off beat

One afternoon 10 years ago, on a spring day like today, an errand led me to an unfamiliar neighborhood in Oakland. After finishing with business, I wandered the streets and came upon a diner, its name curved in blue paint across a big picture window. Open for breakfast and lunch only, the joint was deserted.

Cupping my hands to my face to shield the glare, I peered through the window, immediately charmed by the interior: brick walls, a slatted wooden staircase leading up to a balcony, and tabletops tiled in eggshell white.

The following week, I returned after their lunch rush to check it out. That’s when I saw the writing on the wall. Scrawled in foot-high letters, yellow calligraphy against a green background, a quote ran the length of space behind the open kitchen, for all the diners to see. I read the beginning of the phrase from the table where I sat, then stood up to follow the words that were blocked from my view:

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears, however measured or far away….”

I knew that I wanted to work in this diner. It took a couple months of pestering the manager to ask if he was ready for me yet, until one day, he was.

Ten years later, the writing is still on the wall. I watch as customers read it, walking along to follow the words that are blocked from their view. Often, people ask who is the author, and I answer Henry David Thoreau, and they nod with recognition. Sometimes, if it seems appropriate, I add, “That’s the reason I work here.”

And then they nod again.

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Form Fetish

It’s tax time and that’s okay with me because I like doing my taxes. I like following a trail of forms and filling out still more forms to determine if I even need to fill out a form at all. I like that all the instructions are there, line by line, walking me through it.

I have an on-and-off relationship with the taxman. I correspond once a year, but I only get a response if something is amiss.

Years ago, I was busted for unreported tips. The restaurant where I’d worked (with the elusive owner and the broken-nosed bouncer), had been audited, and by extension, all the servers. I received a letter stating that I owed $1100 in back taxes, interest and penalties. (How did they know it was pretty much all I had in savings at the time?) I got the total reduced by producing my spiral notebook where I’d scrawled my take for each shift: columns of numbers disputing their estimate.

Decades later, I received another letter from the IRS, this time telling me that I’d figured my taxes wrong, and I was due $800 from an unclaimed credit. They’d enclosed a check, along with the procedure for disputing the adjustment if I didn’t agree. I agreed.

This leaves me wondering, if the IRS knows how much tax I owe or how much refund I’m due, and they’re going to send me a letter if I get it wrong, why am I bothering to fill out all these forms?

Puff piece

One morning when I was in my early twenties and unemployed for whatever reason, I rode downtown aboard my Kawasaki 440 Ltd named Puff the Magic Dragon and got hired on the spot as a motorcycle messenger. When I filled out a questionnaire to test my knowledge of Washington, D.C. — which streets cross through Dupont Circle? Logan Circle? how about Thomas Circle? — the manager said, “You sure do know your way around.” That, from endless hours roaming the streets with my best friend from high school.

That day as a courier on Puff, I careened through the city, desperate to bring this envelope to an attorney in McPherson Square right now. Being paid per package made every second count. Earning money was tough. It was cool, though. I was cool. I loved sliding the bike into the tiniest slice of a spot between two parked cars and ignoring the meter. I loved sharing the elevator with men in suits, cradling my helmet, dressed in jeans and leather gloves, sort of renegade but with a purpose: I must deliver this package, right now, by god: the people were waiting.

As exhilarating as it was, I quit after one day. The manager raved about my productivity, promising me more packages since I moved faster than a bicycle. But I was exhausted, without any real exercise, and the job was solitary, and dashing through traffic like my tires were on fire convinced me that I’d get myself killed. Or at least suffer a terrible accident, which sounded not only uncomfortable but, without health insurance, expensive. I wish I’d worked there longer and got to know the culture.

Decades later, I still use the clipboard the manager gave me with the silver logo, Messenger Express Inc. Maybe I was supposed to give it back.

Daydreaming Detour

My detour to the bank this morning altered my usual path to the library. So there I stood, waiting for permission to cross Broadway, when I noticed, not for the first time, a squat sandwich sign on the sidewalk: “CCA Tours, 10 a.m.” A large arrow pointed into campus. California College of the Arts. I knew it must be close to 10, since that’s when the library opens and I’d timed my errands to get me there then. The traffic light changed, the pedestrian signal beeped, and the walking man lit up in white, urging me across.

But I didn’t cross. Instead, I changed direction, and followed the arrow.

Two more sandwich signs led me to the student center, where we gathered for the tour. (A hipster wearing an Oaklandish hoodie; a girl with her parents, speaking in a foreign tongue.) We filled out blue cards with our demographics and desires — I checked off Graphic Design. Everything enticed me: Fashion Design! Textiles! Community Arts! Even Writing Literature sounded good.

And we began our trek, past old buildings, along tree-lined walkways, into the ceramics studio, up to the photo lab, around to animation. We followed our student guide, who described the shuttle to the San Francisco campus, the dormitories, the career support. For 45 minutes, I was a prospective student, indulging my dream of art.

