All Stars, No Moon

As I sip a cold mineral water with a splash of non-alcoholic rhubarb aperitif (bitter sweet) on the second floor landing of my temporary abode, I reflect on a strange moment of the evening. The last, quiet nights of summer hold a sad sweetness for me. I’ve written about two such nights already: Home Turf and Un Dolce Momento Triste; both special and unique and profound for me.

My father-in-law and his wife joined us at Victoria’s Pasta Shop in downtown Norman to commemorate the passing of a friend, by eating his favorite sandwich: the chicken parm sandwich–a chicken parm served on a cheesey baguette with a side of Norman’s best marinara. We shared our sweetness, sorrow, and laughter with each other. As the light began to fade on our patio table, we decided to pay the bill and take a stroll in the warm, evening air. While my father-in-law and my wife went to put some stuff in their cars, I stood in the back alley of the line of downtown shops and restaurants chitchatting with Linda about wanting the Norman Music Festival to return. We’d seen many bands near this alley over the last few years.

“You know it’s gonna rain tomorrow.”

We both turned to see who was speaking to us in such a low, gruff voice. He had a slightly rough appearance–dirty t-shirt, tan skin, ballcap, gray beard. The beard was the tidiest piece of his appearance. He was smoking a cigarette and smelled faintly of beer. I couldn’t gauge Linda’s response, but I was a little anxious about being approached by a stranger at night in an alleyway. I stole a glance back to the parking lot to see if the rest of our party was returning.

“Oh yeah?” I said, remembering that rain wasn’t in the forecast until next week…the day before fall, in fact. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Yeah, I heard there’s some rain on the way.”

“Yup. I woke up in the middle of the night last night, and saw stars, but no moon,” he continued. “The stars were as clear as could be. But no moon.”

Linda looked up to the south of us, over the roof of Victoria’s and pointed out the half moon. “Well there it is tonight.”

“Oh but it wasn’t there last night,” he said with easy certainty. “You watch. It’s gonna rain. Won’t be much, but it will rain.”

He stamped out his cigarette and began to walk back into the bar with his back to us, saying, “Yep, it’s gonna rain, and you can tell people I said so.”

“Ok then! Well I’m gonna hold you to it!” I shouted after him with good nature. “If it doesn’t, I’m gonna come find you!”

I’ve learned that street encounters like this are usually worth enduring a little unease for. I don’t know the basis of his science. Perhaps he was a farmer with folk methods. Perhaps he was just drunk, prone to storytelling. While writing this, I did look a the forecast–nothing but sunshine.

I believe in signs. I look for them in the difficult times of my life such as this week; losing a friend and losing my aunt. I don’t know if this is a sign for me or for just the rain or for the folly of a strange men in alleyways.

As I reflect, I am remembering a detail. When he approached, I thought I knew him. He looked vaguely like my friend who had just passed. If it were some spectral manifestation of him? I wonder what sign would he be giving me?

We’ve been looking to the moon and stars for signs as long as we’ve been a species. The stars to guide us, the moon to give us just enough light to make our way. And right now? I’m fumbling in the dark a bit. With grief, with indecision, with fatigue, with insecurity…no moon to the light my footsteps…and yet there are the stars giving me the tools to continue to move in the right directly even if a little clumsy–to what, I cannot say.

Perhaps there will be an inexplicable rain shower soon, but I don’t need it. I don’t need something to validate the mysteries and wonders and unknowable truths in my life. What I will remember is not whether it rained or not, but that a stranger in a sometimes lonely world wanted to give me a peek at his truth.

The Experience of Grief

A very special aunt died yesterday. We knew it was coming. Once it became inevitable and once her quality of life had deteriorated, we wished it to happen as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Everyone seems to be grieving healthily and beautifully. But what is grief? Why do we even have to experience it? This is one of those posts where I just have to work through something. I’m not sure where it will take me.

My favorite site in the world looks to various roots that involve the the words “heavy” and “burden”. That is the feeling, right? Grief feels very weighty. My heart, which can be light, is now heavy. And “sorrow” is another word associated. Sorrow, in terms of grief, seems to have a weight to it.

Then there is “bereave”, which is to have something taken away from you. So, when someone you are close to dies, you feel the weight of sorrow from having someone taken or separated from you.

Although I’m curious about the science behind this phenomenon, I’m not in a place to investigate anything on that level. I’m talking about the experience of grief.

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Fake Cigarette

s-l300I believe it’s accurate to say that I had a reputation for being straight-laced in high school.  If I showed up at your party (rare), and you were thinking of bringing out booze or some illicit substance, you might ask your friend,

“Do you know that guy?”

“Who? Oh, that Burns twin? David?”

“Will he be cool if I bring this out?”

