I’ll tell you exactly what happened.
It was a lovely fall day, no fog, clear as glass. The Farallon Islands are twenty-seven miles out. You’d have thought you could swim to them. The Marin headlands, the lighthouse, the defunct windmills, they were all in view that morning because a storm had passed through the night before and blown everything away but the clear blue sky. All it left was sand in big drifts across the traffic lanes. That’s when the road crews pull the gate closed across the Great Highway from Sloat Street to the Golden Gate Park entrance and bring in their front end loaders to scoop the drifts off the road. On those mornings, commuters are forced to trade the glories of the Great Highway for the comparative drab of navigating the neighborhoods. I always take the first street, running parallel. Most of the diverted traffic sets out this way. It might as well be the highway except you can’t see the ocean. On your right you see the front line of real estate abutting the Pacific—brightly painted houses and apartments which are impossibly unattractive but most certainly very expensive, and on your left, the aloe festooned parkway rises in a protective berm between the road and the residences. You can’t see that much of this neighborhood from the Great Highway, but on days that the road department is relocating drifted sand, you’ll notice many indicators of a subculture thriving in its grid work.
It is the subculture of surfing, indicated by the shops posted on the side streets, their windows crammed with decals of status branded equipment. A preponderance of shabby motor vehicles are parked out front, with surf board-accommodating cargo compartments, such as the light pick-up truck with camper shell, custom conversion van, and the ubiquitous VW bus. Often there are racks, outside the door, of wetsuits, trunks, or t-shirts, bearing the “50% Off” flag of commerce. The identity of the enterprise is established by a hand-painted sign, using language and insignia that evoke the radical liberation of adrenalin in the nirvana of extreme peril. Nearby are coffee bars with names like “Buzz Shack” or “Morning Thunder” and in the vicinity of these are taco grills and delis where the fraternity meet to refuel their sinuous bodies and offer commentary after the sea has gone flat, or choppy. If you’ve been there you know what I mean. In a few words, it is a sanctuary of the tribe of free, fun loving, nature enthusiasts canonized in movie and song. I call it Surf Haven.
Surf Haven was not the subject of my mystical unveiling, no, I had not failed to notice it. It would have been difficult to ignore all the fun that was going on outside my window, even from the driver’s seat of my, late model European luxury sports coupe. What I had been missing all along was not to my right, where all the details I have just given you were taking place, but out my left window which framed mostly aloes climbing up the embankment toward the Great Highway.
I had been watching the scene and missing the action. I rarely paid any attention to what went on out my left window, because everyone stationed on that berm, between Surf Haven and the sea, was either on their way to, or returning from, the beach. There was nothing to look at but succulent ground cover and a trio of public toilets about a mile and a half apart. One of them, up at the north end, near where I usually rejoined the Great Highway, has a crescent of concrete benches just outside the men’s room door. It is the headquarters of a congregation of societal misfits, wild eyed and weary, skanky and squalid, flung together by unspeakable misfortune. They haunt that vicinity, night and day, these comrades in misery, clinging together for protection from the threat of everything from treacherous thugs, to nuisancey college fraternity initiation rites.
I don’t know what made me finally look, and, I mean really look, and notice, and see that there was something going on over there and realize that it was something that I should find out about. Before then, it was all about the surfers. What an idle pastime they indulged while the rest of us toiled and moiled, such braggadocio, such audacious truancy. Where does one find permission to do this? How do they get away with it? Were some of them rich like me? Would I like to throw it all over and become a surf bum? Didn’t it get boring dangling off the edge of the world? But, you know what? Why the hell did I get out of my car that day in the first place? That’s the real question.
Maybe it’s because it was a Friday and I was goofing off. Friday’s a great day to trade, but it’s also hectic. The big boys on the floor at the Chicago Board of Trade love to whipsaw you any day of the week. I don’t fall for it that often, but on some Fridays they have us right where they want us. After a boring week in a sideways market, the biggest move can happen within a few minutes of the opening on a Friday morning. Big moves are where the money is and most amateurs miss them and then lose big jumping in too late. Friday is an easy day to get up to your ears in shit and go home fucked for the whole weekend wishing it would hurry up and be Monday so you could go kick the beast until it bleeds money at your feet again; to wash the taint of losing out of your hair and get that feeling of power back as quickly as possible. It’s a bizarre way to make a living and I had come to despise it, even though I was good at it, and even though I was sure I loved it more than life itself.
That Friday I was just looking for an excuse not to go in, or at least be delayed until it was either too late to jump in on the trade, or until several very clear indicators could develop and converge on my three, thirty, and sixty minute charts, at which point I would feel quite confident angling with the big boys on the “Friday fish fry.” I could have also gone in to the office and procrastinated, but, as I said, I know now that I was scared of Fridays and couldn’t admit it. It was not a macho thing, it was just a case of not knowing myself. Actually, maybe those two things are the same.
Anyway, I knew I was scared of sharks, for instance, and I would admit that to anyone. That was my excuse for not learning how to surf, but where business was concerned, I never flinched, not even to myself, not even in private. It would have wrecked me. Of course, I did end up flinching, and it did wreck me, GLORY BE! Frankly, Friday was the least of my fears once my fears got loose.
