Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Man From San Francisco (start to finish version for your reading ease)

A few days back I happened to be talking to a guy from San Francisco--Castro Valley, actually--whom I met at a place down the street called Angels’--a chicken bar, I was told to begin with, a place of ill-repute--not a whore house, mind you, but an unsavory institution frequented by drunk white men and managed by young women of lower societal standing--Javanese no less, Sumatrans, certainly not Balinese. These were girls who had come from foreign locales--more than three hours distant by ferry--to reap the fruits of paradise, that which they had not sown to begin with. In short they were mercenaries, leeches, interlopers--chasers after the foreign tourists who ought to have been the sole prey of proper young Balinese women.

I had been forewarned not to visit this bar by one of the proper type girls mentioned above. There were bad people at the bar, she said--bad sorts of women, well known for doing bad sorts of things. I believed this at the time, having not yet seen for myself; but the knowledge, far from deterring, had in the main set motion to the famous Episcopal maxim of St. Paul:

So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

Ah what a wretched man am I.

And soon a disappointed one as well; for there were no chicken at all in this bar as I was to find it, but only the drunken white men, with whom I had already been perfectly well acquainted back in the States--half a sum leading to much less than half the appeal in the original equation.
In any case, I had started out to talk about the man from San Francisco, to whom I will now return.

Though I have lived in Bali but a few months now, I have met far fewer Americans than I should have thought I would. The notions of ignorance are no less potent for their chimerical source, and so I was surprised to find myself most often in the company of Dutch, Germans, British, and Australians, and the American as rare as the bald eagle itself. Oh, and of course there were the Balinese.

I had over the previous couple of years learned to speak Indonesian to some degree from an impatient tutor (my Javanese wife), so that I knew enough now to make myself understood, and especially where urgent matters are concerned--i.e. Where is the bathroom, How much does this cost, I’m lost can you help me, and such-like. According to my friend Victor, an ex-patriot Brit with three years in Bali under his belt, all you really need to know how to say is Bintang (beer) and pergi sana (go away), but I think the economy there is just a bit less than sound, for when push comes to shove, or even to a tap on the shoulder, Vick must depend upon his Balinese wife, and who knows what she is really saying. Right?

The point I mean to make is that neither my English nor my Indonesian has been very suitable when it comes to conversing with tourists (or bar hoppers) who are speaking German, Dutch, French, Italian, Russian, Portugese, or Norwegian (or Canadian either for that matter, though this particular cultural barrier belongs to another article altogether).

So it has happened, at Angels’ bar anyway, frequented as it is by people of all nations (except, curiously enough, the Indonesian nation), that language has been put back two or three eons, resulting in a return to the linguistic repertoire of the cave man--hungry, thirsty, sleepy, horny, and so on.

Happily however, the Bintang consumed at these bars, when applied in a liberal manner, serves to mitigate the effects of this barrier to the extent that whether one is being understood or is himself understanding becomes superfluous--for the flow of the spirits, as alcohol is called here in Bali, has carried on its current the universal brotherhood of man, the shared experience of human existence. We live, we know, we understand. Who needs language anyway?

Ladies and gentlemen, what you are reading has been written, up to this point, over a period of seven days or so--a period during which, for the latter part, I have been quite ill with the flu, or with food poisoning, or dengue fever, or . . . well with something . . . and I find just now, upon this particular entry, that I have quite forgotten what I meant to say about the man from San Francisco (who is in any case, if memory serves, currently away from the island on a business trip to Vietnam).

But wait--Ah yes--the forbidden bar, the den of iniquity, the sober warning, the birth of curiosity (indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law ), capitulation, the man from San Francisco.

Avast--Thar she blows--the White Whale!

Many of us who suffer from the dumb-i-fying effects of multiple sclerosis tend to poke fun at ourselves. We do so in order to make both explanation and excuse. Aside from that, it does tend to be a rather hilarious disease, as diseases go, and so it is hard not to indulge in such humor. What, for instance, is more naturally comic than the basic prat fall--the stumble, the clumsy struggle to regain balance, the ensuing downward spiral of conniptions, and the final crash landing?

Think The Three Stooges, think Jerry Lewis, think Dick Van Dyke.

Or, when it comes to the mental side of awkwardness, just think Mister Bean, think Mister Dick. Think Mister Magoo.

