Remarkable the way one can drift along, aware of not sleeping well the previous night, things not being as they should be…though why this is important remains unclear. The day is dominated by practicalities and details, a new tenant moving in upstairs, for one thing. And what with a morning bout with the rowing machine, followed by various decisions concerning the moving out of furniture from the upstairs apartment, followed by volunteer Paul and I rolling out for brunch and a cappuccino…. Well, today limps along shapelessly until now when my landlord Tom announces his intention to start up the old Dodge.
This sends me not only scrambling, but crashing at high speed about my apartment in desperate search of enough cash to boost my caffeination level at, you guessed it, Peet’s. I am out the door in time, or I think I am. Tom was preparing me for the noise of his 1967 Dodge Charger roaring outside my office window. Actually, the sound is trivial. It’s the fumes. The machine is a lesson in human history, both industrial and environmental. The exhaust from Tom’s vintage car is shocking to behold, an aerosol of, I suspect, only partially combusted petroleum, mixed with every imaginable noxious byproduct, including but not limited to, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and a cast of chemical characters far too lengthy for me to imagine.
Never mind, for I am on my way. And the air pollution on its way is safely behind me. I don’t know if I am a bad citizen, a poor member of the community, not to mention a sort of enabler, regarding Tom and his roaring exhaust. I am certain this is what in the Bay region all media describe as a ‘spare the air’ day. For it is hot, Indian summer as we say in these parts. The very sort of day in which the authorities beg, not to mention warn, and generally hope, that people will hop trains and buses instead of doing what Tom is doing in our carport. Which actually amounts to the equivalent of several of today’s cars roaring and spewing. 1967 was long before catalytic converters appeared on the exhausts of cars in California. Truly a vintage automobile, complete with vintage exhaust, and all of it roaring safely behind me, thank God.
The upstairs apartment seems to exert a strange power over men in their early 40s. A succession have rented the place. The latest is quite enthused at the prospect, clearly enjoying the work of tearing out old carpets, considering new flooring, replacing the ancient Venetian blinds. He is one of the products of the region’s cyclical high-tech booms, clearly not obliged to work, yet watching his expenditures. And not above helping move out Marlou’s old furnishings. No, this morning there were four men in their 30s and 40s schlepping chairs and tables and files and boxes, not to mention an abundance of linen, and blinds and curtains destined for the Palo Alto landfill…all of this flowing downstairs in a sort of river. None of the flotsam recognizable. It must have been two years since I was up there. A time not long after Marlou had died. I made my way up the stairs then and sat there, my brother and Marlou’s cousin Betsy bringing me this and that to examine and pass judgment on, while they went about the task of sorting and preparing for the haulers.
All of which made things much easier this time. I could barely recall the contents of the apartment. Only one of the old duvets rang any sort of bell, bedding from an era that predated Marlou. My life in white sales. Whatever. Paul and his colleague carted much of it away in the service of the Catholic Worker House. They were surprised that the apartment contents filled their truck. They left behind an air conditioner that may just possibly run on coal. I can’t remember buying it. I can’t remember operating it. None of the items appearing so far had much effect on me. There are two boxes of memorabilia, that is to say, Marlou’s photo albums. They belong with her family. I’m not sure I will look at them, but of course I will. Just enough to sort wheat from chaff and feel the poignancy of a human life crushed. But then it will be gone, and I will be here, and Tom will be running his car.
Which happens shortly after I return from Peet’s. I know Tom isn’t trying to torture me. The latter is a sort of accident. This spewings from his exhaust waft along the stucco wall of the carport, slip their petrochemical fingers under the edges of my casement windows and roll through my apartment. The effect is unpleasant and mildly alarming. I retreat to the opposite side of the flat, sitting in my kitchen until I finally hear the sound of the Dodge turning off.
And there is an anxious emptiness behind everything, and I am tired of it or, more precisely, tired of not knowing what it is. One thing it isn’t – an absence of love. With Jane, I have that. With friends, also. Family, fortunately. So let’s rule that out. And let’s rejoice. And let’s simply acknowledge the void. The fearful void. And more to the point, or the other point, not to avoid the void. Which I spend much of my life doing. And no, it is not that I’m going to be abandoned. Perhaps that I have abandoned myself.
Which is like saying that, alone and left to my own devices, there is nothing. That the fear of being crushed and overwhelmed and abandoned, that this is permanent and total. That it isn’t just another vein to mine. It takes courage to test the proposition that the center can hold, that there is one. Meanwhile, I like the warrior image. Too bad the enemy remains maddeningly elusive.