It’s like you’re going down the road, the same road you travel every day and nothing goes wrong and everything stays the same day after day, week after week, until you just assume it’s always going to go that way. Then one day, boom, up in the road is a big chunk of something. You swerve to miss it, or your neighbor swerves to miss it and he hits you, or any number of other things, happen and all of a sudden you’re wrecked on the side of the road waiting for the flashing lights, ambulance, wrecker, cop, OR you’re not wrecked, it was a near miss, a close one, BUT SOMETHING CHANGED and you don’t even know it yet. Well I’m driving along that Friday and I see these guys, these assorted bums sitting in the half circle around a disposable soda cup, tossing little pebbles into it. Big deal, huh, why was I attracted to this flat bush enterprise? I thought it was because I felt so lucky in my life that I wanted to reach out to those less fortunate and do something kind, something human for them. They looked utterly steamrolled. I thought I’d probably give them some wine money, or something. I didn’t know then that I was in an unavoidable accident on my way to nowhere. I got out of my car and walked over to them and said hello and they ignored me and I stood there and watched as they threw pebbles in the cup.
“Hey there,” I said, or something like that, and waited in silence.
There was no response. They were totally concentrated on their little pebble in the cup tournament. They each took a turn and tossed a pebble, when they got to one end of the half circle the guy on the other end would have his next turn and then they’d go down the row again, and so on. They were good. The cup was probably ten feet away and they were using marble sized pebbles and sinking them, one after the other, bing, bang, bing.
“Hey guys. I’d like to get you some coffee, maybe some rolls or something?”
“Get the hell out here, can’t you see we’re busy.” said the tallest guy, also the oldest. He’s Chief, but I didn’t know that, of course, until later. For some reason his rejection made my heart beat fast. I wondered why. He was not dangerous looking. Maybe a tiny bit, but I wouldn’t hesitate to buy peanuts from him if he was one of those guys at the ballpark, which is what he looked like, or a carny, like the one who took my ticket for the Rocko-plane at the State Fair when I was 12. You don’t forget those people. Your fingers touch for a split-second, and a germ from a lifetime of corruption passes through you like an electrical current. I had not made physical contact with this bum yet, but maybe it was that memory, or one like it, that got me on guard. He really wasn’t scary, just another hard-luck case on the street, and nothing more.
His face is all creases and crosshatch, a limp, white, fringe of hair sticks out from underneath his red ball cap. He has one bump high up on his cheek that looks like a pencil eraser and two more on his sagging neck. His beard is cobwebs and shabby at that. He wears old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses, which are Scotch-taped together in the middle. His belly pushes down, no doubt, on the soles of his ratty tennis shoes, and out, quite obviously, at the middle of his overalls. He looked more comic than scary, and I was completely shocked by his attitude. I was offering charity. I never saw a homeless person refuse anything they could eat, drink or sleep under.
I should have respected their wishes and left them alone, but I didn’t like being shooed away, so I stood there, thinking they would soon finish their little derby and give me some orders for breakfast. I finally gave up after about fifteen minutes. I’m not patient. I walked away, pissed and confused. I wanted to kick some ass.
I went to work and made fourteen hundred bucks, BOOM, like that, in twenty minutes. Sat there the rest of the day when I should have called it quits. Kept thinking about those guys. In the last hour of trading I lost twelve tics on ten contracts and went home ten thousand nine hundred bucks upside down for the day including commissions. Not a huge deal, but not one that you can laugh off either. I could spend the whole next week fixing it. The funny thing about it was that I knew I was going to tank and I didn’t care. I sat through the whole miserable trade thinking about those hobos. I couldn’t figure out why they bothered me so much. The entire time I stood in front of them, no one even looked up from what they were doing. They just kept tossing pebbles in the cup, plink, plank, plunk. They were highly skilled. They’d obviously had a lot of practice. I must have watched all four men take a half a dozen turns each and not one of them missed. Not even once. I was thinking someone could probably give those guys jobs if you cleaned them up.
By Sunday morning I was obsessed. I couldn’t relax. My internal dialogue was repeating like an infomercial. What’s amazing is the vile trade I’d made on Friday wasn’t bothering me. See, I was already changing but I didn’t know it. I hadn’t thought of money since I walked out of the office at quitting time. It was the bums I needed to figure out. What did they want from life? Could I help them get it? I decided to drive back to the beach and try to make contact again.
It was a hazy morning, a little cool, but no fog, and though I knew nothing about surfing, it was obvious that the conditions were good by the sheer numbers of surfers out in the waves. Everybody who ever owned a board must have waxed theirs up that day. I counted a hundred and eight. I’m always devising data to analyze. I do it all day every day. Most of it is complete nonsense, but I have to, because I’m anal. I remember thinking, if you took all the surfers out there on a section of top side in a given stretch between say, Sloat and Judah Street, and multiplied that by the number of foolish thoughts in their heads, you’d have the number of days of hard practice it would require to be the most excellent wave rider of them all.
When I got there the bums were assembled and enjoying coffee and bagels with a tall muscular guy in a wetsuit. None of them noticed me, so I sat in my car and watched for a while from the curb. They must have been friends with this dude, carrying on the way they were. This proved that these bums talked to people other than themselves. I waited until the surfer picked up his board and lit out for the neighborhood before approaching them again.
I was slowly beginning to see, not with any understanding yet, but sensing something behind appearances, I think, or else why would I have set out on such an errand? Why should I give a damn what was going on over there? Fate had appointed those dudes, not me, to panhandle on street corners; to loiter on the median strip between roadways with cardboard signs reading, “Help…God Bless…etc;” to curl against filthy buildings with Styrofoam cups to catch our coins. Fate had appointed me to give to them from my surplus. I had no comprehension that a homeless person would refuse it, especially when I felt generous. I mean, would this upset you? See, I didn’t quite get it yet. My instinct is always to provoke. I don’t know I’m doing it until it’s too late. So there I flew, Fat Lummox to the rescue!
