Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Bob Collin at the Last.

He sat in the cheap, pale green, color-of-the-year lawn chair on my tiny backyard patio and rocked himself back and forth, agitated.  I stood a few feet from him, dismayed and helpless as he told me that he couldn’t even read “The World of Interiors” any more.  

That he couldn’t read anything.  

This was Bob Collin, my British friend of more than forty years, a man I thought of as my soul mate, a person I could tell anything to, a person I had had probably only three disagreements with over that long span of time but saw the disagreements blow off into the air as easily as so much smoke.  The man who opened up my mind to pour in a never-ending stream of authors and actors and movies and wit, always wit, who pried me out of (most of) my girlish small-town ways and laughingly showed me a larger, more stimulating world. 

I think back to his first culinary advice: put a little curry powder in Mother Campbell’s Cream of Tomato Soup.  

Of course!  

And there was the time I got him to go with me to Connecticut to visit my parents, and we took their dachshund, Simon, out for a walk one night, staring goofily in at the lit windows of interesting houses, taking serious note of the decor.  One place had a wide picture window on the second floor that featured a huge, metal apparatus.  

We couldn’t see it up there well enough, so we jumped as high as we could on the little town sidewalk, bending our fat old knees and springing up, over and over again, laughing so hard, snorting, that we could hardly catch our breaths. We believed that what we could almost see was, possibly, a sculpture—but here in Stony Creek?  

Not likely, I thought snootily.  

Down low in the dark, dog Simon waited patiently for us to regain our composure, and, still giggling, we walked back to my parents’ house and told them of our adventure.  My father, exasperated at our tale and stern as a toolbox, said we would not be allowed to walk the dog again. 

“Remember,” he admonished, “We have to live here.” 

Bob and I were then in our fifties—he may have even climbed into his sixties.  We were supposed to have a little decorum.  Together, we had as little as we could manage.  Which was why I loved him.

And now, Bob was telling me he couldn’t read his all-time favorite magazine.  Couldn’t read.  Couldn’t read at all.  It was like saying that he couldn’t breathe.

What I didn’t know, what he would not tell me, was that his doctor had just told him to “get his affairs in order”, that loaded term that doctors put forth moments before they give you their plus-or-minus time line. 

After he died a few months later, shocking all of us and creating a hole in my own life that could never be filled, one friend told me that he knew that Bob had had that terrible cliché delivered to him a few months before he died and that he didn’t want anyone to know.

And now, again, I see us both on that little brick patio in mid-afternoon—the slanted light and the shadows from the spindly trees telling me the time---and I wish I had known, wish I had had some way to let him know what he meant to me.  

But all I see is Bob rocking back and forth on that dumb chair, his face mottled with sadness, me standing there stupidly, ineffectually, unable to offer anything to give him peace.  

Thinking it was only a problem about reading. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Things You Carry Around In Your Head

I read about Michael McCourt again this morning in the Chronicle, another piece that lauded that sweet Irish bartender who died two weeks ago.  While I was fixed on the newspaper account extolling his life, my mind’s eye was busy fishing up images: the time Bob Goar and I went to the Washbag (Herb Caen’s name for the Washington Square Bar and Grill), especially to see the by-now famous Michael McCourt.  

When we walked in, I saw the lineup at the bar: four men, any one of whom could have been my father, dressed in good, smart, narrowly-striped shirts topped with golf cardigans, pale yellow, sky blue, very East Coast, very New England, as was my father.  Their ruddy faces were shaved very close and their hair, what was left of it, was cut short and showed neat comb lines.  

The men expressed a jolly, jaunty camaraderie with each other.  They were nicely at home in this bar, at home with McCourt, who was trading chit-chat with them to everyone’s pleasure.  Bob and I stood there watching, grins on our own faces because we were both absolutely where we wanted to be and wanted a special-dispensation fairy wand to be able to allow us to continue to be there forever.  

McCourt, plump, white-haired, walked over to us with a big smile and said something funny.  My mind’s eye sees our lips moving but can’t hear a word we said. He took our orders and I asked him about movies, having heard him mention a current film to the natty men. He told us to, by all means, see the Steve McQueen movie, “Hunger,” about Bobby Sands, played by Michael Fassbender. We promised we would, with perhaps more enthusiasm than was necessary, as it caused us to be beheld for a moment by the others.  He divided his time up equitably between us, on the short L of the bar, and the my-fathers, on the long end.  

Pure happiness.

So here’s the newspaper in front of me with its account of Michael McCourt and his immigration from Limerick, Ireland, and it also mentions his brother, Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes.”  The part about Frank throws up images so soft they could almost be drawn in charcoal, of the tiny room the brothers slept in, in Limerick, where they struggled to grow up.  I see those two, and their other brothers, Malachy and Alphie, and the baby sister who died, crammed into that crowded, poor room.  

All of them appeared in my mind as I read Carl Nolte’s tribute to Michael.  

And quickly following that congregation of hardworking and cheery McCourts, was a snapshot, a glimpse, of Eanlai Cronin, my new acquaintance in Adair’s workshop, she of the marvelous, melodic Irish voice, both in speaking and in writing.  Books then proceeded to line up in my head, the ones on the shelf I reserve for all things Irish, including Roddy Doyle’s novels.

I thrust back to 1999, when Jenny and I went on the Coach & Castle Tour that left Dublin from a bus stop in front of the post office on O’Connell Street where the Easter Uprising took in place in 1916.  The tour guide, who said, “I’ll be your droiver,” pointed to the post office building and when we were all aboard, he gave us a short historical nugget about the battle.  He started up the double-decker bus and off we went to see the sea. 