I look with amazement upon the ineptitude of my mind, with fresh surprise at every sudden disappearance of data that should have remained where I had saved it the day before, with a keen curiosity toward where my train of thought had left the track, where it may have gone wrong, what it had done whilst not being where I left it. Strange, very strange indeed. I am the author of I know not what, the sailor of an ever changing sea. I begin and I end, but the port of departure and the final destination have nothing to do with the journey between.

This, as I would suppose, makes things a bit difficult for the reader. A plan is wanted, structure, intent--an A and a B and a C. You expect an equation, you expect a sum, and you expect an arithmetic nice and snug in between.

And so do I, so do I--if only my stir-fried brain would conceive!

Firstly, then, there was a bar.

Secondly, I went there.

Thirdly, I met a man from San Francisco. Castro Valley, actually.

He was sitting at one end of the bar, that nearest the street. I parked my bike, paid the attendant 1000 Rupiah to put down the kickstand, then politely waited to be accosted by the fabled women of the night--though, as mentioned above, there were none. Pretty waitresses, yes, but these were creatures of a different sort altogether--Javanese, as I have mentioned, Sumatrans, but hardly working girls of an inappropriate sort (aside from being from Java and Sumatra, that is).

Clearly this place had been confused with another by the young woman who had initially warned me away--a place just down the road, at the East end of Sanur--Yes, that one, the house of the rising sun--that place where mama told you not to go. That ain’t the way to have fun, son . . . that ain’t the way to have fun, no-o-o, as even Three Dog Night had long ago cautioned.

But this we will leave (most likely) at seeming, as it does, part of another story, and will make no judgment at this time of the worthiness of a thing not fully addressed.

What prompted me to sit by the man from San Francisco in the first place? It was the fact that there were no other stools to be sat upon. And how very American is that, right? Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam. We must have our elbow room--for in the theater we leave an empty seat in between, in the restroom we leave anywhere from one to five unoccupied urinals (depending upon the availability of inoccupancy), and in the bar we leave at least one empty stool.

This, interestingly enough, is not the practice in Indonesia. Here, if there is no seat available, they will sit on your lap. People are in the habit of rubbing elbows as if there were a basic need for more elbows than just their own. They will share from your plate, exclaim enak! (delicious) in the friendliest manner, and then offer you a bit of baked fish from their own. These are people who ride their motorbikes in such close proximity that one would find no challenge at all in linking hands and forming an impromptu chorus line (but for the lack of suitable music, that is).

In short, here in Indonesia fellowship precedes the actual presence of society, whereas in America we strain at the idea of community from the outset, as if each person were no more than a stubborn turd. We have nothing to do with each other--not until it can’t be helped, anyway.

Apologetically, then, I shuffled into the seat at the crowded bar, explaining that it was the only seat open. This he understood perfectly well, and graciously surrendered the unoccupied stool. Offering his hand, he introduced himself as someone or other and asked where I was from. From America, I answered. Well, he too was from America. San Francisco. Castro Valley.

“Ah! I have a cousin there!” I said.



“Now that’s a coincidence!”

“Isn’t it though!”

The reader has no doubt noted the exclamation marks that punctuate my rendition of this brief exchange, and perhaps has wondered why they are there. Did we really exclaim in such a manner--as if there were something endemically miraculous about the United States or San Francisco? Yes, we did!

When one has been absent from his Country, absent from his culture, absent from his language for any fair amount of time at all there is a certain shock of familiarity that rides on the wings of the simplest utterance. We did not know it beforehand--before, that is, leaving our native land--but we are inextricably linked through a mystery of birthplace, shared experience, a mutual history, a companionship of knowledge, the rhythm of language, a fellowship of words We both apprehend and are apprehended--and in this we expend no effort at all. We remember and we are remembered.

From place we move to age, from age to era, from era to particulars.

Haight Ashbury in ‘65. Yes, we were both there. The summer of love. Flower children. A girl with a rose tucked into her hair, and this the whole of her attire. Rowan and Martin. The Smothers Brothers. Race riots, drugs, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, Patricia Hearst, Vietnam. The Kennedy’s, Bobby and John. Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin . . . .”

We find ourselves separated not only by place, but by time, by the years, by the stealthy progress of our own lives, until one day we wake up in 1968 while the rest of the world has moved along to the 21st century. At the center of our being lies a natural fondness for what is no more, but for the mysterious realm of memory, the possessive embrace of the past. A certain period of time--not this time, but that time--which yet breathes and lives as if it were now--seems to define the very core, the aura within, a numinous aggregation of all that has made and continues to make--time and experience and love and music and joy and fear and knowledge and wisdom--this person, this heart, this dying star.