Look here! Gather round boys! Boys! Now listen here! Fat Lummox went down into the abode of the untouchables. He offered handouts, and lo, they weren’t having any. They clammed up; stonewalled him, same as before. A bunch of chumps! Fat Lummox would not be turned away. He had to put something right. Did he not look every bit their deliverer, vaulting over the gulf between worlds, with that goofy grin?
“Haven’t you guys got a minute for a little chat?” I asked. “I’m not a cop or a social worker or anything, not even a pervert. Tell you what. I’ll give you each five bucks to talk to me if you’ve got a minute.” I pulled out my money clip and held it up.
“Got a minute?” said Chief derisively, his eyes throwing infernos of menace at me. He had his shirt pulled over his coffee cup; the hobo version of central heating. I disregarded him, and searched the other faces for an opening. They snorted and cackled.
“Got a minute, says he,” chuckled another to his comrades. Fish guts were all I saw when I looked at this man’s face. A purple bladder for a nose, broken entrails in his cheeks, liver lips, on this hurly, burley, black-haired ruffian with an Irish accent and bulging, streaked eyes. I can’t tell you even now what made me stick around after appraising this blunderbuss of a man. A curdled effluvium that I would have thought reserved for the arm pits of exotic goats, arose like heat waves off this person in the ratty pea coat and stocking cap. Unruly whiskers framed a missing quartet of front teeth. An old sailor perhaps, a stevedore, maybe, who knows? He has a murderous look. I’ll call him Fishgut for now. Appraising him for the first time I thought, this guy could kill with no trouble, probably has killed and got away with it. Turns out I was right.
“Do YOU have a minute!” says Chief, not asking really; exploding, more like a preacher or somebody’s abusive father. I did not know yet I was outclassed, I stood my ground feeling ready for anything, but what I really thought I wanted was to help. I averted my eyes from Chief and Fishguts and appealed to the remaining two.
“Come on, we got work to do,” said Chief, resolute, reproachful of me for the interruption. Everybody started walking up the hill toward the beach. They left me behind with their empty coffee cups, waxed paper and bakery bags, for the wind to blow away. See, you don’t have to shout to get my attention. If you want to make a sound impression, don’t make a sound. That was my dad’s whole bag of tricks, not that I give a shit anymore, but this just to say that I can take a hint. I knew how stories of this nature ended, in silence, stifling, cacophonous, silence; the worst punishment in the world.
Yes, that might have been the end of it, but for the last man in the cue, Stan, (wait till I tell you some things about Stan). Stan, good man that he is, had the courtesy to say to me at that critical moment,
“Come along if you want. Nobody’ll stop you.”
So I followed them up the embankment, over the Great Highway, through the dunes and down the other side to the beach. All of a sudden we were greeted by an exodus of surfers leaving handsome, fat, rolling waves, unoccupied all up and down that stretch of coast.
“What’s up?” I asked a couple of them as they strode briskly the opposite direction.
“You planning on getting in the water?” asked one of them.
“No,” I said.
“Then you’re fine,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked, turning around, because they weren’t stopping.
“It means you’re fine,” he said, and by then he was shouting he was so far away.
One thing that always turned me off about surfers; they’re so snooty to the uninitiated.
Hell with them, I thought. It was shaping up to be a beautiful, late winter day, the kind of Sunday that brings everyone out of their houses. By afternoon Ocean Beach would be packed with couples strolling along the tide line in rolled up pants. Families with ice chests would picnic on blankets, parents trying to keep hats and sunscreen on kids. Lines of dressed-to-kill teenaged girls, those parading pageants of forbidden fruit, would pause, nonchalantly, in the vicinity of clustered, horsing around, young dudes. Alabaster-skinned, Goth punks share cigarettes in black covens, standing back at the parking lot, passing judgment and looking bored. Old-timers would be leaning back on benches, past-absorbed and groggy, the sea reflecting off their cataracts (ruptured internal panoramas of memory) while they yawn and spit in the sand. All throughout, every manner of ball, Frisbee, and kite, would be accenting the flock, but this is premature. Though the seaside was dotted with early risers that morning, surfers still dominated the scene, paddling in, hauling their boards to shore, peeling wetsuits off in the parking lot. I walked onto the beach, in tow, behind the ragamuffin contingent still ignoring me. Like anyone would, I hung nearest the friendly one.
“Why’s everybody going home?”
Stan smiled. His expression said that he knew but could not answer. I kept a respectful distance and continued on like some tramp in training. I can offer no sensible explanation why I followed these indigents, except that, from time to time, Stan would caste a glance my way and flash his weary smile. They fanned out in no particular fashion. Chief, with difficulty, lowered his ass to the sand and gazed toward the sea. Fishguts stood, monolithic, at the water’s edge, hands stuffed in his pea coat pockets, occasionally his head turned this way and that, up and down the strand. He did not budge, but stood defiant, when a larger than average swell flooded his boots with salt water. He was deposited there, like some hefty peace of shipwreck the tide washed up, and would not step out of the way for Mother Nature, nor nobody.
The young guy, the one guy I haven’t mentioned yet was lying, face to the sky, singing out loud—I was too far away to hear what exactly he was singing, something in the key of gloom. His name is Dave and he is the closest to my age, but quite a bit younger. He can’t be more than 25. His expression is the anti-expression of hip-ness. Of knowing without needing to know, without trying, needing to try, or needing to show anybody what you know. So, coming through on twin wavelengths on this young man’s face, is a look of complete shrewdness and of complete vacancy that creeps me out. His head is slick, his pants are baggy, there’s an earring in his nose, and a tattoo creeping up his back through the neck of his t-shirt—some Polynesian motif—and a band around his right bicep to match. He looks like he ran away from home not too long ago.
