|© 2000-2003 Laramie Crocker|
Brooklyn, New York
He wore shiny brown polyester pants that were a little too high over his generic American running shoes, shoes with three blue stripes down the sides; not a stripe of any well known shoe that signified sporty-yet-stylish-because-of-the-cost. These shoes signified American-yet-affordable. He sat quietly in a thin wooden chair, observing the others. I asked him some polite, leading questions, and within a few exchanges, we were discussing his youth in India, and his escape in his parents' arms from Tibet and cultural persecution. I noticed, as he spoke, his fine, graying hair, soft, wrinkled skin, and gentle eyes. Here, in this Place, away from the place of his birth, and away from the place he grew up and learned to speak five languages, and to be a gentle man, he is a baker's assistant on Sundays, and five or six other days a week he makes Japanese noodles at a warehouse downtown. And here, in this place, thousands of miles from where I was born and built forts and bicycled in the Berkeley hills, I sit and talk with this shy man with the composure of a Harvard poetry professor. He is one of the bakers from downstairs that have come up to Her Little Apartment, invited, to celebrate Her Birthday. Most are strangers, but She buys bread in the mornings from them, and so they have come up, these bakers, after a long day sweeping flour, and rolling dough and pulling sheet pans from yawning oven doors. They brought lots of bread. The spanish-speaking ones stay standing in the little kitchen, too shy or too polite to come all the way into the little living room, and Her mom speaks in Spanish to them and putters. Her uncle, a man with flowing greybrown hair, feathered, ala 1970's disco, a white, educated Manhattanite, wearing a colorful, third world shirt and comfortable jeans, joins me in talking to the man in the running shoes. Her uncle talks of Tibet with the man. I have to go to my place on the fire escape to tend the steaks on the hibachi, but I hear drifts of conversation: it seems Her uncle spent time in a monastery in Tibet. I wonder at the American who made a pilgrimage to Tibet, and the Tibetan who fled Tibet for India, and the Yankee son whose parents left the East Coast for a position at Berkeley after getting fired from Yale, who now squats on a fire escape in Brooklyn; in Brooklyn in Her Little Apartment, She who grew up in Humboldt County, California, land of the ranchers, redwood loggers, and dope-growing hippies, and child of back-to-the-land Manhattanites; in Her Little Apartment where She happily floats among the pack of friends and relatives and bakers.
I am here to be near Her, to catch what I can of Her Delightful Mind, her humor, her smiles when they are directed at me. She doesn't seem to notice me when other people are around, but I have come to accept her that way. I wait for the times when we are alone and she makes me laugh and I lavish love on her and she treats me like I make the Sun go around.
I have also come to be close to my father's place. The place in the green hills of Brownsville, Vermont that he keeps to come to in the Summer, the place that reminds him of Summer vacations when he was a child. In this green place he is natural and relaxed. He walks me through the woods explaining how trees grow, how to watch out for them falling down, and pointing out his friends: the saplings that have turned into tall beeches, maples, pines.
My father, though more relaxed than when he is in California, still has a wonderful paranoia about him at all times, like a canteen you wear on your hip, and can pull out to take a good swig. The trees can fall at any time, so be careful on walking on windy days, or on any days for that matter, through the woods. And don't mix too much concrete in a hole in the ground, the heat it generates might start a fire. Here, in this place the nearest neighbor is a friend, but is on the close side of a 23 acre parcel, and the nice lady at the post office knows your name and puts your letters in a wooden cubbyhole that is open from her side and has an aluminum door with a key on your side. You have to go chat with her if she slips a note in your cubby because a large letter or parcel came, and can't fit in the cubby. But it's nice to chat with her anyway when you get the mail, so as not to be impolite. Here, in this place which seems so removed from Her Little Apartment in Brooklyn, my dad finds it necessary to lock all the doors at night, when he goes to bed, and sometimes when he is awake, too. The driveway is steep and gravely, and you hear someone coming long before you see them. But one can never be too safe.
