Reading Steinbeck makes me long for the days when I worked with the health department, makes me long for the time when I used to be out and among the people, touching their lives, sometimes touching their hands or bodies in ways that let me know that they and I were alive in a human sense that also touched me in my deepest heart.
As I write this, tears are coming to my eyes and my throat is getting tight at remembering that life, that previous life when my days were filled with more than the talk of a police radio and the answering of 9-1-1 phone calls, when I could drive about the city where I lived, my city and county where the people were mine and I was theirs and charged with doing something for them. I could see and feel them, could smell their smells and walk in the dust of their roads and unkempt back and front yards.
I long for the smell of a hot palm tree as it is baking in the August sun with the pigeons and other birds shitting down on those people and me and my car, where I could walk among the duck shit at Encanto Park when I was taking a break from my many field visits and rest in the shade or watch the white middle-class moms taking their three and four year-olds decked-out in Oshkosh-by-gosh jumpers and short-sets to play in the sand entrenched playground while watching the transients wander between the bathrooms and pay phones, watching who might be watching them and not.
I would sit in my car and watch the people who came to the park on their lunch breaks, wondering at who they were speaking to on their cell-phones, or wonder at what they were reading or writing as they sat at the picnic tables and looked up every now and then as the swarm of pigeons took wing and brought up the dust and dirt from their wings and the ground in their leaving.
I long for the days when I would walk down 12th Avenue and Buckeye and feel the stares on me as the locals wondered what they hell I was doing in their neighborhood. Some would recognize my white car and white self parked along the curb and come out to talk with me, while many others stood inside at their windows waiting for me to leave.
I can see the area still as it used to exist, with Dixon’s Club on the south east corner of 13th Avenue and Buckeye, old gray and purplish stuccoed building with the one scraggly Palo-Verde tree there on the corner with the dirt parking lot and old wooden door jamb that had seen many fights and raids and strange white cops darken its doorway, and then across the street on Buckeye proper at 12-something west, the Social Club and its parking lot on the east side of the building where I got some blood on my hand after drawing someone at the trunk of my car, with my little black fanny-pack of a blood kit, elastic band to tie off their arm, the tubes and needles and alcohol wipes for cleaning the puncture spot…the wipes that came away filthy brown most times and lightened that tiny patch of skin where I would insert the needle to take some of their precious blood to see if it was tainted with the curse of syphilis.
I would then drive the sample back to the clinic and deliver it to the lab and watch patiently as the techs spun it down and then took a drop of the serum and mixed it with the reagent that would quickly, slowly, or not at all react with its charcoal grains that meant those people or persons had been touched with that curse, that same curse that made me scream in my soul at receiving the blood test results of the newborn that was four times higher than its mom’s blood results taken at the same time.
Reading Steinbeck causes me to see the little insignificant things in life and marvel at their simple-ness and integral-ness to what we call life. He draws a big picture but fleshes it out with the details that I seem to be away from now that I’m in an office or call-center all day. I hear the distress of people on the phones or the excited-ness of the officers as they’re chasing someone and the usually calm voice of the sergeant saying that we are not in pursuit and watch the new dispatcher get amped-up and tense in her typing as she’s trying to get it all down in the officers’ radio traffic….
I see the same two hundred people every day or week and they all look the same in their uniforms and combed hair and large and cumbersome work bags and headsets and their lunches and breakfasts and coffee for their two best friends and supervisor who used to be only their friend but is now their friend’s supervisor, and the radio consoles and phones and computers for call-taking and dispatching and the tables that move up and down and the many chairs that must be arranged so just so in the corners to hold their extra bags and the ones that nobody wants to sit in because they stink or have strange stains where the person’s crotch would be sitting or the one wheel doesn’t turn or it’s wide enough to be a loveseat and some of them bring all kinds of shit from home with them that their desks look like their office at home with pictures of kids and husband and dog and their personal box of Kleenex and Lysol wipes and their three pens and packages of gum and this book and that and the notepad….
