Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Treat for the Devil

Halloween night, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1992.  I was living in a moldy studio apartment filled with cockroaches the size of paperback books.  At night they sounded like pattering rats as they scuttled over the kitchen carpet--the whole fetid box was covered with the same splotchy gray fabric, even the bathroom--and tried to dig their way into the cereal box or oatmeal cylinder.  My girlfriend had recently taken a job in Kentucky and I was fighting horrid loneliness, a reappearance of aggressive foot fungus because of the humid, swampy Louisiana atmosphere, and the irony of teaching creative writing up at LSU while being massively blocked myself on both a novel and a screenplay.

Outside, as I sat on my bed reading and swigging from a jug of cheap wine, the following things lurked:  A misty, swampy rain, sauna hot even at the end of October, swirling down grayish-green and phantomish from weirdly-lit orange clouds; an alligator that I and several other residents had spotted repeatedly, skulking and swishing its way through the weed-choked parking lot into the woods behind the complex--animal control hadn't yet responded and each trip to my car parked a few feet from the door was terrifying; a ferret owned by the lesbian witch masseuse who lived upstairs and was always bounding and leaping up and down the stairway, fixing you with its black eyes and making a horrid FITZSSSS!!! . . .FITZSSSS!!! sound at you; my neighbor a few feet across the hall who looked exactly like Peter Lorre and never made a sound except a sickly giggle when our paths crossed.

One year ago this very night a Japanese LSU exchange student dressed up in a luminous skeleton costume had been shot to death on his way to a Halloween party when he and some of his friends attempted trick-or-treating in the wrong neighborhood.   A Cajun who didn't much care for Halloween, or perhaps didn't understand trick or treating, blasted the costumed foreigner with a shotgun when the kid rushed the house screeching and waving his arms, trying to have some spooky American fun.

 Hurricane Andrew had torn through the state just over 2 months ago, uprooting hundreds of the city's centuries-old live oaks.  Their twisted boughs and branches still formed a nightmare maze-like jumble over the debris-strewn streets, and the clean-up was still in progress.  I doubted that any trick-or-treaters would be out, and it was highly unlikely anyone would find my secluded studio, tucked in next to the laundry room in the back of the old brick building.

About 10:00 PM, when I was dithering over reading a student's story about a New Orleans undertaker who had a different sexual fetish for each day of the week--one involved mint juleps and pacifiers--or watching a horror movie on TV, there was a knock at the door.

A small person stood looking up at me through the eye-holes of a cheap molded K-Mart devil mask.  It wore a red cape and tights.   "Trick or Treat!"

"Take off your mask and let me see your face, devil."

The small person complied.  It was a boy about age 7.

"Trick or Treat!"

"How old are you?  Where are your parents?"

"I'm six.  They're at home."

"You're out by yourself?"

"Yeah, it's okay.  Trick or Treat!"

We bantered back and forth another minute or so, me worried about this kid out alone and unsure what do to. 

"Look," I said, "I don't have any candy--I didn't think I was going to have any visitors tonight.  I think I should talk to your parents or something.  Give me their phone number, devil."

"Give me a treat first."

"I don't have anything sweet in here except for some cinnamon raisin bread.  I could make you some cinnamon raisin toast with whipped-butter spread, if you want."


I stepped over to the toaster, within sight of the kid.  "Look, I'm going to trade you the toast for your parent's phone number, or maybe walk you home."

As I shoved a slice into the toaster slot, the devil said, quite forcefully, "Don't toast it too much!  I don't like the taste of carbon!" 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Moonscape Snapshots

Each morning I left the Mission through the cafeteria doors, took a free sack lunch from a sullen Disciple (when Disciple Brady was on sack lunch duty I always made sure to give him a belly laugh by answering the staff-required "God Bless You" with "No, Thanks!"), walked north along the Mission gates, past the forbidden gated garden, and onto the Moonscape, a bare stretch of dirt and rock bordering a railway line that appeared mysteriously lunar in a manner both ancient and forward-beckoning.  Against a glaze of orange sunrise and the glitter of broken bottles, some images  I remember:

