I knew she was a Canadian. I knew she wrote both novels and poetry. And I observed that everyone at school who read her was female.
—Kevin Smokler, writing about one of my favorite authors, in his forthcoming book Practical Classsics
Our old animal instincts sometimes come in handy. To live in the city, for example, at times one has to be an asshole.
I don’t like being an asshole. No matter how times I gotta “do what I gotta do” (I don’t like using that worn cliche but sometimes it fits), I never get used to it. I have an affliction called moral fortitude and it refuses to be treated by time. (Another thing I’ve never gotten used to is getting my blood drawn, which I have to do every couple of weeks to get my INR read, but still I always look away. I can’t stand the sight of the needle puncturing my skin and the blood flowing outward of my body, because I get dizzy, not at the sight of departing blood but the suggestion that life itself is departing.)
This morning, I was trying to get on the train when a car got in my way. The car was coming in my direction so I decided to wait for it; meanwhile, the train was already parked at the stop and any minute the open doors would close. All I needed to do was wait for the quick second it would take to let the car pass, except that it didn’t. Instead, it pulled up right in front of me because apparently someone was getting dropped off — really, the car had to stop right in front of me? Couldn’t the driver have bothered to think that the person waiting on the sidewalk probably wanted to get on the train, too?
Just as the passenger in the car was getting out, I made my way around it with such impatience that I said: “UGH.”
The passenger, tall, hair slicked back and possibly capable of throttling me, heard this and confronted me as we were climbing aboard the train.
“Excuse me?” he said.
When I’m caught up in a mood, Linc, I tend to react according to that mood. Here my mood was impatience and it was merrily ignoring the sensibility that lurked in the background of reaction.
I found an empty seat and busied myself with settling in so that it appeared that talking to the man was the least of my priorities.
“You were in my way,” I said, unzipping my backpack and reaching for a Vanity Fair.
I looked at him and grinned. He held his gaze for a second and then shook his head. He turned around and grumbled something to himself and then I rolled my eyes. That was the end of that.
Later, at the stop where I needed to get off, someone was again in my way. This time it was a trio of tall someones, and the thing about MUNI trains is that when they are street level you have to walk down the steps to the pavement and it feels more like you are deplaning on a tarmac. When I made it to the pavement, three dudes were just standing there in front of me, presumably waiting for me to go around them.
“You can’t get on the train if you don’t let me get out,” I said sharply.
The tall someones were clad in Casual Friday plaid shirts (like me, but that’s beside the point) and looked like they were headed downtown to their tech or finance or video game jobs. Their faces held expressions of abruptness, not so much that the wind was knocked from them but rather that their worlds were upended. Then I saw quick flashes of irritation but by that moment I was already filled with the kind of satisfaction equal only to being a kid on Christmas morning. I got what I wanted; grudgingly, they had stepped aside.
I guess I’m telling you all this because, before I make another attempt to pause these never-to-be-sents, I want to tell you that sometimes I am a prick but not always; that, in fact, I am more of a shy, guilt-consumed Catholic type with the air of pacifism or, worse, who seems without a backbone. I like to think that I have learned to pick my battles and that I strike when the time demands it, sort of like the protagonist in The Perks of Being A Wallflower. (I recommend that you read the book first, although the movie wasn’t so bad. It’s less a matter of the old book-better-than-the-movie critique and more that in this case the movie succeeded if only as a companion piece.)
Yes, that’s right: Linc, I am picking now as a good time to step away. The Giants are riding a wave of their own victorious authoring into the NLCS and quite possibly the second World Series victory of the second decade of the 21st century. Despite the total misreading and misinterpretation of Mayan prophecy, many believe that this is the year that the world will end, so you guys ought to give it to them if only in the form of exasperated trolls typing ye olde cliches online: “It’s the apocalypse, Giants won the World Series again.” As for me, I present my own ending, however fleeting — sadly, history has shown that I always return sooner than later. Maybe this time will take.
(I’ve always wondered what is supposed to happen after the New Heaven and the New Earth are created as described in the Book of Revelation. There is supposed to be a 1,000 year reign of peace — and then what? To me, this proves that God may not have played as much of a hand in Scripture as we think, because it is human nature to not think long-term. Let’s ponder this. Our ancestors migrated from site to site and planned only to use the land until the weather or resources got prohibitive, and then they moved again to where there were more resources or better weather, or both, only to be chased away by predators. Our ancestors really only needed to think about what was in front of them, and through the centuries this hasn’t changed much, repeatedly manifested as recessions and depressions, mortgages and lines of credit — buy now, pay later. Pay a lot, for a long time. Forever.)
