gall and gumption

Sunday, August 31, 2008

August Song

Today I went over to my cousin F.’s new apartment. She lives not far from me, a little further than the dogs would be willing to walk. I’ll be closer to her when I move out of the Underground Cave. She’s a single mother with a thirteen-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. She has had a couple years of troubles that would have utterly broken my spirit, but she managed them superbly, and the whole time she has been a moral support for me, putting up with my cranky ways, giving me practical advice or just doing things herself, as if my woes were a pleasant hobby. Really, my life here would have been infinitely harder if she hadn’t been here. I often find myself saying to her, “Well, fine, but what have I done for you lately?”

After all her troubles she found safe harbor in this apartment, and it was shortly after her move – about a month before mine, that for the first time in our relationship I heard something that sounded like she was fraying at the edges. It was boxes. She had gotten children, possessions, etc., all collected together into one location again and had a room in her apartment that was piled almost to the ceiling with boxes. During a conversation at the beginning of my move I was offering her a pine dresser for her kitchen, when I realized that she was overwhelmed by the boxes and couldn't get into refinements like this. So today I went over to help. I worked on her place, sometimes alone, sometimes with her, for about four hours, nonstop, and we cleared a big space, organized things, and she was very happy with the results and so was I. I came home with a backache and it was still too early to take the dogs out (they don’t like trudging about in the heat), so I took a nap, and slept like I had been drugged.

At about 6:30 I took them out for a long, long walk. You already know how much I love the character of this neighborhood, the old row houses with the shady porches and the tiny little front gardens, each one unique, and the people on the porches wave to you out of another time. The dogs have even made a couple of dog friends, a pair of pit bulls, very sweet, who come to the fence to greet them. Today their owner, a Puerto Rican man, I think, was giving the female a bath in the front yard and she was not enjoying it. She’s the dominant one of the two The male, who has an enormous head like the dogs in the Grimm’s fairy tale about the boy who didn’t know fear, was lying on the porch, his face the picture of consternation and misery. “He knows he’s next,” the owner said.

So we were in the last block, and the dogs are both pulling for home, hungry and tired. And I’m listening to my iPod and enjoying the lovely lovely afternoon light shedding total blessedness of smiling people and gardens and houses and I hear someone singing. It comes right through my Bose headphones, sort of colliding noisily with the music I’m listening to.

It’s a rich, tenor voice, a voice that you might hear leading the singing in a country church, ringing across fresh green fields on a bright Sunday morning on a summer day like this, and if you happened to be within earshot you’d pause and listen because it was so fine to hear it just then. It was coming from about half a block away. I thought, well, here’s another nice thing about where I live, this man singing so loudly, so unabashedly and so well. I switched off the iPod and took off the earphones. I couldn’t make out the words, it just sounded like an unfamiliar old hymn. And I was struck again by how loud the singing was. I mean, people don’t usually sing that loudly out in public. At last I saw the singer. A little skinny older black man in a baseball cap and glasses, one of those guys who tend to look exactly the same from about their 40th birthday till their 105th, and he’ll probably live that long, because he looked to me like one of those people who one morning as the gospel songs say "woke up with a made up mind" and it's been made up exactly the same ever since. A matter of convenience and crankiness, I'd say. He was kneeling on a patch of front lawn about the size of a queen-sized bed, and with a tiny pair of shears, was trimming the grass along the edge of a border of flowers. It was one of those raised front yards you see around here a lot, and the flowers (zinnias I think) were about up to his shoulders as he was kneeling. His house was one of my favorites; with miscellaneous aging decorations about the front, giving it character that you just cannot buy. Well, that was pleasing too. He looked up as I walked by and I smiled and politely said good afternoon, and he nodded and kept on singing and I was several steps past him when I finally caught the words of the refrain, so I stopped and listened to him through a couple more verses just to make absolutely sure because --

My dear readers, if I lie I die. These were the words:

Fuck them all, Fuck them all,
The old and the young and the small;
Fuck the horse that they rode on…

That's when my day went right over the top. It was totally made, then.

But you know, it's not all about me.

Friday, August 29, 2008

I'll Tell You What Makes that Underground Cave Feel Small

Wet dog.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Like Montaigne, I believe that all the approaches to virtue are beautiful and pleasant. Nevertheless at the moment I have paused on that path through those approaches to linger over a particularly tasty morsel of gloating. I can't help myself. Sorry.

