The Wallet


Last night, we stopped at a 24-hour Walgreen’s in North Oakland after a late and atypical Saturday evening out. We parked, got out, and started to walk into the store. Kate said, “A wallet.” And there, lying right out in the open in the parking lot, was a woman’s wallet. I had walked right past without seeing it. Opening it, we found a couple IDs, some random gift cards, and a pretty good wad of cash.

We talked over what to do. Give it to the cashier at Walgreen’s? No–we didn’t think so. Bring it home and try to find the person named in the IDs? Yeah, we’d try that. When we looked her up, we readily found her on Facebook and left her a direct message with our home phone number. Then we noticed that she didn’t appear to be very active on Facebook, though the page we could view did list a hometown elsewhere in California. We looked for other contact information close by–in online phone directories and at one of the universities closet by–but couldn’t find any. Checking her hometown, I did find a listing for someone with the same rather unusual last name and figure it might be her family. But since it was 2 in the morning, I decided to wait until we got up today to see if the wallet owner contacted us; if she didn’t, I’d call the out-of-town number.

So, morning dawned and some hours later we got up. No word, online or via telephone, from the owner. We took The Dog out for a walk, and when we came back in I called the number I had found. It felt a little weird doing it–here you are, a total stranger, calling with some strange tidings of a lost wallet. It also went through our minds that maybe the wallet was missing because of some kind of crime and maybe we just ought to turn it in to the police.

But the number did belong to the wallet woman’s family, and after a couple calls, we set up a time to give it back to her. I guess the takeaway is–without the ability to at least get a start tracking someone down like this, I guess we would have resorted to the old pre-Net approach of posting a “Found” sign at the Walgreen’s or maybe just have handed it over to the local constabulary.

Apocalypse Then

I've been working a little fitfully on an audio piece with a post-apocalypse theme. As soon as I started thinking about "post-apocalypse," I realized that I'd already lived through one–the aftermath of World War II–and grew up thinking that another apocalypse, a nuclear war, was imminent.

Was the shadow of that soon-to-come war really so tangible? Well, I remember the Chicago Tribune printing a map in 1962 that purported to show how far the Soviet missiles that had been discovered in Cuba could fly and seeing that our hometown was well within range. And then there were the movies–"Fail-Safe" and "The Bedford Incident" and "On the Beach" among others–that portrayed a world in which the nukes were turned loose for no particular reason.

Anyway, doing a little research, I came across some civil defense films from the 1950s designed to condition the public for the possibility of a nuclear war and instruct the citizenry how to respond to it. Here's the script for the beginning of a film titled "Let's Face It."

"Let’s face it: The threat of hydrogen bomb warfare is the greatest threat our nation has ever known. Enemy jet bombers carrying nuclear weapons can sweep in over a variety of routes and drop bombs on any important target in the United States. The threat of this destruction has affected our way of life in every city, village, and town from coast to coast. These are the signs of the times."

At this point, a siren sounds.

"Only in practice now, a rehearsal, a training exercise. But tomorrow, this siren may mean the real thing. And if you hear it—as you drive in your auto, as you sit in your office, as you work at your bench, wherever you are—what will you do? What will happen to you? Let’s face it. Your life, the fate of your community and the fate of your nation, depends on what you do when enemy bombers head for our cities."

Hear that? When enemy bombers head for our cities! Not "if." When!

I found another film that gives basic tips on surviving an atomic attack in your home and neighborhood. Surprisingly, it omits the timeless advice "kiss your ass goodbye" and focuses on strategies like throwing yourself face down on the pavement and covering your head with a coat (if caught out on the street in a surprise attack) or climbing under Dad's basement workbench with the rest of the family (if the air-raid sirens go off while you're watching "Ozzie and Harriet").

And here it is: eight-minutes plus of instruction that could save your life.

Morning Coffee


The Saturday routine: Sleep in, walk up to a local cafe for coffee and scones, check in on the chicken coop in the garden at the local middle school, sit for a while in a sunny spot and maybe read a little bit of the paper, throw and/or kick the ball for The Dog, then go home.