Dad and I stay up nights discussing the physics of music -- waveforms, Fourier analysis (my training), overtones, chord relationships, and modes (his training). During the day, I sing and play The Blues on my guitar that I lugged all the way from Berkeley, and through the New York Subway, and at night he sings and plays Cole Porter and Gerschwin tunes on the fine, wooden Emerson upright piano, crafted in Boston early in the century. The Emerson suffers the yearly ravage of freezing temperatures, and now sounds like a barroom piano in a wild west movie.
Dad spent so many years at Berkeley doing battle with academics and peers around the world, that he now talks very sagely and abstractly about what is "real". The only thing real is experience, and that itself is a poor substitute for "What Is Happening". So the best you can do is listen to a bit of music and absorb it. Even talking about it is pointless. This from a man who spent his whole life talking to people about music, and writing books about music. He tells me he feels uncertain whether it is OK to just come out and say that what he is going to tell the reader is only his experience, as he wants to do in his next book. I reassure him that that is the honesty I look for when I read.
There is a quiet rhythm in this green place. Mornings the house is quiet. We make meals, Dad gardens and shuffles building materials around, cradling a beer. I help him with construction projects. Dad sings Gregorian chant in the afternoons, and takes a nap on the settle by his favorite window with the baronial view over his estate. I click away on my laptop computer, writing Java code for the corporation in San Francisco that sends my payroll checks. Some year I will spend the whole year here, to feel the full rhythm of the seasons. But our neighbor just told us of the 20 degrees Fahrenheit below zero he had to endure last winter, so I don't think I'll be staying in Vermont this year.
Monday, Memorial Day, 2001
Well, the good ol' boys rumbled down the driveway today. A redfaced drunken handyman, D.C., his painting contractor buddy, and their lackey, a good natured braggart who stayed in the back of the six pack truck and regaled us with stories of building in Montana. The painter talked paint with my dad, while I chatted with D.C., who was intent on rustling up a little work for himself and his buddy in the truck. Seeing how I was tearing apart a worn out deck to recycle the lumber, he offered numerous helpful suggestions as to the best way to move the wood to its new location, and how for ten dollars an hour, which wasn't much, but he would be happy to take it anyway, he would see clear to helping me out.
6:50 PM, Thursday
"Price Chopper" Supermarket
This is a place where you can't buy peanut butter that doesn't have sugar added, where the only chile peppers available are in a cute little plastic box: one Habañero, one Serrano, one Jalapeño, for $2.95. (I can see the pasty white Vermonter saying -- "hey, here's a plastic souvenir case of the Habañero I almost ate"). A place where the managers wear kelly-green smocks, and the clerks all wear matching red aprons and white collared shirts. Every ten minutes or so, the overhead sprayers come on in the vegetable bins in the produce section, and speakers play the sounds of thunder and rain. Up the alley towards the meat department, a large LCD screen constantly plays videos of fake talk show hosts, telling you how to prepare various meals -- "make sure to add the mustard to the mayonnaise" -- or how to arrange your drinking glasses in the correct order for a formal setting. Up front, a portly lady with a pissed off look disputes the price she paid on "Mountain Dew" soda -- apparently the sale items were in a big display that included cans only, and she had bought bottles. I don't think she'll be worrying tonight about whether the "Mountain Dew" glass is to the left or the right of the white wine and champagne glasses. Filling a wall to the right of the cash registers is the bread section, where you can get 49 different kinds of white bread. Even the four selections of "multi-grain" or whole wheat bread are so squishy and soft you wonder if they will survive the trip home in the bag underneath the Serrano pepper. They don't ask "Paper or Plastic?" -- you just get plastic bags at the checkout stand.
Dad doesn't like to have a sign out on the road so that people can see it as they drive up. He has a fancy oval sign with "Crocker Hill" carved in ornate letters. It is down the driveway a ways. So when we had to accept delivery on some furniture, Gloria persuaded him to put a temporary sign up at the road. It is a giant piece of sheetrock, with a penned arrow and "Crocker" in letters, leaning up against a sawhorse, with orange safety streamers. Shortly after he put it up, a van full of tourists with thick Caribbean accents came rolling down the driveway. "Do you have any Crocker's, Mon?" My dad answers "Yes". After a few confusing exchanges, it is revealed that they are looking for Croker fish. Turns out this is a Caribbean delight. I don't think they'll find any in New England.
