Sunday, July 09, 2006

center of mass

I was walking through the Mission this afternoon on my way to Phil's Coffee, and all I could think was, Carmen and Flavio are gonna miss this place. They're moving away from San Francisco in less than a month. They'll really miss it. I can tell.

It seemed like there were more murals in this part of the Mission than I'd ever noticed before. They were everywhere. Grinning pigs on the wall of a butcher shop on 24th Street -- even the decapitated pig head was all smiles -- and a masked Wounded Knee resistance fighter on a 22nd Street construction site walkway.

But it was the demented Mr. Bubbles on the laundromat wall who caught my eye: "Mr. Bubbles! Hey, Mr. Bubbles: what'd you do with my sock? Yo, Mister! Mr. Bubbles! I'm talkin' to you!"

Art alive on every building, on fences, down alleys. It helped counteract the fact that you might well see hipsters instead of homies on half the street corners these days. The Mission started gentrifying during the Internet boom and it hasn't put on the brakes. But they haven't replaced Botanica Yoruba with Restoration Hardware. Yet.

Carmen and Flavio are moving to Amherst. In central Massachusetts. I like to think it's the center of mass, but maybe that's pushing it. We tried that once, living in Amherst at the center of mass, and I don't think we lasted even six months. Centripetal force threw us off. Maybe we weren't quite at the center of mass after all.

We should've had our collective tails between our collective legs on the long drive back to California, but we were, in fact, jubilant. Excited to be heading home. Driving as fast as we could on the black ice that coated the highway in Tennessee, passing Shoney's after Shoney's, eating fast food burgers and not even bothering to unwrap them or chew. Home! To California!

You couldn't fault the scenery in Amherst. We moved there in late August and spent the fall reveling in novelty of the colored leaves on the trees lining the Robert Frost trail. Tromp, tromp. Shuffle, shuffle. We walked around a perfect small lake. A few fallen leaves floated on the still water's surface; it looked like the product of a Bob Ross "Joy of Painting" lesson. Deciduous trees! How cool is that? Then, in December, snow. Real snow! Not cocaine, but snow-snow! And antiques! The central Massachusetts countryside was just as soothing as Bob Ross's voice. And the Robert Frost trail: I imagine that if you moved to Manhattan, you'd hike on the Jim Carroll trail instead; it'd have completely different scenery, iconography, and ghosts. But there'd be none of this After Apple Picking folderol; of this you can be certain.

The serenity of our Emily Dickensonian/Robert Frostian idylls was shattered by our downstairs neighbors. Shattered. You see, I rented our apartment near UMass at the Crestview Apartments at the end of July. While all the undergrads were safely ensconced in some other distant part of the state, snug in their cozy childhood bedrooms, nourished by Mom's cooking.

"Is it quiet here?" I asked the rental agent at DH Jones Realty. "Really quiet?"

"Oh, yes. It's very quiet," he assured me. And went on to tell me about the woman across the hall who was a grad student at UMass in some silent monkish discipline like chemical engineering or materials science.

The apartment's brown carpeting was brand new. The walls were freshly painted. You'd say the place was spic-n-span. You would. It didn't look half-bad for a 1BR in a college town. We settled in at the end of August not long before classes started.

But then came September. Our downstairs neighbors moved in. Are those undergrads? They looked awfully big and healthy and athletic for grad students.

The guy at DH Jones Realty had lied. Just lied through his teeth. Very quiet. Very quiet indeed!

Did you know that a metal kitchen sink will work as a basketball hoop if you want to play basketball at 3am? The fall air had a real nip to it, so you wouldn't want to be playing outside in the middle of the night. THUMPETY-THUMPETY-THUMPETY-BANG! 2 points! And if you're playing basketball inside your Crestview apartment, you can whip up a blenderful of daiquiris when you get thirsty. That'd be at 3:20am, after you'd worked up a sweat. Whir-WHIR-WHIR-CLATTER-WHIR-CLATTER.

A daiquiri needs to be well-blended. And a basketball that bounces out of the metal sink with a glancing smack on the faucet might provoke an escalating dispute. Is that really worth two points? It bounced back out. Thud! The sound of a 228 pound undergrad hitting drywall is pretty unmistakable. Wham! You can really get into it with all that sugar and all that rum and all that post-adolescent adrenalin in your system.

So Bat Brain -- a student-drawn comic in the UMass paper -- seemed just right. Bill Dearing got it. I should've scared up an old newspaper if I'd wanted to know what the place was really like. Instead of asking a real estate agent.

There's always someone like that at college, someone who can get the essence of the place in four panels. Blue chronicled our own undergraduate experience. Here's one he drew of his roommate Jeff, sitting in sophomore physics lecture. It's pretty much perfect, just as I remember it.