“What does your cousin do there!”

“I don’t know! I’ve not seen him in the longest time!”

But now, yes now, somehow we are together again.

I miss you, Dave . . . or is it just my own youth?

And so we changed the subject to Bali, as in What the hell are you doing here anyway, man?

It’s a dream, pure and simple. A dream, no matter how you tell it. And it’s complicated. It’s usually complicated. We all have a reason for being here. We did not simply fall from the sky. No, not we, but Bali itself. The island of Bali fell from the sky.

For once upon a time in the mid 1950s an American city, some American towns, and a sea green swathe of countryside were suddenly removed from the face of the earth, taken mysteriously to the sky, preserved in the heavens in an air-tight bottle, and not seen for the next 50 years or so.

Did anyone notice? No, not really. And that’s not so strange as it may at first seem. Remember, this was the 1950s, and so this city, these towns, this sea green swathe were much the same as any other city, town, or sea green swathe.

In due time, shortly after the turn of the century, the absent land mass reappeared, crashing
back to the face of the earth like a giant, mauve colored beanbag chair. Walls were cracked, foundations splintered, some things were set sideways, some things set on end--yet all in all it remained of one piece, albeit a bit petrified here, a bit dog-eared there.

And they called it the island of Bali.

It was the man from San Francisco who came up with the general notion, and I who have extrapolated above.

“You know the weird thing about this place?” he said. “It reminds me for all the world of my own boyhood in Cali.”

“It’s only one letter off,” I observed.

We were halfway through our second Bintang. Yang besar.

‘Wowwwww man . . . that’s like far out, yeah?”

Far out, yes; and a classic moment as well. Beam my back, Scotty, scroll the years, uncover the treasure, grind the gears. All the man needed was the stub of a joint and a ring of smoke to circle his head--a halo, and at Angels’ no less.

In Bali the dogs run wild, as they did in the States when I and the man from San Francisco were kids. That was in the 1950s too, before the leash law came along.

Oh give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don’t fence me in,” the dogs said.
But they did. And they were.

I remember even now being astounded at the unfairness of the thing. How cruel it seemed, How intolerant. How unnatural!

We had a dog, of course. Everyone did, except those people who had voted in favor of the leash law (which, come to think of it, would have made them the majority). I remember watching, standing helplessly by, as our dog discovered for the first time that a leash would stop him from charging down the grassy bank of our lawn to chase a squirrel or a car or a bird.

Twang! Choke! What the bloody hell?!”

Ah, but here in the unspoiled land of Bali the dogs congregate in little family groups, the center hub of which will be a house or a villa, a market or an alley. They know their territory and are known by the same. One dog will attract another, one female will attract a male, puppies will come along, and the family unit will expand (unless the puppies happen to be eaten first).

During the day, through the hours of heat, the dogs will sleep, lounging on porches or underneath trees or in the open doorway of a family dwelling. They do not go into the houses, these dogs. It is the structure that makes the home, not what is within. They gather scraps, pass bones back and forth, raid the garbage, always making do with whatever can be had.

At night when the heat begins to disperse, when the ferns and the palm leafs gather dew, when the streets become quiet and the puddles from the day wink back at the stars, the dogs will roam, push boundaries a bit, see who lives around that corner or over yonder grassy knoll. They go in twos and threes, though a half dozen more linger close behind. Little wars break out, disputes are renewed, land is taken and land is lost, marriages are made and children conceived. This is their world, first given then made--a world of purpose and personal choice.

Nowadays the authorities have begun to cull the packs because of the rise in the incidence of rabies and the threat this poses to the general public. Several people, up-country, have been bitten. At least one child has died. In the wee hours of the morning one can sometimes heat the sound of gunshots--a solitary, lonely sound it is, like the pop a light bulb makes when it shatters.

What has happened to Lulu, mother?
What has happened to Lu?
There's nothing in her bed but an old rag-doll
And by its side a shoe.

What was that?” San Francisco wondered.

“Poem. Charles Causley. Was just thinking about dogs.”

“Oh. Cool.”

“What has happened to Lulu?”

It seemed to have been a question in both our minds, for both our brows seemed wrinkled more than usually so. I and this man had much in common. Three--no four--Bintangs for one thing.

“What ever happened to Baby Jane?” he said.

“Exactly. And Bobby Sherman.”

“Whatever happened to penny candy?”

