Like all things that end up being exceptionally nutty, this 4th of July started out quite average. I had invited a group of friends to The Exploratorium for their ‘After Dark’ event which just happened to coincide with the 4th. We all enjoyed the sunset from the end of Pier 15 and then lit out up The Embarcadero to watch the fireworks.
The fireworks started right when we left the building (because herding cats) but it was okay; someone in the planning department had placed the fireworks just so everyone along The Embarcadero could see them blowing up at the north end. So okay, we have a nice view from right there.
After the third big boomer I looked around to see everyone else enjoying the fireworks and noticed one poor fellow across the street who was having a bad time with his car; smoke or steam was rising from the raised hood. As it turned out it was smoke. The car was on fire. But I was not there to watch a car fire; I was there to watch fireworks, which were going on at the end of the road. As the fireworks at the end of the road built up their displays of pyrotechnic wonder, so too did this bizarre automobile 90 degrees from our vantage point. With every greater fizz and bang, every color and crackle in the sky this valiant automobile responded with a greater belch of flame and puff of smoke. The field of upturned iPhone screens in front of me swiveled in Wimbelton time between the planned pyrotechnics ahead and the uncannily flamboyant station wagon to the left.
Some poor devils in a fire truck, who probably wished for a nice evening on a prime location to monitor the fireworks, had to turn around and go about the dull business of putting out fires. After the crescendo, and the great belch of steam the firemen use to herald their arrival there was a black sky ahead and a very wet station wagon on our left. I think that’s probably the best way to lose an automobile to an engine fire. As the dawn rises on the 5th there will be hundreds of burnt out cardboard tubes littering the streets of America, and your burnt out wagon.
So the company decamped to the roof of one members apartment building. We made our way by motorcycle, bicycle and public transit; split up. I was on bicycle, and along the way I did something which I have no good explanation for. I had to cross a large, inexplicably empty parking lot that had been taken advantage of by folks with their own supply of store bought fireworks. Rockets and fountains were firing off willy-nilly all over the place. I had to weave through a couple of camps, and along the way I spotted one of those burnt out tubes. I kicked it over. Fun. Coming out of the parking lot I spotted one of those fireworks tubes that was still spouting sparks. A dirty great one, about the size of a gallon jug with a piddling stream of sparks coming out of it.
I think I was just ramping myself up. I think I enjoy a challenge. I think I make bad decisions in inopportune moments. Alcohol was involved. Kicking over a piece of trash had been unsatisfying. Faced with a gallon of explosives which had clearly not yet even begun to go off, but were being given quite a large berth by those who had ignited them, I made up my mind to run straight at it and kicked it over. A decision that I regretted immediately, but not permanently. (After a spirited ride south and a change of costume, I considered the endeavor a success.)
This story is not meant to be an expose of my psychology. Suffice to say that the general lawlessness that is an inherent part of celebrating a rebellion resulted in one hooligan upsetting another hooligan.
So now we were on the roof. This was quite a fancy roof, much the domain of the young techies that can afford it but don’t know why. San Francisco Bay from the Bay Bridge down to San Mateo was clear to view. It was very convivial for the four of us that made it that far, and new acquaintances got to share stories with old acquaintances. The only relevant thing was that we kept seeing the same helicopter passing by, quite low and with its spotlight on. Some drunk must have gone overboard, we figured.
Not bad figuring, as it turned out. On the way home I couldn’t help noticing that that helicopter was becoming increasingly more interested in a location on the bay not too far from one of my favorite birdwatching spots. And that there sure were a lot of ambulances and fire trucks going birdwatching at this late hour. And that there was a man at the intersection who had noticed the same things as me. (A meth head, as it turned out, paranoid about all the attention his camp was getting. Nice guy, Dave; I talked a bit with him on my way home.)
So instead of heading home I went to this increasingly exciting birdwatching spot. Which was all the more exciting because one of the birds in residence, at midnight, on the Fourth of July was the one called a Whirlybird! And it was as close to the water as I had ever seen a Whirlybird, too. It was, in fact, and this blew me away, engaged in one of the rarest activities a landlubber can hope to witness a Whirlybird in. A hatch opened up in the side of the Whirlybird and a little man in an orange suit was let down into the water. I was riding my bicycle closer to the shore nearest the Whirlybird and wasn’t quite sure I had seen what I thought I had seen. By the time I got to the shore there was no doubt, a man was being hoisted back up into the Whirlybird. I don’t know what he was looking for in the water, or if he returned with anything, but they all scampered off towards the south and left me in the quiet.
