13 April 2008

Coast To Coast

Wow, after a very hectic week on America's two most prominent coasts, I'm back mouldering away in Brooklyn amid piles of un-put away laundry, papers, musical instruments and unrealized dreams and ambitions.

For a couple days I was completely Off The Grid, as in utterly devoid and bereft of any internet access, a sobering and slightly frightening predicament to find myself in, though I suppose I should be more frightened by the realization of how utterly dependent I've become on this still relatively recent invention. One of my stock Boring/Grumpy Old Man anecdotes involves the first time I ever heard of "the internet," which would have been sometime around 1985 or 86, when a friend named Tom Jennings told me about something he was working on called FidoNet, which, he promised me, would allow "computers to talk to each other." "But why," I asked him, more seriously than not, "would they want to do that?"

Now I'm more likely to go into a cold sweat worrying about what might happen to civilization if terrorists or space invaders managed to get their hands on an electronic death ray that would wipe out all the information currently stored in cyberspace. Would the result be something akin to what happened to the Native Americans when disease, warfare and starvation eliminated their oral tradition-based culture's equivalent of the Library of Congress, i.e., the generation of elders who knew how most things were done? I suspect it very well might.

Around midweek I did manage to nip out to a cafe that offered wireless service, but such was my schedule that I was barely able to do more than make a quick check of my email to ascertain that nobody was either offering or demanding large sums of money before getting back to the twin purposes of my quick visit to California, which were to help out my mother with a few things and to visit my old dentist for the routine checkup I should have had some months ago but haven't, owing to my seeming inability to find a suitable dentist in New York.

Everything was going along swimmingly on that front until the dentist encountered a suspicious spot on one of my back teeth. It's fairly minor stuff compared with, I imagine, how news of a suspicious spot on, say, the lung, would be greeted, but it was still a bit troubling, in that I was due to return to New York very early the next morning yet was being told that I needed immediate root canal treatment if I wanted to save the tooth in question.

Now I'm one of those people who has never had a root canal, and who wasn't even too clear what it is, but that is no longer the case. By 4 o'clock that afternoon I was sitting in the very expensively furnished (and when I saw the bill I could see how and why) offices of an endodontist, who proceeded to prop open my jaw with a large chunk of rubber and drill and poke away in there for the worse part of an hour and a half. Not painful, really, apart from the aforementioned bill and the difficulty of restoring my jaw to normal functioning once the rubber block had finally been removed, but not the way I would have preferred to spend my last day in California, either.

Other California adventures: I went to Oakland, something I generally avoid doing unless absolutely necessary. And not just to the Berkeley-lite precincts of North Oakland's punk ghetto, but to the very heart of the beast in sad, disused downtown. My actual destination was the County Building, where I was going to try to persuade them that I didn't actually owe them thousands of dollars in 2001-2005 taxes for a company that I haven't owned since 1997.

It took me three tries to get through the metal detector at the building entrance (I usually have a much easier time of it at airports), which didn't fill me with confidence about the level of service I was likely to receive once inside: if they were that worried about being stabbed or shot by irate citizens, I reasoned, there must be a pretty high level of customer dissatisfaction.

But as it turned out, there were no long lines, no surly clerks, and the lady who waited on me didn't even seem to be especially incompetent. She simply told me there was "no record" of either me or the company that was being dunned for back taxes. Then why is it on my credit report, I asked, to be met with a shrug that was as eloquent as it was inarticulate.

My business done, I was free to wander around downtown for a couple hours, something I wouldn't recommend doing after dark, but which seemed perfectly - well, maybe not perfectly, but almost - safe at 11 in the morning when, one presumes, most villains hadn't yet roused themselves from crackhead slumber.

I had fond memories of the Oakland Museum, so I decided to revisit it for the first time in some 30 years, but just before I handed over my money, I fortunately caught sight of a sign informing potential patrons that the art and history wings would be closed for renovation until 2009. Since I don't remember ever seeing anything of interest in the Oakland Museum that didn't involve art or history, I decided the "special reduced" price of $6 would still be no bargain, and headed off to explore some of the mostly deserted back streets.