Let’s see. Let’s see how long I can hold out. I’m exhausted. Writing is also an affliction, a push and pull, tug of war, blessing and a curse, at once incurable and haunting, you get the pill but the memory of the illness stays forever, constantly observing but also expending energy to make sense of the world by transforming everything into narrative. Even more exhausting is addressing everything to an imaginary boyfriend. Enough. Reality, or the opposite of imagination, is enough. I have run many miles and in terms of these never-to-be-sents and I have been running for years. A project that began in 2009 as a result of a newfound baseball fandom can rest with the confidence that the new fan in question will still be around, will still be existing as a writer and a fan, a son and friend and, maybe, someone’s husband.
But I can’t go away without recounting yesterday. Because there is no better word to describe the weight of it against time and the human heart, they have overused the word “historic.”
10-11-12. That was the day.
9 innings for a baseball game. 13 for the day that I was born in April.
April: the traditional start of the regular baseball season.
9, 10, 11, 12, 13. That was the sequence of numbers that occurred to me early that morning before I left for the NCIBA conference.
I had wasted time debating whether or not I should mention it. With mug of coffee perched reliably at my side, I typed and erased and then re-typed the message into the status update window on Facebook. Everyone there was heralding the coming of this day and I wanted to have my say, too; but I’m superstitious and I didn’t want to unwittingly contribute a jinx in case you guys didn’t win — which, I suppose, doesn’t make me all that superstitious if I acknowledge, even with only one eye open toward the reality, the elusiveness of certainty.
If 10-11-12 was a long day for you, then it was certainly so epic for me that at 6:19pm my brain had ceased functioning on basic levels. At that time, I was in the Mission and I had decided to write this never-to-be-sent at the Borderlands cafe, which is connected to the bookstore, also called Borderlands. The bookstore came first. I remember when this cafe was just an idea in a newsletter. It is a bittersweet feeling to know that I have lived in San Francisco for so long that an idea in a newsletter has become a reality, and that the cafe itself has gone through many iterations since then: for example, there used to be a lot more couches, and in the beginning the cafe was not a cash-only establishment.
Also, I feel old.
But in a good way: it’s nice to be a native of some place other than where I was raised, some place that I chose on my own. Anyway, I was talking about the untimely demise of my brain. One reason why I decided to drop by Borderlands is because of the manager, a nice gal named Jude. The failure of my brain resulted in my having accidentally asked for Jade, and both the bookseller at the register and Jude-proper both responded to this transgression by rightfully staring at me like I’m nuts. Later, I bought a mug of Mexican hot chocolate to-stay that cost $3.80 but I only gave the clerk three bucks; I was tripped up by how one of the dollars that I gave was actually four quarters. (At the bookstore where I work, we are encouraged to always count the change as we’re handing it back to the customers. This directive at first seemed laughably parental, to which my initial reaction was to bristle with the insolence of an adolescent. But I have discovered that it is helpful, and practical.)
“I said three eighty,” the clerk lectured.
My face went hot. “Right.”
The act of digging in my wallet felt like I was digging myself into a whole. I ended up with not enough bills and loose change, and I had to make her break a ten. Later, when she announced a Chai latte to go, I was lost in thought and went for it even though a Chai latte was not what I had ordered and I was even wondering to myself why it was in a disposable cup and not a mug.
“No, that’s not for you,” said the clerk, with an admirably moderated terseness.
I know that we all go through slip-ups like this from time to time, and that I should give myself a little credit since by that point I had been awake without interruption for quite a while. In athletics, it seems like you have to be on-point without interruption to such a degree that the expectation placed on you by others — and yourself — is that if you’re going to be so great at a sport, then you ought to be amazing in the rest of your life. The first example that comes to mind for me is Jim Bouton, who had a great career but wasn’t able to reconcile it with having a great marriage, at least the first one. By the way, did you hear about Danny DeVito and Rhea Pearlman? Married for all those years and then they up and called it quits. Reminded me of another recent celebrity divorce of old-marrieds, between Ben Vereen and his wife. It almost makes me want to totally ditch the dream of happily ever after, of even the practical notion that a relationship can last until death if you just work at it, and to say that if you want to leave after eighteen years and just enough time to raise one or maybe two good kids, then fine. Let’s go our separate ways…
Athletes aren’t the only ones who have trouble solving their jobs with life. Angelina Jolie became an actress, humanitarian and a babe even though her famous father wasn’t there for her. Alice Walker, also a humanitarian, and a legend of literature, sucked as a mom. Baseball players go pro at the expense of 162 games a year, so it should be OK if they forget to take out the trash every once in a while. As for my own brain, the visage that is my perpetually youthful face conceals productivity that is incapable of lasting uninterrupted from 5:30am onward to nine, ten o’clock in the evening. (It feels just like yesterday — five, ten years ago, really — that I could have gone on well past midnight.) The good news is that I usually end up doing fine if I can find time for a nap — or drink coffee, which keeps me running but not sharply. And I get cranky.
