Interlude: The List

I now confess:  I’m a compulsive list maker.

My friend Danny often teases me about it.  He once said that if something ever happened to me he wanted my signed copy of The Ants and my Lists.  His point is worth honoring:  the reason I haven’t written (or for that matter, read) The Ants may in part be due to the multitude of distractions on my lists.

And mind you, they are lists.  I start one.  It gets filled to the edge.  I start another. I misplace that one so I start another.  So these lists of duplicate mutually distracting items litter my office.

Why I do dat?

It’s a good question.  I’ll take a stab at it.

1. I’m Seeking Order.  My house growing up was in absolute chaos.  I’ve told some people stories, but I think it might be hard for most folks to imagine.  Junk and trash everywhere.  At times dog shit covering the kitchen floor. No one ever cleaned up.  No one did much of anything.  I had no set bed time, no meal times, often times not even meals.  In that environment it was hard to keep even my thoughts straight and so early on I learned that a list could provide at least the illusion of structure.   I remember over spring break in 5th grade I approached my friend Leo with a schedule for everything we would do and what time we would do it.  He was baffled.  Why do we have to have  a schedule, he asked?  It’s Easter vacation.

He was right.  And yet I didn’t see it as at all weird.

2. No filter: From the very beginning the sheer number of things that would land on that list were near infinite.  In a world without structure and rules, all things are necessary.  And all things are possible.  So on any given day in 6th grade, my list might include: clean the kitchen, vacuum the house, edge the lawn with a pair of hand scissors, buy groceries, do homework, explore the canyon, ride my bike to North Park, read Les Miserables, and make a present for mom.  I had no criteria by which to differentiate between grownup stuff and kid stuff.  In 7th grade a friend once asked me what I was saving my paper route money for.  I’m going to buy a refrigerator, I answered.

And there was no distinguishing between important stuff and non-important stuff.  It was just one big soup.  Everything needed to be done.  My mom’s stuff.  My brother’s stuff.  My stuff.  And it was all possible because there was nothing or anyone to say it wasn’t.

3. Incented to be a generalist: Feral creatures are opportunists.  You don’t know where the next meal is coming from so you take what you can get.  I was too young, though, to distinguish what was truly necessary for survival.  I started reading company financial reports in 5th grade because (and I swear to god this is true), I figured I needed to know how to manage money. This information, I thought, might one day be useful.  So my floor was littered with Huck Finn, Tolkien, notes on scientific experiments I should complete, those financial reports, word searches, a half eaten omelette, recipes I might want to cook, a Scientific American issue devoted to number theory, and Readers Digests.  I grabbed whatever came in front of me. And mind you, there’s no one in my life to set boundaries, to perhaps say it’s not necessary for a nine year old to be reading financial reports or, as the case was, trying to understand periodic functions.

4. DP thinking:  Displaced Persons – folks who’ve been displaced from their homes and consequent emotional stability – tend to become packrats.  I love DP’s – In my twenties and thirties I spent a lot of time with emigres from Latvija and Russia and Germany – in part because I could identify with them.

We all were afraid of loss. And physical objects or pieces of paper become mnemonics for those things we were trying to hold on to. If I lost the piece of paper, I would in turn lose the emotion or idea that I associated with it.

That’s why I still have my record vinyl.  And certain New Yorker’s from 1992.  It’s a very interesting sickness.

And it’s also why, in part, I’ve been buried by my own lists.  If I lose the list, or even an item on the list, I stand to lose another small sliver of my self.

And that self, defined early on by loss, cannot bear it.

20. The Wood Shop

Best to begin with the wood shop.  Best to see how the epic is born from the banal.

Nearly a decade done with college and with little affinity for power tools, I had little business being there.  And yet there I was, in a woodshop at Mission Bay High in San Diego on a cold night in January.  A handful of adults also filled the room, all of us wanting to learn how to use woodworking equipment.  One older woman wanted to make a clock to hang in her kitchen.  A new father wanted to make a bassinet.  Someone else a cabinet.  So once a week we gathered in the fluorescent lit room smelling of sawdust and singed wood. The teacher, a blond middle aged man who surfed, had a comforting even presence of mind, which was probably key for a guy who’s job was to show people how to work with machines that could rip their arms off.

On the first night, as we were taking our first tour of the planers and table saws, drill presses and routers, I recognized someone. Up front, drawn in under a Greek fisherman’s cap, sat Gerry Coon.  We’d grown up together in Mission Hills in San Diego. I thought somehow that he should have been dead, but perhaps that was just because of his brothers.

After class we approached one another.  He asked why I was there.

I want to build a table, I said.  And a chair.  You?

His voice was so quiet I had to strain to hear him.  I want to build a boat, he answered.

The Piano Store

I had one more trip to make.

There once was a little girl and her father slept with another woman, and her mother’s heart was so broken that she hung herself.  What can a father do, but compensate for love lost?  And so he bought his little girl a piano.

But the piano never came into the girl’s possession, but instead the stepmother’s.  And over the years the hammers and strings deadened and the ivory was picked from the keys by one child or another.