The only other thing I noticed, which I think was a Red Herring, was that there was a motorboat washed up on the shore of the birdwatching spot. All by itself, no one fussing over it. Upon closer inspection, I saw that it had been carefully tied to a woefully inadequate rock nearby. I doubted very much, inebriated as I was, that a helicopter rescue would be called in for someone who had crashed and carefully tied their boat to the shore and then swam out into the bay. You would just leave that fool to fool around, right?
So I went back and talked to Dave for a while, and considered the possibility that there are very few, if any, 4ths of July in my future that are going to be so consistently unpredictable. If there are, I hope they’re this entertaining, and not, you know, the bad kind of unpredictable. I hope no shitheads come out of nowhere and kick over my fireworks jug.
Slightly more dilapidated
My first car was a Triumph TR7. I wanted a TR6 because my friend’s dad had one that I’d never seen run, but always admired. My budget (sub $500) ruled out the running TR6s listed in the Want ADvertiser in 1986.
“Surely the TR7 must be an improvement on the TR6!” I thought… So I found myself buying a TR7 from a Quebecois chef on the South Shore of Massachusetts for $480 or so.
It ran… he said the brakes were new… I had a car… Off I went!
Off I went with a push, that is… the starter motor was either missing or kaput, I never found out which… I didn’t have time.
I must have waved a quick bye-bye to the fellow backwards as I adjusted the driver’s side mirror and saw him regaining his height having pushed that hateful vehicle out of his driveway for the last time…
That was the defining characteristic of that car, the absence of a starter motor, or a functioning one. I drove that car for months and never knew if there was one! The state of tune on the twin side draft carburetors was such that with a bit of bump it would fire up just sweet. That was the other defining characteristic of the car; once it was fired up it ran full tilt boogie until you shut it off.
The bump-start procedure necessitated that I either park on a hill or have a strong passenger. It was a community building car… I had to have a friend willing to ride with me if I was going to go anywhere flat, and that passenger had to be willing to do something they didn’t quite understand the purpose of, but were happy to reap the benefits. My job was to make it worth their while to push my car.
The kid whose dad had a TR6 in the driveway went for a ride with me in the TR7 during a drunken teenage party. He kept swearing that this was what his dad had, and I kept trying to point out the differences, and how what I really wanted was a TR6 like his dad’s, or at least a drop top… then we went airborne off a crest on Thornberry Hill.
Then we drove in a civilized manner back to the party waiting for our puckered anuses to relax. Haven’t heard from the fellow since, but I trust him with my life.
It’s redundant to say that nothing electrical worked reliably on the TR7. In one shining moment at about 5:02 P.M. on a Friday every single electrical system on the chassis sang harmony and I knew this was the moment God had provided me to pass inspection in Massachusetts. I engaged my new-found left directional and swerved enthusiastically into the nearest inspection station, only to find that Lucas’ God, being Anglican, was a few hours off from Puritan time, and I was welcome to come back for another try on Monday.
The electrics were the inciting factor for the demise of the TR7. After the bump start, the temperature gauge would flounder about for a bit, gather its strength, and head unfaltering into the high end of the scale. This took ten seconds. Ten seconds to raise three gallons of water to 220 degrees Fahrenheit. I never trusted it to tell the truth or a lie, and so I never knew if the thing was overheating or not. Sure, in the first few minutes it was obviously not overheating, nothing could. But after fifteen minutes of driving the reading started to enter the realm of possibility! It would have been better if there had been no temperature gauge at all, just an idiot light like they had on American cars; simple one or zero… but not this constant wavering between anticipation and relief.
So one Wednesday morning found me and my passenger, Kevin, on our way into Boston from our suburban town, two daring artists on our way to see Jenny Hozler at the Museum Of Fine Arts, skipping school. Skipping school and merging into traffic. Merging into traffic, temp gauge pinned hot, goosing it for a breath of clean air and hitting the brakes a bit too enthusiastically… locking up the rear, fishtailing… spinning around counterclockwise.