After we’d looked down from the narrow, curving road’s height to take in the raw, chill ocean, a roiling blackish-blue, we went on to the castle and sat in the cold on hard little chairs for a short lecture, where I sketched the window treatments high up on the castle walls to take back for the gang at Calico Corners.  There was time left over to buy souvenir postcards and Irish linen handkerchiefs while the rain came down steadily outside. And then, shivering, we piled back onto the bus to drive forth, our goal being to get a taste of real Guinness right there in the famous brewery.

All of this, all of these images, gifts from the past, gifts from real life and from books I’ve loved, sights and textures and warmth and chill, a salad so odd in a restaurant on McConnell Street that I drew a picture of it when Jenny and I got back from that bus tour…all of these things rose up and crowded my mind’s eye when I read that lovely article about Michael McCourt.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Wrong outfit

I was over 36, maybe even running into 39.  I had reached a point where I didn’t know anything any more about clothes.  My fashion sense, which depended upon a certain artiness of attitude, a little bohemian ache, had slithered away, a ferret tumbling into a well.  Well, not necessarily a ferret, but something poor and dreadful and on the lam.  

My fashion sense.  On the lam.

Some of it had to do with money, the lack of it, and some of it had to do with my desperation to hook Pete’s attention again, maybe garner even a flash of admiration, like that first night I’d met him in the Courtland Jazz Lounge, wearing my leotards, black swirly skirt and black turtleneck—full Arty.  The night that I had nothing to lose.  

Now I had the whole kit and kaboodle to lose.

We were in San Jose by now, a couple of years in.  Fifteen years or so married.  He was doing well in his new job at HP.  Pats on the back at work, he was going places, involved in things that were new and interesting to him.  He operated in a mix of younger, hip coworkers.  It was nice. At home, Mom-ing, I was back to trying to find myself, something that should have been pretty well decided by then.  

I was not the star of my show, more of a walk-on.

Pete won an award for his HP work. I was proud, he was proud, the kids were proud. He was to be given a shiny plate with his name inscribed, or a gleaming statuette, some pretty token of the months he’d put in on his project, a short film he’d produced about a new product. There would be a luncheon in a big hotel on the Peninsula, a tall, beige, rough-textured rectangle of a building on 101, somewhere near Millbrae.  Pete asked me if I wanted to go.  

I was excited and proud for him; of course I’d like to go.

But oh, I had nothing special to wear and I only had my regular hair, which was thin-ish and hamster brown, that needed to be cut by someone who knew what she was doing, a professional.  I’d have to find a real haircutter in a shop somewhere in my neighborhood.  I was used to chopping off my own hair, a money-saver.  And then, after I’d done the hair trick, I’d have to go into a dress store and find a new outfit, something adorable that would make Pete proud of me.  

Me, standing there next to him, grinning, happy that he’d done so well, the Little Wife, even if I were not all that little, but there, supportive as hell!

At the hair salon they asked me if I wanted my hair blown dry but it cost more so I said no, that’s okay, and I went out with my hair kind of wet, but at least, cut.  I knew where the Macy’s was, so I drove to that mall, and I found the dress department.  It was spring, and right away I saw a yellow dress of such intensity, such marvelous spring-y brightness, such oh-wowzie-here-I-AMness, that I didn’t hesitate to just fork over the amazingly small amount of money it asked of me and to bag it up and take it home, where I clipped off the tags and put it right on.  

I thought it was sexy; maybe Pete would appreciate that aspect.  

It had a deep cleavage, and I had not yet reached that time of my life where my breasts had settled in the deep south of my body.  The dress had a long, flowing skirt and a fitted waist, which I still owned.  My middle went in, and then the child-bearing hips went out, so there was some okay curving going on.  I realized that the fabric was a bit thin, sort of gauze-y, but I remembered that that was acceptable in those 70’s days.  Most of the young girly women were dressed in braless, gauzy dresses with their long hair; I’d seen Pete admiring a few of them when we’d been in Berkeley.  There were less of that type in San Jose, I admit, but still, I’d wear a bra, tuck the straps under the shoulders of the dress, pin the damn straps if I had to, and I could still be qualified, couldn’t I?  

Wasn't I qualified to be youngish and having cleavage and dressed as a daffodil?

Well, actually no.  No.  There is something about the tenth floor of a beige, textured hotel building with acres of wall-to-wall carpeting in various shades of brown, with floor to ceiling windows that looked out on that grey day onto Highway 101 near Millbrae, sporting long tables adorned with off-white polyester bunting, that did not welcome a tall, anxious woman in dazzling yellow gauze.  What there was, was a plethora of suiting, of navy and brown and grey, of little heels and simple blouses, of business attire.  And in the middle of it all was Pete, the award winner, surrounded by his business friends, all a swarm of pale blue shirts, sports jackets, trousers and dark shoes, all in keeping with the browns in the carpet, the pale chicken-colored chicken on the rows of plates, looking cold and goose-pimply, the iceberg lettuce with a dollop of something white on top.  He saw me come in, and to his credit he smiled, walked over to me, and introduced me to some of the suited people he was with.  I was proud of him for that, didn’t know if I could have done the same for him in similar circumstances.   

He didn’t stay near me long, mind you, but he had definitely acknowledged me.

The absolute perfection of wrongness of that dress in those circumstances I was never able to achieve again.  Well, I didn’t try to, of course, but I did wonder if I was certifiable, as they say in British movies about some sad, crazy woman who wanders around doing dumb things.  Where had my taste gone?  And why?

That may have been the bottom.  

That may have been when each of us took a measure of our marriage, each in our own separate heads, and assessed how we were not quite right for each other.  

Of course it took another ten years for the paperwork, but I credit the dress with being the catalyst.