Category Archives: Sense of place

Winter-wet season

It was warm all day today, with occasional rain showers. By the time I got home from work, and Carol and I got out to take a walk, it was ten o’clock. We stepped out on to the front porch. “Let me grab a hat,” said Carol, and went back inside for a moment. “Boy, it got chilly,” I said. “This is the way it should be,” said Carol. I agreed with her. I don’t miss snow, but I do find it disconcerting when it gets too warm in the middle of winter.


Carol came to the church last night at about quarter to ten to pick me up. We got in the car, and we both suddenly realized the headlights weren’t on. “I was sure I put them on,” muttered Carol, and sure enough, she had put them on — but both bulbs were burned out. She backed up, back to the bright outdoor lights near my office. I rustled around in the glove compartment, hoping against hope that I had a spare bulb for at least one headlight, but there wasn’t one. I fiddled around under the hood of the car, wishing I had replaced that one headlight as soon as it had burned out a week or so ago. But there was nothing to be done now; we were stuck.

“Let’s drive back anyway,” said Carol, but I wasn’t brave either to drive on brightly-lit roads with no lights, or to leave my high beams on all the time. We found the train schedule on the Web, and had just enough time to walk over to the station and catch the last train home that night.

The train was packed, but we managed to find two seats together. “Was there a game or something?” Carol said. “I heard someone say it was the Sharks game,” I said. Two guys wearing hats with Sharks logos walked into the car and stopped to say hi to some other guys. They jammed themselves into some seats and all opened beers. In Boston, if you’re on a train after a hockey game and a bunch of guys open up some beers, you’d expect things to get loud and you might even worry about fights breaking out; but this being California, all the guys did was stand around and talk quietly and happily to each other about the game.

A thin, young-looking man walked into the car. He was wearing an elaborate headdress made out of balloons. He stopped just inside the door, next to a seat with two children and their parents, and started making a little tiger out of balloons. He talked to a couple of guys standing at the end of the car, talked to people walking by, talked to the children, all the while pumping up balloons and rapidly twisting them and shaping them into a tiger and a turtle. One of the parents gave him some money. He gave each kid a high five, and walked on.

Two young women sitting across the aisle from us stopped him to talk. “I’ll make you a tiger bracelet for three dollars,” he said. One young woman said she guessed she wanted one. “Two for five dollars,” he said, and the second young woman said she guessed she’d take a turtle bracelet. “Put them in the freezer and they’ll last two or three months,” he said. By the time he was done with theirs, someone else wanted a big turtle for his daughter. The man asked him if he did events. “Call my agent,” he said, “that’s my mom. My mom does all my bookings.” How long had he been making things out of balloons? “Since I was six,” he said, “for five years now…” — a pause while he waited for the laughter, then he smiled, all the while twisting balloons together.

At last he left and went on to the next car, and somehow he left some of his cheerfulness behind. Carol said, “He’s good.” I agreed. Carol said, “This was the right train to take.” I felt the same way, and was just as glad that the headlights had burned out so we had had to take the train.

Epilogue: We found an auto parts store open today, got two new bulbs, and everything is back in order now.

Downtown Berkeley

The usual panhandlers and street people stood here and there along Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley. One older man sat in half-lotus position; he wore an olive drab army jacket, had bare feet, and neither asked for money nor paid any attention to passers-by. A middle-aged man, self-contained and quiet, said, “Buy a newspaper to help the homeless?” One young man accosted passers-by in a loud and merry voice, saying, “Spare a quarter for a douche-bag?” No one gave him any money. From the sound of his voice, he thought living on the street was a big adventure.


It’s a warm evening. I just got up to stretch my legs, and I walked around the church grounds. There are crickets singing in the rose garden in front of the Main Hall, and I stopped to listen for a minute. I’ve heard hardly any crickets this summer, perhaps because the weather has been too cool. When I got back to my office, I realized that there were crickets singing in the little garden outside my office. It’s a peaceful sound. I opened my door to hear them better.

Going to the series

Carol and I went out for a walk. It was dark and drizzling rain. A few cars whizzed by on the wet pavement, and aside from that it was quiet. Then I heard fireworks somewhere off to our right.”I wonder who’s having fireworks tonight?” I said. Then we heard fireworks in front of us. “Maybe it’s the Giants game,” said Carol. “Of course,” I said, “they must’ve won.” Later, a car full of people drove past us, the windows down in spite of the rain. The people in the car shouted something that sounded like “Wa waba!” A few minutes later another car drove by, an orange and black piece of cloth flapping out a rear window. When we got to downtown San Mateo, we could hear blaring horns and people shouting down along Fourth Avenue.