Accidents happen quickly, but ask anyone who has been in one and they’ll tell you they happen very lucidly, pedantically, and in a dilated time signature. As I lost control of the TR7 I feared a collision with the merging traffic on my left. As the TR7 spun around backwards I looked over at Kevin to see what he thought about the traffic now approaching his side of the car. I gave him a smirk to signify that I had done my part in creating this chaos and now it was his problem to deal with, and he gave me a smirk as if to say thanks for nothing. Then every knob on the dashboard and a few speaker grilles jumped simultaneously into the space between our smirking faces and all hell broke loose.
At the end of the excitement the TR7 was parked ass end into the Jersey Barrier between the West- and Eastbound lanes of Storrow Drive. We had crossed three lanes of rush hour traffic while turning 270 degrees and no one had bothered to touch us. (We weren’t going to make the show.) The traffic I had been merging into was coming up out of a dark tunnel and my driver’s side door was broadside too them… Kevin gave me a frown… I made a tactical exit from the TR7 and went around the back (over, more than around) to Kevin’s door.
“Does your door work?”
“I don’t know. Haven’t tried it.”
“You might want to get out…”
“What’s the point?”
“The point is there’s cars coming up out of a dark tunnel in the fast lane and they’re gonna hit you!”
Kevin had a keen understanding of existentialism and Da-Da Surrealism, and a bitchin’ collection of Prog Rock records, and I really looked up to him and consider him to this day to be an inspiration in my formative years, but in that instant I think my animal sense of self preservation might have served the better part. (As I write this I’m confused as to whether I might have preserved myself alone or why I made the effort to preserve Kevin, who was philosophically happy to let things happen absurdly.)
We were in an absurd position. The TR7 was in an absurd attitude. We sat our asses down on the Jersey barrier behind the TR7 and waited for the next thing to happen; we couldn’t get across the lanes of traffic, couldn’t do nothin’. Wished for a bottle of ketchup to put on a gory scene, something to draw attention to our moment. Nothing. Just the one headlight, dislocated and hanging over the stupid black rubber bumper (more animated by the crash than it ever was by electromagnetism.) Until a siren came screaming out of the tunnel… an ambulance! The driver slammed it to a halt in front of us, looked us in the eye, said, “I’ll call somebody!” and roared off to deliver whatever half dead passenger he had on board.
As we sat I remembered someone telling me if my car ever got towed I should remove everything of value from it because the tow yard guys would steal everything. The only thing of value I had was a unicycle my friend Tim had lent me, so I removed it from the trunk and returned to sitting with Kevin on the Jersey barrier. We agreed that a unicycle was way more surreal than ketchup gore and so we were happy to sit there now, two suburban high school kids in the middle of Storrow Drive with a unicycle and a bashed up English sports car. Surely Jenny Hozler would excuse our absence from her performance. About a thousand years later an MDC patrol in a Chevy Suburban lazily pulled over on the far curb and arranged for our extraction from the rush hour traffic.
My girlfriend has this mysterious ability to make the most unlikely things happen simply by asking for them. It’s incomprehensible to me because I think that anything really impressive that happens must have some arcane mechanism behind it that requires time and effort to understand and master. Maybe that’s true, maybe not, but let me tell you the story.
Girlf used to ride a Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster. One day while Girlf was juggling three things at once, the poor Sporty got left out on the boulevard un-locked. Maybe not the first time, but the worst time. It was stolen, of course. No unprotected Harley Davidson goes unpunished in our city.
Girlf reported the theft, and was dutifully ho-hummed by the pigs, which is evidently what we pay them to do. After the one thousandth Harley Davidson theft, instead of taking action to combat a lucrative and rather market specific crime trend, the filth will throw up their hands in resignation thinking, “That’s just part of the job, some crimes go unsolved. Harley Davidsons were stolen under my father’s watch, they’re stolen under my watch… it’s just the nature of police work. Ho-hum.”
Girlf decided she was now a private investigator. Like Sam Spade, an adjunct, not a hindrance to the Police Department. She lived next to a bank office, and just knew their cameras had to have the incident on tape. And they did! Only a week or two of thrashing against the bureaucracy, followed by one or two phone calls to the IT department’s personal cell phones and she had a clear view of what happened.