The other guy, Stan, the friendly one, is very different looking. Stan is a cross between Buddha and the TV repairman. He is Enlightened, I’m convinced. He smiles a bit and when he does you can see Stan is possessed of a perfect set of straight teeth. They are brown, and the mouth is tired, and the smile they make is all the more reassuring, having broken through those clouds of exhaustion. Stan is tall, tired-out and always cheerful. He is a skinny guy, with a short pony tail curling high off the back of his head. He has a perky ski-jump nose and vivid, dark-circled eyes. His ears stick out like a kid’s. At profile, Stan’s noggin becomes a cheerful, sort-of cartoon teapot. What a great guy, he is. He seems the most normal of them all. He’s not, of course. He’s the most eccentric. Stan looks like somebody who speaks Advanced Vacuum Tube and Hi-fi Amplification, but he comprehends a great deal more. Wait till I tell you some things about Stan, but later.
Stan combed the vicinity, picking up trash and making a pile of debris. I could only figure he was cleaning up after humanity. It was a completely aimless field trip. I asked myself, why follow a bunch of bums around on my weekend? I felt lethargic and wanted to go home, watch TV, maybe later call up a girlfriend. Not that any woman had found my increasing corpulence attractive for some time, but I liked to fool myself into believing that there was at least one out there, Simone, for instance, from the old days at Micredia, that would still love to get a call from me. Admittedly, I sort of owed her an apology, for some insignificant offence that I was ever on the verge of digging up her phone number to deliver, but I always stopped short of actually doing it—just too damn busy.
There were dozens of important things to do. I could catch up on Investor’s Business Daily, search the web, GO WORK OUT godforbid! That Sunday I was too tired for any of it. All I wanted was to get horizontal, so I did. I plopped down in the sand and fell off to sleep almost instantly. After about twenty minutes, I sat up refreshed. The company with whom I had walked to the beach was still there. They stood together now, just a dozen yards in front of me, huddled around a bedraggled looking canine. Fishguts was bent over, petting it tenderly. Everyone was agreeing with Fishguts what a nice doggy. Doggy was beholden for their attention. His tail wagged and his ears went back like the flowing tresses of an angel. It was a blond retriever mutt of the sort you see everywhere, nothing special. I looked around. There appeared to be no one on the beach attached to that pooch.
“Bring us a stick for the little Jesus,” said Fishguts, not looking up but reaching his arm out to anyone. He kept up his tender praise, stroking the humble beast and—I could hardly believe—gently weeping. As I stood up a melancholy mood, palpable as the ocean breeze itself, settled down upon me. I had no business with this tramp Nativity.
Stan strode over to the rubbish mound he had created and fished a length of tree branch out of it, broke it over his knee, and returned, painstakingly stripping off bark and twigs as he marched. Fishguts took it and wiggled it over the head of the mutt who leapt after it. It was raised out of reach and the dog bent down on his for legs, the tail wagging the entire ass the way retrievers do before a fetch. The stick was flung into the ocean and the dog charged in. The men cheered as he negotiated the surf doing the thing he was born to do. The stick was hauled back to land. The bums applauded and praised. The dog was beside itself with joy. I hated them all.
I started walking back to my car wondering what the hell I’d been thinking. This was not my scene at all. Oh well, a little experiment, no harm done. I opted for a drive up the coast, to get a bite to eat at Stinson Beach.
I ended up in Sonoma—traffic had decided it for me—I had a steak and a good bottle of wine. I stayed and watched the ball game on the overhead TV in the bar. Great game, Giants beat the Diamonds, everything was back to normal. Traffic on the way home was horrendous. Everybody in the Bay Area with a driver’s license was out for a ride in their jalopies. I jetted in, out and around, cleared my head and blew the crud out of my carburetors. Turbo is the greatest invention in the history of automobiles. I was glad I went. I stopped off at Tower Records in Marin, bought some oldies compilations from the ’80s. When I got back in the car, 101 had thinned out.
The road was all mine by the time I came around the curve at the Cliff House and descended on Ocean Beach. The sun had set. I was singing along to the music, looking out where I had loitered with the hobos that morning, laughing at myself for being such a dufus, and then I spotted them out there still throwing the stick for that dog. What a bunch of jack-offs. What a dork I was for thinking I could help them.
For about a week I went about my business, filed the incident in deep storage, changed nothing, did what I felt like, whenever I felt like it. Everything was as usual, except I had a nasty run of bad luck in the markets. Instead of fixing the mess I’d made on funky Friday (what I had named the day and, with it, the entire episode with the bums), I proceeded to rack up even more losses the next five days in a row.
This is not uncommon among my ilk. Traders have their streaks. You always loose in my business. You always, always loose, but you gain too. You don’t worry about the ups and downs, you never, never let yourself worry. Just the same, you fiddle around and you tweak your system, you adjust your indicators, and then you go to the fundamentals. You stay up late at night un-coding manufacturing data forecasts, government bond auction results, foreign currency reports, Allen Greenspan’s latest pronouncements, and try to get a handle on things. That’s after you have pulled up historic data on your markets: yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, hourly, minute by minute, tic by tic graphs of market action.