Last month, Jude was just an e-mail address. I was stressed out trying to promote this party at the store that I was throwing for The Hobbit. You don’t strike me as a Lord of the Rings fan and, to tell you the truth, I only watched the movies, and half-assedly as just a way to hang out with my friends. I was exactly the wrong person to plan a 75th anniversary party for The Hobbit, but when it comes to in-store events, it’s my job to take care of these things even if the subject matter isn’t something that is directly interesting to me. If the store had wanted to hire a LOTR specialist, I’m sure they would have done it already. Why they would, I don’t know. I’m being hypothetical — stay with me here, Mr. Moneyshot. My point is that the events coordinator has to be involved with any kind of event. The problem with the LOTR part was that even though it was a good business move, sci-fi/fantasy has never moved very well at our store unless it has been broad Stephen King and Game of Thrones-type of stuff. I’d tapped into my usual promotional resources but as the night of the party approached I was getting real antsy. There wasn’t much buzz about the party. No one was calling or e-mailing about it.
Reaching out to Jude was for me an act of desperation. I didn’t know what to expect from her, Linc. I thought she might bitch me out for being so bold as to as for help from a competing bookstore. I also didn’t want to have to spend the rest of my life avoiding my favorite hangout spot. Why I had expected the manager of another bookstore to respond with anything less than professionalism, I don’t know. I’m melodramatic and I overthink everything.
The e-mail that I sent was shyly composed with word choices like “I know you’re a competing bookstore and all” and “we indies stick together.” Corny shit, at least to me. I didn’t hear from Jude for another two days. I started mourning.
Not only did Jude echo the sentiments that I thought were corny in my e-mail, she also tweeted about the event to all of their followers! This made a big difference, man. I hadn’t expected the event to be a blockbuster but we got a good crowd, half of which had said they heard about it on SF Funcheap (one of the resources that I like to use), while another mentioned Twitter, and I could only assume that was Jude’s doing.
The older I get, the more localized I become. I’ve had twelve good years to crisscross San Francisco whenever I felt like it but now I live in one neighborhood and generally stick to it if I’m not going to work. Whereas I used to go to the Mission to hang out at Borderlands, among other places, now I only ever go there just for church. Part of it, I guess, is the laziness that comes with age: been there, done that, and it’s OK.
NCIBA is the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. Each year they host a conference of what’s hot in the publishing world and how indie bookstores can be part of that. Many have questioned my decision to jump ship without much of a plan, much less any savings, and dive into the chilly Atlantic depths of a new career. Several months ago, at the end of May when I first saw the opening for a full-time position at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, I knew that I had to apply for the job even though I was already in a job that was making enough money for me to both make a living and enjoy typical pleasures of adulthood like weekend getaways. The job that I was in also was something that I was good at, with skills that I had spent a lifetime learning — but the lure of an old dream was too good to pass up. I had to try.
Three weeks later, the store hired me.
The monumentality of that choice took months to unfold and finally struck me yesterday. In the midst of baseball fever, being at the NCIBA conference was the proof that I needed. After I registered, in a corny moment of solitude — this happened in an empty corridor of the convention center where the conference was happening — I placed my bag and my conference program on a bench and proceeded to carefully remove from the program the corresponding badge holder with the slip of paper that listed JOE RAMELO and BOOKS INC OPERA PLAZA. The corny part happened when I hung the badge holder around my neck and I took a breath. Oh my God, I thought. I’m here. I’m a bookseller.
There were three sessions that I was most interested in attending. One of the sessions was actually an author lunch, and I have to admit, Linc: the main selling point of that particular event was that the description in the program said there would be a buffet lunch. Being at this conference was the representation of a dream come true, but being there also was still work, part of the job, and when one is working one likes to have perks every once in a while if only as motivation to keep going. But just as important as the food were two of the group of authors that would be speaking at the lunch. I met Kevin Smokler some years ago at the San Francisco Writers Conference. We had sat down for a chat. I no longer remember what we talked about but generally it was the same type of stuff that an aspiring writer would ask an expert, and Kevin handily played well the role of expert: keep at it, he said, make connections and never stop writing. Etc. We shook hands, but that was not to be the end of our contact. A few months later, we were corresponding on an e-mail thread and he offered to introduce me to someone Important and Helpful. At the prospect of meeting this Important and Helpful person, I slinked away at my keyboard and then wrote to Kevin that it’s OK, there was no need for me to be introduced.