“Bobby socks.”

“Going steady”

“Wow, right on. But get this, man . . . Whatever happened to love?”

“I have spent most of my life in love,” I answered.

“Me too, man, me too. Except for the married part.”

“Ah well, put a woman in the garden, and first thing you know she comes up with a snake.”

“Snakes! Oh yeah, I can tell you about snakes! Came home one day, went down the hall, and there was a cobra sitting right in front of my bedroom door!”


“Oh yeah. Sitting up, you know, with its head cocked back.”

“What did you do? Call someone?”

“Nah. It was sitting on a sort of throw rug, you know, so I just dragged the whole thing out the back door and heaved it into the bushes. Now I just don’t go out to the yard anymore.”

This made perfect sense, actually. Things are done simply here in Bali. You don’t call pest control, you don’t fumigate, you don’t set a trap--you step on it, or shoot it, or give it a good swift kick. Or you simply stay away from it.

“You know what else is the same?” my friend said. “Uniforms. Everyone here has a uniform, just like when I was a kid back home. You go into a supermarket and they all have a uniform on. You go into the Hardy’s store or the Makro or Carrefour and they are all dressed up like the Verizon guy or Air Force captains or some damn thing. You know who the employees are, that‘s for sure.”

“So true.”

“I’m not just talking about a nametag, man, I’m talking about a freaking uniform, from head to toe. These supervisors back home talk about representing your place of employment--but this here, man--this--is representation, just as representative as it can get.”

And it is, it‘s true. Here the employees dress as employees, not as people who just happen to be walking about. Here every school student wears a uniform, complete with vest and tie. The restaurant workers, the parking attendants, the gas pumpers, the bankers, all wear a uniform. We all have an identity, we all have a function. Nothing comes in disguise.

Close your eyes baby
Follow my hear-heart
Call on the mem'rie-ie-ies
Here in the dar-ark
We'll let the magic
Take us away-ay
Back to the fee-eelin's
We shared when they'd play

In the still of the ni-i-i-i-ight
Ho-old me darlin', hold me ti-i-ight
Shoo-doop, shoo-be do, shoo-doop, doo
So real, so-o-o right
Lost in the fifties tonight

“It’s weird,” the man from the 50s, the man from San Francisco mused. “I feel so out of place, so alien sometimes--and yet I feel at other times like I’m back home, twelve again, hanging out
in my old neighborhood. It’s a trip, man. It’s like the Twilight Zone. I can’t tell sometimes whether I’m a square peg or a round hole.”

“It’s like your inside is out and your outside is in.”

“Yeah, you’re outside is in and your inside is out.”

“So come ah--ahnn. Come ah-ahnn.”

This last was intoned in unison, perhaps somewhat musically, startling the bartender and causing a moment of confusion.

“Mau Bintang lagi?” she asked--for she thought we wanted more beer.

The winters in Bali are terrifically hot. The summers are just a bit cooler. The winters are humid, heavy, stifling. In the summer there is usually a breeze. It’s upside down, it’s inside out. It’s hot when it should be cold and it’s warm when it should be hot. It is another planet, resolving around a brighter sun. It is a Star Trek episode, and I and the man from San Francisco are Kirk and Spock, finding ourselves, due to transporter error, at the old A&W on 82nd avenue, ordering from a carport through a box on a post while young waitresses clatter by on roller skates, carrying platters while coin dispensers jingle on their belts.

Fascinating, Captain.


Four or five dogs wander by. No one takes note.

“When I was a kid my family was very poor,” San Francisco said. “Very, very poor. But you know what? I didn’t really even know it at the time. I just remember having lots of friends, and being outside all the time, playing with whatever stuff we found--pop cans, sticks for swords or guns. Someone would always have a baseball and a bat. That’s all you need to play, right? One ball and one bat. And our diamond was the four street curbs right in front of our house.”

“Here the kids play soccer,” I added. “And it’s the same thing. They got one ball, and they all got feet. I see them in the alleys all the time. The garbage can is the goal. The boundaries are the walls on either side.”

“Now every street back home is a freeway.”

“Right on.”

“I used to wonder,” he said. “I mean, when I first came here I used to wonder why there were so many kids running around. I thought, man this place is overpopulated as hell, and all these kids got nowhere to go. But then I got to thinking about it--thinking about when I was a kid, like I was saying--and I realized that it was the same back then, in my old town, and the only reason you don’t see it anymore in America is because all the kids are inside the house, playing X-Box and Play Station, watching TV, freakin’ Nicolodeon 24 hours a day, the Disney Channel, MTV, HBO. Hell, most kids here don’t even have a TV, and they certainly don’t have an X-Box or a laptop.”