--Lonnie, a legally blind veteran and conspiracy theorist who gives free lectures on ancient aliens and the History Channel; Free Mason/Mormon puppet-mastery; 9/11 and high-intensity focused military-grade microwave weapons;  crop circles created by post-hypnotically controlled illegal immigrant farm workers being unconsciously trained for saucer duty; NASA fakery at Skywalker Ranch (as a black man, Lonnie admires George Lucas for dating a black woman, but knows he's in cahoots with the CIA/WHO-created End times AIDS plague); Government cell phone Neuro-Remote Control; manifestations of bible prophesies in Braille on the arms of addicts . . . practicing Tai Chi near the No Trespassing sign, white cane propped against a concrete section of sewer pipe, one of several scattered about the barren landscape.  His face looks stuffed together, white-filmed eyes embedded in crushed putty, and his body swells with the edema of some painful disorder, but each morning his movements are slow, slow turnings and precise finger tracings in the chilly air as overpass traffic flits behind him in utter silence.

--The  frantic hopping,  groans, and hoarse exectrations of men who just can't make it to one of the contested public downtown toilets, ranging from the casino to the courthouse juror parking garage to Starbucks (One dark recent night, many downtown toilets  acquired token-operated locks, said tokens obtained at the discretion of clerks or janitors after visual inspection to detect severity of indigence), yanking down their trousers, squatting and splattering.

--Jordon, a male schizophrenic and occasional model who used to sleep in the bunk above me, drank Folgers Instant Coffee 24/7, and slept like the dead--often having to be yanked and pummeled awake by a Disciple-- sitting on a dead shopping cart and eating from a monster stash of carefully wrapped  Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches (expensive-looking white paper folded like some aggressive form of origami) in a canvas shopping bag, staring at nothing and gurgling "PB and J! Goddamn PB and J!  PB and J! . . .what are you gonna do without PB and J? Fucking PB and J!"

--Dangerously crazy Mondo, howling from the deep-down of  himself at the rising sun like some pre-Copernican barbarian, objecting to the remorseless start of another day.

--A blackened ring of ash and rocks with a scattering--like tossed Pick-Up Sticks--of syringes inside.

--My bunk mate for a few weeks, Little John, a former L.A.stick-up artist in his 60s, whirling each time I edge up behind him, crunching gravel and high-stepping over blanketed lumps, screeching at me, "Don't want no trouble, mister!  I got nothing for you!  No damn trouble after all this time! . . ." and trembling until I remind him who I am.

--Me, framed in the camera viewer on my little-girl-cell-toy-decorating-party phone I got at Target, snapping an early morning Moonscape shot of myself against the  railway company warning sign, thinking about two main things: my achievements before arriving here--divorce, bankruptcy, car-repossession, clinical depression, addiction, eviction, and this daily trespassing--plus the undeniable fact that these 3-5 minute stretches of my 20 minute morning jaunt to the bus depot and my teaching jobs, numbering in the hundreds now, are some of the happiest times in my life. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Beri Beri

Lately I've been doing my sub teaching routine nearly every day--early morning bus trips to battered, weary neighborhoods and schools which cower next to chain-link-bordered front yards filled with foaming pit-bulls perfectly capable of jumping over the fence, though they're too dumb to realize it.   Of course, I also get to teach at more upscale schools, ostensibly no different from any other in the district, although everyone knows this is a polite, extended-pinky-finger-fiction.   (I'm also temporarily renting space on a friend's couch, so technically I'm not homeless like it says up above, at least for now. Some friendly acquaintances from the Mission tell me I'm "couch surfing," in a tone that vibrates with disapproval.)

At today's job, the merest  glance at the kids skittering around the halls and into various labs and offices on their before-school errands tells me one thing right away: they have better nutrients coursing through their systems on a daily basis.  Because all schools in the district serve the same cruddy carbo-loaded breakfasts and lunches, the kids in the "good" neighborhoods are getting plenty of fruits and vegetables and quality protein at home and in their nifty designer lunch satchels (Hannah Montana, Justin Beiber, the Disney Cosmos) that I lock into a special cabinet at the beginning of the day.  A shocking pink sticky screams "Guard the lunch key!!!"   I learn  early on that sneaking Hot Cheetos onto campus is the major snack offence, and several of the kids warn me about a boy named Gage, who is apparently an expert smuggler and dealer of this toxin.

 Hot Cheetos kids are round,  greasy, somnolent and depressed.  And because their diet is mostly sugar they get childhood diabetes at an alarming rate and often develop fatty livers which lead to cirrhosis, and then they need transplants.   Also, Hot Cheetos kids who live in Fresno don't develop normal lungs so their brains are always oxygen deprived. 

