Angelo grew up on a walnut farm outside of Stockton, California. A beautiful man, he had rich black hair, piercing brown eyes, and a luxurious body with lots of sharp angles, like those female super models. His boyfriend of eight years found him on the sofa, looking like he was taking a nap. He had been taking a nap but somehow, in the middle of it in a way no one could have predicted, his heart ceased in its regular motions. It’s often hard to believe a muscle in the chest is the only thing that keeps who we are, the labor of decades, the learning we do and the countless memories, intact. When it stops, the final beat among billions, we’re no longer the person everybody knew. As someone observed, when a human being dies it’s as though a building were abruptly vacated. What remains looks like them but it’s not them at all. The body is a husk, the outer walls stripped of all decoration, the art they hang, when the heart stops. In Angelo’s case, death, the end as they used to say in the movies, came too soon. At his memorial service, an informal party organized by his friends in a cool industrial space South of Market, stories were told, the tears fell free. A picture in the flyer distributed at the party showed a group of children on a field trip with a caption written in a girl’s hand. The caption said how much she enjoyed being in Angelo’s class in Room 26. Referring to the picture of the kids on a field trip, the girl said that was the best day of her life. She signed Love, Lilly. Angelo was a public school teacher. Then his heart stopped. His voice was pleasing to the ear, masculine and rooted in the world, and when he looked at you with those pretty dark eyes, one was reminded of a rumbustious puppy, or a field of flowers in bloom.
In a deposition, a proceeding to memorialize the testimony of a party in a lawsuit, the translator, an ethereal woman, someone who seems partly in this world and partly in another, speaks slowly, deliberatively, in a curious high pitched tone that resembles the warbling of birds. Her father, she says with evident pride, was from Paris. Thirty years she spent, serving as a translator in the courts. Age spots pepper the back of her hands, her soft hair is long, tied in the back, and mostly gray. She has made no effort to conceal her age, this lack of subterfuge adds to her considerable dignity. She plays music to her plants, she says as we wait for the witness to arrive, the symphonies of Mahler.
There is a quality about this woman, having one foot in this world and one foot in another, that is concrete and knowing, like a cat knows, instinctively, having lived and escaped death numerous times, like Theodora, the wife of Justinian and a former prostitute, who when all the men were ready to abandon the last outpost of Rome to the barbarians and fly through the gates with their art and drugs, she rose on the throne and screamed bloody murder.
And so were the barbarians, the Vladimir Putins of this world and the fat ass pudding faced boys, their legs puffed up by gout, who run North Korea, the grotesque human beings who have nothing to offer but the iron fist, they were expelled temporarily.
But in the time they were expelled, the great arts, the human mind, flourished.
On a related topic, in The God Particle, a documentary about the search for Higgs-Boson, a man of science at Princeton, one of our best, with his long black haired tied in a pony tail, has arrived at a theory, that our universe, though immense, may be one of a series of pocket universes, a small piece of the pie in a larger cosmos, colossal in scope and so big as to be almost beyond human imagination, where the laws of physics here do not apply there.
In San Francisco, at the perimeter of the Tenderloin, a nicely dressed young woman, the sort you see gushing at the bar of the W Hotel with a fruity vodka drink in one hand and an expensive phone in the other, rushes by, moving steadily as an ocean liner across a placid sea in her high heels. Oh my God! Oh my God!, she shrieks, A man is shooting up over there! Walking on a few steps, there he is, a man of indeterminate age, shabbily dressed in layers of clothing, his filthy hair unkempt, his face blackened and stained with the muck of the streets, sitting beside a building, his head drooping, a needle stuck in his arm. Here we see another casualty, Exhibit A, for the long running farce called the war on drugs. In the downtown Oakland Bart station, a man dressed in a way that makes him blend with other pedestrians, everything ordinary and neat, walks back and forth like a sentry on duty. He speaks in loud carrying tones to an imaginary audience, referring to an event he believes happened in San Jose. 50,000 drug dealers, he says – people with scars and tattoos all over their bodies – were, he claims, transported by the San Jose Air Force out of the country. 50,000!, he repeats with amazement, the number floating into the air, before continuing to tell the same story again. And then another ten times before the train comes. What causes a human mind to go off the rails? A traumatic event, a degenerative condition, or maybe a simpler explanation: bad luck.