I've been to Heaven, and to Hell. Heaven wakes you up with warm, yellow sunshine and smells like fresh cut grass, like hay, daylilies, wet forest, like lavender. Hell is the inside of a hospital, with endless corridors, where there is no day, no night, and no exit.
Tuesday, August 13, 2002
I once fell in love with a delightful young woman, Katie, whom I met standing in line for the transbay bus during the BART train strike in San Francisco. It was a wonderful time, like the days after snowstorms in Brooklyn, when people talk to each other in public for no reason. Like the bonding effect of a war, or an earthquake, the BART train operator's strike brought people together against a common adversary, but without the pangs of fear and dread, or the pain of loss. Mornings at the bus stops were jovial and communal, sharing of information between allies. Evening commutes were souplines of the weary. Waiting in the transbay terminal in long lines, with no anger or blame (not early in the strike, at any rate), was still the pack of allies, but now some of us were war-weary veterans. Katie tapped me in line to ask if the "C" bus was the same as the "F" -- an important distinction if we were not to be lost in the miles of East Oakland with no BART train to save us. I assured her that the "F" had always been the best bet to Berkeley, and was immediately lost in her sparkling, blue eyes. Eyes that were conduits of pure electricity. My brain raced to come up with additional dialog, but none came -- I was dumbstruck. Katie was so calm and easy to be with. Moments after meeting me in line, she followed me onto the bus and just plopped down in the seat next to me, a compatriot in the communal strife. I relaxed, and we chatted on the way home, amazed at the very long route of the bus in comparison to the train, made longer by a bizarre string of events. Various denizens demanded special services, either demanding to be allowed off the bus at improper stops, or demanding to remain on though intoxicated. At one point the bus driver hit a bicyclist while rounding a corner. The cyclist walked away, sans bicycle. We filled out witness cards the driver handed out to everyone. No problem: one more task in the communal duty!
I'll spare you the details, but Katie continued to amaze me with her ease and her eyes. Some times we would have long conversations, sometimes we would just look at each other, and communicate silently. Finally, half a year later when we were both free of our mates for different reasons, I made a pass at Katie, and was rebuffed completely. We often hugged, and this time, as she stood just inside my front door, I went in for a kiss. Katie squirmed and beat a hasty retreat. The door swung into my face as she scrambled through the not-quite-wide-enough opening. She seemed shocked that I took our ease and excitement with each other as grounds for a relationship, even though it was she who had declared us soulmates. We talked about it a bunch, but no amount of processing brought us any closer. I waited for her to change her mind for several months, agonizing every time I hung out with her, feeling lost in her eyes and bright smiling face. Finally I accepted the truth, but couldn't handle continuing to be her friend. She left for a trip to Germany and I ignored her after that.
I dredge up Katie because I was struck by a moment that brought it all back, years later, while swimming in a swimming hole I built in the mill brook that runs at the foot of my folk's property in Brownsville.
For three years of summers I worked on that swimming hole, carrying rocks to the dam site, dredging the creek bottom with bare hands, grunting underwater, holding my breath while trying to move two hundred pound rocks. My brothers and friends laid raw their fingertips to help. My largest brother, Danny, and I once moved a boulder onto the dam that would have immobilized an economy car down on its axle were it loaded into the back seat. A three foot diameter sphere of solid granite, it could not be lifted, but could be rolled, underwater, sumo-wrestler-style. This year I figured out the final solution to the engineering limits that had kept previous years' efforts to mere splashing holes. I redesigned the dam to be wider at the base. I laid up the walls carefully like the dry stone walls that wander through Vermont's woods, stacked by poor farmers around what were sheep pastures at the time. The sheep farmers herded Morino sheep, made available by a deal between New England traders and Napoleon's conquests in Spain. The Morino sheep are gone now from Vermont, but the walls still stand. So, taking my cue, I stacked the rock carefully, to a splendid six feet in height. Then I used 3 mil plastic sheeting from the hardware store to line the dam and the sandy bottom at the inside foot of the dam. Putting on the sheets was an exercise in timing. The water rushing through the rocks would suck the plastic in, wrapping the rocks tightly like vacuum-packed bags of dried fruit. Before that moment, the twenty foot long sheets would undulate underwater like giant sea jellyfish, threatening to entwine me in their slimy grasp. Finally the plastic was in place, lapped about a foot over the top of the wall for future expansion. Then the water level rose, and, excited by the progress, a friend and I stacked more rocks in delicate balance on top of the sturdy wall, propping up the plastic until the water spilled over the top. We had managed to raise the level of the water some three feet above it's natural level -- eleven thousand cubic feet of water.