Anyway, we went to Carmen and Flavio's going-away bash on Saturday night. I thought, "No, I'm not gonna tell those guys scare stories about UMass -- it doesn't seem fair to do that. They're too smart to rent a 1BR Crestview Apartment. And I'm not gonna say A WORD. For a change."

It was too cold to be out on the back deck of their Glenpark flat, but a bunch of us were standing out there anyway. Smoking. Looking through the neighbors' windows. Looking out toward San Francisco City College and comparing this view with that view and this hill with that hill and this flat with that flat. The usual things that people talk about when they don't all know each other, but need to find some common conversational ground. Everyone knows about views and hills and renting apartments. In spite of the cold, it was nice standing out on the deck, drinking homemade sangria.

It was the homemade sangria, I think, that made me blurt out, "You guys ought to sublet. Y'know. So you can come back when it's February. I mean, just in case. If your downstairs neighbors play basketball or something."

But they'd already given notice on their tidy 2BR Glenpark flat. 2BR. Light and bright. A short walk to BART. Hdwd floors. And they reminded me that they'd already shown their mettle by surviving College Station, Texas, home of the Texas A&M University Aggies and Aglets. (The Texas A&M Battalion had its own student-drawn comics, but I thought Today's Smile, from the front page of the town's daily Bryan/College Station Eagle, was much, much funnier.)

Gosh, I'm glad Glen Gerzik got his new chompers, you'd think as you scanned the Eagle for interesting local stories. Like the progress of the construction on the new Bed Bath & Beyond.

But that's College Station, and this is Amherst. And besides they're going to buy.

Buy? Then they can't move when the place gets dirty. Did you know catfood has something in it that welds the chicken chunks directly to the floor? And that shower grout has a function beyond improving the basic aesthetics of the shower stall?

I mostly keep my eyes shut in the shower -- I hate getting water in my eyes -- so I don't worry about the aesthetics of our pink-and-yellow shower stall. For godssakes! It's pink AND yellow. Not just pink. Not just yellow. Pink AND yellow. You can't worry about the aesthetics of something that's already pink and yellow. Better to shower with your eyes squinched shut, as if someone were throwing you a softball.

But it was that line of drips on the garage floor. Directly underneath the shower stall. Even I couldn't ignore this kind of evidence. It's not cat pee. Not motor oil. Clearly soapy water.

"Call the landlord," I told Mark. "The shower's leaking."

He reminded me that we owned the place.

"oh," I said. "oh. That's not good. Shit."

I wore a woeful expression down at Cliff's Variety (the best hardware store in the world) and asked the clerk in the kilt if I should use grout to fix the shower. Grout. Even when you say it, you feel like a homeowner. Grout.

"Grout," the clerk in the kilt repeated. "The one thing that you have to remember about grout is that you have to do it right."

He looked at me sternly. He doubted it. I doubted it. In fact, it may well be that I doubted it even more than he doubted it. And he doubted it plenty.

In the end, I bought a tube of white goo that looked reassuringly like toothpaste. The tube looked like a toothpaste tube and the goo looked like toothpaste goo. But I didn't delude myself for even one second that toothpaste could be used to fix something like this; it only works in dry environments, like where you pulled your poster off the wall. When you were a renter. In the good old days. When you just had to move.

It would get dirty inside and snowy outside (or dirty outside and snowy inside) and you could just move back. To California.

Remember this, Carmen and Flavio: you can always move back. To California. Okay?


Blogger Bill said...

My comics live on!

A co-worker forwarded me the link to this post recently after I had mentioned to him that many many years ago I had once written a daily comic strip in the school paper at UMass. Funny you should mention that I "got it right" with those two "Bat Brain" cartoons, because they were both lifted from real life.

The first one, "Tonight I'm gonna get so messed up," came as I was walking down the hall of my dorm one afternoon after class. I overheard one of my floormates make that exact statement. The rest of the cartoon came almost immediately, within about 20 seconds of the original comment. I jotted it down as soon as I thought of it, drew it up, and it went into the paper the next day.

The second one, "I somehow doubt conversations like this ever take place at Harvard," was pretty much stolen verbatim from a conversation that occurred one evening in the lounge of my dorm. UMass students have such an inferiority complex. The punch line was uttered by my roommate Tony. I made it fit into four panels, but otherwise stole the whole thing.

Anyway, astonishing to still see them floating around somewhere after all these years.

Bill Dearing
Somerville, MA

5:58 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

I somehow knew those quotes were lifted from real undergraduate life at UMass, but it's great to hear it from the source. And great to know that there's a real Bill Dearing who has settled in Somerville -- it's reassuring.

Like Blue (who drew the other comic I included in this post), I'd imagine Bill Dearing to have done quite well after graduation.

You know those comics must've captured the essence of the place for me, since I still have them after 20 years. Will we even have any 20 year old digital stuff? Doubt it. It's too bad too, since I was pretty amused by my re-encounter with Bat Brain

Thanks for writing, Bill.


6:05 PM  

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