And no, it isn't the Jamaican gold medals though those did make me feel good for the folks back home. Who wouldn't?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Greetings from the Underground Cave!

I've made my move into DC, for those of you who don't already know. I'm in temporary digs in an underground cave in a neighborhood that is 1/3 longtime black folks, 1/3 Latino and 1/3 hipster. The dogs are adjusting; we are a couple blocks from Rock Creek Park and all its glories of lounging on the grass and running around in circles. There are some very brazen urban squirrels (one dropped an apple that almost hit Sweetie on the head) and in the back yard there is a rat whose movements are fraught with mystery and fascination. Also there is something on the other side of the fence that requires long stretches of Sweetie standing very still with her ears up, peering through a crack.

Much chicken is consumed in the streets which is convenient for the sly consumption of chicken bones, which for some reason the dogs can't fathom, I don't like and don't like them to have. On the other hand, the dogs don't like drunk people, or buses. Buses hiss at them and suddenly disgorge people who, from the way they just sort of materialize, might be spooks for all Misha knows. And Sweetie is developing a nervous apprehension of bicycles on the sidewalk.

There are about six what they call in St. Kitts and Nevis "Spanish Bars" within three blocks of here. And one bar exclusively frequented by hipsters. Several pupuserias, three Botanicas, and I can stand on one corner and see four Western Union agencies.

A few blocks away is a sort of informal gathering of hipster dogs in the early morning. We drop in over there sometimes and Sweetie feels bold enough to actually play. She pretty much plays two games: tag and "It looks like those two dogs are fighting: I think I'll go hump the one that's losing." Misha stays on the leash, doesn't want to be off the leash. She just sort of cowers against me.

The main drag through the neighborhood turns into a small Central American town in the afternoons, especially on weekends. An old lady sets up a stall on the sidewalk and sells fruit, including fresh green coconuts that you drink from with a straw. On the corners small groups of Latino men sit and drink and watch the street. I get catcalls, whistles, blessings. Apparently with the sitting on the sidewalk sozzled set I am hot stuff. The area is heavily policed as the saying goes. Most of the police work seems to involve scooping one or another of these drinkers off the pavement.

Four days after I moved in a mentally disturbed man invaded my next door neighbors' house. I got home from work and the supermarket and wasn't allowed to walk onto my street or even peer down it to see what was going on. I had to just loiter round the corner with the 20-lb bag of dog food until they were able to coax him off the porch and bundle him into a van. When I finally saw my neighbors later that night, I said, "You had some excitement today." I was hoping, of course, to hear all the sensational details. "Yes," they said with perfect calm and good-nature, and went on enjoying the cool of the evening on the porch.

The word they use most often when referring to Misha is "precious." A word I myself would not have thought to apply to her. They speak to her sweetly and gently whenever they see her and she's trying to figure out in her dim way whether she can trust them.

Two houses up from them, in a weird old house that backs onto some sort of phone and telecommunications agency and the Western Union place is a nice old man named James. He doesn't have a porch; he has a little metal staircase, the sort of thing you might associate with temporary bleachers. open his front door and you step out onto a metal landing with about four steps into the thick of things (chicken-bone scattering, drunk folks, all the street commotion). James likes to sit on this landing and watch Redskins games on a portable TV set. He is a Redskins fan. He brings one chair for himself, one chair for the little black and white TV, and then he has this enormous golf umbrella that he somehow props up to shelter the TV and himself from the sun. Then he gets himself a little treat (watermelon is in season now and he eats it daintily with a spoon), kicks his shoes off, and just enjoys the hell himself.

So yes, I do feel as though I have gotten once again among the holy angels.

My immediate neighbors consist of Mr. B., and his two daughters Terry and Sherry. Tonight the sisters introduced me to their brother Paul who lives nearby, and they offended him by referring to him in my presence as their "baby brother." Paul is on the shady side of 50, and took umbrage at being called a baby. In fact that was the whole substance of my first conversation with him: that he was not a baby, did not wear no Pampers, did not use a pacifier, was no kind of baby at all and didn't want nobody to call him no baby. "You'll always be our baby brother," said Terry or possibly Sherry, sweetly. So Paul went away grumbling that he doesn't wear no Pampers and demanding to know if anybody sees him using a pacifier. "When he's inside we call him baby brother and he doesn't mind; he only minds it in front of other people," Terry (or Sherry) explained to me after he left.