Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Better Things

One doesn't change one's cafe, does one?  That idea is voiced by Oiseau in "The Moderns."  Seems right.  But I am moving about now. . . more. . . and decided to go for tea at a tea room across town.  It is not a cafe, per se, as it does not serve alcohol, so. . . .  

I hadn't been there in years, and though I know where it sits, I passed it by first time and had to turn around.  It is very near the house where Kerouac lived and wrote "The Dharma Bums" in the 1950's.  This part of town, like most of the old parts of town, has become expensive.  It is a sort of enclave of its own and it has a "certain type" of resident.  It is not my part of town, but many people enjoy it.  Getting out and getting there felt liberating.  

The tea house has a spacious interior and is lit by large plate glass windows.  It is not dark as is the Cafe Strange despite its having windows of equal size, but is bright and airy.  As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by a woman behind the counter asking me if she could help me.  In back of her were rows and rows of glass jars filled with tea leaves.  

"Which of those are the green teas?" I asked.  She touched a jar and then walked down the aisle.

"From here to here," she said.  All the teas had foo-foo names.  

"Which of these is rather creamy?"

"I'd suggest the vanilla for creaminess."

I took the suggestion.  

"Where will you be seated?" she asked me.  

"Oh. . . there, in front of the window."  

I ambled over and sat my things down.  "I'll be right back.  I need to get something out of the car."

As I waited for the tea, I walked around the shop.  There were crafts "local and worldwide" for sale, all kitschy, unappealing things.  I noticed the clientele was much different than at The Strange, not as Bohemian, more ideological.  For the moment, I was the only male in the room.  Women of various ethnicities sat at tables speaking in certain voices, explaining then listening.  There was not a giggle to be heard.  These were serious folk.  

The counter lady brought my tea and sat it down, then turned over a wooden frame holding three hourglasses--2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes.  Nice.  

I pulled out my notebook and "got to work."  I noticed right away that though the tea room was brighter and less beat, the tables and floors were just as dirty and sticky as The Strange.  I guess that it is true, as they say, that it is difficult to get good help "these days."  

A few more customers walked in the door.  This part of town is a bit "straighter" than mine in some ways, and the women looked quite middle class in belted jeans, fashionable flats, and careful makeup.  These were the sort of people I knew when I was married, liberal-ish and sensible, the kind that could see "both sides" but definitely knew where they stood.  These were first marriage or soon to be married people who had or hoped to have children, good schools, soccer games, etc.  Aspiring men and women.  There was them and also those serious women seated at tables around the room. 

A young Asian girl walked in and took a seat near me at the bar top table looking out over the street.  She plugged in her laptop and took out her phone.  She was cute but sensible, certainly not part of the Cafe Strange crowd.  Safer.  

I paused in my writing as she moved over a seat closer to me.  I looked at her and smiled.  Timidly she smiled back.  Then we both paused and stared out the window before us.  I picked up my cup and sipped the tea.  It wasn't very good.  If I came back, I definitely would avoid the vanilla green tea.  Still I drank it 'cause, you know. . . it is supposed to help me lose weight.  And since, in the gym that morning, in my brand new running shoes, I had tried trotting on an incline for 1/10th of a mile at a time, interspersing that with walking, I already felt more lithe.  My legs were sore in a good way already.  I was timorously waiting to see what would happen with my knee later on, fingers crossed.  

In a bit, I finished my tea and got up from my stool and stood until the stiffness and immediate pain in my knee subsided a bit.  I didn't want to limp and cry out in agony in front of my new girlfriend.  She did, indeed, watch me as I limped in front of the plate glass window to my car, in horror, I guessed with a chuckle.

I left the parking lot and made for Fresh Market to get my dinner, a tuna bowl with avocado, cucumber, and rice, but it was the traffic hour now, and stuck in construction, I was not feeling as carefree as I was.  But, I thought, chill.  I turned on the radio to the university jazz station, but they were playing that hideous marching band sounding "jazz," all horns blaring some standard melody.  I turned it off.  Man, I needed bluetooth, but my car is too old for that.  For the millionth time, I thought that there must be some way to install it.  I turned the radio back on and changed the station to NPR, but the voices and the narrative were irritating to me, too.  NPR had a distinctive "voice" through the nineties.  That "voice," however, has changed with the times.  Though the host/narrator seemed to be factual, I wondered what the story would sound like if we extracted all the "buts" and "howevers."  I was beginning to realize how pejorative these conjunctions could be.  I imagined a new children's show, "How Conjunctions Function."  

It was a long-ish way across town to my mother's, not in distance, but in traffic.  It was after four now, but there was still school traffic.  How can this be?  And why oh why does every child need to be picked up by someone in a car?  I walked to school from the first grade on.  No wonder young people make such lousy workers.  At one traffic light I had to wait for three changes to get through.  

Still, I was maintaining a positive attitude.  When I got to my mother's house, she was in the driveway talking to a neighbor who always brings his little dog up to see her.  I waved and my mother walked back up the drive.  

"What have you got to complain about today?" she asked.  On Sunday, I'd been in the dumps over something and was feeling and acting pretty low.  

"Nothing.  I'm over it.  Everything is better now."

"Good," she said, and then she starting bitching about her friend who calls her and talks non-stop about the same things over and over.  

"Why do you answer the phone?  When she starts to weary you, tell her someone is at the door."

We sat outside.  There was a new breeze and the temperature dropped a bit.  Later it would rain.  My mother, the skeptic, as always, doubted it.  

I gave her neck and shoulders a little bit of a massage before I left.  I could feel the tension and the relief.  

Back home, I decided to eat on the deck, but it was beginning too get stuffy, warm and humid, before the rain that didn't seem to be coming, so I took my things inside.  

A tuna bowl and sake.  As I ate, I listened to "The Crack-Up" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (link).  Whoever was reading was wonderful.  It was a great reading.  "The Crack-Up" was a groundbreaking piece of literature.  Nobody confessed such things before, if you exclude Dostoyevski whose confessions took a fictional form, or Knut Hamsun who did the same.  When Fitzgerald's piece came out in Esquire in the 1930's, Hemingway felt that he had shamelessly abased himself.  But Fitzgerald had brought about a new genre, I think, one that led to the writing of people like Jack Kerouac, and as I listened, I could, indeed, hear something very akin to the Beats.  

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work – the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside – the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick – the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.

Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation – the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both. It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man – you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived – you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied-but I, for one, would not have chosen any other. . . .

I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to “succeed” – and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future. If I could do this through the common ills – domestic, professional and personal – then the ego would continue as an arrow shot from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity would bring it to earth at last.

 Well--that certainly called for a whiskey.  Fitzgerald was dead from drink at the age of forty.

Outside on the deck now, the temperature had cooled a bit.  That is some cracker-jack writing, I reflected.  He couldn't help but write well.  Later in the essay he opines that talent is not something you develop.  It is something you are born with like athleticism or great beauty.  You should, I think, do yourself a favor and listen to all three parts of that YouTube reading, even if you have read the essays before.  Close your eyes and don't watch the screen.  Just let the words roll through you.  If you have any compassion or any soul, you'll see.  If the words don't affect you, you are a spiritual lamprey and little more.  

But I don't wish to alienate you.  The opinions expressed here are not necessarily the opinions of this publication.  All written content here is under copyright.  

The day had been a good one, and I felt some heavy weight removed from me.  Somehow, it seemed, a few scales had fallen from my eyes.  I had just a tad more verve and a smidgen more determination.  I didn't know if I could sustain it, but for the moment. . . .  

Today I have grand plans.  About that we shall see.  But fingers crossed, things will just get better.  

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