“I don’t think so,” Kevin wrote back. “You need to make connections and when the opportunity arises you have to take it.” He said other things too, and in plain text the things that someone says always seems to take on a life of their own, always seems to sound more than what it really is. I never did end up meeting the Important and Helpful person. And even though we would later reconnect on Facebook, I thought I had disappointed Kevin.
Around the same time that I had attended the San Francisco Writers Conference, my afterwork schedule included a class at the Writing Salon. I took a class taught by Joshua Mohr, who at the time was clearly already experienced enough to teach a Writing Salon class but was not yet, I think, the “local literary lion” that he was rightly described as yesterday at NCIBA. You would like Josh’s books, Linc. I don’t want to resort to an analogy conveniently aligned with the gender binary, but Josh’s books seem like the perfect fit for most guys, especially guys who don’t think of themselves (or admit to others) as readers. You might like Damascus.
Josh’s class was good but these days I am embarrassed at some of the shit that I wrote. One short story was a science fiction piece involving the end of the world and only two characters, one who was choosing the apocalypse as a good time to break up with his significant other. One half of that pair was very clearly Josh and the other half was very clearly supposed to be me, although if Josh figured this out, then he skillfully maintained professional distance by not acknowledging the shameless resemblance. One of these days he is going to pat me on the back and mention it in the kind of joking passing that guys like to do, like how you all pat each others asses. Maybe he will squirt champagne in my eye.
I separately reunited with Josh and Kevin, for I had befriended each of them in two separate instances that may as well have been separate worlds. Each reunion was like old times, at least for myself. I thought back to that magical year when I had taken Josh’s class and when I’d attended the SFWC, and remembered not only how much I loved to write but how dreamily and relentlessly I had pursued the goal of getting published. I am not saying that I am now back to wanting to become published, but without these never-to-be-sents as an easy outlet for my writing aspirations, whatever they may be, then I can focus on my day job, and other other hobbies — and, yes, maybe even finishing a story. Maybe even a novel. Maybe submitting it.
NCIBA was a good opportunity for me to make some connections and I probably could have made more if I stuck around for the cocktail reception that they had later in the afternoon. But I was worn out, Linc, and I think that it wasn’t only because I’d been awake for so long but because of how I am a natural introvert and I can only stand to be outgoing for so long. I took a shuttle back to BART and that was how I ended up in the Mission, where it had begun to rain. In fact, all day long the sky had been pregnant with gloomy weather. It looked like winter but strangely it wasn’t this that affected my mood so much as legitimate physical exhaustion. In truth, I was motivated to write, in reflection of the day that had passed, and about the goodbye that it is time that I grant to you, imaginary or otherwise.
In the last three years, many dreams have come true. I have seen the Giants win a World Series. I lost my virginity. I became a bookseller. The only way that these dreams manifested into reality was through time and effort. Instead of overnight sensations, they were purchased at the price of years of thought and persistence. For one good dream to be earned there are many nightmares. The time that Jesus spent here couldn’t have happened unless humans were already so wayward that we needed Him in the first place. The team of Giants that made the 2010 World Series did not look exactly like the team that had begun that season — and who knows which of you get along with one another and which of you can’t stand each other? And as for my night with Adae? Did I mention that at first we were on a sidewalk? We were drunk and we just decided to, you know, get to business. We were on the sidewalk of a hill at night in my old neighborhood which is on the bad side of town. We were giggling like idiots and the cement was cold and little pebbles were stabbing into my back. Under the blare of alcohol it was adventurous but lurking in the back of my thoughts was that this doesn’t feel too great. The night got better and I’m glad that I got to know Adae as both a friend and a hook-up, but man, I still spent years as a virgin and then on the night I finally lost it, things started out a little sloppily.
The finish line is picture perfect in that it captures the goal, but consider as well what the camera doesn’t see. Whenever I am at a party, I always find myself taking a mental picture of everyone who is there and steeling myself for the effort it takes to imbue myself as a seamless component of the social atmosphere. But I have another eye that is aware of all that exists outside of the frame. I find myself thinking about people who aren’t there, who didn’t make it to the party, not because they weren’t invited or otherwise good enough but because something else in life got to them, perhaps something better. Until the next never-to-be-sent, Linc, let this final picture of me be one in which I’m smiling — because I don’t regret writing to an imaginary boyfriend, because I’m lucky that the Giants happened to win a World Series the year after I became a fan, because I’m a bookseller, an eligible bachelor, a customer in a cafe looking out the window toward people having coffee at a table even though it is pouring outside. We San Franciscans are so weird.