My car used to be my office, too, as I drove around from one side of the county to the next, taking my little binder with green cards that represented infections or contacts to infections and carried my notes of efforts to contact and find them on the back, and my pens and pencils in the cup holder and the extra napkins from McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box and Filiberto’s and Armando’s and Adelberto’s and Los Betos from my own various lunches and breakfasts amid the wandering of my city and then.
I now drive only two or three roads to get to work and back and the commute is a sterile representation of only getting from one place to another, not the driving about and looking for people and noticing the shrimp shack or burger shack where they served pancakes or menudo on the weekends or used a small pickup truck to block the entrance to the car stereo shop when it was closed for business….
Sometimes I’d drive to El Mirage or Surprise and wonder at the surprise of being there, or wonder at what was seen in that first mirage seen out there so long ago before it had a sign naming the year of its incorporation and how many people lived there at the last count…and its cotton fields along which I would stop and pick a couple tufts of the white stuff and wonder at the years of oppression of people who were dragged from African shores to pick the stuff….
I would stand there for several minutes and wonder at the dirt and the irrigation channels and see and hear the aircraft from Luke AFB nearby and be thrown further away and into my childhood where these sights and sounds were a comfort and a normalcy of everyday stuff and business, and then get back into my car and drive past the fields of roses and other flowering bushes and shrubs and be amazed at how fields and fields of the things could be grown here in our hot scorching desert and then cut and shipped to other parts of the country or world to adorn people’s dining room tables….
Then I would drive past fields of onions being picked by hunched over brown skinned people and there would be a smell of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips in the air and I would drive to the far western side of Maricopa county in the truly bum-fuck-Egypt part of our world and find myself surrounded by the huge and monstrous and beautiful female cottonwood trees in full bloom with their white cottony shit flying thick and cloudlike in the afternoon breezes among the trailers and mobile homes parked and anchored in their allotted spaces with the Big-Wheel trikes and Tonka trucks tucked under and beside the wheeled homes that did or didn’t have the nice grating or plastic wall skirts all around their homes….
And the people were gentle and welcoming or suspicious as to why I would be all the way out there in their neck of the woods with my health department identification looking for their daughter or son or whomever and is the water not ok to drink out here or what?
When I read Steinbeck I wonder how I could abandon those field and dairy workers and their little families of infected people and cousins, leaving them to other devices and treatments when I used to be able to tell them to go to the clinic and don’t have sex until you do and the smell of chicken and cow shit is strong on the hot breeze as I stand there in the scorching sun with sweat running down my cheeks as I also smell their beans and ham hocks and rice cooking on the stove, emitting their own clouds of steam or the chilies roasting on the fifty-five gallon drums with the smoke penetrating the neighborhood and my clothes so that I still smell them when I’m driving home to my house in Glendale or Peoria and find some of those same chilies at the ABCO market or Food City…and I could look in their dark eyes and see the hope and trust or wonder or doubt as my white self told them what they needed to do to take care of themselves as their little Juanito ran around in his diaper and nothing else eating a peach with stickiness on his face and hands and arms and belly as he chased their dogs from the trailer to the shed and back….
Now it perturbs me when someone steals my favorite spoon out of my desk drawer at work and I feel the need to send scathing emails to my coworkers accusing them of thievery or asking who dropped the coffee bomb on my desk and among my pictures and I used to not care about such things as I drove my client to Jack-in-the-Box on the way to the clinic so I could buy her two Jumbo Jacks and a large curly-fries and a large Coke because she only had a package of dry Ramen noodles yesterday….
I had found her at her shit-hole trailer at Sixth Avenue and Jones that day and looked into her home and saw daylight shining up through the plywood covered floor and the kids were missing some of their front teeth as they eyed me suspiciously and asked me in their maturity what I wanted with their mom….
The older one noticed that the last name on my ID tag was the same as his and asked if I knew his family…and his name was also Josh, like my 12yo son and he was going to be 12 in November, too…and he was cute and had the same gentleness in his eyes as my Josh did/does…and I wondered at how life could be so unfair and so fucked-up for this little Joshua when things seemed and were so nice for my little Joshua….
