Somewhere in this City sits a Woman with a Man,
Thinking thoughts about the World,
Only a single Woman can.
As I turned the corner to get my morning java fix, I saw a well dressed man of a certain age heading in my direction. Pressed jeans, collared shirt, and a clean pair of brown leather shoes–no scuffs. He and I both slowed seeing our shared destination, and I deferred to him as he led us through the door. He scooped up the last remaining table for two, and I strode straight into the small but substantial line, he to follow up behind me in a few.
I ordered my latte strong (to go), and he ordered his with small talk (to stay). It mattered not that the barista was in no mood; This Man of a certain age was here to talk, and talk he would. I stood aside and quietly waited for my morning salvation. He stood square in front of the sullen barista, and continued on with his talk.
“Pretty busy today, huh?”
“No, not really.”
“Oh,” says the man, with a gentle look down at the shuffle of his feet. “I guess I”m later than usual.”
[clears throat] “Did you walk here?”
“Yep. I sure did,” The Man said with eagerness. “I sure did walk here.”
“You on your way to work?”
“Me? Oh, no no. I don’t work. I’m just a caretaker for one cat. Just one cat and a garden. And a car. I take care of a cat, a garden, and a car.”
Silence and another look to the ground to see what his feet would do, and there was nothing more. The Man took his latte for here and sat by himself over there. No paper, no book. Nothing to distract him from the company that hadn’t come. Just another man who takes care of a cat, a car, and a garden sitting in a coffee shop in San Francisco.
Just one person waiting at a table for two.
So love-starved that a look is all it takes for lust to leap up from its lair and be a presence once again–the dust falling in sheets from its dormancy.
A glance falling from that face, with eyes inspecting downward: eyelashes to lips, clavicle to shoulder tip, and down into desire.
One touch, that taste, these memories to keep through our hibernation–through the times when the No One and the Nothing are near, not even the outline of a thought.
That time we found our kinfolk, running down a meadow still soft with folded grass as the daisies chained themselves into a crown.
That time we snapped our fingers, and they didn’t make a sound but the sight of the attempt was something so much more profound.
That time when life was simple, and things were sorted out in kind.
When time was just a concept that we paid no mind.
Sometimes, when she rode MUNI on her way to work in early morning fog, she imagined the opening credits of a biopic based on her life and with what they would be soundtracked. If this thought struck her just as the train jumped in to/out of the Sunset Tunnel, the song that picked it’s place was always “Crowd the Pine”.
When I was a kid, I suffered from night terrors that would prove to be a lifelong affliction. In the earliest one I remember, my childhood dog was ravaged by a roaming pack of wolves that crashed through my bedroom window and brought the fight into bed with me. Then, after the delinquent parents of some neighbor kids down the street allowed the viewing of an R-rated vampire flick, the night terrors got real weird, real fast. My mother had a stroke of genius and created “Monster and Wolf Go-Away Spray”, a mixture of water and a few drops of her perfume with which I would douse every nook and cranny of my room under the assurance that the concoction would repel unwanted visitors. Because fear is relative, the trick worked for a time, but, unfortunately, its effectiveness began to fade as I grew older.
In middle school I began listening to music while I fell asleep since night terrors one night often inspired insomnia in the next–a fear to sleep for fear of what may come. Mostly classical at first–movie soundtracks, Erik Satie, etc–but this was too light. Then I moved onto the harder stuff, like Bush, but that was too much. Then I found the sound that was just right: Nat King Cole. Jaunty and melodic, there are nothing but feel-good rhymes, sentimental songs, and finger-snapping tunes that come from his smooth and perfectly pitched voice. There was something about falling asleep to this aura that soothed me completely, and from that point forward I listened to music of his sort every time I slept alone.
As life has gone on longer and times they’ve gotten tougher, Nat’s voice has seen me through the roughest of it–namely the loss of the two brightest guiding lights in my life. As I wrote some time ago, Nat King Cole held a prominent role in the soundtrack I orchestrated for my father’s funeral when I was just 26. I also included him in the mix the night we said our final goodbye to a beloved grandmother just last year. These were deliberate choices, to be sure, but on other pivotal occasions he has found a way to appear free of personal selection.
Two years after burying my father, we sold the rambling ranch home I had grown up in and left Los Angeles for good. We packed my childhood into boxes and sold what didn’t fit, hauling the load to San Diego where we had summered all my life to be nearer my father as he followed the race track circuit south each year from June through August. Now the place was our permanent home, my mother’s mostly but also mine too, and after a long, exhausting day, my uncle suggested we go out to dinner. We showered up and ventured down the road to a restaurant my father had watched in each stage of construction, poking his head in for opening updates and assuring the owners that he and his girls would be their first diners. We were and the place was a favorite family eatery thereafter because it was good but also because it was close to home.