It’s a bunch of vertical bars going across a graph. The bars are lined up, single file, like a bunch of uneven bits of straw. You string a bunch of graphs together and start superimposing trend lines on them and look for patterns. You search for clues to where the market is heading, or where it’s not heading, and you can filter and refine these, ad infinitum, until you think you know what’s likely to happen on a given day. This data can be formulated into indicators which trigger your trades for you. That way you don’t have to get emotional. When your indicators come up, you have a trade. You evaluate the trade by putting cross indicators up to it. If it checks out, you jump in. It’s as simple as that. You put hard-earned money down on your theory, knowing full well that markets aren’t very predictable. Knowing the traders on the floors of the exchanges make their fortunes by getting the little guys to think we know what’s going to happen so we’ll jump into the market, and then they can use their superior funds to make it do the opposite and bite off a piece of our assets before we realize it.
These extracurricular activities you engage in, to try and outsmart the big boys, can take up every hour in your day, and unless you just get lucky and find something obvious staring you in the face, you’re still operating from 50 to 100 percent chance when you pull the trigger. On this you can rely.
That is why so many of us, after doing the above due diligence, play crazy games with ourselves to, as I said before, pull the luck our way. We grind ourselves into talcum playing with technical and fundamentals to their limit, but they have no limit. So you draw the line somewhere in the talcum and you say “Enough!” You have to. We do our legitimate homework, and then we dabble in magic, because we are obsessive personalities and we always have to be doing something and because it numbs some of the sting of powerlessness. Powerlessness is a bottle cap under which pressurized survival chemistry is constantly being agitated. A good trader is not supposed to be emotional at all. Emotion is supposed to jinx traders, but, truth be told, the entire institution is an orgy of terror and rage.
It is said that the market is ruled by only two forces, greed and fear, but that is a very limiting statement to lay on our illustrious institution. I think the whole world is ruled by greed and fear and we, of the markets, are the ones who have come to terms with this and stepped up to the plate. Play ball! I say.
Two weeks after funky Friday I had only had one profitable day out of eight. Two of those days I stood aside, (out of fear) and watched while textbook trade after trade went through in which I could have made every penny back and more (out of greed) if only I had been my usual implacable self.
As I said before, I changed nothing about my life after funky Friday. That is to say I was taking it all in stride, but that is not to say nothing was changing. I went upside down—that means ON THE WRONG SIDE OF MARKET ACTION almost every single time I got in on a trade. That is unheard of for me. Consequently I was worrying a lot, analyzing too many graphs, reading too much commentary, listening to rumor and hearsay, which I never do, living on Captain Crunch, so not shitting, drinking too much coffee, and getting more and more timid and superstitious by the day. Everything was changing, but I was changing none of it. In other words, I lost control. I had never done that before. That certainly made it harder.
After arduous review, I decided to go back to where I was before freaky Friday (I was now calling it freaky Friday), to reconstruct myself before I fell off the planet. I reasoned that it had something to do with my pilgrimage to the fountain of human misery a.k.a. the day I tried to help the homeless. I should have listened. They didn’t want me there. I didn’t really want to be there. There. Right there, was where I fucked up.
I was riding high just before that. Things were just swell, and everything went bye-bye, after that, gone man, downhill racer. It wasn’t hard to figure out how I’d fallen. What went wrong was, I tried to fix what was not broken. I reasoned further that, to unfix what was now broken was simple…
I must now… go break what I tried to fix.
I jumped in my car and floor-boarded it to Ocean Beach.
It was exhilarating. I felt my lost form returning as I negotiated the traffic. I even slowed down in time to avoid being radar-ed by a cop. After that it was a stock car rally down 280 to the turn off. I left rubber all the way down Skyline. I made stop four, at the Great Highway, look like a slalom gate. I hung a right by the zoo, hooked a u-y and hard right down the avenue in a beeline for bum central.
“Those guys better be there,” I growled, through gritting teeth.
They weren’t. I screeched into a parking place, ignoring looks from the residents, whose neighborhood I had just made unsafe for pedestrians, and waddled over the embankment to the beach. The knot heads are probably throwing the stick for some dog, I thought. They weren’t. They were standing in line together on the dunes facing the sea. Surfers were out there doing tricks. The bums weren’t watching them. Their heads were bobbing, in unison, above it all. They were watching a kite. A big red kite. A bunch of flunkies—not even flying a kite, which is lame enough—just watching it. One of those kites, you know, with a long tail that dances, like you see at the beach? They were watching one of those, like an infant with a mobile over its crib—sad really, when you think about it. But I wasn’t sad.
“Hey,” I said, hoping to startle them as I came up behind, but, to no avail. I went around and faced them. “Listen here you idiots. Clear out of here. You get what I’m telling you? Clear out now! I’m calling the cops,” Nobody’s paying a lick of attention to me, not even Stan. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed 911, “neighborhood’s a disgrace.” I am so not getting their attention that I am forced to check out the kite to make sure I’m not missing something. Of course I am missing everything, but it looks just like a dumb kite to me. This gets me even more worked up. I get right up in their faces. “Get out of here you bastards, you hear me. I’m calling the…” WHAM! somebody knocked the wind out of me. It was Fishguts. Didn’t say a word, just WHAM! Right in the solar plexus. I dropped to the ground. Stan never looked down. As I lay there out of breath, Dave bent over, rifled through my pockets, spit in my face, then Chief kicked sand in my eyes. Stan never lost concentration. He kept his head in the clouds, mouth closed tight, a tea offering for the deities. Finally he said,
“Me too,” said Fishguts.
“Me too,” said Chief.
“Positively, Doug Godwin,” said Dave.
“That’s it then,” said Chief and they turned around and left.