A warm summer evening, a tramp makes his way down the boulevard, meticulously checking each car door handle. A heavy load of pilfered items burdens him as he waggles the handlebars of an apparently unprotected motorcycle. Conflict shades his face. Does he keep the chump-change that is his daily wage, or does he go for the big score? The time is now! Deftly squirreling away his wool sweaters and Britney Spears CDs in a vacant newspaper box our antagonist makes the leap from Master Shoplifter up the pay scale to Motorcycle Thief. Helmetless, unable to fathom the finer points of hot-wiring our miscreant hoofs it down one of the most trafficked streets in the city, unregarded by citizen or officer, into a garage he knows nearby, where he might, you know, actually figure out how to start the damned thing. After all, he’s a motorcycle thief now, and needs space and time to dedicate himself to the full academy of knowledge pertaining to the craft.
The evidence was duly presented to the officers of the executive branch, and a bought-and-paid-for ho-hum was replied, courteously, efficiently and disinterestedly.
Girlf, stalwart, ingenuous, pretty, blond and ultimately female threw herself into her investigation; threw herself clear over the thin blue line and into the motorcycle bars of Northern California. Our local blue collar weekend warriors, the throngs of rat bike pretenders, the Hell’s Angels and even the BMW Dual-Sport crowd had their heart strings strummed by Girlf; maiden in distress Girlf… who could resist?
Rumors made their way back to Girlf. Evidence! Someone reported a 1200 Sportster buried under a couch outside an address on 15th street. Respondents returned with items form the Sporty’s saddlebags; bait, but no catch. A phone call!
“Yeah… hi. Look, I got this bike from a guy I know… owed me some money and gave me the bike as payment, said it was his old lady’s but she gave it to him. Then I saw your poster on the telephone pole and I think this might be your bike. Anyway, I’m into it for a couple of hundred bucks… If you can meet me somewhere, no cops, maybe we can make an arrangement?”
(Excuse the quotation marks, that’s not a direct quote.)
My own interpretation of the situation at this point is somewhat divergent from Girlf’s recollection. We’re two different people, evidently. I’m gonna say this toy poodle of a thief stole something he couldn’t fence. I think there has to be some orderly, arcane and secretive network of motorcycle thieves, each and every one of which deals in a clearly defined and protected segment of the market. When you grow up in a family full of engineers and watch a lot of Martin Scorcese films, this is how you picture the criminal element.
Girlf does not see Thief as a character in a film. Girlf is extremely pissed off at Thief, but still reserves most of her supply of bile for the fucking cops. Girlf sees Thief, evidenced by the surveillance cameras, as an opportunist. If she was a bystander, she would root for both sides, but Girlf is a player, and she wants her bike back.
Possession, whether or not it’s true, is said to be 9/10ths of the law. Thief, or someone representing the stolen Harley Davidson, seems to think he really is a character in a film, or an important player in a motorcycle theft ring, and demands a meeting in a secluded place with no cops. Also, a $200 finders fee. Girlf shows up with $200 and a sizable contingent of pissed off bikers; Wouldn’t you?
Anticlimactically, that was just a dress rehearsal. Thief failed to show, but unlike many people you meet on CraigsList, he did call back, make excuses, accusations and another appointment.
The second time around, Girlf succeeded in regaining a stolen Harley Davidson, in full functioning condition, at a cost of $200. No punches were thrown, no vendettas sworn, and about seven months later she graciously notified the filth that she had done thair job for them, in true Sam Spade fashion.
The Huckleberry Finn Moment is the point in writing something when you realize that you’re not just telling a tall tale but that you are trying to get a point across. The implications of the latter weight the simple joys of the former with a burden you must choose to bear, or abandon the whole endeavor. The Huckleberry Finn Moment is named, as a syndrome is, in honor of the first patient to be diagnosed with its symptoms.
Well, technically one 4-day week and one 5-day week. Took a day off for Memorial Day Weekend. Having a blast, though. They gave me my own workbench (finally, a place for my tools!) and a laptop computer loaded with CAD/CAM programs. I have a happy. Follow Tangent
Okay, so, either so many interesting things were happening that I just couldn’t keep track of them all, or I have a high bar for interesting things to jump over. I worked for two days in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district (every side of every alley!), you would think I had seen something
interesting! I thought it was pretty nifty that there were 16 storm drains in Boeddeker Park, (no public bathrooms for miles), and they’d put you in cuffs if you tried to whizz in one of them, wheelchair or no.