I could smell his house and home and filth and dreams for the rest of the day, even after I blew my nose several times, chewed sharp and tingly gum and had enchiladas and salsa for lunch…I could still smell those things of that other Joshua’s house as I drove home to mine those several hours later after taking his HIV positive mom to my clinic so we could also treat her gonorrhea and chlamydia and try to convince her to stop sleeping with her boyfriend who was already dying from AIDS….
But she wouldn’t and didn’t and we came to see her on the foster care review board and later saw that she died and was no more and that her other children went the way of the wind and some and now I’m concerned with ferreting out the problem with the radio and is it the jack or the bottom part of the dispatcher’s headset that suddenly crashed and made the sergeant call me to say that we lost our dispatcher so we’re going car to car, thought you’d like to know….
I know there are Steinbeck stories in the radio room and among the 9-1-1 operators…and their hair is so shiny and their perfume or lotion smells so sweet and their cars are so pretty in the parking lot and the digital picture frames of their children and vacations are so expensive and their cruises are so interesting and so far removed from the shit side of life…and they do have their trials and difficulties and their parents die violent deaths in car accidents and murder-suicides and their lives do suck sometimes too….
But somehow there is no parallel between this and sitting in the small interview room of the clinic or sitting in the dirt under one of the ancient eucalyptus trees in an alley on the south side of town while a hugely fat, dark purple-black man who just told me about the hood rat who sucked his dick and gave him syphilis changes the subject so quickly and asks me if I know Jesus….
I love reading Steinbeck.
***This is a Favorite Re-post from November, 2009.
The memories from that long-ago linger in a cloudy form, without even the substance to suggest that they are wraith-like in their residue, they are probably more like a knowing, the recollection of a notion, a processing of things talked about over the years, an echoing of words like “remember when,” as they existed in their primary forms before those words became what they are today in the contexts in which they still live in conversations among those who use them like that…they are memories, maybe without a sensory connection, as ideas often are, but memories still, and they cast about in my mind as things that exist as a coming-after in the defined sense. I can imagine forms for them, aromas or flavors, maybe even textures…maybe even with accompanying sounds; I can imagine those things and assign them meaning with the words that populate what I describe as memories….
There is a different body walking about the given room, reaching up and down into cabinets whose doors were opened with knobs or handles or none at all…spices and tins or trays, oil and powders…eggs from the fridge, but no butter. She brought the old spaghetti bowl out from its place, emptied pumpkin from a can, sifted flour and shook out the salt…cloves cinnamon nutmeg sugar water and soda from a yellow box…dates from a palm tree and nuts from another, a sharp knife and a cutting-board now, they hold my reflection as I move about, a silver mixing bowl with a rubberized exterior that makes it hold still on the counter top…other memories and another face, the bowls were a holiday present, the knives, too, slicing dates and sifting the flour and dry ingredients with a whisk in that bowl…cracked eggs dropping and the oven is getting warm…degree marks rising in number form and I can see his face, a smile as I rinse my hands and dry them…and later words echoing that said, no, not yet…not after what happened last month…it’s still too soon…and the whisk rides the inside of the bowl in a circle oblique, the dry and wet ingredients lose themselves becoming one…the knife scrapes the dates off the board…and my mom walks into the other room…she wore an apron then, a time from another time with powdered sugar on a plate, the decades draw into their pasts and remember themselves and bring us along…we see distance and separation of events and people and know that things exist as they do because of how they ticked in the clock of that time past and they echo so in the chambers of our hearts because of the tears we’ve cried into them…like unfired clay returning to its form, malleable when broken again, mixed with those flowing memories and made whole again…to be broken and broken again to be made whole and whole again…and again…until we purpose to fire them against such happening…and then they are hard and resistant to such effects…and more durable still…and flowing memories just run off, they pass without touching…gone and away.