For two weeks we enjoyed a wonderful swimming hole. Six feet deep in spots, longer than an olympic swimming pool, it was calm and cool, with diving and sunning rocks around its edges. We wore goggles and swam underwater with the fish in the green, clear depths around the submerged rock islands we used to walk on. We rafted. We floated. We dove. We swam the backstroke, unafraid.
I was told by a neighbor that hindering the stream flow was illegal, with fines being immediately applicable if we were caught. The fines could be five or ten thousand dollars. I dejectedly gathered up my brother Dan and his son William, and asked them to come down for a final swim in our personal lake before I had to remove the plastic sheets.
I swam under the clear water, floating, gliding, taking in the light for the last time, like staring into Katie's brilliant, endless blue eyes, knowing I'd never be her boyfriend.
Then I surfaced, and with a final survey of the lake we created, Danny and I pulled back the slimy plastic sheets and unleashed the torrents of whitewater.
For two days I was too depressed to go look at what once was a happy swimming hole. But life went on, with its balmy flow of country retreat living. The small boys were still happy to play there. For tiny William, there were still overhead deep spots. Danny and I felled a "widowmaker" (a standing, dead birch tree) with a handsaw. On its way down, the trunk of the deadwood hung up in another tree, perfectly balanced straight up, then, with more persuasion, came down with a satisfying crash. The boys spent all day down at the tiny puddle behind the useless rock wall of the dam. I built a fire and we roasted bockwurst sausages over our firepit outside. Then after the relaxing, sumptuous meal, Gloria announces that she and Dad have decided to sell the Brownsville place. I try to keep my voice calm and ask them about what their pleasures and fears are, and nervously tap a marshmallow-sticky willow branch against the table. I'm outraged at the inexorability of time and events. I hate to agree with that asshole George Bush, but since September 11, the world has changed. For me, everything seems simultaneously inevitable and unpredictable. For me, this is one small loss in a year of huge personal loss. My folks' announcement is a pull on the plastic that held this place, this summer retreat, together. The years flow out. The future drops away.
Thursday, August 28, 2002
Well, after some negotiations, the Folks and I have agreed that I'll buy the Brownsville house from them. This is exciting -- Dad and Gloria and my brothers and sisters and their appurtenances can come visit in the summers, and I finally get to realize my dream of living in the country. And I, and perhaps my folks, don't have to face losing this place.
The sticky point is whether I can build a rental/winter house up near the road in the 3 acre meadow that is flat and cleared and has more sunlight and views. It is THE commercial place to put a year-round house. It is everyone's understanding that this was stipulated at the time of the deed restriction with the Human Society. They monitor the property now for compliance as an animal sanctuary. Except the allowance does not appear in the deed restriction document. It's not clear if the deal will live if the meadow is closed to building.
Dealing with the folks is a giant river of shit. I go between wanting to just walk away, to just saying "oh, they're old and curmudgeonly, ain't that cute". Well, not cute, but you get the point.
I swing between the manic and the depressed:
I'll finish out this house, add a rental house, build out some sleeping cabins for Summer, and have jazz camp for a few one-week sessions in the Summer, when it's hot in NY. Get some jazz musicians to come up here for pay and retreat, get sponsored or paid kids to come up here, have the musicians teach music during the day, have performances at night. This place is a natural retreat and performance space. The aroma of barbecue fills the house and the locals, students and staff sit back, fat and happy with pesto pasta and BBQ, and enjoy live music in the greatroom. On hot nights, we have brass quartets (trombone/trombone/french horn/tuba) play out on the porch, and we listen as we wander around the lawn under the trees.
