Walt Whitman: Injunction

“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency, not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Walt Whitman, Preface, “Leaves of Grass” (1855)

The Gaff

The late Utah Phillips was both a practitioner and connoisseur of life on the bum–a phrase with no pejorative overtones for him or for me. Not that I imagine myself embracing it. Yes, every once in a while I think about what life might be like on the streets and how I’d make out hustling spare change. Necessity can make lots of things happen, but I’m not sure it would make me a good panhandler.

What I lack is the ability to craft what Phillips called a gaff. He used to talk about how disappointed he was in most modern spare-change come-ons, which mostly amount to literally that: “Spare change?” (A popular local variation: the Berkeley guys who say as you enter a store, “Maybe on your way out. Whatever you can spare … (pregnant pause) … without hurting yourself.”)

Phillips gave an example of a gaff that went something like this: “Mister, I’ve got a chicken in this sack and I’m going to go back to my camp and cook it and all I need now is a little salt and pepper to do it right. Can you help me out with that?” We’re not talking high art. We’re talking about storytelling that’s plausible and serves the suppliant’s need to ease his potential benefactor toward generosity, past qualms about giving something for nothing.

On Sunday, a day so warm and clear and so out of character for November it shone like a gift, I went over to a hardware and gardening store to buy some dirt. When I got out of our minivan (current mileage 198,000), I stopped to tie my shoes. A guy approached me from behind and asked, “Do you have a lug wrench?” Without turning to see who was asking, I said, “No.” The guy walked away muttering. I thought to myself, “Yeah, OK, I have a lug wrench.” So I opened the back of the van and pulled it out and followed the Lug Wrench Man across the parking lot. “Here you go,” I said. I was even ready to help him use it.

He turned and walked toward me. A black guy. Maybe in his 40s. Wiry. Intense. Working on a cigarette that he’d smoked nearly down to the filter. He was holding a Bank of America ATM card.

“That won’t work,” he said. And then he explained how his car had gotten a flat but that the special wheels on his ride had a special locking nut that he didn’t have the tool for.

“Where’s your car?” I asked, thinking I’d go and take a look.

Oh–it was nearby. He’d been trying for hours to get someone to help him. “Look at my hands,” he said, holding them out. “I’ve been trying to get those damn things off with my bare hands.”

I apologized for not talking to him when he first walked up. “I’ve lived here for a long time, and I think I spent my first ten years saying ‘yes,’ and I’ve been saying ‘no’ ever since.”

“I’m sorry for my attitude,” he said. “I’ve just been out here for hours and nobody will help. ‘The black guy,’ right? The police just told me I have 20 minutes to move my car or they’ll have it towed.”

I asked his name. “Anthony,” he said. We shook hands. He volunteered he worked for the Berkeley school district. As a janitor. Which schools? He rattled off the names of a few and added, “All of them.” He was still smoking the cigarette. Now it was down to the filter.

I pointed out we were standing outside a hardware store–maybe they had the tool he needed. “They won’t let me borrow a wrench–they don’t loan tools.”

Where was he headed? How close were we to someone who could help. “South San Francisco,” he said–clear across the Bay.

I returned to the possible fixes that might be waiting inside the hardware store. He repeated that they didn’t loan tools. But of course, I was thinking about what he, or perhaps I, might buy that could get him out of his jam. I’m thick, but not thick enough that I hadn’t seen where this was headed. “Anthony” was working a gaff and working it hard.

And at this key moment, he said, “Maybe I can get a couple of cans of Fix-a-Flat, that’ll get me seventy-five miles. If I can get that up there at Walgreen’s, it’s seven ninety-nine a can. …” He held up the ATM card. “But I don’t have any cash, but give me your address and I can get it back to you.”

Let’s stop and do an inventory here. Motorist in trouble. His car’s someplace else, suffering from a problem that’s simple enough but somehow unfixable. Of the seven million people abroad in the Bay Area on this lovely afternoon, he’s lit on you as his salvation–in fact, as the only person decent enough to even consider reaching out to help. Everything that’s implausible about his situation has been plausibly framed (though still easy to puncture with a little insistence: “Let’s see the car. I want to see that flat tire.”) Your keen instinct, the one that prompted you to say “no” without so much as a glance over your shoulder–well, you’ve left that behind. What do you do now?

I take out my wallet. As it turns out, I have eight bucks in cash. Enough for one can of Fix-a-Flat, or for a decent six-pack, which would be a nice addition to the afternoon as it winds down.

“OK–here’s what I’ve got,” I say. I hand him the bills. He says, “Can I get it back to you?” I think: Do I want this guy having my home address?

“No, no,” I say. “That’s OK. This is just a … a gesture. I just want to give it to you. So you can do what you have to do. Good luck with that tire.”

I went in to buy my dirt. Anthony walked away, and I think I heard him muttering.

Knowing and Not Knowing

“Whenever the ratio of what is known to what needs to be known approaches zero, we tend to invent ‘knowledge’ and assume that we understand more than we actually do. We seem unable to acknowledge that we simply don’t know.”

–David L. Rosenhan, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” (1973)

Berkeley: The Weather Record

Mid-November, and the temperature stayed above 70 tonight–“tonight” meaning Sunday night though it’s past midnight now–until well past dark. The forecasts say there are high winds from the north and east just above the tops of our mountains and ridges, and that’s one thing keeping things warm. Walking through the neighborhood this evening, you keep encountering distinct pockets of summery warm air.

Checking the local weather records maintained by the Western Regional Climate Center, I see Berkeley’s record high for November 14 listed as 74, set in 2008. In fact, that 2008 record was the first day in a three-day string of records. On the 15th and 16th two years ago, Berkeley’s highs were 81 and 82 degrees. That 74 record for November 14 was, until today, the lowest high temperature record for the month up to November 21 (the record for that date: 74, set in 1919).

