People say they are paralyzed. They can’t decide. They are paralyzed with fear. They can’t take a step. What’s worse is being paralyzed with paralysis. And the latter is enough to make a person roll about a suburban center at maximum warp, in the battery sense. Since my time of wheelchairing about the Menlo Park streets can now be reckoned in years, let us conclude that this is part of my life plan, certainly my occupation. It is illuminating, that is the simple fact. Too much sitting around at home becomes, well, frightening. Precisely what lurks within my premises has never become clear. And bouncing my battery-powered self down Live Oak Ave. leads nowhere but El Camino Real. Still, it is hard to avoid this basic equation. Static equals scary and confining. Moving equals opening and liberated.
So, let’s move. Even if at this juncture movement itself has become static. Stuck would be a better word. How many times can one shove the joystick all the way forward, convince oneself that this imitation of pedal-to-metal automotive activity truly equates to speed? Ah, yes, the wind in the face, and supposedly in the sails, asphalt vistas opening for all of 400 meters at a single stretch. Immeasurable. Over in 90 seconds. And arriving at the most predictable of destinations, Peet’s.
Still, or worse, everything is different. I haven’t seen Jane in a couple of days, and we are meeting now for the briefest of cappuccinos. Even there, seated at a table crowded too close to the door, I am not quite seeing her. She has been so preoccupied with a church fundraising event, so many complex tasks on her shoulders, that she won’t be herself for a while. I know this like I know the reality of Live Oak Ave. Part asphalt, part fantasy. But I am working hard on the Jane fantasy, trying to remember that in the rooms women come and go.
Speaking of Michelangelo, there’s that other thing that puts reality out of sorts. It is raining. Actually, it is raining rather seriously. The Bay Area has not had so much precipitation in many decades. Doubtless, this is a good thing. Currently it is a confusing thing. Nothing is as it should be. This is summer. Surf’s up. The spirit catches a wave too, unless it catches a cold. Okay, mine is probably hay fever. Never mind.
Jane is off to her fundraiser. I am off to Sky Nails, where at 9:30 AM I meet the arriving crew. They usher me in like one of the staff. I have become something of a regular here. Actually, one of the few regular men. That and the wheelchair give me whatever status I have, which is definitely back room. That is to say, the far side of Sky Nails, turned at a few degrees to allow better manicure access. In terms of personal service, the place is without equal. In terms of English-as-a-foreign-language tutelage, we see opportunities for improvement. The woman working on my nails this morning is a new one. I tell her the rain is odd. She shakes her head yes, then no. Even at the end of the transaction the price, $18, is difficult to communicate. As for my nails, she is Michelangelo. This woman cuts and files, then inspects her handiwork from all angles. She lifts each finger, sanding down any microscopic burrs, then considers the effect from above and below. Even a miniscule trace of untrimmed cuticle gets another go. All this, and she is fast.
Paula, my usual manicurist, interrupts to ask if I need any home help. She is a large woman, that is to say tall, particularly for a Vietnamese. She has worked here for years. And the notion that she would want to work for me as a sort of domestic is somehow sobering. She has daughters in their twenties. I have gleaned this information from somewhat tortured conversations, riddled with requests to repeat this or that. I consider her a professional, and that is the thing. I can’t quite accept her as a house servant. She needs the hours, Paula says. More work. And it hits me all at once, how this is a sign of the growing American Depression and the sign of my acceptance in this all women environment. I am not looking for hanky-panky, that is the gist. Even though I am, though admittedly not from Sky Nails.
Things are not what they should be. To suggest that the current weather oddity has anything to do with the rapid increase of combustion gases in the planet’s atmosphere is to utter heresy. Yes, in these parts the heresy is generally acceptable. On the eastern edge of the Bay Area, say 20 miles away, it is less so. In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, a.k.a., San Joaquin, I would keep my mouth shut. And keep it shut all the way to Philadelphia. Which represents a long distance with a clenched jaw. Fortunately, it is a short distance to the Bank of the West. I cancel the extra bank account that I should have canceled two years ago, just after Marlou’s death. Never too late. I even opt for extra overdraft protection, such as my forgetfulness regarding checkbook balancing. How many checkbooks can balance on the head of a pin?
While you are considering that, try to get inside the strange state of anxiety that has accompanied my change of domestic pattern, a.k.a., Jane’s busyness and preoccupation. A jumpiness. Fear of death? Fear of abandonment? I toss out these ideas almost in defense, for the real experience amounts to something more primal and elusive. A panicky fear of nothingness which may be how the infant experiences abandonment, although the latter is somehow not helpful. Terrifying nothingness will do.
Which brings me to Keddem Congregation, Palo Alto. Actually, what brings me there, or should, is El Camino Real, southbound, but all it brings me is tsuris. The truth is that I do not drive enough. This is Friday in suburbia. Streets are busy. No, it’s not the Chicago Loop, not the Harbor Freeway, but it’s busy enough. I fight my way through the second of Palo Alto’s business centers, finally hang a left and get hung up. Rush-hour trains, the ones I normally ride, are whizzing back and forth at grade level, as they say.
What they should say is that streets cross rails or rails cross streets, and they are not meant to cross at all. Cross of ages. This is how people die, and they do die at remarkably frequent intervals. Mind-boggling accidents. Tragic suicides. In Britain, for example, I can’t think of any place within 50 miles of London, more like 100 miles, in which a person can easily walk across a railway. There are reasons for this, good reasons, but for the time being those reasons do not apply, for this is end-of-era America, and things are falling apart and things are fucked. As for the latter, they are manifesting themselves in the form of an enormous backup of cars. We advance a few hundred yards, then the crossing signals begin to flash, the arms descend, and Caltrain flies by.
I am flying nowhere, except downward, crashing into reality. The latter involves arriving at the monthly congregational potluck/Friday service on time. After all, I have the challah. I have the ceremonial bread. I can’t quite recall if these days we do kiddush before the service or after, but that’s because I am only a fake Jew. I don’t know what I’m doing. I have no background, I have no right to be buying challah, let alone schlepping it. I am a fool. Worse, I am a late fool. The eyes of the village are upon me, because I am the village idiot. They will stone me, these people, Jews and Gentiles alike. They will h
ave good reasons. Maybe I should just stall my van on the railroad tracks and end it all.
Instead, I arrive just as the Rabbi is blessing some Ritz crackers, just in case. Can’t blame her. And yes, it is a her, and she’s great. I can tell that members of the congregation don’t think much of her service. It’s nontraditional in that it is a multi-traditional. She borrows from then and now and plucks from yonder and nearby, the Torah, the Hasidic tradition, whatever. We even hear talk of angels, straight from the woo woo end of Judaism, some would say. Some, like me, don’t care. I eat, I pray, I even have a go at transliterated Hebrew. We hold hands in the course of all this several times.
All hands on deck. I need as many as possible. Fine, stout men and women, for the seas are treacherous, and why we are sailing God only knows. Which is more than an expression. It is the puzzle at the heart of everything. And the good news is that at the heart of everything, everything has a heart.