The timer above the stove beeped in its way after 90 minutes, and hope and expectation were fulfilled after a few more, those more passing to cool and hold, to firm-up against the removal from the pans that held them in their transformation from a flavored soupiness to a rich and thickened bread, a consummation of effort and memory and ghosted images that found their substance as their sensory forms were released from their lodgings in my brain and lived again through opened doors once hidden and closed against time and emotion, against a time and loneliness that caused their own transformations….
It’s just pumpkin bread…but it’s not.
Does it ever exist in a pure form? If we are not deaf, can we really experience it? If we are deaf, do we really experience it at all? I cannot answer for the deaf. Their response may depend on the level or nature of their deafness. It may be that, for it to truly exist, one must have never heard words to have them become thoughts. For the hearing, however, I do not believe it exists. We are only familiar with its silhouette, the mere image of its self. This shadow is what we call “silence.”
When it appears that there is nothing present to stimulate our hearing, when we would normally say we are in the presence of silence, something creates a sound. Even when it is just our thoughts, fears, imagination, or blood coursing through our lobes urging a tingling hum, true silence is not there. Its image, however, is a normal part of our lives.
Sometimes, it enters with a sly, tiptoe step; other times, it is so vivid, one would think it is the resounding tromp of a platoon of soldiers. Casual circumstances, anticipated events and unexpected tragedies are all tinged with silence.
Walk with me…into the penumbra….
Overhead, the loudspeaker commanded certain somebodies to go or come to such and such station on the third floor. Swinging doors crashed open and closed, before and behind her. The gurney banged into the delivery-room table, jarring her through the pain, making her wonder, again, if this was all worthwhile.
A multitude of thoughts sped through her mind while she was lying there, exposed with disregard, looking up at the ceiling, pushing, breathing, hurting, waiting. But what about during that pause in her heart’s beating, in that long silence before the doctor spoke, what was she thinking then? Did that interminable moment incubate the seed of anguish or jubilation?
Agitating the silence was the lazy humming of the overhead lights, the clanging of instruments into stainless-steel bowls, the beeping of the baby’s monitor and the rustling of paper gowns. It seemed to go on forever. The silence was too long.
The doctor was quiet, he didn’t say a thing; he just worked. With swift, confident hands he untied the cord from their baby’s neck. Still the silence, a moment more. Did she dare breathe when her child had yet to take his first gasp of air? Could she live if he didn’t?
Finally…the tiny cry! “He’s fine – you’ve got a little boy!” Happier words were never spoken!
He was just standing there, trying to be someone or something that she needed, telling her how beautiful their baby was, how beautiful she was, asking her, awkwardly, how she felt. Snap-shot photographs of the last several months crashed through his mind as he watched with awe, this orchestration of birth. Tears of relief and happiness streamed down his cheeks. The silence was over!
For the last two months of his life, he would have spells where something inside of him would cause him to cry out, almost scream with a nameless pain. At first, they thought it was probably kidney-stones; then, they thought it might be his hips getting worse – they had known for years that they were bad.
Their veterinarian was businesslike in his description of a not-so-uncommon immune-disorder that affects older dogs. This miracle-worker for animals went on to detail the possibilities of tumors, intestinal bleeders, etc., that could be causing the myriad problems.
After their dog was on mood-altering, immune-system-enhancing medications for about four or five weeks, they came home one day to find the evidence of internal bleeding in several locations throughout the house and yard.
One more trip to the vet. One last trip to the vet. The doctor explained how there was really nothing he could do to fix their dog. There was nothing he could do to restore sound health to this old man of a canine they called their pet. It was time for him to go on – to go wherever it is that old dogs go when they die. After that last injection, that last yelp, that last beat of his heart, he just lay there. He was gone.
Normal sounds of life still ring throughout their home. The children and the other animals are still there; the planet hasn’t ceased its orbit; life still goes on, but…it is quieter than it used to be. He doesn’t follow the man up the stairs or down the stairs, out into the yard or around the yard and back into the house again. He’s not there waiting for a morsel to drop to the kitchen floor, not there to nudge a hand for some love. No longer is he heard breathing, lying next to the bed at night. They still step over his sleeping form when they get out of bed, but he’s not there. He is gone. Except for the quaking in his master’s heart, he is silent.