Drama unfolds in the heart of San Francisco’s usually placid downtown financial district. By day, the financial district is populated with lawyers, stock peddlers, advertising people and tech workers. Clothing stores for men housed in former banks with gilded ceilings offer patrons the opportunity to pay $2500 a year for the privilege of smoking cigars and associating with other men who can afford $800 shoes and jackets that costs $2000. Guards that man the front desk of the high rent offices, people who live at night in the low rent enclave of Treasure Island in the middle of the bay, are trained to spot weirdos and potential makers of disorder. This is the capitalist center of Northern California, a place where you never see a piece of garbage on the streets and the cable car will take you up to Nob Hill to the last place in the state, the Pacific Union Club, where the odds are long you will spot a minority face of any color, stripe or variety at a dinner for several hundred. (The Pacific Union Club is like the Alamo, the last hold out of the whites.) The other morning, a busy Monday just before rush hour, a man, a car hijacker in Richmond, one of many poor suburbs ringing one of the most expensive cities to live in the world, places characterized by the overuse of asphalt and lack of trees, crime and drug abuse, joblessness and cheap booze dispensaries, stole at gun point a car and led the police on a wild chase. He managed to get to the Golden Gate Bridge and even as far as the heart of the financial district. In front of 260 California Street, a block from the Bank of California, a Roman style temple built after the big earthquake at the turn of the century and once the prime symbol of the state as the crown jewel of the American Empire, the man crashed and was forced to exit the car. A few pedestrians, people not accustomed to the ways of the hardest American streets, rushed to his aid. That’s when he pulled out a gun and started shooting. The police arrived promptly and shot him 32 times. Then they sealed off the block and the show – inequality spills into a middle class bastion – went on till noon. For lunch, directly in front of the crime scene, at the favorite spot for power lunches of those with cash to spare, the restaurant of the self-proclaimed “celebrity chef” Michael Mina, diners browse with their tongues over Bolinas Black Cod with Peacock Kale, King Trumpet Mushroom Puree and Meyer Lemon for $42. The White Alba Truffle Supplement is sold in 15 gram increments. Michael Mina deploys flowery language to justify prices to consumers who don’t know much about food. For the diners at Michael Mina, a cavernous space that has never lent itself well to the previous incarnations of celebrity chefs who have come and gone here, the food is secondary. What counts is being seen and being able to afford lunch at Michael Mina.
In the final urban frontier and antipode to the suburbs, West Oakland, a place rich with history, people, and scenes of the utmost splendor, as well as those depicting squalor and ruin, the young men are exceptionally beautiful. I was born free, a strapping white gay boy, in 1962.
The land of which I suddenly found myself a citizen was the richest and most powerful association of people in the world, a country with original ideas to back its wealth, its armies and its swagger.
The principal idea of this country, that nothing could stop the forward march of all people irrespective of arbitrary characteristics assigned at birth, was powerful, transforming, the most radical idea ever offered in a human community.
Indeed, the idea, conducted through the American Revolution, had swept away, in an instant, business as usual, with a few people owning and controlling everything, and the rest standing by for the crumbs.
My place of origin was far from West Oakland, in the shadow of the most majestic church ever conceived in America, the First Baptist Church constructed by the hale men of New England in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1774.
The First Baptist Church, though massive, appears to float on its foundation, the result of an optical illusion that flows effortlessly from the structure’s stately lines, the workmanship of men who possessed an abiding understanding of the land, of flocks of birds, carrier pigeons, now extinct, so large they seemed as mountains moving in the sky, of the rushing sea, the schools of Cod so thick you could walk across their backs, of the power and audacity of nature.
The Parthenon in Athens employs similar “old school” techniques, now lost forever, to evoke in the person who experiences the structure “face to face” a sense of wonder and awe, a feeling of being one and the same with the universe, not to mention a deep reverence for the mastery human beings are capable of achieving.
The manner in which day, the bright sun, the powerful white light outside, yielded to soft lengthening shadows, only to be followed by something equally beautiful and strange, darkness and night, was the first sign of miracles to come.
At some point in my fifty-second year, the testosterone in my body, the untiring engine for great victories and troubles too, began to taper off (ever so slightly) and I found myself, at last, reasonably calm.
The process of nature, this yielding from the tumultuous era of youth to the more placid middle ages, so called, meant I began to wonder about God, and how one spoke of the unfathomable within the fallible parameters of the instrument people relied upon to describe their experience on earth; words, sentences, language.
Prior to the time these celestial matters began to occupy my thoughts, it appeared the way people talked about God (and the obliteration of God through atheism) was inadequate to the task at hand – to think about what no one, living or dead, rich or poor, in the most vile prison, or the highest office in the Vatican, possessed the slightest reliable information.
Given the lack of information, facts, evidence, one was left to conclude that God, so often referred to as “the Father” and “he” by both sexes, was an invention, an idea created from scratch to comfort humans faced with oblivion, much like the telephone, the internet, anesthesia or commercial planes triple the size of a 747.
In short, it appeared God was sprung into being by clever men, the ones who could read, so the descendants of Homo Erectus, known now as people, might survive, which did not rule out the possibility that something resembling God, the chief creation of human imagination with a penis attached, existed.