“David? Uhhhhh…better wait until he’s gone.”

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Union Square Street Hustle

golddust_121A number of years ago, I was attending a conference in San Francisco with a couple of coworkers.  After our sessions, we made a nightly habit of going to our favorite hangout, the Gold Dust Lounge right off Union Square.  It’s not on the square anymore.  It moved.  It was a tiny bar with an old-timer cover band called Johnny Z and the Cameros.  We got to the know the staff and band for that week, we were regulars.

Every night, we could count on hearing Sweet Caroline at least twice by request.  The band visibly rolled their eyes.  Not again they must have thought.  Who knows how long they’d been doing this and how many times they had played the song?  But it was a crowd pleaser every time.  It’s not easy to get American’s to sing in public, but they sang this at the top of their lungs and even more so as the nights progressed.

As we adjusted to the time change, we would stay out later and later until we finally closed the bar at 2 am.  Union Square is full of people living on the street.  There are men and women with signs, gimmicks, hustles, wares, and music. You get used to it over time.  I gave money every once and awhile, but eventually you do what most of the locals do, you learn to ignore it.

But on this night, I was not in an ignoring mood.  It was 2 am and the bar was emptying out.  We’d all had a few beers and were in very amiable moods. As we turned to walk up the hill past the square to our hotel, someone began calling out to me. I’ll do my best to approximate his dialect without being offensive.

“Hey!  Hey, man.  Slow down.  Lemme aks you somethin’.”

I turned to see a scruffy, street-worn black man of indeterminate age.  His light brown skin was punctuated by dark freckles across his nose and cheeks.

Great, more street hustle” I thought. But there was something about him and about the mood of the night that made me stop.

“Yeah?  What do you want?”  I said, warily.

“Hey hey, man…relax.  I don’t want nothin’…shiiiit.  I just wanna aks you something'”

“Ok, so ask.”

I kicked the gritty sidewalk with my foot watching the tip of my boot and discreetly touching the pocket that contained my wallet wondering if it was racist or a reasonable precaution.

“Come here, man.  I ain’t gonna bite you.  Shiiit.”

My friends stood back laughing and watched me with the man.

Every phrase he uttered broke into a raspy cackle which caused him to bounce and shake his head.  Against may better judgement, I took a few steps toward him.  I wanted to appear relaxed.  I was tired of ignoring and open to the possibility of a meaningful exchange.

“You from around here?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“You got any weed?” the man asked.

I laughed a little and decided to play along.  “Why?  You know where to get some?”  I’d never been asked for pot nor been offered it.  In school, I would be the first guy out of the door of a party where pot showed up.

“Shit, man.  If I knew dat, I wouldn’t be askin you.”  What teeth were remaining in his smile gleamed yellow under the street lamp.

Most of the people had cleared out of the bar, and the night air was becoming calmer.  I knew my friends were ready to leave, but I relaxed my posture a little and smiled.  “Sorry, man.  Got nothing.”

“Das alright.  You just look like the kinda dude who might be able to help a brutha out.”

I chuckled.  “Oh yeah?  Whatever you say.”

“Hey, listen.  Check dis out.  Man, you ain’t gonna believe dis shit.  I’m gonna show you somethin’ you ain’t NE-VAH seen on a brutha.”

I held up my hands and took a step back, still smiling.  “Whoa!  Now hold on!  I don’t need to see nothin’!”

“Nah nah nah…it ain’t like dat.”

The man reached up, and with all the flare of a magician offering his audience a slow reveal, pushed the front of his raggedy toboggan hat up over his forehead.  I squinted and took a step closer as the man pointed with a dirty index finger protruding from his finger-cut glove.

There, on the man’s wrinkled forehead, was a stratched-in homemade tattoo of a symbol that I truly was surprised to find:  a tiny swastika.

“That is messed up!  That is sincerely messed up, man!” I exclaimed.

For a moment, we were just two men on the street laughing at the surprise and oddities of life.  The man laughed and wheezed at his own bizarre joke.

Wanting to know why a black man would have a swastika on his forehead, but not wanting to linger any longer on a lonely street in the middle of the night with this guy, I looked further down the street and then back at him, I said, “Ok, man.  Umm…yeah…thanks for that.  That what truly weird, but I’m smiling, so thanks.  See you around, brother.”

“Ha ha!  Alright, yeah, I will.   Hey, but…maybe spare a few dollars?  Just need to get me a burger or something.”

I obliged, and started the climb up toward the hotel in hopes of catching up with my friends.

He called after me, “Have a blessed night, brutha!”

I still wonder about that man, and how he got his tattoo.  Was he a victim of a hate crime?  Was he so messed up on drugs that didn’t know better?  Or was it simply the strangest street hustle on Union Square.