The November 14 record was rewritten today. To what, I’m not precisely sure, because I’m not precisely sure which Berkeley weather station is “official.” I’ve got two candidates.

One is on a rooftop at 2111 Bancroft Way in downtown Berkeley, just west of the southwest corner of the UC-Berkeley campus. Here’s the weather station site, complete with current observations (this is the downtown station that appears on Weather Underground; you can see the enclosure for the station in this Google satellite view). The high at this site today, for what it’s worth: 79.5 degrees.

OK, that’s one. I was led on a wild goose chase for the second potential official Berkeley weather station by a loose reading of a UC-Berkeley website that describes “The Berkeley Weather Station, 1886-present.” The page mentions that this station is an old and established member of the “Cooperative Weather Observer Program (CWOP)”–an effort that Thomas Jefferson dreamed up back in the 18th century. Looking for a listing for Berkeley’s “CWOP” data, I Googled that acronym. Sure enough, there is a Berkeley station listed: CW1634. A couple oddities, though: The latitude and longitude coordinates for that station put it in a residential neighborhood near the Claremont Hotel, a mile or more from campus. A little more poking around, and I established that CWOP also stands for “Citizen Weather Observer Program” and that CW1634 is at a private home with a contact email belonging to the founder of a well-known local software company. The high at this station today: 81.

So, back to “The Berkeley Weather Station.” I tried to track this down before and didn’t quite get there. Thanks to devoting about two and a half hours to just sitting and sorting through different possibilities, I found a page that gives a precise location for the station, which is at 310 feet above sea level, just outside McCone Hall, near Euclid Avenue and Hearst Street. I tried contacting the guy listed as running the observation program in hopes that I could get access to daily data from the station, but I must have said I’m a blogger, and he ignored me. In any case, this is the station that has provided the data that appears in the Western Regional Climate Center tables that include the high temperature records set in 2008.

Not sure what the high was up there today. A project for another time.

My Beautiful Blogette

I have received an actual message of concern about my lack of posts here recently. More specifically, that maybe the case of poison oak I reported earlier in the month had combined with some kind of drug-resistant pathogen to put me out of action.

First, I appreciate the expression of concern. I haven’t posted anything for ten days, and that may be the longest I’ve kept my mouth shut here since this place went live in 2003. Although this is a desultory and purely personal writing project and I’ve never had a clear idea what it might be leading to or away from, I admit that I’m conscious of the handful of regular readers and often think of this as a letter to them. That also means I’m conscious when I don’t write; I feel like there’s a connection out there I’m not making; and believe me, ten days does seem like a long time.

Second, the poison oak is fine. The heavy-duty pharmaceutical approach I took worked. It turns out prednisone combined with some strong topical steroid can still kick poison oak’s ass. Not that I recommend it; the prednisone made me feel very speedy, and I had a couple episodes at work where I found it very hard to concentrate on anything.

Third, speaking of work: The real reason it has been hard to sit down and write has been the daily demands of the radio newsroom. Hours have been long, and I’m not getting home until late, and it’s been hard to make myself sit down and record the precious, pithy observations upon which this world depends. I’ve been conscious that the number and frequency of my posts has been declining for several months, and that pretty much tracks with new programming we’ve been doing at work that’s led to the higher time demand.

Fourth, if I had been writing the last couple of weeks, I might have scribed items, and still might, about the elections, the Berkeley casual carpool, the World Series, soccer, water, salmon, rain, weather, incredibly warm November days, University of California football, Berkeley’s Measure R campaign, steroids, Zenyatta, Secretariat, and maybe something about The Dog.

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been. And I’m still here. And to the person who called to see if I was OK: Thanks..

Fall Color

It's our old friend Toxicodendron diversilobum (aka Rhus diversiloba, or Pacific poison oak, or poison oak, or just "goddamn it"), as viewed on a nice hike last Friday afternoon in Redwood Regional Park in the Oakland Hills. I like the seasonal coloration.

You'd think that the ability to easily spot this plant, and its extra visibility as it takes on fall coloration, might arm you against getting a nice dose of this stuff and the attendant nasty, itching, weeping rash. So you'd think. But you must consider in your calculations the fact you're wearing shorts and the presence of a dog who doesn't know from poison oak and what might happen when you pet the dog and let him rub up against you because you're such an affectionate animal person. Add in the possibility that you neglect to wash your hands or shower off after the hike.

Then you get another kind of fall color, in my case running from my ankles up the inside of my legs all the way to where they aren't legs anymore. I had a bad case of poison oak about 30 years ago, contracted while I was digging on a hillside full of unidentifiable poison oak roots. I have been operating under the comforting illusion that I had somehow inoculated myself against a serious recurrence, and have walked for decades in the hills without much concern about Toxicodendron or its effects (not that I'm careless of it–I watch out for it and try to wash if possible if I think I've come in contact with the plant). 

As of this week, illusion gone, for now. The onset of the rash was slow, but by yesterday my lower limbs had blown up to a condition that I call "elephant leg." That's an exaggeration. It's really only "ugly leg." I broke down and called Kaiser, readily got an appointment with my doctor (his schedule had been cleared by patients canceling appointments to go over to the Giants parade in downtown San Francisco), and dragged my unsightly extremities to Oakland. Prescription: a 10-day course of prednisone and what is described as a high-potency steroid ointment. This morning, the ugly is still apparent, but the swelling is going down. I don't lightly resort to such aggressive medical measures, but I'm glad they're there when I want them.