Angelo grew up on a walnut farm outside of Stockton, California. A beautiful man, he had jet black hair, piercing brown eyes, and a tall 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 are told, the tears fall free. A picture in the flyer shows a group of children on a field trip with a caption beneath written in a little girl’s hand. The caption says how much she enjoyed being in Angelo’s class in room 26 and that in the picture, she is having the best day of her life. The little girl singed Love, Lilly. Angelo was a public school teacher. Then his heart stopped. He had a marvelous voice, infinitely masculine, soft and pleasing to the ear, and when he looked at you with those pretty glistening eyes, one was reminded of a rumbustious puppy.
In a deposition, a proceeding to memorialize the testimony of a party in a lawsuit, the translator, an ethereal woman of advanced age, speaks deliberately in a curious high pitched tone that resembles the warbling of song 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, adding to her considerable dignity. She plays music to her plants, she says as we wait for the witness to arrive, the symphonies of Mahler.
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, rushes by. Oh my God. Oh my God, she practically shrieks, a man is shooting up over there! Walking on a few steps, there he is, a man of indeterminate age, shabbily dressed, his filthy hair unkempt, his face blackened 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 farce called the war on drugs.
In the downtown Oakland Bart station, a man past middle age, 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 addicts, 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 is it that causes a human mind to go off the rails? A traumatic event, a degenerative condition, or maybe a simpler explanation: bad luck.