The piano had come from the ABC Piano Store on the corner of El Cajon and 30th.  The store belonged to Oleg Gladkoff, a White Russian from the Ukraine.  He was a young boy, and during the War he fled all on his own.  At the close of 1944, he picked his way across Russia and Germany, stealing uniforms from dead German soldiers.  He was once caught by the retreating army, and the apprehending soldiers were set to execute him.  Desperate to live, he told them what he could, he told them that he could play Schubert.  The soldiers laughed at him and they took him to the quarters of the ranking officer who had with him a piano.  Played, they told him.  Play your Schubert.  And Oleg all of 14 did just that.  He played for the German officer, so beautifully, he said, that they let him go.

Years later he came to the States as an aspiring pianist.  Once he even debuted in Carnegie Hall. But it wasn’t ever going to come to anything.  Call it a crisis of confidence.

Instead of becoming a world class pianist, he moved to San Diego and opened up a piano store and raised a family.  He would sit for days alone in the store, playing the piano just for himself.  And he sold pianos to families in the neighborhood, but after years, even that came to a stop, as pianos came in and he found himself unable to part with them.  So they accumulated around him, piling higher and higher until they formed a tomb of sorts and he buried himself with his best companions.

He had four sons, George, Andy, Michael and Nick.  His son Michael was my best friend growing up, and so I in turn I grew up with the family.

Just after we moved to Sebastopol, I called Nick.  Anna wanted to have her piano back at last.  Would he be able to help us move it?

That’s how I came to fly to San Diego, and rent a truck and load it with whatever remained of my family’s busted up furniture.  And how in the evening, Nick met me and some friends at a house, and as only a master could do, effortlessly slipped a thousand pounds of wood and wire onto a dolly, glided it up a ramp and through the house, outside and up to the waiting truck.  He ratcheted it down tight with tie straps.  And he shook my hand.

I thought of Oleg and the now empty store, and of everything that gets lost along the way, and of true service done well over years and of how guardians present themselves in the most common of men.

I drove that piano all night, up the five, along the backbone of California and deposited the broken heap in our very own home.

But except for one winter day in 1944, I don’t know if a piano has ever really made it any better.


The House

There’s another part that I’m not telling you.

It’s about the little boy who a long time ago lost his father and his mother grew away from him into her new boyfriend or her own sleep and he grew up in a crumbling house with a shitty carpet filled with fleas and stinking of cat spray.  Dishes would pile in the sink because no one would care to wash them until no dishes were left and even then it would move no one to lift a finger so they turned to paper bowls and plates.  On those days, it would be the boy who would stand on a chair to reach the sink and he would do the dishes, scraping rotting peanut butter from the knife, skimming flies and sheets of mold from the pots filled with putrid water.  It would take a full twelve hours for an eight year old boy to clean that kitchen.

There was a brother and once he wanted dog and it came into the house.  But no one would take care of it or feed it and it got sick and was kept penned up in the kitchen until the floor became a seething sea of shit and piss and diarrhea.  A neighbor visited and put a call out to CPS.

There’s more.  I could go on and on with more.  I could fill the remainder of my life and a catastrophe of pages with more.  But this will be sufficient.

Imagine what happened, how it was, when the boy first read Gatsby and how Fitzgerald seized him with a vision.  Just get the hell away.  Get as far and fast away as you possibly can.  Build a mansion.  Populate it with people.  Fill it with parties and surround yourself with campfires.  Night after night.  Go to that place, make that place, with your own majesty and desire will it in to being.  Matter not that the story ends in tragedy.  That all can be worked out in the details.

How stupid for a boy to be driven by such a silly story.

But he was.

I imagined one day arriving at a house.  It would be a grand place and it would be protected from anything bad or sullied that would want to intercede from the world.  It would have it’s own water, and good soil and could grow food.  It would be surrounded by protected space that would never in anyone’s lifetime ever be developed.

A family could grow and could grow old here.  And that’s the way it would be.

Scary Monsters 1980


I only need to shave half of my face now. Pretty much. The other half has no stubble. In some places I’m almost completely clean shaven each morning. It makes a neat line down the middle of my face like in an ad showing the efficiency of the latest razor.

Boy, is it the latest razor. Makes me think of when David Bowie had some sort of electrolysis thing done to his face so that his facial hair wouldn’t grow and he’d never have to shave again.

Which reminds me of a very important story.

In 1980 Paul Allen, one of our neighborhood outcasts, was forced to attend a school assembly at Roosevelt Junior High. He was in 9th grade. The Reagan thing had just started and the school program had something to do with morals and values. Paul with his long blond hair and goofy clothes was thinking privately to himself that it was one of the weirdest things he’d ever been to. MIdway through the program, the speaker flashed up a slide image of the latest David Bowie album cover – “Scary Monsters”, I think it was.

Whoa, Paul thought. Now this is getting interesting. Bowie was wearing some kind of cool makeup that made him look his usual androgynous self. Nice, Paul thought.

Just LOOK at HIM!!!, the speaker suddenly barked out to the packed auditorium. You can’t even tell if he is a MAN or a WOMAN!!!

EEEEEWWWWWWWWWW, the entire audience of eighth and ninth graders jeered.