I didn’t feel too good, so I rested there, on my back, for a while and tried to clean the sand out of my eyes. I needed water. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to run into anyone I knew and it amplified my humiliation to admit that I probably wouldn’t. I knew next to no one anymore. I wanted to go home, but I couldn’t drive until I washed the grit out of my eyes. To get to the restroom, I’d pass by the crescent of benches where my tormentors, no doubt, would have reconvened. Yet, even this was a lesser fork of my dilemma. Could I even go home, yet? Had I done what I came to do? The issue was not could I get my sorry ass home, but had I fixed the trouble? The indicators were as uncompromising as before.
I was on shaky ground as I came down the embankment and made for the wash basin. The bums were seated at the crescent, passing a bottle in a sack, looking glum. As I walked up Stan and Chief stood up, Dave and Bulldog who’d had their backs to me, stood up and turned around. I stopped, swaying a little, blinking at the fine grit lacerating my eyeballs. I didn’t know whether to say sorry and go home, or get my car, run them over and make it look like an accident. I couldn’t think what to do. I could only sense how much further there was to fall. If I took one false step it was going to be a long way down. About then Stan offered me the bottle. I took a swig and handed it back. Bum wine, with the character of cough syrup, lumbered down my throat. The rag picker’s cocktail did serve to warm my blood and de-constrict my punched stomach muscles, but ludicrous swill it was; wine for dogs.
“You got anything more to say, then?” asked Chief. I stood silently swaying in the balance, half there, on Judah Street with four winos and a bottle, and half in some harlequin courtroom of the mind awaiting my sentence. Chief sat down followed by the rest of them. “If you don’t, then move on, why don’t you, we got serious business here.”
“Hah!” I shouted, feeling heartened by the wine and the sound of scorn in my own voice, “Serious business? Hah! Have another snort, pal.”
“Move along then,” Fishguts ordered.
“I’ll move when I’m ready,” I said.
Stan reached a gentling arm toward me. “Don’t get riled, my friend.” I swatted him away. I felt bad for this, but he shouldn’t have ignored me on the beach.
“Relax. You’ve got bigger problems than me, pal. Look at yourself, you beg, steal, you carouse in public, huh…serious business alright…stink up the neighborhood, ruin this pretty street…,” I went on, pathetically trying to recover my self-esteem by poisoning theirs. In the middle of my tirade Fishguts rose up again thrusting his hands in his pea coat pockets.
“Yes, we live in the open, but not by default, as you accuse. It is our choice, just as it is your choice to live in a house, which to me, sir, is a fancy prison.”
“You hit me, didn’t you? Listen, you thick-headed ruffian,” I took a step towards him. “You have zero influence with me. You’re social sewage as far as I’m concerned.”
“Name calling. Pathetic! Is that the whole of your arsenal? Then you’re a flaming toilet, how do you like that one, and I’m bored already.” He folded his arms turned away and feigned a yawn. He was rewarded with laughter from Chief and Dave. He sat down and took the bottle which was offered, proud of himself as ever. Chief stood up.
“To your charge, that we romanticize our life a little bit, maybe. I say maybe, but what about you? You’re calling your dung heap a castle too aren’t you fella?”
“Me? I work, I pay taxes, I buy, sell, live in a house, sleep in a bed. You beg, belch, fart, shit and sleep in view of the rest of us.”
“Out in the open air, which is free to every man, and very cleansing and mollifying to the soul,” said Bulldog punctuating his remark with a deep belch.
Chief added, “We spoil the surroundings, you say? Look at your house, look at all these houses,” he made a sweep over Surf Haven with his arm, “don’t they spoil the view? And what about all the roads and highways, not to mention the oil slicks and air pollution we put up with, to accommodate your cars. You’re the one who wrecks the neighborhood. We’d just as soon take the jackhammer to this,” he said, stomping the pavement with a greasy tennis shoe.
“But don’t come up to any of us shouting in your face,” added Bulldog.
“Listen to me you motherfuckers,” I said, “If all this was gone, you’d be gone, because you’re living off the hard working folks around here. You owe us your very survival. Kill the host, vanish the parasite.”
“Name calling again. I’m finished. Now, Your Blessed Assholiness, if you’ll be so kind as to relocate your learned scholarship back where it came from, we’ll continue our vagrant merrymaking just fine, thank you very much.” The other three chuckled and applauded. He swiveled his wreaking girth around the edge of the bench, stuck his hands under his thighs, started rocking back and forth and humming evidently trying to make me disappear.
“OK, we’ve talked, now I’m calling the cops and you’re all going to jail.” I still had the cell phone in my hand. I punched in 911. Stan spoke up and I cancelled the call.
“Pardon me, sir, what do you do for a living, if you don’t mind.”
“Yeah! What are your qualifications?”
“Easy Chief,” said Stan, “Let the man answer a simple question.”
Stan was being decent, so I answered him decently. “I’m a futures trader.”
“That’s interesting, uh, very enlightening too, thank you. Thanks, very much.”
“Say, do you golf?”
“A little bit,” was my answer but no one heard it because Dave instantly diverted everyone’s attention.
“Doug Godwin,” he said, gazing down the street and everybody, including me, did likewise. Half a block away was a powerfully built young guy, dark hair, late twenties/ early thirties, with a surfboard under his arm. He was headed for a pad, somewhere nearby.
Stan addressed me with Tin Man gentility. “You’ll excuse us please won’t you? We are in the middle of something.”