Just before lunch I march the kids to the computer lab for their weekly 50 minutes of online slogging through approved websites--math and spelling games, mostly.  The district has diligent blocking software for forbidden sites like YouTube, but I have to patrol the room carefully to make sure the students don't find some obscure, potentially soul-damaging "content" floating around.  (Most schools haven't been transformed by the computer "revolution."  They simply sequester banks of PCs in a single "lab" and load in each class, K through 6,  for a weekly dose of keyboards, mice, and graphics. I don't think anyone's really figured out yet how to nourish children with this technology).  

Today I'm intrigued by the teacher's instructions for the computer lab: "Tell the kids they have to donate 300-500 grains of rice before they can sign onto Supermath or the NASA project."

"What the blue blazes is this thing about rice?" I ask.

"It's ',' says Taylor.  Today I have two Taylors, both female, one of whom has an identical twin named Trinity, three Aarons, two Serenities, a Galaxy, and an Odin (I confirm that yes, he's named after Thor's dad, played by Hannible Lecter in the Marvel movie). turns out to be a site that donates ten grains of rice for each vocabulary question you answer correctly.  There are about 60 or so levels of increasing difficulty, but even the really hard, unabridged OED questions still send only ten grains--an amount you could pick up with a saliva-moistened fingertip--overseas to the needy and starving.  Sample question from the high end:


Look it up.

"So," I ask the class before they clap on their earphones, "Why don't these guys just send the rice?  What does answering questions have to do with it?"

Trinity explains:  "The advertisers who appear at the bottom of the page when you answer questions pay for the rice."

 "How many meals have you guys donated to starving people?"

"Lots!" they chorus.  After a bit more chat it's apparent that they really like this activity and do it at home, too.  It makes them feel good, they say.

Then I can't help it:  "Is the rice being donated polished rice or brown unhusked rice?  Because in the picture here on the home page that looks like polished rice to me and that means it might be contributing to Beri Beri."

"Beri Beri?  What's Beri Beri?" 

The kids like the sound of the word so they repeat it several times.  It's one of those utterances they like to roll around in their mouths like Jolly Ranchers--things like "fruit bat," "woop woop," or "Lake Titicaca."  Often the terms become creative insults or means of mojo stealing.

"Why would you polish rice?  Like the floor polisher?"

Beri Beri, in case you don't know, is common in countries that have a high percentage of caloric intake from rice that has had its husk, bran, and germ removed, meaning it can be stored longer but is totally lacking in B vitamins, especially B-1 or Thiamine.

My father was a doctor, and Beri Beri was one of the diseases he enjoyed telling us about on family outings, along with my biggest childhood fear, rabies.

"If you get Beri Beri you have trouble walking, seeing, have severe pain, and sometimes people swell up--I mean really gigantic like a parade balloon."

"That's awesome!"

"You can also get  Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which means you can't form short-term memories anymore.  You can remember stuff that happened a long time ago, but if a Tyrannosaurus smashed through the window over there and yanked one of you out, a thiamine-deficient person wouldn't remember it three seconds after it happened."

"Cool!"  "No way!"  This gets discussed and various horrific things get suggested that a victim might instantly forget.

"Well," I say, "the people you're donating to probably get to eat potatoes and tubers and beans and things like that so they get vitamins they need.  And Drew Barrymore gives them cups of nutritious porridge.  She was that little girl in E.T but she's all grown up now."

"What the deuce?"   This is a favorite phrase of grade-schoolers because of Stewie on Family Guy.

"But it's still an important question," I continue.  "Are you contributing calories to keep people alive or are you contributing to Beri Beri?  And how could we find out for sure?"

I assign the project of finding out to the twins Taylor and Trinity.  "Scour that website and find out what kind of rice is going out." 

At the end of computer hour they've found nothing--the FAQ is useless--but a there's a Contact page which warns that is too busy to answer many e-mails, but they'll try.   I have the twins compose and send question about the rice, then it's time for lunch.  

I eat a $2.00 salad that I purchase in the teacher's lounge and after lunch, because I'm tired and don't feel like doing the boring California history lesson, I get the kids going on a discussion of the merits of Whole Foods vs. Trader Joe's.  Then we play boys vs. girls dodge ball ("If I hit you you'll get Beri Beri!") and go home.