Our little group ascended to the textile department and peeked at a natural-dye class in session, then entered the loom room. Rows and rows of looms, some threaded with colorful strings.

And then the tour was finished. We were free to go, and encouraged to visit administration with further questions. I lingered a while longer, soaking up the comfort of campus. Then I ended my fantasy, crossed Broadway, and walked to the library to write.

Do this

For years I’ve been running around looking for the next thing to save me. I’ll do triathlons! I’ll become a DJ! I’ll learn to speak Spanish! I’ll be a reporter! I’ll join a Toastmasters club! I’ll teach ESL! I’ll go to Burning Man! I’ll write a book! I’ll volunteer in the Oakland public schools! I’ll sell banana muffins! I’ll take up dragon boat paddling! I’ll start a blog!

In the midst of all this pursuit (am I there yet?) people tell me: you’re always trying something! You’re always doing something! You’re such a doer!

Weeks ago on New Year’s Eve, I sat home counting pennies into stacks of fives, arranging rows of ten stacks, tucking the copper discs into paper wrappers, and folding the flaps on each end. Later — yes — I deposited the $6.50 in the bank.

I’ve resisted going to those machines where you dump the coins in and it pays you. I don’t know how much percentage they take, but I dislike the thought of throwing away perfectly good money.

Counting and rolling the pennies can be a soothing activity. Especially knowing I can get up and walk away anytime, that I’m not stuck at a conveyor belt in a factory, stacking and stuffing pennies as they flow by for eight hours a day, five days a week.

Recently, I discovered a new thing to do. I fill my sweatshirt pockets with all the stray coins from jars and bowls on my dresser and desk. I walk to Safeway at a guaranteed slow time, say, 7 a.m. on Sunday. I pick up a basketful of items and proceed to self-checkout. When the total pops up, I fill the slot with change, mindlessly plugging in coins as I watch the total diminish to zero.

Am I there yet?

The Thump of Butter

After interviewing the author and reviewing my notes, I stared at my laptop, trying to write. The piece wasn’t due for days, but I wanted to get it done to let it marinate in my mind.

Some sentences appeared onscreen. They resembled my efforts as a toddler, scribbling with crayons outside the lines. I told myself I’d sit there until I completed a draft.

When satisfied with a beginning and end, (stuffed with gobs of middle), I checked word count: 523. Not a bad start, to meet the “approximately 300” requirement. I labeled it, THIS HUGE MESS: 523, and put it away.

Squeezing a cohesive story out of miscellaneous words reminds me of making butter out of cream. Pour heavy cream into a jar, seal it tight, and shake. And shake and shake. When several minutes have passed, you will wonder if you’ll ever get butter, because right now the cream is only a pillow of foam expanded to fit its container. But you can’t stop yet. You keep shaking. And shaking and shaking. With enough time and effort, the cream will break.

Later I worked the story again, (smashing square pegs into round holes), and finished with 330 words. Fine. I could whittle. It read well enough. Not fabulous, but fine. Drifting asleep, phrases churned through my mind.

Next morning, I jumped from bed before dawn. I attacked the keyboard, and the real story poured forth. The cream broke, surrendering to butter.

When you’re shaking the jar, you feel it, physically: a thump as the ball of butter smacks the side of the jar. From froth to solid, in an instant.

When I’m writing, I feel when it gels. When words become story. That is the instant, (thump!), the instant that validates all the labored shaking.

Meet me in the used fiction

In my neighborhood bookstore, pre-holidays, I gravitated to the used fiction and scrolled through the Ns. For years I’d been meaning to read Lolita, and since I was here looking for a gift for my niece, why not get myself something, too?

Nabokov, Vladimir. There it was. Lolita. And there it was again. Two copies. Different editions. I picked up both, checking for horrid highlighting, stains. I assessed the heft, studied the typeface, trying to determine which pleased me most. The prices, penciled inside, didn’t sway me. Six-fifty for one; seven dollars for the other. I decided to carry the books as I shopped, confident that one would win me over.

After wandering the aisles a while (and scoring a gorgeous hardback of Black Beauty with color illustrations for my niece), I paused near self-help to consider my Lolita. Yes, this copy. When I went to return the rejected Lolita to the empty slot, a man, (a store employee, I soon discovered), was blocking the shelf. One hand held a telephone to his ear; the other hand crawled along the spines of the Ns.

“Hmmm, I don’t see it,” said the man to the phone.

I held up the Lolita discard. The man shifted away, sensing a body nearby and reflexively avoiding it. I reached higher and displayed the cover squarely in his vision.

“Are you looking for this?” I asked.

His eyes opened wide. “Wait, I do see a copy.” He took the book I passed to him.

Pointing to my Lolita, I whispered, “I got one.”

“Yes, we can hold it…” the man replied to the phone “…at the front desk…”

I walked to the cash register, paid for Lolita and Black Beauty, and left the shop with a bargain: Three stories for the price of two.