One could describe her life as very busy. There was seldom time for her and her husband to be alone. Hell, there was rarely a minute that she had to herself without interruption, without someone or something demanding her attention. Managing a house-full of children and pets, attending the university with a full schedule and perfect grades while holding down a full time job required an enormous amount of time. A full life. One with many facets. One with many colors. A life with many concerns.
Not a torment, but a near constant preoccupation with the deeper, heart-wrenching aspects of other people’s lives filled her mind. The lives of children. Not only her own kids, but the rest of them too. The ones whose lives were documented in the newspapers and chronicles of the day. Children whose lives were put to paper in big binders with case numbers attached to them. Innocent ones whose lives were casually thrown away by the give-a-damn adults who ran the world. These were the ones who filled her mind.
Most disconcerting to her was the fact that she could not do much for these children at the time. She still had to finish school. Until it was over, she was bound to her current occupation. Nowhere else could she make the kind of money she did and nowhere else could she have the time off from work to do the things she wanted to do. Essentially, she was indentured to her meaningless, mindless, of-no-consequence job. She would continue to be a flight-attendant until she had reaped every possible benefit from the company while pursuing her goal; until school was over.
From her occupation, one would be inclined to think that she liked dealing with people. One would think she was a people-person. One would also think she enjoyed the hundreds of faces and personalities she ‘mingled’ with every day at work. One could not be more wrong. She thought people were okay in the right setting, but not in those amounts and not in the confines of an airplane.
Where is refuge when one is inside a Boeing 737, traveling at 535 mph, at 35,000 feet? Where does one hide from the constant analyzing, discriminating and stereotyping eyes of everyone aboard the plane? Where does one go to flee the leering eyes of half-drunk, red-blooded males? Where does she go to escape? She locks herself in the bathroom. In that closet-sized hideaway, she finds solace from the airborne hundreds. She mutters oaths at the closed door and cries tears of anger and frustration in the company of her only friend, the woman in the mirror looking back at her. Aboard the plane, locked in the bathroom, she finds it. It has been there waiting for her. It removes her from the meaningless chores and takes her home, if only for a few minutes, where she is important, where she is loved. In spite of the engine noise and the storm of people on the other side of the door, it is there. She has found her silence.
They arrived on a Thursday afternoon in the last week of January. Nobody answered their knock at the door, but they knew where the extra key was hidden, so they let themselves in and made like they were home. In a sense, they were. This was where she had spent the last several years of her childhood and this was where they had started their courtship. Now, this was their haven from the adult world. They felt safe here. It was always a pleasure to come home after being away.
He went to visit some friends for a while and she stayed there with the kids, recuperating from the trip. After a bit, her sister came home from school and there was the usual heartwarming reunion that made the long drive worthwhile. It was so good to be home!
An hour or so later, he came home and went out to the shop to put together some toys that her mom had bought for the kids. Meanwhile, the older son was out in the acre, beyond the walled-in back yard, playing with his trucks. The younger son was following her and her sister around the yard and house, visiting and wondering at all the things that fascinate two-year-olds like himself. The phone rang and she and her sister went inside. In what may have been minutes later, the older son called from outside the gate for his dad to come and let him into the yard.
Leaving the shop, where he was still working on the toys, he noticed the big-wheel floating upside down in the pool. He let the older son into the yard and then went to see if he could reach the toy – floating out there, near the middle of the pool. He noticed that the big-wheel was just sitting there, upside down, not moving and not causing even the slightest ripple in the water. Just sitting there. Suddenly, everything was quiet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something floating near the opposite side of the pool. Not something, but someone, a very small someone, face-down in the pool.
