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.

Ears like a dog

As an inveterate eavesdropper, one who likes to eat breakfast or lunch alone in restaurants while hiding behind a book, I hear some good stuff.

The trick is to practice self-control.  To know when to stop listening. When you overhear a particularly good line, time to bail. Whatever follows rarely delivers the promise hinted at by the first sentence.

Recent exception to this rule: Sunny window booth in the pleasantly shabby Cup & Saucer Cafe in Portland’s Hawthorne neighborhood. Hevuos Rancheros, hold the sour cream. Several pages into “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout.

The man sitting in the booth behind me says this:

“I had some dreams last night I wasn’t happy with.”

Now, admit it. When a companion begins a sentence about a recent dream, your heart sinks, doesn’t it? Dream narratives are second in tedium only to looking through photos of someone’s trip to the Holy Land. (If something Messianic happens, I’ll catch it on YouTube, thanks.) But this sentence made me want to set the fork and book down, turn around and ask him exactly what he meant.

Alas, the waiter appeared with the couple’s check, she remembered they were due elsewhere, and his next paragraph went out the door with them. Drat.

“Olive Kitteridge,” by the way, is a very, very good book, richly deserving of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize it won for fiction. Thirteen essays about small-town folks, all connected through the title character. Olive is an intelligent, cantankerous, retired math teacher who sees life around her in Crosby, Maine, in sharp–if dark–relief. She was a bad mother, a harsh wife, a scary teacher and now she’s a disgruntled retiree. It’s Strout’s genius that makes us cheer for Olive in spite of all these flaws.

The novel is largely about connections, especially long marriages, and the way they change over time. Strout loves exploring new friendships that sprout in old age. When two of her senior characters begin to get close, they talk of their favorite things:

“She told him about the morning she took a pear from the front yard of Mrs. Kettleworth, and her mother made her take it back, how embarrassed she’d been. He told her about finding the quarter in the mud puddle…She told him her favorite song was “Whenever I Feel Afraid”…He said the first time he heard Elvis on the radio singing “Fools Rush In,” it made him feel like he and Elvis were friends.”

Two gifts in one morning; this engrossing book and the tantalizing, unfinished thought of the dreamer in the next booth. The eggs were good too.


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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.

Dogs I see

A brown Cairn terrier, looking like a larger version of Toto in The Wizard of Oz, is the most frequent canine passerby I see from my chair at the wide front living-room window. He’s got the deluded confidence of his breed; a small, furred drill sergeant with chest out, legs pumping, eyes ahead.

There’s a household of some size connected to the Cairn. Three generations walk him, from a young boy who politely nods when anyone passes, to a Grandma-vintage woman in a crisp Burberry trench coat. The most frequent walker these days is a cranky looking, suit-wearing man who has yet to come to terms with the fact that his own long legs can’t keep up with the stubby ones of the determined dog straining ahead of him.

Then there’s Max, a black Labrador retriever. He’s well known throughout the neighborhood as the patient soul who sits outside the corner coffee shop each morning, untethered and unflappable. Max is never on a leash. He’s patient with strangers who insist on petting him, but he’s humoring them. He looks away while they talk to him.

Max heels alongside his bearded, middle-aged walking partner, who all winter wears an ancient black-and-red checked wool jacket and all summer wears a zip-up hooded sweatshirt of indeterminate color.

Unlike most Labs, Max is not trying to keep up with a lot of different things at the same time. Enticing piles of dog shit, blowing bits of paper, passing bikers and cars – nothing tempts him. He focuses all his energy on the patch of sidewalk immediately in front of him, padding along at the same slow pace, tail unmoving at half-mast, wagging only when the man next to him looks his way.

George, the English bulldog across the street, doesn’t get walked, just let out for hurried bathroom breaks, during which his owner chatters nonstop, alternately praising and ordering him to do his business.

The perpetually furrowed, Churchillian face of a bulldog is nearly unreadable, but there is no mistaking this particular dog’s thoughts. As his owner natters on, he has the exact expression worn by a teenager who has just realized that his parents are hopelessly, endlessly, stupid.

He’s no genius, of course, but I think it’s possible that George is slowly putting together a plan for a coup of sorts. As I watch him from the window, I almost always see George panning the yard, turning in a slow circle for a bit of stealthy reconnoitering. He’s got something in mind.

I hope I’m here when he makes his move.

Turf

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.

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