Anyway, my life in interesting jobs is moving on to yet another interesting job. On the 24th of May, I start work as an Exhibit Technician I at San Francisco’s ‘Exploratorium’.
The Workshop at The Exploratorium
Not much has struck me as interesting in day-to-day events on the job. It would be so much better if there were one thing every day that’s worthy of publishing here, but that’s just not the way it works.
In the early days of this job I worked the flats out in the Richmond district. I was just getting my legs under me when I was assigned a territory that included all of the highest hills in the center of San Francisco. “Punishing” is the word that pops to mind when I think of that time. Not that I was being punished by anyone (everyone rides this sector of the city now and again), but that the terrain was so unforgiving that any weakness in my self or equipment would be punished for failure.
That hill is a failure point for me. I bonked on a ride up that hill when I was unemployed because I didn’t eat enough food during the ride. On this job, I broke a chain a hundred yards from the giant radio tower that crowns San Francisco. This was an equipment failure, and I had the equipment to repair it; but still, the location became associated with failure, and punishment.
Later that day I had to go over a lesser hill on the way back to base, and I ended up talking to a fellow who was working a construction site that happened to be on top of one of the catch basins I needed to inspect. (There’s a peculiar fellowship among people that wear neon yellow safety vests as a part of their day to day jobs. The vest includes you in a club. You’re here to get a job done, or else why would you be wearing such a ridiculous outfit, right?) He called out to me as I was spray painting my green dot on the curb, “You puttin’ that mosquito packet down there?”, and instantly I knew he had run across a MAC Team Rider before. I’m allowed a ten minute break each afternoon so I decided to relax and talk to this guy. Most of the other yellowjackets (maybe somewhere in Italy they call the The Vestpa) just want to make sure you’re not going to get in their way, but this guy had such a convivial, friendly air about him I couldn’t resist the chance for a conversation. (Spend all day combing the gutters all by yourself, you’ll understand.)
I learned that he lives in my neighborhood, his name is Myron, and that he’s a really chatty fellow. He conveyed a contented, happy-go-lucky satisfaction with life that was so forceful that I wondered if it wasn’t a bit annoying to the guys that had to spend all day with him. But in a ten minute dose? Like manna from heaven.
A month or so later I was working the Inner Sunset. It’s a beautiful sector in that it includes the Strybing Arboretum, but also a challenging terrain around Golden Gate Heights. I forgot my wallet, couldn’t buy myself lunch, and ended up the day ratcheting up that hill over and over again on an empty stomach. I was stronger than my rookie month, but not strong enough to thrash out a whole day on one bowl of cheerios and a hard boiled egg. A merciful fellow in a market around 8th and Judah let me buy the King Size Snicker Bar (the 500 calorie two-pack versus the pathetically anemic 275 calorie ones you normal humans eat as a ’snack’) for whatever I had in pocket change around two in the afternoon. I felt comfortable with a few more runs up the hill before the (so satisfying) dash back to base.
My last run up the hill I hit a snag. Construction. Okay, I’m wearing the yellow vest, I can come through. Obstacle overcome (I really don’t want to come back to this hill on Monday.) Who is that there diverting traffic at the bottom of the hill? Myron! And it’s the end of another trying day so I’m primed to spend a few minutes shooting the breeze with this guy. Not much happens in the conversation but the idea that there’s only so many people involved in your job,that here just aren’t that many yellowjackets hits home. Myron… mid conversation, sees his long lost cousin parking his truck and that’s the end of our talk.
Another month later and I’m just spanking the opposite side of that hill. The Eureka Valley. Lunch on Castro and Market, afternoon snack on Mars. Whatever, I’m 15 pounds lighter and have Bobby Hull’s legs and an indecent amount of carbohydrates in my saddle bags. I work my way into another construction site and smile apologetically at the least preoccupied yellow jacketed fellow standing there. Along up the incline, carrying a sheet of plywood on his back, comes Myron with a big ‘hello!’
“Every time I climb my way to the top of a great big hill, you’re there!”, I said.
