Monday, January 03, 2005

"Smell You Later," says Nelson Muntz at His Most Philosophical

I surprise myself with my inattention to the needs of my readers. You don't want to just know about me, that is, what I think, what I mean and what I think I mean. You want to know how I laugh, live and love here in this little corner of these United States called Oakland. You want what the feature writers call texture and the literary critics call context and Donald Rumsfeld calls the facts on the ground. You want to be the flea in my ear, the bee in my bonnet, the ant in my picnic and -- if the gods must have it so though we pray not -- the ferret down my pants.

In short, you are just a little disappointed in me -- and a little concerned about what my opinion of you must be -- to hear only now that more than a month ago I actually saw our local wino buying wine. When I saw this, I was first startled and then deeply gratified because for all the documentary interest lavished on the world's winos, I have never seen one buying the eponymous thing itself. (Or maybe it's really synecdoche. Sort it out among yourselves.)

It was down at the Albertson's next to the drugstore. Our wino broke into the middle of the line at the "10 items or less" register, carrying a gallon jug of Carlo Rossi red. Up to this point to be honest I was not certain he was a wino. I have seen him around for years, and he has a set of characteristics that are necessary for wino status but not in themselves sufficient to be so defined. He has the filthy clothes and the dirty skin, both so creased and diplapidated it is not always sure where clothes end and man begins. His hair sticks out in stiff peaks like muddy meringue. Of his teeth and mouth it might be said the church door is open but the pews are empty. He is not talkative; in fact, I've never heard him utter a sound. He never asks for money. He stares without focus into the middle distance as if thinking deeply or not at all.

Mostly, he stinks. Up until my seeing him in the Albertson's I would have said always he stinks. Sometimes you smell him before you see him coming. Literally. When a cliche corresponds point by point with the simple truth, one weeps that the bare familiar statement has lost its power to amaze. My wife says he smells like a feedlot, which means he smells like crushed and ripened manure.

That day at the Albertson's, however, he did not smell with the same intensity as usual. Indeed, from five feet away he did not smell at all. Was this a social event? I wondered. Is the buying of a jug of wine an occasion so special he primps beforehand? I asked the cashier if he was a regular customer, and the cashier laughed and said he was, but no one has time for more than a sentence or two in the checkout at our Albertson's so I took my lemons and half and half and kept moving. I didn't ask about how he usually smelled when he came through the line with his crumpled bills, wine in hand.

So he does drink wine whatever else he consumes to maintain his trajectory. I don't know where he sleeps. A couple years ago in the neighborhood we had Crack Man, who liked to curl up for naps in the middle of the sidewalk. I called him Crack Man because when he curled up, his bulk pulled his pants down in back, exposing several inches of buttock separation. He didn't ask for money either. He just lay there on our sidewalk like a turtle with too scant a shell. I haven't seen him in a while. Maybe someone intervened.

As I said, my wino is not a beggar. For a long time we did not have beggars in our neighborhood because it lacked business dynamism and the foot traffic associated with such dynamism. When we moved here in '91, there must have been a dozen empty storefronts on our shopping street, but in the last five years we have gotten a Starbucks, a Noah's Bagels, a co-op bakery that grew out of Berkeley's famous Cheese Board, a regular Gap and a Gap for kids, a Saturday farmer's market.... It's a fine long list and goes on and on. (Meet me at Mezze for the finest of local dining. They know me. We will be treated like princes.)

I can't believe so many people on our street. I can't believe that now sometimes you can't even find parking on the second deck of the parking garage next to the Albertson's. It used to be so deserted on the second deck that unaccompanied women hesitated to park there. But we're bustling now, and with the bustle came the beggars whose presence to me is as heartening as tickbirds on the back of a prize rhinoceros. Our beggars are quite polite and reasonably neat. Their presence does indicate we are a neighborhood on the come, but I am not so Pavlovianized a dog that I give them money simply because they, like the gout, are a symptom of prosperity. I stiff them again and again and again. I would prefer they were not here, but here they are! I have no idea if they are sad stories. For all I know they drive in every day from their condos in El Sobrante.

As for our wino, I assume he is a sad story. I don't know where he sleeps, but it must be nearby since he is a regular feature of our little urban landscape. There's a church on the corner near where we usually see him. Maybe I should ask them if they have tried to help him. I would say hello to him myself, but he might knife me.

Don't you think he might? Back when I was a reporter I would have walked right up to him and had a fine conversation. To enter into a conversation with a reporter is not to enter into the reporter's world but to allow him into yours. To the reporter you are a wretched but fascinating insect. But if I talk to my wino just as a regular human being -- it being stipulated that he is probably an irregular human being -- we are entering one another's worlds. He may be walking down my street, but he's not in my world, not unless I say hello.

I suppose I could buy him an occasional gallon of wine, but I'm an ironist, not a satirist. I could throw a net over him, toss him in the trunk, get him his shots, have him spayed and put him back on the bus bench on which he sometimes sits.

Love thy neighbor as thyself, I guess, but it's so hard to know how you should treat your subject matter.


Anonymous said...

The man I saw wasn't playing volleyball. First, there was no net. Second, nobody else. He was doing jumping jacks, like Bu$h's mercenaries made the prisoners at Abu Ghraib do. Do you deal with that stuff or just make fun of bums on your blog. He tried to do a headstand too but fell over. I think the fire ants got him because he jumped up and ran off slapping at his buttocks like little kids do when they make believe they're riding a horse.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I see you aren't familiar with volleyball played at its highest level.