No, they certainly don’t. Nor do they have much in the way of food, or clothing, or healthcare, or dental care, or transportation, or air conditioning, or strip malls, or supermarkets, or drugs, or alcohol, or rock concerts, or mosh pits, or pistols, or skate parks, or sewage facilities, or clean water, or automatic car washes, or washing machines, or stereo systems, or home movie theaters, or ice cream parlors. Or money.

What they do have is simplicity. What they do have is community. What they do have is the family, a system of faith, several in fact, a necessary inventiveness, a homemade sort of joy, a fellowship with their environment, the day, the night, the sea, the beach, the crickets and the cockroaches, the Cecak and the Tokek, the music of nature, a knowledge of the songs, a paucity of crime, an effortless respect for the fellow human being.

Timothy Winters has bloody feet
And he lives in a house on Suez Street,
He sleeps in a sack on the kitchen floor
And they say there aren't boys like him any more.

“Hm. What’s with all the Charles Causland?”

“I dunno. Seems like my mom was somehow related to him. Cousin or uncle or uncle’s cousin or something.”

“A monkey’s uncle.”

“Uncle Sam.”

“Right on.”

“My mom used to make me and my brother memorize these things,” I explained. “I didn’t much like it back then, but I’m kind of glad now. Comes in handy sometimes.”

“We hold these truths to be self evident--”

“Yeah, like that.”

Together we thought about it. It was growing late. Most of the Dutch had left, and the English, and there was just me now, and the man from San Francisco, and one Italian guy half asleep on his elbows.

“You know what the cool thing about this country is?” the man from San Francisco said. “The cool thing is that old guys like us, old men, are considered attractive.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“It’s not that it means anything. Not really. It’s not like I’m going to run out and marry a 17 year old girl. It’s just . . . “

Just what? Exactly what? Had we found ourselves back in time again? Twenty-five again? Thirty-two again? Had we also disappeared, once upon a time, been taken to the sky with that slice of nostalgia, and dropped now where old is new, where cracks in a wall denote strength of foundation, where wrinkles mean reliability, and poor insight seems a habit of rumination?

“It just makes me feel human,” he concluded. “It makes me feel worthwhile. It makes me feel like all these years have added up to something other than just old age.”

I thought about that. It seemed to be true. How long had we been together, this man and I? An hour? A lifetime? How long had we spent in explaining ourselves to one another?

“Tomorrow I go to Vietnam,” he said.

“Tomorrow my wife comes home from the States.”

“Far out. You must be happy,” he said.

“Must be. Or if I’m not, I should be, right?”

Here in Bali they love Americans. They love Vietnam. They love Barach Obama, they love Arnold Schwarzenegger. On TV you can see Happy Days and the Flintstones and LA Law, but you cannot see the movie 2012 because it runs contrary to Muslim sensitivities in Jakarta. You can, however, buy the pirated DVD, right there in the pirated DVD store. It will cost you only 2 bucks, although it may not work. Buyer beware.

And so we said our goodbyes. We said goodnight, safe trip, good luck. I’ve not been back to Angels’ lately, only when opportunity knocks. The wife has indeed returned from the States and will not leave again until August, three months. She does not approve of Angels’, because of the chicken there, she says. But I know one thing--there are no chicken at Angels’, only young girls who scratch out a living and sell no more than Bintang and pleasant dispositions.

Something else I know as well. There is at least one good man who frequents Angels’. Maybe even two.

So come one angel, come on ten
Timothy Winters says "Amen
Amen amen amen amen."
Timothy Winters, Lord. Amen


imascatterbrain said...

I can recognize some of the detours your thinking has taken, but you have turned out such a COHESIVE tale;

I feel like the writer spent his whole life closely with his twin (who had MS with cognitive changes) (and changes again), yet was brilliant & kind enough to weave a perfect story that would make his twin feel so content and satisfied before their warm afternoon nap.

Not like YOU have MS, and a train of thought that whips around more like the train of an old-fashioned dress.


- Lorraine

R.W. Boughton said...

Thank you kindly, Lorraine. Cohesiveness, believe me, was an accident. I guess sometimes even the MS brain knows what its talking about, and you just have to give it free rein. In any case, your comment made me feel very happy.