Monday, May 01, 2006


Just about a year ago exactly, we were still living on Hillegass Avenue near Telegraph and the U.C. Berkeley campus. We were three blocks from my favorite bookstore, Moe's, and just around the corner was the 'Bateau Ivre,' a truly European-style coffee house named after a Rimbaud poem, which was a wonderful place to write and read.

Our apartment was the largest I'd ever lived in, had high ceilings, wood floors, Craftman details in the old Berkeley tradition. It had a butter-yellow kitchen with a wonderful old Wedgewood stove and, in the living room, there was a fireplace, which we used often on foggy Bay Area evenings. I was perfectly happy with our place during the week, but, somehow, always felt restless there on weekends. Our living room windows faced out on the street and, since we were on ground level, it was easy to feel that someone could look in on you. I wanted a place that made me feel coccooned.

But, despite the restlessness, it was home. Every evening our large ginger cat, Angus, would meet me on the driveway, waiting to give me his customary greeting: I would bend my nose down to him and he would rise up on his tiptoes to touch it with his own.

Angus had come to live with us while we were still living in San Francisco, but, though a friendly fellow from the start, he was cautious about adopting us as his family. We courted him for over a year, but still, he kept a certain feline distance. We had been living on Hillegass six months when a subtle change began to happen. His relationship to us became more possessive. He began to need to be in the same room as us and would sit calmly watching us as we brushed our teeth or took a bath. We respected his rituals---rituals are important to cats---and would endure the necessity of inviting him repeatedly before he would dain to jump up on the sofa or armchair into our laps. We also knew to treat him like the household sovereign he was and would coo and praise him continually, telling him how handsome and majestic he was (he would look upon us tolerantly and blink). Coming home, Brian would often pause as he turned the key and wait to hear Angus' pretty meow before opening the door.

He was not a vocal type--preferring the dignity of silence---but when he did meow, it was a sweet, plaintive cry. It sounded like a kitten's cry, though Angus was a big, 18 pound Tom. Somehow, this discrepancy was incredibly touching. Angus had lived ten years before Brian's sister met him in a shelter. We knew nothing concrete about those ten years and amused ourselves by trying to fill in the gaps with clues from Angus' habits and personality.

Certainly he had been loved before--he was too sweet-natured, trusting, and affectionate for it to be otherwise. It had taken him some time (18 months!) to warm up to us, which might have been explained by his having spent almost two years in the shelter and, in all that time, seeing so many people come and go, perhaps he'd learned not to attach himself to anyone in particular. He had chronic bowel trouble, which might have been a result of the long plane trip home from Massachusetts to California. If he had had it before, could this have been why he ended up in the shelter? It was hard to think of someone abandoning him because of it. Yet the problem did seem to be somehow psychological. We tried every variety of food, every type of litter box, medicines from various vets---the problem was sometimes severe (he underwent THREE enema treatments on one particular trip to the vet's), at other times it seemed to disappear. Because it seemed to be psychological, it was hard at times not to get frustrated with him. We'd find his "presents" as we came to call his little piles of hard poop, hidden in corners of the closet, behind the armchair, and, sometimes, in plain sight in the middle of the room. He couldn't bring himself to use the litterbox and so he would hold it in until he either became constipated, or he couldn't hold it in anymore. We wondered if his problem was the result of some past trauma---how could we ever know?

So we continued taking him to the vet's and trying different remedies. And other than his bowel troubles, Angus was a wonderful cat. Brian and I told each other again and again how lucky we were to have found him. He was almost doglike in his loyalty and companionship. The sound of his 'thump' as he jumped into the apartment from our bedroom window, home from his evening wanderings, never failed to provoke in me a quiet happiness.

One April night, just a little over a year ago, Angus woke us up---he was running frantically around the bedroom, the way he did when his stomach was bothering him. I stumbled out of bed, scooped him up, and brought him to the litterbox in the living room, again trying to assure him that this was the place to do his business. At dinner, we had given him a heavy dose of one of the vet's medications which was supposed to get his bowels moving. It was obviously starting to take effect. I kneeled next to him and petted him, and whispered reassurances, as he strained to get all the nasty stuff out of him. I'd felt sorry for him before on such occasions, but this time, I felt no resentment at being woken up in the middle of the night. I felt a pure sort of maternal compassion in the sense of feeling with a being in pain. Like a mother, I would have done anything to make him feel better. He sensed this and became calmer. He allowed me to comfort him. I felt the closest to him then than I'd ever had.

