attached poodle-shaped charms to bracelets.

I was shocked to see that people were tipping him. This is not a big gratuity town; a parking valet outside the swanky Benson Hotel told me he can tell locals from visitors: locals are the ones who say, “Darn! I only have a five..catch you next time.”

When my turn came, I could see why the tips were flowing: the watch-fixer opened my battered Seiko, removed the battery, replaced it, put the thing together again. Elapsed time: 2 minutes. Cost: $10.

He didn’t sit down, but bent over a work bench behind a low glass wall, moving his elegant hands with the grace and speed of a surgeon or a pianist.

Each time he completed a task, he quoted the price, took the money and gave a slight, courtly bow.

It isn’t easy to appear dignified when hemmed in by half-price poinsettias and talking over a recording of Alvin & the Chipmunks singing “Jingle Bells,” but he managed.

Fine send-off

An obituary in The New York Times today for Vietnam War chronicler C. D. B. Bryan includes this gem of a paragraph:

“Mr. Bryan was a smoker, a drinker and an avid and gifted conversationalist who effortlessly commanded the attention of people around a dinner table, his son said. He will be cremated in advance of a memorial service early next year, St. George Bryan added; until then, his remains are to be stored in martini shakers.”

Hail to the chief

A delayed flight led me to a long conversation at the airport with a charming 70-ish woman, on her way home from her mother’s 90th birthday party. The event had been a smash: all six children and a couple dozen grand- and great-grandkids in attendance, along with 75 guests.

With my mother-in-law coming up on a milestone birthday this spring, I recognized this valuable opportunity to get party tips from an obvious expert. After we’d covered the menu, music, centerpieces and invitations, she told me about the final touch.

Mother, it seems, had been quite firm about not wanting any presents. She plans to live to 100, she assured her children, but she has all the slippers, perfumed soap, nighties and framed photographs she needs. But would it be possible, she wondered, for the guests to get gifts to mark the occasion?

So that was how each of the attendees came to find a commemorative plate at his or her place. The back of each plate had the name and birthday of the guest of honor. The front? A handsome portrait of President Barack Obama.

“My mother, a black woman with a grade-school education raised a family of college graduates,” the woman told me. “She has a picture of President Obama in every room of her house. She told the guests that the day he was elected was the best moment of her 90 years.”

I wish I’d been at that party.

She ain’t heavy, she’s my sister

I stopped for a chat yesterday with a woman I see now and again when doing errands in a nearby neighborhood. We know each other in that remarkable inverse-familiarity way that happens often between women.

I couldn’t tell you many basic facts about her–damned if I can remember her last name–but I know her grandchild won’t be visiting as often because the toddler’s parents are at war. I know, roughly, how much money she and her husband have in their IRA. (They’re good savers; the economic tsunami didn’t hit hard.)

Likewise, I doubt she knows what I do for work, but she could tell you that Aug. 4 marked a year since a particularly painful death in my family. She knows I was not happy with my last haircut and that my best friend was in the hospital for a week.

Yesterday we were chatting about a new business moving into the block next to hers, when an ambulance roared past, sirens screaming. We both shivered.

“I hate that sound,” she said. We waited for the noise to subside. When it faded, she pushed up her long sleeves. Both arms were crisscrossed with scars. “It reminds me of all the times I cut myself when I was younger,” she said. I nodded and patted one of her arms. She pulled down her sleeves and we picked up the thread of our conversation.

“Your hair is growing out really fast,” she assured me.


I met The-Person-I’ll Call-Marilyn down the street before her moving van was emptied, and she was calling me “Sweetie” within about 12 minutes. She’s a sturdy woman with perfect cafe au lait skin who favors shorts and tight halter tops, and who–judging by the ages of her offspring–has to be in her 40s. Not a line on her face.

Marilyn quickly became notable for two reasons. One, she illegally saves a generous parking space in front of her house–and this is a very crowded street–by placing an orange traffic cone there the minute her husband pulls away in the morning. I’ve only seen someone try to move it once, and let’s just say they’re probably still twitching at the sight of anything orange or cone-shaped.

Second, Marilyn spends much of her day on the small second-floor balcony, which overlooks the street, and conducts her business on a cellphone while puffing one cigarette after another. She checks on various relatives, dispensing advice with a confidence that makes Dr. Phil sound shy. She updates friends on various forays into heath care that either Work Like a Charm or are Totally Worthless Shit.

I can hear her voice over the exhaust fan in our kitchen, which is roughly the same decibel level as a Cessna in need of a tuneup.

I’ve always fumed about loud neighbors–and I’ve had plenty of ‘em, living right in the heart of cities as I tend to do. But Marilyn changed that. She arrived on the scene while I was engaged in a tiresome process with the city/Bank of America/community-police officer to get squatters out of a nearby empty (foreclosed) house. I was dutifully working my way through the maze of agencies and procedures to get this mess cleaned up, and progress was s-l-o-w.

Starting on Day 1 of her occupation, Marilyn watched this house from her command deck, and she did not like what she saw. “I moved here to get my kids away from this kind of crap,” she told me, as we watched a car-full of sketchy looking young guys cruise past the house.

The drug buyers who tried skulking into the place for a quick exchange thought they were hearing the voice of God when Marilyn bellowed at them from above. “YOU DO NOT LIVE THERE! GO AWAY!” was the friendliest command. Sometimes she shortened it to “OUT!”

For months I’d been nagging neighbors to call the police when they saw anything happening at the place–that’s what it takes to get a property on record as a nuisance site. “You can’t be the only one who calls,” our community policing officer told me. “They’ll just write you off as a nut.”

The old-timers on the street were on the case. They remember the days when more houses than not were these kind of squats, and they don’t want it to happen again. Most of the newer folks, and I’m being kind here, are apathetic, chicken-hearted turds. They didn’t care about the squatters (did I mention the two hungry dogs chained in the house and left alone? Or the graffiti so graphic that even HBO would have bleeped it?) until they were personally affected. And then they called me, not the cops.

“They keyed my car!”

“They left needles on the sidewalk and my dog almost ate one!”

When Marilyn came on the scene, this nonsense was history. Along with terrifying the spaced-out druggies, she got the police on the case. She quickly disproved the claim that one person could not galvanize the police or city. I’m guessing that the poor 911 dispatcher who answered Marilyn’s ring just cashed in favors and pleaded with the cops until they handled the situation. (“I can’t fend off this woman again! Please! I’ll never send you to a drunk-vagrant call again!)

I was home when the Perfect Storm hit. A posse of nogoodniks was approaching the door of the squat-house; Marilyn was on duty and one of the now-regular police drive-bys rolled into view.

Marilyn yelled: “OFFICERS: THOSE PEOPLE ARE BREAKING THE LAW RIGHT NOW AND THEY DON’T CARE IF YOU SEE THEM!” The posse froze, the police jumped out of the car. IDs were checked, an oustanding warrant turned up.

Within the week the bank holding the paper on the house had been contacted directly by the police and city. Doors were boarded up, graffiti covered. Now there’s a For Sale sign in front and a lot of families in minivans are showing up for tours.

Marilyn, you’re my hero. If anyone steals that traffic cone, I promise I will lie down in that space until your man gets home.