Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Berkeley Fable

Once upon a time -- long before Little Homie, or The Girl, or even Sexy Boy existed in my life -- I lived in a small sunlight room with huge windows in a shared house with about 20 other people in Berkeley, California. Over the years that he had owned the property, our landlord, Francois and his gentleman friend, Tony, had turned the communal area into a Feng Shui nightmare: Large red banners embossed with Chinese characters hung from the walls, next to framed black and white prints of Elvis, the Brady Bunch, and Jesus. The couch was a vomit-colored tweed number that smelled like mildew, and on the large chrome dining room table sat a rotting bamboo plant that was home to a family of flies.

Francois, was a feather of a man, who, Monday through Friday, would flutter around the house in large Hawaiian print shirts that floated around his tiny frame like a polyester rainbow.

But on Saturdays, armed with a pail and mop, Francois would storm out of his room, colorless and drab in grey work clothes : First, he’d attack the ash trays in the communal areas. Then, he‘d scrub the toilets and the bathtubs muttering obscenities just loud enough for everyone to hear. (“The toilet bowl is right there you fucking fuck fuck. Your daddy did a piss poor job of teaching you how to aim, you bitchface.”) Then, he’d sweep the kitchen, and don pink dishwashing gloves as he glared at the sink piled high with crusty dishes. With a bottle of lemon scented dish soap and a sponge, he’d lay siege, scrubbing each pot and pan until they gleamed, washing the plates and silverware, stacking everything neatly in the drying rack. Afterward, with a satisfied sigh, Francois would post passive-aggressive reminders like “It’s nice to clean up after yourself!” or “a clean house makes everyone happy!“ in front of the sink.

After cleaning on Saturday, Francois would leave -- slamming the door so hard the entire house shook.

We would never see him on Sundays.

And again and again and again, during the week while Francois flittered and glittered down dark hallways and up and down stairs humming show tunes or Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik, inevitably someone would scrawl “Nice Try” or “Not gonna happen” or “Fight the power” on his homemade signs, and the ash trays would fill up again, and the toilet bowls would lose their sparkle. Again and again and again.

The people living in our house were the same folks you'd see shuffling up and down Telegraph Avenue, freaked out and tweaked out on drugs and disappointment. In fact, the woman in the far back bedroom was in and out of jail so much for selling Speed that I'm not even sure why she bothered to pay rent at all. Even though I wasn't strung out on anything -- (no, smoking weed does not count when you live in Berkeley) -- I was at the point in my life where I had just gotten out of a relationship with my high school boyfriend, had nothing to lose, and I began to thrive in the Bohemian underbelly.

And, I loved my sun-drenched room: Hanging from the curtain rod were hand blown glass ornaments that snatched the sunlight and hurdled it to the bed in varying rainbows. Each night, I burned incense and vanilla-scented candles which made my room smell sultry and exotic, and I‘d sit at the old desk I bought off of Craig, smoke a cigarette, and face the stars. I always had fresh flowers on my desk, and I relished the comfort of sitting back in my comfy chair under the glow of my mock-Tiffany reading lamp and pouring over a good book while listening to Natasha Atlas or Cheb Khalid play from my mp3 collection on the computer. These were easy times, sometimes passed in lucid contemplation, other times spent high as a kite.

While I was on reasonably good terms with everyone in the house, there was one woman who made me a little uneasy. Terry was like a Lioness: long, lean and predatory, and when she wasn't yelling about The Man keeping her down, she would stride through the halls, fierce and frightening. Her head was tightly wrapped in a batik scarf, and her face looked like it had been rearranged in more than one bar-fight, so I did my best to stay out of her way.

On the other end of the spectrum, was a guy named Joe, who lived a few rooms down. Joe was a Bay Area DJ and musician, and he spent his time smoking weed, spinning reggae and hip-hop records and creating his own beats. He had a small tattoo of his astrological sign (Cancer) on his left bicep, and a large tattoo of Africa on his right. The guy was pure poetry, and I liked his flow.

One lazy Sunday afternoon, while I was dozing off in a pool of sunlight on my bed, I was shaken awake by stomps and shouts in the hallway. Terry was angry. Again. I kept my door closed, but within a few minutes, I heard the floorboards creak outside my door, and she began pounding.

"Open the fucking door. I know you're in there! I can hear you breathing!" she yelled.

"What's wrong?" I asked, keeping my door locked.

"Did you steal my ice cream?"

"No." I replied through the safety of my closed door.

"Well, Imma find out who did, and when I do, Imma bust a cap in their sorry ass." she announced, as she proceeded down the hall, bellowing and banging.

After a short while, I heard Terry shout "You pussy ass bitch, I know you stole my ice cream."

Cautiously, my heart galloping in my chest, I peeked my head out of my room to find out who Terry had accused, and was surprised to see her head-to-head with my friend, Joe.

"Terry, I did not steal your ice cream. I don't even like ice cream," Joe said as calmly as he could in the looming shadow of a 5 foot, 11 inch woman, about to pounce and dismember him.

"I know you ate my ice cream.“ she said in a hiss. “I can smell it on you.”

Then, she punched him the jaw. Hard.

Joe whipped out his phone and started dialing 9-1-1.

"Oh, you are not calling the police you pussy ass bitch" Terry hollered, while Joe tried to maneuver away from her. She strode down the stairs after him, slapping at his hands and face while he spoke with the 9-1-1 dispatcher. I cautiously followed, intrigued by the prospect of Berkeley cops in our home. (For those of you wondering, I love a man in uniform almost as much as I love a man in a white coat and scrubs.)

Five minutes later, sirens blaring in a blaze of red and blue lights, the police arrived. (Sadly, neither were worth my time.) After frisking Joe (which made absolutely no sense to me since he was the one who called them in the first place) the cops separated my housemates, and took them outside for questioning. In the end, Joe decided not to press charges, but Terry was still seething.

"We gonna settle this when Francois comes home." she said.

"That's right." J replied. "Francois is gonna handle this."

Oh. Great. Francois, our Feng Shui Fabulous landlord -- who weights about 110 pounds soaking wet, and comes up to my chin with lifts in his shoes -- would solve everything. Hey, maybe he could post a few signs. That ought to fix the problem.

But In the end, the police presence forced everyone to take a deep breath, and the rest of the afternoon passed quietly. Terry stomped off to her room, vowing vengeance. Joe went back upstairs to spin some records and get high, and yes, I joined him. Like so many things that happened every day in Berkeley during that time in my life, I figured the ice cream incident would gradually melt away, and soon be forgotten.

Well, late that night, I returned home from an evening drinking beer at Raleighs with Lieneche. As I walked through the darkened communal area under the watchful eyes of Elvis, the Brady Bunch, and Jesus, I was jolted out of my beer-haze by the cozy image of Terry and Joe sitting side-by-side at the large dining room table, laughing, talking, and eating ice cream together out of matching bowls.

Not wanting to ruin their companionable moment, I quietly turned around and headed upstairs. The next morning, while puttering around in the kitchen, I saw Joe and asked him how things had worked out with Terry. He explained that after the two shared a few companionable bong hits, they decided to take the high road and go halfsies on a pint of Ben & Jerry's Half-Baked from Andronico's. It seemed like a perfect ending, and the two lived happily ever after...

...Until Terry's Garden Ranch salad dressing disappeared from the refrigerator a week later...