“Yeah, clear off.” said Chief out the side of his mouth. “You’ve distracted us long enough.” Now, Stan is such a decent, sincere guy, you want to cooperate with anything he says, but Chief is so bossy, you want to do exactly the opposite. So I didn’t budge. It had just started getting interesting.
“Run along now,” said Chief fluttering the fingers of his overturned hand at me, “It’s time for you to go home now. The sun’s gone down. Your momma’s calling you to supper. Roast beef and spring peas.”
“Mashed potatoes and gravy,” said Dave.
“Piping hot oyster stew,” said Bulldog with his back still turned.
“Corn on the cob, drowned in butter,” added Stan. Dave sighed. Stan’s smile looked like an ear of corn. I was hungry and fatigued. I wished I could go, but not before I rid myself of the scourge. My pride was wounded, my eyes were still burning with sand, but I had to score first.
“I just got here,” I said. “I’m not leaving.”
Chief sighed and gave me a sidelong glance. He was one wilted looking bastard, and sallow as a gourd but for the vexation-fanned embers in his cheeks. He must have contracted hepatitis at some point. “Alright, then, does everyone agree to proceed with this interloper in our presence?” Webs of flesh jiggled at his throat as he spoke.
“We’ve got to,” said Stan.
“Timing is everything,” echoed Dave.
Fishguts muttered something under his breath and Chief addressed him. “You got anything to say before we get on?” Bulldog turned his head to Chief.
“Tell Mr. Interloper, with my dearest devotion, that I curse his testicles.”
“You hear that?” said Chief looking sidelong at me again, gravely. I nodded, feeling a trifle less than fifty-fifty about having my nuts chastened, even by a bozo. “Very well,” he said, closing his eyes and assuming the air of formal decorum. “The Great White Shark of Farallon Island and parts unknown demands a propitiatory offering. A human male quarry in his prime, is to be sacrificed.”
If the performance was meant for me, it worked. Not that I bought what they were saying, but anyone could see that they did. You never saw a more morose bunch, to the point that I grappled with feelings of pity. I cursed the combination of exposure and boredom that had sucked them down this vortex of wicked hysteria.
“The Guides have graciously indicated the victim of the pending shark attack will be Doug Godwin of Ocean Beach who has had a kickin’ career as a pro rider, and most recently added the Pipeline Masters to his list of championships. Doug is a way cool dude who has applied himself beautifully to his art by way of adopting a personal code of conduct at a very early age and sticking to it. This display of character and the fact that the board he rides, the prettiest custom double rudder ever to be turned out by “Wamy of Maui,” will be his sacrificial altar and therefore, likely will be destroyed with him, is ample reason for the monumental grief we feel in carrying out our obligation.”
“His sponsors will be devastated,” said Dave. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.
“Doug will be sadly missed by friends and commercial vultures alike, but for those of us who love his aerial prowess, it is devastating.” Chief had wiped his eyes several times during his oratory. The mood was somber through and through. I was never so out of place in all my life. What, in the name of Carl Jung, had detonated this group psychodrama? I was out of there.
Did I beat it out of there fast? More swiftly, even, than how I arrived! Not quite fast enough, though, to evade a vague, rude, tension settling four-square upon my shoulders and neck. I shook my head to counteract it, and this sent my thoughts on a disturbing raid into the past. It’s amazing, when memory ensnares us, with what tactical efficiency those nets prove to be laid; how filaments of twilight from nightmares of decades gone by can snag and haul you in for review when you most need, and least wish to be bothered by them.
When I was a boy of eleven I developed a nervous disorder. Eleven; a vulnerable age for boys without fathers, but it passes or, shall I say, we learn to adjust. Over the course of a life we develop tolerance for all kinds of anxieties, but in the beginning there is only pressure. At eleven years old, this manifest in threads of tension amassing into cords around my neck which condensed into a boa constrictor at the top-most bone of my spine, triggering irregular spasms at that terminus of my skull. It’s not excruciating. Picture a dog shaking rain off his coat only less violently, or imagine me, in my car at that moment, giving a silent, negative reply to someone in the seat next to me. Since there was no one in the car to be shaking my head at, this could signify only one thing; the return of that little pre-adolescent malady of mine. I fought it off for a while, negotiating the rush hour traffic, but, reruns kept playing in my brain of those lunatics and their fiendish delusions. The aberration was too much. My head wanted to, so I shook it. I wished to shake off the whole experience.
Why shouldn’t I twitch after all I’d been through those past several days? Not to do so seemed unnatural. It seemed like an inalienable human right and yet, spooky, how utterly familiar this affliction was to me. In the flick of a switch, a condition which I hadn’t even thought of in twenty-five years, reassembled itself in my nervous system. Or had it ever left? At any rate, it seemed glad to be back. I shook like I was catching up after decades of lapse. If I argued with it, it only got worse, and when I allowed it, I was fine again for anywhere from thirty to a hundred-and-eighty seconds or so. So I indulged it. Sure, I knew this little convulsive boogie was incompatible with normal life—I had gotten it under control before and I would again—but for now no one was watching, and it felt good.
Left to myself as a boy, I never cared about the head shaking, but it brought on much annoyance from others. My mother was horribly frightened. Dear Gloria, under her supervision, I developed my impressive powers of concentration. In the evening, she would sit, draped in her mangy afghan, rocking her chair, hands cradling a chipped tea cup and watch me do my homework. Every time I went off, she’d murmur “Oh my boy, my poor, sweet boy.” This would activate her crow’s feet, and a tear or two would trail off her glossy lashes. I’d turn my chair around and face the wall. There was no comfort in this for either of us. In those days I wished for a larger apartment. We’d had such a place before my father walked out on us. I did not shake my head when I had my own room, and if I got one again I imagined myself doing my homework in peace, trembles or not. The remedy came, however, with no upgrade in lifestyle. I was over it before year’s end. My teacher in fourth grade—Sister Phillippottumus we called her—shamed me out of it. I’m sure I was a perfect pest in her classroom, quaking above the neck thus, like a pullet.