Once we’re back in the door, it’s time for more coffee. Fill the kettle, heat the water, grind the beans, rinse out and warm up the carafe, put a filter into the filter cone, dump the ground coffee into the cone. If I’m on top of things, I’ll turn off the heat under the kettle before it quite gets to a boil. I excavate a little pit in the center of the dry grounds before pouring the first hot water in–just enough to wet the grounds. After things have steamed off for maybe 15 seconds or so–I won’t go into the “why” of all this, because I’m not sure whether I’m dealing with culinary science of kitchen superstition–then I thoroughly wet the grounds. Between five and ten minutes later, depending on how much I’m making, I’ll have a pot of coffee to dispense.

I had taken the camera out this morning to shoot with the new macro lens. I noticed the bubbles both in the filter as a I started to brew the coffee and in the cups when I poured the first of the finished brew. What got my attention in the images was the reflection of the kitchen skylight on the surface of the bubbles. In the filter, the bubbles show an iridescent sheen–I’m guessing from the oil in the coffee; that iridescence is mostly absent from the filtered brew, but you notice that many of the bubbles seem to have a second, mirror image of the skylight reflection.


Richard Nixon and Me


My mom’s older brother, Bill Hogan, getting carried off to a paddy wagon during a demonstration in mid-1960s Chicago. His is one of two January 9 birthdays I think of every year. (Photo by way of my brother Chris.)

It’s Richard Nixon’s one hundredth birthday today. I always remember the date because it’s the same, ironically, as that of my Uncle Bill, a far-left-wing Roman Catholic priest (born in Chicago 14 years after the future president) who spent much of Nixon’s one-term-plus in office marching against him.

Nixon was a dominant figure in my consciousness growing up. My mom was a Democratic precinct captain in Park Forest, one of Chicago’s far southern suburbs, during the 1960 presidential campaign. She was Irish-American, Catholic, and liberal, and crazy about John F. Kennedy. She got hold of what I remember being a huge Kennedy poster, maybe four feet by six feet, and put it up in the living-room picture window. My dad thought it might invite a rock through the window.

Late in the campaign, Nixon stopped in Park Forest, then a rather liberal pocket of the suburbs, and we went to see him. As I remember it, he spoke from a platform set up near the clock tower in the center of the Park Forest Plaza, one of Chicagoland’s first shopping malls. After my dad found a spot in the packed parking lot and we were walking toward the plaza, someone who was leaving the event handed us several Kennedy signs on sticks. Mom and Dad gave the placards to me and my brothers, John and Chris. They wanted us to go up close to the stage and wave the signs while Nixon spoke. I was six. I was aware we were involved in some kind of prank, and I was happy to go along. We got up there, NIxon came on, and we started waving the signs. I don’t remember what he said, except for one thing. “I see a lot of you with Kennedy signs out there,” he remarked. “And I just hope you change your minds by Election Day.”

Mom really disliked Nixon. I remember her talking about his highly publicized attempt to save a home he was renting in Los Angeles in November 1961. Nixon got up on the roof and started spraying it down with a garden hose as the wind-driven wildfire fire approached; Mom saw Nixon’s act as grandstanding. She also remarked on what a bad sport he was when he declared “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” after losing the 1962 governor’s election in California.

And then, of course, he came back.

I guess it’s safe to say now that I’m the one who assassinated him. That’s right. I had a very detailed dream when I was about 16 that I shot Nixon. (Another dream I remember from my adolescence involved witnessing Indira Gandhi’s hanging by mob in India; still another involved some sort of romantic get-together with Joan Baez; I woke the next morning to encounter a story in the paper in which she declared she was bisexual.)

I’m guessing the Nixon dream occurred some time in the spring of 1970 or so, because it contained a shred of an event that really happened. In May of that year, there was a huge protest in Washington in reaction to Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos and the subsequent killing of student protesters at Kent State (in Ohio) and Jackson State (in Mississippi). With the capital packed with angry students, Nixon did something that’s unimaginable today: He went out before dawn one morning, accompanied only by a driver, to visit some of the protesters at the Lincoln Memorial (I find his willingness to go out and talk as amazing to contemplate as Lincoln’s wandering around Washington unprotected during most of the Civil War).

