The block of 16th Street between Market and Island is a smell, a kind of planet, a Bukowski poem, and a sin.
It may also be considered a haven, the residence of saints, alcoholic angels, and the incipient saved. God’s Extended Hand is on the southeast corner at Island. My home, and that of my grown son, is on the southwest corner at Market, an apartment in a high-rise, luxury building not unlike those only blocks away that house yuppies and golden retrievers. Those places rent for $2500 per month. And the price of a condominium? Who knows. Near a half-million, I would think. Meanwhile, I am charged a more-than-reasonable rate for a large and clean, well-lighted place with a view. Rent, shared with my son, is well under $1000, most of it paid with a voucher from the San Diego Housing Commission.
From this perch, my son and I read, discuss bizarre (some would say) philosophies, and cook with a bit more skill each passing day. He plays video games (World of Warcraft, and StarCraft, I believe they are called). I work on the kind of nonfiction novel that Truman Capote and Norman Mailer launched into mainstream literature. My story is largely autobiographical, and at times makes me nauseous, as there is so much I wish to forget, but some of it might be considered dramatic to the vicarious, or funny to the cynical. I spend much time on YouTube, searching out decades-old rock ’n’ roll songs and accompanying black-and-white videos, or free, old movies. When it comes to these activities, I am hardly different than a cocaine addict.
We live in this fine place at such a beneficent rate because we are both disabled. We receive a paltry sum in Social Security income, but as it turns out, it’s enough: we need little in the way of stuff.
Our disabilities? My son, though given to flights of genius, is half mad. He is diabetic, as well, but that doesn’t count for much, despite the potential for horrific debilitation. Me? Also half mad, but diagnosed only with what they used to call manic depression. Further diagnoses await, but I am unanxious to invite them. I also have more medical problems than are presented in a dozen episodes of House.
At the moment, Geoffrey, the aforementioned son, is sleeping. He has the master bedroom, as he is a large lad with sprawling habits regarding his clothes. He also has a large collection of toys, still in unopened packages, and on which in years to come he may retire — not that he has a job. He owns a large desktop Mac. I am in the smaller room, which is all I need: single bed, desk, a good chair, a laptop (also Mac). Two guitars lean against a wall: a Fender acoustic and a Gretsch on loan to me for an unconscionably long time by one Gerry Limpic, who if not an actual saint among men is one of a handful of genuinely good men I have met. I play the guitars for several hours each day. It is what I did for 47 years, all over the world. Of course, I stopped for several years because of bad health, and I reckon that a mistake.
We have a capacious balcony on which my son spends more time than I do. Looking over the garish red 76 gas station in the foreground, one can see uphill to a battalion of palm trees and a church spire over which the sun rises each day. Below, on the street, are the disenfranchised and desperate, though some have come to an agreement of sorts with a world minus much hope beyond sack lunches from God’s Extended Hand and an occasional breakfast. Some are schizophrenic (an educated but unofficial evaluation). Many are addicted to ethanol or crack. Heroin is out of reach even for those on Social Security income, even if they are willing to endure the several-days-each-month withdrawal.
Both my son and I have witnessed violence among the street people, the beating of women, one being dragged by her hair for yards along the concrete. No one intervened. Not I, not Geoffrey, not the police (please!), but more tellingly neither by their immediate sidewalk neighbors. Shouting, curses, and threats increase as the sun goes down. A fistfight is not unusual, incorporating inept cinematic karate moves. We have observed them, Geoffrey and I, feeling like patrons at a sorry boxing match, or ancient Roman plebeians who’ve come to the arena for bread and to watch comic/sad and mismatched amateurs go at each other armed primarily with unfocused rage.
The notion of camaraderie or fellowship (a word that sadly turns me cold) among those in the same lifeboat (as one prone to cliché might put it) is not particularly evident here. As politically incorrect an observation as this may be, it is an observation. I am certain I should speak of the nobility and dignity of the poor, the mutual support that can be found among its ranks (financially, I belong to this group, though I more often feel rich — just not in money), and I am equally certain such humanity can be located among those I speak of. I have witnessed it, simply not often enough.
Then, too, Geoffrey and I have seen those who cruise slowly along 16th Street in late-model cars, pausing to dispense fast-food french fries, donuts, or homemade sandwiches, and in one case, I swear I am not lying, a dozen or more shrink-wrapped packets of sushi, California rolls. There was not enough, as several recipients grabbed stacks of the stuff, either for themselves or to sell to those next to them along the wall of the storage facility where they reside.
Those driving slowly by in everything from Toyotas to Lexus (Lexi?), Audis, and whatnot, are what David “the Waterman” Ross — much publicized these days and one of the truly good men alluded to above — calls “making periodic pilgrimages to the pathetic.” I do not wish to discourage these people. I hope they feel good, righteous, and saved. Yet I cannot help but recollect one of the better suggestions regarding what those without homes truly need. It came from George Carlin, a clown, yes, but a brilliant one. He suggested developing golf courses into low-income or subsidized-housing sites. A joke, and in any case, it would never happen.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey and I discuss putting art work to the walls (I think we have to get building maintenance to mount the stuff or suffer consequences). So far, we have limited ideas. I am all for decorating with old pulp-magazine cover prints in thrift-shop frames. Movie posters would also be fine. Original art by friends would be welcome, if they’d part with it cheaply, but I hate to do that. Geoffrey would like his Japanese anime posters tacked up in his room. That’s all right, but he has (unwittingly) generated more promising ideas.
Geoffrey loves to play with language — the apple, you know, falling close to the tree. He’s come up with a few nonexistent (thus far) words that I find interesting. One is “psychigence.” (I told you we’re both at least half mad.) Another is “funtelligence.” I’d like to have Kinko’s print that one up in, say, Gothic, or Old English, or something, anyway, with a bit of gravitas. I’d like a size that would make it easy to find a cheap frame, and I’d place it above the telephone table/desk between the kitchen and living room.
A saying of Geoffrey’s, originated by the lad and re-cobbled by myself, would read: “Luck, good, bad, or indifferent, perpetuates itself.” Kinko’s could do this one in Chinese characters, but with an attribution — “Geoffrey Brizzolara” — at the bottom in English.
The sun is going down invisibly behind us, evidenced in crepuscular coloration to the east. The palms and church spire are backdropped by rose-and-gold cumulus clouds over the Imperial Valley; cirrus stratus formations horizontally bisect those mystic-looking masses, looking like enormous cerulean-gray brush strokes slashed by some cosmic artistic/abstract god called to dinner. As we stand on the balcony, awaiting the roasting of a chicken, the denizens of the 16th Street sidewalk beneath us are, many of them, near their fill of Steel Reserve malt liquor, or Mad Dog 20/20, a kind of wine, and possibly embalming fluid, as potent as the humid night’s promise of violence. It’s coming, I think.
I go inside, into my office/bedroom, and strap on the Gretsch and turn on the Fender Frontman amplifier (an actual gift from Mr. Limpic). I shift its volume to a loud-enough six, with the reverb dial set at the same digit. I begin to play Link Wray’s “Rumble,” and wait. ■