I woke up late the next morning and rushed to get ready for a meeting with my boss. Brian had been up for half-an-hour already and I gave him a kiss as he headed out the door. Angus seemed weak from the previous night's happenings but when I came into the bedroom to get dressed, he'd already jumped out the window to start his morning rounds. I heard a weak meow as I hurriedly pulled on my pants and figured he was having a confrontation with the neighbor's cat. Then I grabbed my bag and ran out the door. I was flying past the bedroom window when I saw him on the ground. The window is about six feet up, with a little ledge about half way down which Angus usually jumped on before jumping to the ground. Angus was lying on the ground with his neck turned just slightly abnormally. I dropped my bags and ran to him. I remember screaming "no" repeatedly. He was still alive and I said a few words to him, then he breathed a last little breath and that was it. I ran inside, still talking to him, talking to God, and called a nearby vet hospital. They told me to bring him over right away. I was afraid of moving him, so I found a piece of plywood and managed to slide him onto it. His tongue, by then, had turned blue so I tried to push oxygen into him by performing mouth to mouth. I drove to the vet hospital, about a quarter mile away, talking to Angus the whole time, begging him not to die. They took him away and sat me in a waiting room. About five minutes later the vet came in and told me he was dead. Angus' neck had been broken in the fall.

So that was how Hillegass Avenue stopped becoming home to us. How could we come home after a long day's work without our little friend running down the driveway to greet us? How could we look at our front window, his customary look-out spot, without feeling his absence? We gave the landlord notice, lived three months in the Oakland Hills, then found our little back-lot cottage on Woolsey Street.

In August we visited the Berkeley Humane Society and Brian immediately fell in love with a chihuahua named Perkins. So Perkins became our second pseudo-child---one who never knew his similarly russet-colored brother. I spent the first few months with Perkins noticing the differences between him and Angus. I was worried that having Perkins would make me forget Angus. I didn't want to think that having a pet was like filling a slot with any adorable creature who might come one's way. I didn't want to think that a soul was replaceable.

The anniversary of Angus' death came and went last month. Brian and I mentioned it to each other but there were no flowers or visits to Hillegass. When we visited my parent's on Easter, I forgot to stop by his grave in my mother's garden.

And yet, writing about him here has made me remember who he was and that this small, mute, furry being was unique---and that I loved him. And still love him.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Last Saturday my fourteen-year-old nephew visited and, after a home-cooked breakfast, he, myself, Brian, and Perkins headed for the Berkeley Flea Market at the Ashby metro station four blocks away from our house. The flea market is one of my favorite things about living in this neighborhood. When we first moved here, I checked the Berkeley police reports on the web to see how this neighborhood compared to our previous one near the university. Though there are bars in many windows, chain link fences, tough-looking kids in low pants who mumble and ride small bicycles, thumping Cadillacs with long fins tearing down the street at 2am, though there's all of this, the crime rate here is no higher than in the neighborhood with 2 million dollar homes.

At the Malcolm X Elementary School, where we go to vote, the kids planted a garden with Alice Waters and the school itself, built in the 1920's, looks quite handsome with its renovations and new coat of paint for which a sign over the baseball field thanks Berkeley voters (who always vote for anything education-related---it's nice living in a liberal bubble if you're a kid from a poor neighborhood).

Two streets up Ashby from the school is the Ashby 'Bay Area Rapid Transit' station, or 'BART' for short. On weekends when the rain spares us, an array of vendors set up shop in the parking lot. There are many immigrants from Africa who come, selling wares and participating in the drum circle. If the wind is right, I can hear the drums on Sunday mornings when I work in my garden. A few Sundays ago I walked over and sat on the sidewalk watching the drummers. There were a good twenty of them---some beginners, looking to their neighbors for techniques, others confident rhythm-masters tapping with abandon. That was the day I met the sweet potato pie vendor. He was walking through the crowd with a basket over one arm. He caught my eye and I smiled and asked, "Is that sweet potato pie?" and he said, "How do you know about sweet potato pie?" I wish I could have answered him, "I'm from Alabama. My mama makes the best sweet potato pie you've ever tasted." Instead I had to admit to having learned about them from books---no family memories, no legitimate claim to a southern tradition. I went home and made tea and ate my sweet potato and peach pie. Unlike other sweet potato pies I've tasted, this one wasn't at all starchy---it combined two distinct sweet flavors: the chewy sweetness of sweet potato, and the juicy sweetness of peach.

I was hoping we'd run into him and that I could introduce fourteen-year-old Malcolm to the magic of a sweet potato and peach pie when we ambled over last Saturday. We didn't find him, but the drum circle was there, and the lady selling Afghan rugs was there, and so was the African woman who wore tall, colorful turbans, and sold musky-smelling sugar scrubs. Brian looked for a jig-saw, Malcolm looked at the CDs, Perkins sniffed around and patiently let small children pet him. Then I came across a vendor who had old things.