Rushing to the other side, he noticed again the stillness of the pool. How long had his little one been there? What period of time would it have taken for the water to calm after he had ridden the big-wheel into the pool? How many minutes had his son been floating there in that god-damned silent pool? Where was the noise that water is supposed to make when someone falls into it? Why didn’t he hear the silence of the big-wheel? Why in the hell wasn’t he watching his son?
No! What would he do without his son? It wouldn’t be the same. Life would never be the same. No! He couldn’t die! He fought the numbness in his mind and began to do what he’d studied so many times in the past. Just last month he had taken a refresher course and he specifically remembered not to breathe too hard into his baby’s mouth. Pounding on his back as if there was something stuck in his throat, he cursed and prayed for him to come back. God, how long did this take? Over and over again, breathe into his mouth, not too hard. Push onto his tiny chest. Now flip him over and pound on his back some more. Come on! Breathe! Please, come on! Yes! Cry! That’s it! That’s it! Breathe! Come on – that’s it, cry, come on! Damn the silence – Cry!
The excitement of graduation night paled somehow in comparison to the spectacular event that would take place the next morning. She and her family were going up north for a vacation and they had asked him to go with them. Each of her sisters was bringing a special friend – and she invited him, her special friend. The trip was a graduation present from her parents. As a family, they had been to the lake several times in the past, so they knew he would enjoy it.
They left home early in the morning, hoping to reach the lake with enough daylight remaining so they could work on the boat when they got there. In return for letting them borrow the houseboat, her mom’s boss had asked them to replace the carpet and fix some things that needed to be repaired.
The six-hour drive seemed to pass in less time than it actually took. New scenery and friendly conversation caused the miles to slip away without notice. Before he knew it, they arrived at the lake-town, located the boat and started to work.
With all of the work completed and only an hour of daylight remaining, they set off to find a suitable spot to spend the night. When they pulled away from the marina he turned around and looked at the sky. It had been brushed with magnificent hues of orange, yellow, rose and gold. This sunset would have made the sun-god proud.
The whole experience was an adventure to him. In his seventeen years he had never been on a vacation with anyone other than his own family. Now, he was there, at the lake, with his girlfriend and her family preparing to enjoy one of the most memorable events of his life – ten days on a houseboat with absolutely nothing to do but relax and enjoy life and its offerings.
Their days were filled with leisure. They would cruise through the waterways of the lake’s filled canyons staring in awe at the massive boulders and rock lining their passage. At different times of the day, they would pull over to the bank, tie up the boat and go hiking. Climbing the rocks to the highest point they could reach and then just sitting there, admiring it all, wondering at the forces that combined to create such a marvel. Other times, they would get out the inflatable rafts and go off by themselves, paddling along, enjoying the theater of nature before them. Whatever they wanted to do, they did. Sleep, eat, drink or swim. Whenever they wanted to do these things, they just did them. No schedules were allowed.
One of the best things about the whole trip was the time the two of them had together. Uninterrupted, they could talk for hours. If there was nothing else to say, they would sit in the quiet splendor of their retreat and simply be together. Saying nothing, just being together. Near enough to touch, near enough to feel each other’s spirit within them. A time of true communion.
At night they would lie next to each other on the roof of the houseboat and watch for stars shooting across the sky. They felt as if they were in a cathedral, looking up past the darkness of the canyon walls to see the ceiling of stars overhead. It was truly a magnificent sight. The greatest artist ever commissioned to paint a chapel ceiling would have balked at the thought of trying to recreate the incredible brilliance of this heavenly portrait.
To say it was quiet on the lake would be an understatement. Barring all other experiences from their memory, this place would be the origin of silence. There were no clocks or schedules on the lake. There was no screaming society telling them what to do and when to do it. Silence ruled…and because it ruled, they were free.
Once again, I do not believe true silence exists. For a hearing person, I do not believe there is a condition possible where there is absolutely no sound. We can only recognize the shadow of silence, its image. Whether it is tarnished or golden, blatant or subtle, mediocre or spectacular, the silhouette is what we call “silence.”
This is a Favorite re-post from September, 2009.