I'll freeze here in Winter, it'll be dark, I'll never work on the house, I'll get fired, I'll go poor and default on the mortgage, no one will visit me, and I'll be too depressed and poor to go back to New York City, I'll shoot myself one cold and dark January morn out of fear and depression. My coyote-eaten remains won't be found until the snow melts in May.
Memories wash in every day, of the house where I grew up, on La Loma street in the Berkeley hills. I still feel the loss of that place, that house that even at age twelve I wanted to inherit and live in forever. I learned that I would not live in that house forever when my sister Martha came down to my basement room one morning. With a casual tone and a smirk on her face, she told me that mom and dad were going to split up, and that she would go with dad, and I would go with mom to live in an apartment. An apartment?! I had lived in that huge, solid, three story house with my own bedroom, with freedom to crawl through the basement, the attic, and build forts in the yards. The place had a laundry chute you could drop bundles of sheets down and listen as they wooshed to the basement. The basement had space for my dad's woodshop, my brother's darkroom, the laundry room, and a room with a 14 foot ceiling that became my bachelor pad when I was in junior high. The laundry chute emptied out into a giant wooden bin you could stand in, and there was a huge concrete sink. The water heater was an on-demand, cast iron monster which had rings of gas jets inside surrounding a spiral of water pipes. My sister and I would open its door and gaze into the belly inferno at the rings of fire that came to life when someone ran the hot water. From the third story West bedroom and sunroom we had a view across the shimmering San Francisco Bay. I remember that room:
I am standing in the room, on a bright, warm day, watching Martha and her friend Minnie, and their "guys", Shay and Huey, playing foosball. Minnie is beautiful, and is always sweet to me. She has golden hair, big eyes, and fine, small white wrists with golden arm hair, and wears thin silver bracelets. And she has something none of the girls my age have: breasts. I'm in love with Minnie. She's three years older and I'm sure she just thinks of me as Martha's cute little brother. I want her to think of me the way she thinks of Huey. I want to kiss her the way I see Martha's friends making out when she has parties. Martha tells me to split. But Huey and Shay allow me to stay and play foosball, saying "he's a guy, and he can pee standing up, so he's cool." I'm grateful and impressed with these guys and their giant belt buckles, their roach clips hanging off the pockets of their frayed bell-bottom jeans, their long, greasy hair.
There were stairways, landings, large rooms, seven bedrooms, two top-floor sun porches, and walk-in closets for chasing each other and playing hide-and-seek. I remember going to spray cars with water as they drove around our bend in the road:
From my hiding place behind the juniper bush, I let loose a torrent of water when I hear the car, before I can see it. With a stream of water in mid-air, I see that the car is a black and gold T-top firebird with the tops off and the windows down, and the largest, Mac-Daddy-est black guys I've ever seen. My aim couldn't have been better if I had planned it: the passenger takes the hit right in the bridge of his enormous gold sunglasses -- the water soaks his afro and he yells, then spots me. They will come back to kill me. I run upstairs. Where to hide? I peer out of my dad's bedroom window: nothing yet! I hide in his deep walk-in closet, under his stuffy, tweed, university coats. I am petrified, but the safety of the house and the depth of the closet prevails and I am safe.
In the enormous living room there was room for a Steinway, and a king-size fold out couch where five kids could sleep for slumber parties. The large dining room housed our oval, walnut table, shiny and smelling of the lemon Pledge it was my job to apply, where the five of us sat and had long, chatty dinners.
I remember La Loma being sold when my parents split up. I remember helping my mom prepare it for sale. We painted, we scraped, we went through gallons and gallons of drywall joint compound making sickly cake-frosting designs on the ceilings with the joint compound, attempting to hide the huge plaster cracks.