I've grown up surrounded by old things, my mother being an antiques dealer. From an early age she instilled in me a sense that objects carried their history with them. How many faces had looked in this mirror? How many happy faces? Sad ones? What had they hoped for? Where are they buried now? Everything we had was at least a hundred years old. My mother prefers rustic French antiques from the 19th century. Armoires, vaiselliers, buffets---words none of my school chums knew---were everyday words in our house. "Set the table. Use the napkins in the vaiselliers."

My mother spent years weaving chair seats with cane and rush for extra money. Our bathtub was always annoyingly filled with soaking pieces of rush making the rush flexible enough to weave with. My mother taught me old weaving skills that an elderly peasant in the French Bordeaux region had taught her. We would sit together watching television and caning chairs.

On weekends and holidays, I would often get stuck for endless hours in an antique store as my mother poked around, negotiated mercilessly with the seller, chatted with the sales ladies. If we were walking up a street and I saw an antique store ahead, I would try to distract my mother into looking the other way. It never worked. She could smell antiques a mile away.

And now, I love old things, too. Our house is a mix of Ikea, street finds, objects from various travels, and things my mother has given us. But when I saw that vendor last weekend, I felt this ridiculous excitement as to what I might find. Here's what was uncovered:

* a handpainted china teacup from England
* a set of turn-of-the-century stereoscope cards of Japan. One shows Tokyo as it was then---low lying, traditional houses with old tile roofs. Another card shows the harvesting of silk worms.
* a stack of postcards from the New York Zoological Garden---its name was changed in the 1940's to the Bronx Zoo. I worked at the Bronx Zoo while I was at graduate school
* an old needle case tied with red ribbon. I loved the fabric lining the interior.
* a wonderful old book full of engravings titled, "Great Men and Famous Women." It includes brief biographies of such figures as Joan of Arc, Leif Erikson, and Caesar.

I took my treasures home and they joined my collection of old things, adding to the soup of old spirits attached to these objects, populating our little cottage with history.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


The recent advent of April's Fool's Day and Laini's current posting has inspired me to try a little mockery and since I'm too much of a coward to mock anyone else, I think I'll try mocking myself. This should be an interesting exercise in megalomania and self-hatred. What have I done worthy of mockery?

Well, despite fifteen years of driving I still cannot parallel park and managed to knock over two garbage cans in the attempt yesterday evening. I was also convinced this week at lunchtime that I could cook a mini quiche (the ones from Trader Joe's) on its paper tray in the toaster oven because the temperature only went up to 350F, and---as all we literary types know---paper only burns at Fahrenheit 451. Of course I tried this out in the office break room to disastrous results.

I once bought a very expensive pair of shoes because I liked the egg yolk yellow of their leather. I brought them to the cobbler because they were scuffing and he scoffed at me and said, "these shoes are not meant to be walked in." I suppose they were created for someone who had an army of handsome young men to carry her where're she went. I now keep the shoes on a glass shelf with a glass bell over them.

When I was in gradeschool, I quoted Bugs Bunny to a group of boys who were teasing me: "You're MUD spelled backwards." They didn't hesitate to tell me that "dumb" had a "b" at the end. Bugs had let me down.

Several years ago I asked a Parisian baker in French if he used "preservatifs" in his pies. "Preservatifs" in French means condoms.

I was once asked to introduce a fellow in front of a large crowd. I presented everyone to Daniel Boone, told them who he was, what he did, and where he lived, what his interests were, things about his family. It was only after I was finished with this little speech---which actually lasted a good ten minutes--- that the fellow, looking somewhat red-faced, leaned over to tell me that his name was not, in fact, "Daniel Boone" but rather "David Boone." I had apparently forgotten his name and remembered the Alamo.

In my thesis paper for a Master's degree in French Studies I referred twice to the current president of France as M. Giscard d'Estaing. The president was, and still is, M. Jacques Chirac. M. Giscard d'Estaing had been president thirty years earlier. I believe my advisor passed me simply because she did not want such a nitwit in her program.

My boss told me recently that she felt I was the type of person who attracted disasters. She said it with a mix of humor and a little---or did I imagine it?---contempt. I actually don't get into half as many scrapes as I used to as a kid. My childhood memories are one long string of catastrophes. The tragic part of it all is that I always had the best intentions---whether it was giving an anonymous dead cat a proper burial (the day before my father used a roto-tiler on the yard) or keeping tadpoles as pets (how was I to know they were cannibals). I felt strongly as a child that the universe was quite unfair to put me through these things.

To tell you the truth, it's actually kind of refreshing to admit to one's stupidities. I highly recommend it to everyone reading this. In fact, I'll create and post a representative drawing to everyone who will respond to this post with their own stories.