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.