In my dream, I was looking through a telescopic sight as Nixon arrived at the Lincoln Memorial in a military jeep, surrounded by army guys. A hot, sunny day. He was unshaven and sweaty looking–haggard–wearing a white dress shirt and black slacks, but in shirtsleeves. I understood there’d been a coup of some kind, and he was arriving at the Lincoln Memorial to give a speech announcing–what? That the military was taking over, I guess. He went up the memorial steps to speak, but before he said a word I shot him.

I escaped the area, then found myself in my grandmother’s living room–my dad’s mother’s house–on the North Side of Chicago. The TV was on–a small black-and-white model. One clip was being played over and over: The moment Nixon was shot, then falling. The image’s viewpoint was the same as mine through the telescopic sight. I turned away from the TV, glanced out the window, and saw figures moving behind cars parked at the curb. Police. I’d been tracked down, and they were sure to kill me.

And that’s all I remember of that dream.

Several years later, in waking life, I hitchhiked east to see if I could get into the Senate Watergate hearings. I was short on money and unprepared for how much a hotel cost in Washington, so I wound up doing something else you can’t imagine anymore: I slept out with my pathetic little blanket on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Sleeping outdoors did assure I’d get up early for the predawn distribution of tickets to the day’s hearing. I did get in, and what I remember was Dick Cavett sitting in a seat a few rows in front of where I stood, at the back of the Senate Caucus Room (I’m guessing he hadn’t needed to show up at 5 in the morning for the ticket giveaway).

The very next year, I thumbed out to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and was in a campground there the night Nixon resigned. After that, there was a long hiatus in our relationship, broken by the occasional TV interview (his) or book (his) or embarrassing presidential tape (his) or opera (a Berkeley composer’s). In 1994, we went down to the Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda a couple of weeks after his funeral. If you’re down there, it’s worth a stop just to see how thoroughly a man’s career can be sanitized.

For today, all that’s ancient history. Richard Milhous Nixon: Happy 100th birthday.

And in passing, below is another piece of ancient history I’ve been sitting on. It’s the first piece I ever wrote for a daily paper, 40 years ago last month. As you can see, my theme was Nixon then, too. (Also there’s the hair. And the byline. But those are stories for another day. Click for a larger, and perhaps readable, image.)

Dan's Pix 001.jpg

Winter, Decay


Our yard in Berkeley–it’s a work in its twenty-fifth year of progress. Or at least it’s been 25 years since we moved in here and the yard became our charge and responsibility. It has changed dramatically. The giant old Monterey pine that dominated the space (and often stirred anxiety during windy winter storms) is gone. The old clapboarded garage that the tree’s root was slowly lifting up and displacing: gone. In their place: a small addition, a patio, a small shed, a lawn that we put in several years ago. Plus an apple tree, a few bushes, several Norfolk pines in pots, and a lush expanse of oxalis that during the last couple of months of wet weather have taken over every last unclaimed square inch of ground (“unclaimed” meaning the large areas given over to a variety of dry-season grasses and weeds the rest of the year).

The apple tree back there is largely untended. The fruit seems to get shot through with worms before it’s ready for us to eat (or maybe I’m too picky about eating apples with a little wildlife in them). Looking this morning, when I went out in the back yard to experiment with a new macro lens (a Christmas present from the boys), I noticed there are still a couple of apples in a picturesque state of decay still hanging on the branches. Nearby, more picturesque decay: thriving in the rain and cold, mold and moss and lichen spread along the redwood fence between us and the neighbors to the south. Some years from now–maybe 25 years from now or maybe a little sooner or later–that fence will go back to earth, with the old apples and the piles of weeds and oxalis that get taken away for compost. Today, though, I can’t help but notice the buds getting ready to burst forth on the apple branches.