In the Time of COVID. Day 21
April 8th, 2020
Boxes of Joy, Boxes of Sorrows
There are some boxes in my closet that have been bugging me. I want them out of there. We have a shed out back but first I had to open them and I thought, get ride of things I no longer need.
We have lived in this house for 20 years and we have been married 38. We each had boxes when we met. Our kids filled boxes. When they moved out, they left boxes behind. We have boxes of memories and boxes of folk art that we collected on vacations. There are boxes of photos and boxes of baby cloths. For a long time, after she passed, we had my mother-in-law’s boxes. That woman saved everything, like a letter from her sister in 1939. She also saved checks and check books and deeds from properties they sold over 60 years of marriage. She saved birthday cards and receipts from every piece of cut glass and paintings and furniture she ever bought.
When our parents die and we inevitably end up with our share of their boxes. They are like a lead weight. Those boxes weigh more for the emotional contents that rest inside. They contain proof of life. How do you even start to get ride of any of that? A series of photos of you parents on a rented house boat on lake Shasta with a bunch of people who are complete unknowns to you. How do you divest yourself of that, or the bundled stack of every driver’s license they each had, wrapped by a decaying rubber band. Those boxes are heavy with all the emotional power they had over their kids.
I remember some boxes I got rid of when I was just 19. At the time I was into purging my personal possessions. Those boxes had a terrific collect of Folkways vinyl albums , among which was Ledbelly’s Last Sessions. There was an album of the songs that Woody Guthrie wrote for the Bonneville Power Administration in Washington State as The Great Grand Coulee Dam was being built during the Depression. There was a EP vinyl of ‘Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag’ by Country Joe McDonald and the Fish on Rag Baby records ( that alone would be worth about a thousand dollars today). In my youthful certainty I had decided that I would own nothing more than what I could carry. Over the years I did that more than once. But that box of Vinyl, haunts me to this day. But, if I was going to spend the next several years of my youth, hitch-hiking and tasting the open road, I either had to haul all that stuff to my folks, hundreds of miles away or off load it all. I didn’t have a car (you can’t carry a car).
Today I opened a box of photos, but the ghosts rose up out of it. I asked April if she wanted to go through them with me and she recoiled. “I’m not ready to do that” she said and spun on her heals. On our bed, I spread out large Manila envelopes of photos and the loose piles of photos and the shoe box full, and as I went through some of them, the tragedies that befell our individual lives roared-up and ripped at my heart. Mixed in with the first day of kindergarten pictures were the others. Our losses. Those ghosts that haunt our sleep from time to time. I cleared them off the bed and put them back into their boxes. I carried the lot to the shed. I placed them on shelves and stacked some other items in front of them. Will we ever gain the courage to open those boxes again? Will it fall to our children to open them, after we die?
In the Time of COVID. Day 22
April 9th, 2020
Neck-Bone Willy’s Paradise Sandwich Shop
And the Great Apple Pie Baking Contest
This morning over breakfast we wondered about how are son is doing with all this Shelter in Place business. He lives in a big house with several other people in San Francisco’s Mission District. We think that some of his house mates are in economic hard times. Our thoughts came to cooking in the kitchen used by all of them. Since they are all at home, have they turned the cooking and meal preparation into a communal affair?
That brought to mind my time living in Berkeley, California in the last few years of the 1960’s. The Bay Area was a magnet for youth from all over the country. Housing was in short supply and most of the kids that hit the streets there were penniless, like me. It took some months of crashing on peoples floors, sleeping in cars and on flat roof tops before I had some minimal money. How I came by that is a story for another time.
I moved into a basement on Woolsey Street , that we called ‘The Woolsey Street Commune’. Off and on there was a flow of kids living there. They came from New York and Michigan and Washington State and LA and one thing was for sure. If you stayed there, the rent was 5 dollars a month. Food was 5 dollars a week. There was a Jerry-rigged toilet behind a curtain and ultimately we brought in a bath tub, but it was in the kitchen (no curtain) sort of next to a big picnic table we built. It had an ancient refrigerator with a round ball on top that was the motor. We had a gas stove with single oven out of an old apartment house.
Our landlord was Clarence, he and his wife ,Mamma ,and their multiple kids lived upstairs. Once a month we handed him 50 bucks plus a little for utilities. We , in the basement commune, were the only white folks in the whole neighborhood. There was an African Methodist Episcopal Church next door that rocked out every Sunday. Clarence had a large poster of some kick-ass Black Panthers Militants in his picture window. We lived three blocks from the National Headquarters of the Black Panther Party.
So, how do you live on 50 bucks a week to feed several people, including drop in’s at meal time? Sometimes food showed up that we didn’t ask how someone came buy it. The rule was, each week one of us, by turns, would collect the money. That person went to the store and bought a week’s worth of groceries. They could buy anything they wanted, cook anything they wanted but it had to feed everyone. As we got some jobs, that included packing lunches as well. Everyone learned to cook. Jenny was from Buffalo, NewYork and I guess as a kid her folks fed her Jack Mackerel. During her week it was Jack Mackerel sandwiches with large onion slices. They tasted like cat food and onion. One guy cooked up chitterlings, brought home a bucket of intestines that we had to clean the residue of pig poop out of. Boiling that stuff stunk up the house. At dinner time, just to spite the guy, I ate a whole big plate with hot sauce. I can tell you , chitterlin’s ain’t groceries!
Clarence owned a cafe around the corner. It was called Neck-Bone Willy’s Paradise Sandwich Shop. It was called that because when Clarence won it in a card game, that was it’s name. He served chicken necks, backs, wings and collard greens with corn bread. In the back room the neighborhood men shot craps and played poker. There was a door that led to the alley.
One time we came into a whole lot of apples. We got the idea that all the guys in the commune would pony-up 5 bucks each and bake an apple pie. I think we ended up with 7 pies and a $35 in prize money. We deputized Clarence and Mamma as our judges and we fanned out to our friends kitchens to work our magic. Finally, it was Sunday and the 7 beautiful pies were placed on the table, along with 2 or 3 gallons of very bad , very cheap red wine.
Clarence and Mamma took a bite of each pie, they whispered to each other as they did. There was a cheddar and apple pie, there was an apple rhubarb, there was an apple caramel pie, a couple of standards like mom would make, an apple walnut pie, a gooey pecan apple pie. The guys had gone all out,
There were some hungry hippies and ,the kids from upstairs, all waiting for those pies. Their were some prideful hippies that thought they were going to get that 35 dollar fortune. Finally, Clarence faced us all and said, “It’s a tie”, Mamma laughed, we cracked the jugs, poured classes of wine all around and dug in. That was a fine Sunday feast. We gave the price money to Clarence for a gambling poke. Good night