And now I would be relegated to an apartment while my sister went with my dad to live in a new house?! Ever since we left that place, La Loma, I dream about it. In my dreams, I am constantly trying to "repair" La Loma -- and I am the only one capable of holding it all together, able to rebuild it. In the dreams, the house stands, but has rotten studs; it has a leaking roof, or a collapsing foundation, or snakes of wires and plumbing hopelessly tangled in the walls. Now, with Brownsville, some part of me feels that it is my duty to hold this place together again. This place where we have outdoor barbecues under the Milky Way and shooting stars, and we brothers and sons go swimming together.
And now I wonder why I have to have more than one house to feel secure. I still won't be secure until I also have a building in NY and a farm in Virginia in addition to my house in Berkeley and this house and land in Vermont. My folks having to sell this place is a huge blow to my world view, that as retirement progresses, one still must worry about money and a secure place to be.
It is very hard to be around dad full time this year. Today we were sharing a nice moment admiring the view from the deck, the deck that I finally convinced him would be a grand idea and finally got approval this year to buy decking for, and his view, the one he worked for 15 years with a chainsaw and a weedwacker to create. We both agreed that the view from the deck would be worth him coming to visit in future summers. The he said: "I have another fantasy -- that if I come down the driveway to visit, and I see a chimney coming out of the roof anywhere between the middle of the house and this end, I'm turning around and going back home." He means that if a woodstove is placed anywhere in the living room, he won't visit this house. He's also admonished me to never place a woodstove in the fireplace, either. He admits that the fireplace will never heat the house, and that as designed, it would suck more warm air out of the house and up the flue than it provided in heat. And he has said that I should never put glass doors on the fireplace. So today's statement is backed by a whole canon of statements about the proper design of this house. What is different about today's dictum is that it carries the weight of an ultimatum -- change the design of the house in any way that I don't approve of and I won't visit you.
Sometimes I watch him when he falls asleep sitting in a chair or on the couch. Propped up perfectly, except for his head, lolled forward, chin and mouth wrinkled closed, or backwards, mouth agape. He looks dead. A wave of fear starts in my stomach and climbs up to my jaw, and I realize that any day, he could, in fact, be dead. His physical condition is very different this year, and his mental state is very different. He's so infuriating at times, yet in these moments I find myself praying that the time we have left won't be over just yet. I'm relieved to see his chest rise as he breathes. It's scary to sit and talk with him about the future. He says stuff like "well, I'll never build another one of those," or "I can go home and throw away my 75 boxes of research material -- I won't need them anymore." He's looking at the few years left in his life, and some of them may not contain the energy required to do carpentry or write books. I get tired sometimes, but I can not conceive of knowing I'll never write another book, or build another house. He talks about not being able get on a plane in the next five years. In the big picture, that's 80 years old -- not bad. But for now he's still schlepping building materials around, and running power tools.
I'm so excited about getting this place, working on it, planning for it, carrying on the work he's done. But I can't talk to him about it. When I do, he cuts me off saying, "Oh, I can't even talk about that!" As though the idea of any of his plans being changed would cause him immediate pain. Some topics of house improvement are OK, most are not. I can't mention putting in a vegetable garden, or breaking up the vast lawn, or putting in a window larger than 2 feet by 2 feet in the bedroom, or new lighting or woodstoves, or fireplace improvements, or relocating the clotheswasher, without offending him. I know it is because the process of leaving the house is so painful for him.
A lot of times we are quiet and don't talk much. There seem to be so many topics I can't broach, and others I'm afraid to. I want to ask him directly about what it's like being old, if he's afraid, etc. In the past, when I've asked him directly about anything, he's always side-stepped the questions. Sometimes he'll loop back days later with a little prepared speech that addresses one of the questions.
Some evenings we sit back and relax into our roles of the previous year, sharing stories, talking late at night, and I cherish these moments.
I find myself wanting to slip into his role, his life, or my view of his life. I walk around the yard the way he does, admiring certain views, special trees. I find myself gazing at the house for long moments, just appreciating it. It's more than admiring a building: I'm trying to absorb his legacy.