Bear in mind that this is a Wednesday morning, not a public holiday, and a beautiful, sunny day, yet very little is going on in the way of business, shopping, or anything else in the downtown of the Bay Area's third largest city. Even Berkeley's bedraggled downtown (its last "department store," Ross Dress For Less, is now a empty shell) was a hotbed of activity by comparison.

Sad? Very. Downtown Oakland is full of nice or at least decent looking apartments, both old and new, the weather is about as good as you get in this part of the Bay Area, there's a large junior college within walking distance, and tons of empty office and retail space, yet the place is languishing like some shabby urban district on the fringe of the third world. In fact it reminded me of films and photos I've seen of some South African cities, where rampant crime has turned once-thriving commercial districts into no-go areas for most legitimate activity.

To compare Oakland to South Africa would on most levels be gross hyperbole, but to the extent that citizens feel almost completely unprotected by the local police (during my three hours downtown I never saw a single cop), it is not. And the fact that despite hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and new construction, downtown Oakland still is an unhealthy shadow of the city it was 40 or 50 years ago speaks all the volumes you might want to read. Sad, really sad.

Meanwhile, back in the suburbs to the north, my old friends Pat and Erika ever so kindly donated a computer of theirs to my mother, which restored both her and myself to the wonderful world of dialup internet access. To my mother, who's never known anything else, this was great news indeed, but as someone who's been accustomed to broadband for quite a few years now, I must confess to being slightly agog at the amount of time it takes to send a simple email or even just get online at all. People live like this on a regular basis, I kept marveling?

Actually, it wasn't that big of a deal at all, really; I suspect I'm telling the story mainly as an extended way of excusing myself for no blog posts all week. What else happened in California? I was SO cold. The first two nights I woke up in the middle of the night dreaming of blizzards and icicles, and even after adding an additional two blankets, I still risked frostbite to any part of me that drifted out from under them.

Then on the morning I was due to come home, the winds died down, the sun rose in a clear blue sky, and a warmth and easy tranquility settled over the land. Even as I walked to the BART station at 5:45 am I could tell it was going to be a spectacular day, and as my plane took off a sight of San Francisco's alabaster spires gleaming and basking in the morning sun confirmed this.

I landed in a foggy, drizzly New York that seemed far closer to full-on spring than when I left it four days earlier, and went almost straight to the Weakerthans show in Williamsburg. As much as I was looking forward to seeing the Weakerthans (and Christine Fellows and A.A. Bondy) again, my principal mission, one I've been pursuing for some years now, was to bring together two of my favorite writers and musicians, John K. Samson and Aaron Cometbus. And this time it finally worked.

Not without some hitches, it's true; Aaron overslept and didn't show up at the club until after 11, and there was some funny business at the door when the bouncer demanded ID before letting him in, to which Aaron responded that he not only didn't have any, but also didn't need any. I can't imagine that line working on too many bouncers in this town, but as delivered by Aaron it worked as effectively as any Jedi mind trick. The bouncer's eyes just sort of glazed over and he was reduced to mumbling, "Well, you better bring it next time" as Aaron casually strolled past him.

And just as I'd always anticipated, John and Aaron hit it off wonderfully, to the point where I almost felt like a third wheel, though I did get included in a some of the photos. At one point Christine Fellows jumped up and started whirling Aaron around in some sort of exuberant Winnipeg-goes-to-Brooklyn dance, and then it was time to pack up the show, wave goodbye to the Weakerthans, and make our way back through the spectacular thunderstorm streets of Brooklyn.

I was completely soaked by the time I got home (Cometbus and his umbrella having departed at the subway stop some blocks away), but outside it was a warm spring night and inside I curled up next to the radiator. By morning the sun had come out again and the the early spring of morning had turned into almost summer by the time night rolled around. I was out all day, from South Brooklyn to Midtown to the East Village, and so, it seemed, was just about everyone else in New York City. You spend all winter dreaming about what it will be like when the warm weather finally comes back, and when it does, it's almost as though you don't know what to do except walk around marveling at it. Today the cold and clouds blew back in and it feels more like March again, but there's no longer any doubt in anyone's mind: winter is well and truly dead, and summer is slowly but surely steaming into sight.

1 comment:

Jersey Beat said...

I think it's great that your mom is using a computer. I could never get mine to go online, even though she was an avid reader and there were probably a million things she would have enjoyed doing.