Monday, October 12, 2009


I live at the very tippy-toppy of a decent-sized hill. We live in a quiet court with four other houses, and it's a typical Bay Area neighborhood. Meaning that halfway down the hill, there are sweet, tree-lined streets lined with little doll houses of two-bedroom/1 bath size (about a third smaller than the homes at the top of the hill) (which, by the way, isn't saying much; our home is very modest for modern standards!) and all the way down the hill, there are some apartment buildings and a gas station.

Down the hill, and just across the freeway, there is a semi-scary 7-Eleven and a ghetto. It's just like that, a mile away from your suburban cul-de-sac, you're going to find boarded up houses and section-8 apartments. Welcome to the Bay Area! In Oakland (the next city north of us) and San Francisco (a short hop over the bridge from Oakland), the transition can be a mere blocks.

Anyway, I've never been afraid of anybody. It drove my dad bat-shit when I lived in San Francisco, because it didn't matter where I was, I just walked around like I owned the place. I'd take buses in the middle of the night to the middle of nowhere, and although there were times when I'm sure I should have been afraid, I never was.

Partly it's because I mind my own business, and I thank you kindly to do the same. And, partly, it's because my own family tree has never been pruned of the junkies and alcoholics that make up a typical gnarly neighborhood. These are my people. If I'm standing next to you at the wedding of my dad's cousin's step-daughter, I'm just less likely to see you as the boogie-man when I bump into you South of Market.

I've spent my fair share of weekends in the waiting rooms of jails and rehabs and prisons. Like traveling to Europe, it tends to smooth the provencial edges of a person.

My dad's cousin died last summer (the year, in my mind, will forever be known as the Year of Death, as it was the year we lost Steven, my mom's aunt Vera, and my godfather, Glen). He was a wonderful, teddy bear of a fellow, who travelled a long, rough road, and died young. Like a lot of people on my dad's side of the family, he barely cleared 50.

Before he dried out in a VA hospital, he was an indigent alcoholic. He lived under overpasses and slept in cardboard boxes. Not because there weren't people who loved him, either, but the typical arc of this lifestyle includes burning every person you know, to the point that there are no more couches to be crashed on, no more "small loans" to be had.

When he first got his life turned around, he would work at the restaurant/dance hall owned by his sister's boyfriend. He slept on a cot in the storeroom, as I recall, and he'd sweep up and move boxes during the day. Gram was there nearly every day, dancing up a storm. That woman could cut the rug, and she still loves to dance today. She taught us to jitterbug and jive in her living room, which was small, so we'd clear the furniture to one side and let it rip. On her own, though, she was more west-coast-swing, and everyone wanted a turn on the dance floor with Gram!

Anyway, she spent a bit of time with her nephew those first, fragile months of his new life. One day, she was with him when they came across a bum panhandling for change. Steven gave the man a few dollars. Gram admonished him, "Oh, don't do that! He's just going to buy alcohol with that!" Gram would much rather feed you a hot meal and send you on your way.

Steven quietly said, "I know. I know he will. But I also know just how badly he needs that drink."

This stuck with my grandma, and I could tell when she relayed the story to me that it had touched her very deeply. This was many, many, many years ago, and when Steven did die (of brain cancer) he was surrounded by his family and his adoring girlfriend and her children, and he wasn't lonely anymore, he wasn't sick anymore, and that story seemed like a lifetime away.

I think of that story fairly often. It's so human. It's so humane. There's a funny, tiny little home across the freeway from my house. There are always several gentlemen, at any hour, in the front yard. They sit on the hard white plastic chairs you can find for a few dollars at any Wal Mart. They always have a forty in their hands. 6am? They're already drinking. Maybe they're still drinking from the night before, who knows?

I drove by Saturday morning, just before 8am. They were there, drinking, of course, but they were heading inside. I noticed that they all put their bottles neatly into a recycling bin at the corner of the house. One of them began clearing the area of cigarette butts. Another pair of them began cleaning up the dog poop from the yard. I watched them, somewhat passively, but I was also thinking about my cousin Steven, and his friend, my grandma, and I was thinking about how lucky I have always been to have come from the family that I did. Without this crazy family, I would, I've no doubt, miss out on what it means to really appreciate what I was seeing; how no matter how low somebody has gone from the outside looking in, there is humanity there. And that humanity, it deserves our humanity.

(I know these pictures have nothing to do with this story. I found this pumpkin that same morning, though, and so here it is. I'm thinking raccoon, no? The little tell-tale claw marks? Plus, one or two nights before I found this, I turned on the back porch light to try and catch whatever had been picking at my garden, and an ENORMOUS raccoon was slithering across the raised patio, and while I watched he climbed the fence and then perched there, staring at me. *shudder* Raccoons are creepy.)

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