Seeing Red

Funny how if you just listen, life supplies its own soundtrack. Outside my suburban apartment Fred, one of the loudest human beings I know, is holding forth on the topic of Highway 17. The surface is graded for drainage, he tells one of his construction minions. And why does this observation matter in any way to the feature film itself, that is to say, my own biographical story? Because if you listen, everything converges.

Somehow, we have been discussing this matter of Highway 17, Jane and I. And having come to the belief that there are almost no idle conversations, our exchange lingers. It is a notorious thoroughfare, the state highway through the Santa Cruz Mountains. The camber is not engineered for the normal centrifugal forces of automobiles – but for something else. And Fred, the blowhard overseer of apartment renovations next door, now has the explanation. Drainage, not the control of skidding cars. Again, what is the significance, the synchronous meaning in Fred’s too public pronouncements? Just that I listen. After all, from Friday on, it appears that I will have a car. Actually, the delivery date is Thursday. So it’s imminent, this matter of Highway 17. Because the very same road has been on my mind, leading as it does over the hill to…a certain amount of my past.

I have friends in Santa Cruz, and nearby – people I rarely see. And some I have not seen in years. So with the return of wheels to my life, as I return to the road, I also return to the dangers of the road. And there are plenty, let us be clear. And since I tend to focus on my own failings and assume that my fear of the Highway 17 drive is among these…there it is, a message from the cosmos. The road is slanted, the cards are stacked, so go slow – and it’s okay. In a few days when you hit the road, you have every right to make sure the road doesn’t hit you.

Just as it is impossible to roll America’s sidewalks without narrative incident. There is simply too much happening. I set out for breakfast this very morning, rental checks in hand, this being 1 October…and fully intending to head for Bank of the West. Instead I head for the Cinema of the East, the route to breakfast, which takes me by the local theater where I often encounter one of the local street people…homeless…helpless – what is the proper word? There is a man who has adapted a shopping cart, or at least I think he has adapted it…creating a vehicle with apparent roots in Safeway that rolls on hard rubber tires from a kid’s wagon. He is parked where I always see him, near the local cinema. But the truth is that I never see him, never quite see his face. For he is eternally bending over to fiddle with this, adjust that. And I want to see, and do not want to see, what he looks like, his expression. Instead, all I know is that he is facing downward. He seems to be drawn there, forced there. Still, I can see the tattered and battered outline of his face, although never the eyes. More the frame of the head, the arch of the eyebrows, jut of the chin. And what I see is a man preoccupied with, and lost in, misery. I’m afraid of him, also certain he is harmless. As well as indomitable. He has been on our streets for years. And what is his significance to me? Simply his appearance on my way to an upscale, al fresco cappuccino and breakfast wrap, rent monies in my pocket…and one of our homeless was turning up like a serf in Anna Karenina.

I do change course, if only in the slightest way, making for the bank, instead of the breakfast. Why is this? Somehow, I am afraid that I will lose these checks in the normal course of breakfast events. That, or get robbed. Either way, worries about my newfound wealth being taken away. Perhaps by the homeless person, a.k.a., madman. Who perseveres, he does, this man living by the cinema. He is not clean, he is frighteningly adrift, and he is trying, this is something I deeply believe. He is tending to his stuff, focusing on what he knows, and I am heading for the bank.

Where the wages of tellers has dropped in recent years, according to Inequality for All, the new film about Robert Reich. And having just seen this documentary last night, even my bank deposit makes me nervous this morning.

As for portentous serfs…well, there are serfs and then there are serfs.

Anyone in a wheelchair is either a serf, or assumed to be a serf. That is my contention.

A theorem that emerged just as fast as a brand-new red BMW sports sedan can burst from the Whole Foods parking lot. Which turns out to be pretty fast. I was rolling up 24th St. in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood where I almost collided, that is to say was nearly run over, by a woman driving this very car. She smiled crisply and observed that I was going faster than pedestrians. Let us reset the scene. I am on the sidewalk. Me on the footpath. She is driving out of the parking area. What do you say when you nearly hit someone in a wheelchair? Sorry is one option. Didn’t see you, being another.

And what do you say, the man in the wheelchair, after nearly being hit? Well, in this case, nothing. Honestly, the situation spoke for itself. Or it should have. Certainly, I was not going to argue. Twenty-four Street is full of excessively healthy Californians jogging their way to cardiovascular excellence along, you guessed it, the sidewalk. More to the point, wheelchairs are low and not so easy to see. I stared at her. Finally, she said sorry and urged me on. No, I insisted, you go first. Irony being lost on my American brethren, but it was all I could think to do. Did she have a point? Was there anything for us to discuss? Sure. The general topic of how do we look out for each other.

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