That night, I sipped my glass of wine, chatted with my mom and favorite uncle, and commented on the music playing softly in the background–a well-curated mixture of indie and contemporary music. Then it happened. Anathema to any music that played before or after it, Nat King Cole’s “Smile” came up in the queue. Since this is the song I chose to play at my father’s funeral, the one that played as my mother and I left the church, arm in arm, it stopped our table cold. No one said a thing since to speak would be to sob. We shook our heads, took an extra hard drink of our preferred poison (black coffee for mother, wine for we drinkers), and individually sighed heavily. We finally made eye contact, and my mom said “That can’t be a coincidence.”
Later that night I asked our waiter who had made the playlist for the evening. Turns out, it was Pandora–a randomly selected station that played randomly selected songs. Meaning Nat King Cole had found his way into our moment to soothe the fear of what may come, or perhaps he was sent to us from another stratosphere by a bundle of Stardust energy from beyond doing what it had always done best: protecting its girls.
I found Cat Power in college at a time in my life when I really needed to find Cat Power. At the tender age of 23ish, I was emerging from the wreckage of a 7-year relationship that had found me as a teenager and left me unsure of who I was as an adult. I was adrift, a fact that had its pros and cons, and in search of what I was/am. Somehow I’d gone from a black-clad beatnik in high school to a pink-satin sucker strutting around San Francisco like I was Carrie Bradshaw or something. I needed to get the pink out.
So I lived alone for awhile; I wrote prose poetry, was miserable and lonely, and then I began a period of ill-fated dating in which I said yes to any fella willing to ask this broad out. There’s no faster way to discover who you are than to subject yourself to a flotilla of first dates that have no prayer for seconds. Being a lady, most dates ended with a sweet high-five becuase there is nothing less sexual than a high-five: it requires minimal bodily contact, it’s rife with bro signals, and it creates very visible distance between two people. This caught many men off-guard, angered a few, and often, despite my best efforts, ended in an awkard hug and a deflected, overly moist kiss that (thankfully) landed on my neck and not my mouth.
At a point, I gave up on men and focused my energies on writing and, later, music. Cat Power entered my life via her 2003 album You Are Free. Songs like “Good Woman”, “He War”, and “Free” spoke to me with their fragility, their indie grace, their absolute honesty and intrinsic tragedy. It had highs and lows, just like I did at the time. This was a woman to relate to, this Chan Marshall Cat Power, and she didn’t wear pink. Shy by nature, she was entering a stint in rehab in 2006 to remedy the way she used and abused herself in coping with crippling depression that often masqueraded as stage fright. Luckily I never needed rehab for my misadventures, but I was definitely, shall we say, somewhat pickled at the time so I identified with her demons.
Concurrent to my Cat Power discovery, I met a boy who helped hammer the lid shut on the pink-satin sucker I longed to no longer be. He was a writer, he was a mystery; he echoed the whipser that flowed like ink through my pen, and above all…he silently understood it all because he was my peer. To call it love would be to minimize it in some way since this boy gave me so much more: he gave me the gift of myself. I met his friends, a spectacular group of people pursuing passions, who welcomed me in as one of their own. On many a Thursday night, we drank, drove ourselves mad on conversation, and danced like idiots to Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Got Your Money” at a dive bar on Irving Street. In this motley crew I felt, perhaps for the first time in my life, surrounded by like-minded folk, and the comfort of belonging did much to reorient my priorities, help me settle some unfinished business with my previous beau, and, in general, be calm.
This boy and I were not to be the thing we tried to be. Ultimately, it was a classic case of poor timing. Instead we float in and out of each other’s lives now, ironically always at the perfect time, and he remains a sustaining pressure point for my writing, a sort of phonetic accupunture that stills the nerves and let’s the words roll; he is a very good friend. The writing has become habitual to a point where I dare call myself a writer. Cat Power, too, still calls to me. I was fortunate to see her perform at the Warfield in San Francisco a year or so after she successfully completed rehab. She was vibrant, sang and played the piano beautifully, and connected with the audience by handing many of us white tulips at the end. Stage fright conquered, to be sure. And that dive bar on Irving? It’s still there, albeit under new ownership, and I walk by it every morning to grab a latte on my way to work.
On the days that I’m particularly nostalgic, I’ll pause a moment in front of that bar to shift my hot beverage from one hand to another, but really it’s to let the memory of a time when I lived in bars and danced on tables sit for a minute. The past in present, again and again and again.