The Giants are going to the World Series, and people on the Peninsula are celebrating.

Rainy season

It rained today; usually not much more than a drizzle or a mist, barely enough to feel on your face, but a few times I could hear the rain pattering on the roof. It didn’t rain all day, nor even the majority of the day, but it felt like a rainy day. The air is humid, and outdoors the smells are more intense: the smell of the pine tree near our house, the smell of the big Dumpster we walked by, the smells coming up out of the storm drains, the smell of some flower we walked by. Everything feels damp, and the bath towels we used this morning still haven’t dried out. This feels like the real beginning to this year’s rainy season.

A very short story

The young man hailed me as I was about to go into the church kitchen to fix my dinner. He wondered if we had money we could give him; he was out of work; and so on. He didn’t seem like a con artist, or an addict, and I didn’t recognize him as one of the regulars who come back every few months with the same threadbare story. I told him we didn’t have money to give out, that what little money we got went to members of friends of the church. We talked a little about his specific problem. When I finally let it slip that I was close to someone who had been looking for work for a long time, he began to give me advice to pass along: here’s the best approach to use in interviews these days; here are the current hot Web sites for job searches; here’s the advice he gives for structuring resumes; and so on. It was really good advice. It was clear that he was dead serious about his job search. Just then Amy, the senior minister, happened to walk by. I asked if she had any money in her discretionary fund. She said someone had just given her some money back. She gave the money to the young man. Do I have to pay it back? he asked. No, no, we said, if you want to that’s fine and we’ll then give it to someone else, but just take it. He took the money, and I told him that if he was going to get the rest of what he needed by tomorrow, he’d better head off. He wrote down the best job search Web sites for me to pass on to the person I knew who is looking for work, and then he went on his way.

Update: He came back and repaid the money.

Road trip: Salem to Portland to Salem

On the drive up to Portland, we listened to the end of the audiobook we had started the day before, A Damsel in Distress by P. G. Wodehouse. We got to the place where I was going to attend a Sacred Harp singing convention, and the book wasn’t quite done yet. We sat there in the car and listened for ten minutes, and the book wasn’t quite done yet. “The final chapter,” said the narrator, and Carol said, “Let’s listen to the last chapter on the drive home.” So we stopped the recording, and I got out to go sing for a few hours.

Carol came to pick me up at three, and we went for a walk with two friends, A— and N—. We took a walk in a park, and A— and I talked about Unitarian Universalism while N— and Carol talked about ecological pollution prevention.

From there, Carol and I drove across the Broadway Bridge and parked near Union Station, a big McKim, Mead, and White building. We walked into the station to use the bathrooms, and it is still quite grand, with big wooden benches (Wikipedia has a nice panoramic photo), and a dozen trains a day passing through or terminating there.

We walked around, and wound up at Powell’s Books. Of course we wound up at Powell’s Books; it’s the kind of place that exerts a gravitational force on people like us. Powell’s exerted a gravitational force on a great many people this evening, and I was almost distracted from the books by the truly excellent people watching. But I exerted self discipline, went and found half a dozen books to buy, and went to have a cup of coffee. The coffee shop in Powell’s was packed, but Carol had saved me a chair. Next to me, a young man studied for the Graduate Record Exams. Across the table, a middle-aged man read some obscure book and barely sipped a cup of coffee. On the other side of Carol, two older men played speed chess.

I half-watched the chess players for a while: White played e4 and bam! hit the button of the clock. Black played e5 and bam! bam! bam! hit the clock three times (he favored the three bam clock gambit). White unwrapped a sandwich as he brought his knight out to f3 and bam! hit the clock. Black immediately played his knight to c6 and bam! bam! bam! White shot his bishop out to b5 and took a bite of sandwich, then remembered that he had to hit the clock and bam! But I don’t play chess any more, and my attention wandered back to the book I was reading.

We walked back to the car, and as soon as we got back on the freeway we played the last chapter of the audiobook. It all ended satisfactorily, as we knew it would, but it was funny enough, and unexpected enough, to keep us listening to the very end.