“I’m on top of it all!”, said Myron.
I do not want to ever be referred to as ‘Working Class’. I refer to myself as ‘Blue Collar’.
This distinction, in my view, comes down to the level of free will versus determination. A ‘class’ is something you are born into, or fall into, or are grouped into; it is pre-determined by others. ‘Class’ implies a classist society, and I still hold onto those old American dreams of a class-less society.
‘Blue Collar’ is such a wonderful term! It’s a collar; not in the sense of something that you put on a horse to get him to go where you want him to go, but in that very human sense that it’s something you put on yourself (when your neighbors are putting on their ‘White Collars’) because you are a naked ape, an ape with no choice about whether to put on clothes, but an ape with a choice about which clothes to put on.
“Give me half a chance / and I’ll be taking off my clothes / and living in the trees, / just like an Ape Man”
“…and the papers want to know whose shirts you wear…”
Today I saw the most interesting thing of the day at about 8:15 A.M. on my way to the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. You would think a day spent creeping around in restricted areas of the park would contain many interesting things, and it did. But frankly, this beat everything.
Catching up to another cyclist I was puzzled by the overlarge, bulky backpack he wore. It was shaped a bit like an old radio or Wurlitzer juke box, and evidently lightweight from the way it bounced around. I got up next to the guy and peered through the mesh fabric it was made of and was stunned to find a small raven peering back at me, standing on a branch inside a birdcage.
“Hey! Is that a crow or a raven?!”
“Both! It’s a hybrid of African Brown Necked Raven and Crow.”
“Nifty. Where you going with it?”
At that point I had to turn off, but I did learn he had bought it from a breeder in the American south.
After hearing what I did for a living, someone asked me what the most interesting thing I saw in one week was, and I couldn’t remember. Pursuant to My Life In Interesting Jobs
, I’m going to try to post the most interesting things I see as I ride around San Francisco. (The MAC Team blog will soon be posting a series of similar tales, though they haven’t figured out how to download the photos from our phones yet.)
The problem is that as I’m riding there’s a hell of a lot of information coming into the old noggin. Sure, I’ve ridden every block of every street in about a third of SF, but it’s more accurate to say I’ve ridden every sidewalk in the central and western districts. Because we treat storm drain catch basins, the best way to find them all underneath all the cars is to ride the sidewalk slowly while scanning along the curb. Add in the pedestrians and garbage cans on the sidewalk, and the cars at the intersections, and there’s not much processing power left for taking in the incongruous or exceptional parts of the scene. So Dick Cheney might be on the opposite side of the street in a tutu and spats with a shotgun up his ass and I wouldn’t notice. (Unless the shotgun went off; I’d probably notice then. And cheer mightily.)
But once in a while San Francisco hits me over the head with a brick made of wonderful. In the parking lot of the Koret Vision Center, above and behind the UCSF Parnassus medical campus I bent down to look into a catch basin under a good sized tree with purple blooms all over it. Under the tree there was a constant rain of snowy flakes falling, enough that after I finished poisoning the mosquito larvae in the drain I tried to figure out why this tree, on a calm day, was shedding so vigorously. On the branch nearest my head I saw one half-pint bumble bee, with barely enough body for one yellow and one black stripe, happily buzzing from one bloom to another and at each one knocking off a few petals, which floated contentedly into the mosquito holocaust I had just incited under the drain cover.
This wasn’t enough to explain the constant rain of flakes. In a moment much like a pan back shot from a Hollywood movie I looked over the whole branch, and then the whole tree and found nearly a hundred fifty juvenile bumble bees industriously de-pollinating this springtime shrub. Since I can’t see a bumble bee without listening for the buzz, I opened my ears and was treated to the bass hum of over a hundred bumble bees buzzing away and could almost feel the force of their supersonic wings shaking the petals and pollen out of that tree.
As it happened, it was April Fool’s Day, or (Saint Stupid’s Day in SF) and I was wearing deely boppers on my bicycle helmet. Widening my intake of the scene to a greater scope, I became aware of some other fool’s perspective of a yellow jacketed man on a black bicycle nosed into the curb between cars under a tree wearing spring loaded antennae, busily pedaling from one sewer to another planting little colonies of Bacillus sphaericus. There was, of course, a perfectly logical explanation for all of it.