You’ve got to bless every tyrant in your life. They’re the ones who are responsible for your integrity if you survive. This does not however, protect us against also acquiring their weaknesses. It is evidently a law of physics that we become tyrants ourselves in exchange for whatever advantage the founders have provided us, thus insuring the survival of the order.
Yes, we’d be a characterless society without the spoilers. My father, for instance, ransacked the sanctuary of my childhood and set me on my path of success the day he kissed Gloria and me good-bye, then against our tearful protestations, waved to us through the vapor-stained glass of a Greyhound bus, vanishing ever after into the sunset. I was nine years old. Naturally this was the defining blow that would set my life on course, but for a long time we only died, essentially, like a doe and her fawn, slain at the roadside, with little more than the metaphorical flies, buzzards, and rigor mortis for company. I found some comfort in excelling at school. Mom struggled for decades but never recovered.
According to legend, Dad came out to the West coast and lost all self-respect. I learned this not long before I arrived here myself. When Gloria finally capitulated, a couple of aunts from my father’s side appeared from seemingly out of nowhere for the funeral. Dad’s elder sister, Mary, most resembled him in the looks department, with her widow’s peak, torpedo nose and towering build. The younger, Ruth’s arid comportment and dis-ease in conversation jived with my memories of Dad, even if her pushed-face and swollen joints bore less affinity. Treating me with wary intimacy, the two stood like a set of scales upon the gaudy carpet of the funeral parlor assessing whether the greater portion of me was their nephew, or my father’s son. I failed both. They had last seen me as a toddler, not long before Jake, that’s my dad, disassociated from them. I didn’t remember any of it, but instantly identified, what about his family my father had struggled to shuffle off. With this discovery came my complete approval of what he had done. Dutch spinsters they were, and so, Van Zants, like me. In them I recognized Dad’s doctrine of guilt driven perfectionism, but with evidently none of his impulsiveness and surprise humor camouflaged behind the dour curtains. Meeting these relatives furnished me with understanding for the essential contradictions of Jake, who would praise me one moment and slap me the next. Naturally, he was most severe with himself. His violence toward Mother and me was consequential and, of course, his alcoholism amplified it, so I forgave him everything. I learned in that brief encounter with his siblings, that his sunnier attributes were not genuine in my father, but only reactions to the oppression in which he’d been steeped. It explained the infuriating polarizations of his character and filled me with respect and gratitude for his renunciation of both his families, because it removed me that much further from the legacy that these two relatives so miserably bore.
Mom had quietly kept in touch with these two but never mentioned them or my father to me. I defend this instinct of hers toward secrecy where Dad was concerned. We both loved him, and we believed he had loved us. Reports of him, especially negative ones, would have oppressed and preoccupied me badly; perhaps even wrecked me completely as they did her. Instead I was left alone to construct a home movie in my head entitled “Papa and Me: Best Buds.” See here? There is Papa, swinging me in his arms. Notice the thrill on my face? Around we go in the circle of his protection. Look! There he is again, teaching me to swim, how persuasive are his urgings, how precise, his instructions. And there he is, playing with abandon at the piano. He is happy. Observe his shiny eyes, and glowing cheeks. What a wretched Sun in my universe was Papa!
Jake was self-taught on piano and he could play the boogie-woogie like he’d invented the form. We didn’t own a piano, so he would take Gloria and me down to the Pig n’ Whistle to hear him play sometimes after he’d worked all day putting axels together on an assembly line.
I learned from his sisters that once gone from us, he beat it out west and supplied the tunes in bars, up and down this coast, for drinks and lodging, until he completely dropped out of sight. No one knows what happened. Nothing says he has to be dead but, like most vanished fathers with fragile prospects and cancelled livers, after years of abuse, the whole struggle is invalidated by one stroke of The Reaper. In my mind I believe Jake is gone but, yes, in my heart I must have been looking for him when I approached those bums on that Friday.
I got home and ate some soggy cereal that I had left on the kitchen counter in the big steel mixing bowl at breakfast. It had soured slightly, but the cupboards were bare and I was starving. I ate it like a savage, and chugged down a tall scotch. The alcohol was just starting to numb me when I went into the bathroom and threw it all up. I turned on the faucet to brush my teeth and looked in the mirror. I was exhausted. I hadn’t bathed or shaven in days. My face was crusted with sand and glazed with vomit. I looked like one of them. I looked like a bum. I hated them for invading my face. I hated myself for letting them lead me down a long, twisted tangent. I should have never ventured forth into that bizarre fringe. Whether I had un-reversed my fortune or not, I told myself I would have nothing more to do with those maniacs. The face in the mirror seemed unconvinced or completely unconnected to what I was pledging. I rummaged through it for some sign of cooperation but only found a dashboard Chihuahua, head bobbing on a spindle, with a not-long-for-this-world look in its eyes.
For the first time in my life I knew I had a soul. Before that moment, no one could convince me of its existence. The nuns in my early school days were forever teaching me about my soul and I just couldn’t buy it. I never had need for one, but suddenly I did. Yes I did have a soul, I knew it, because mine was writhing in agony.
I took two sleeping pills and faded out.