Berkeley Chronicles Episode #10: 99 Ranch Market

In our corner of El Cerrito del Norte there weren’t many food stores conveniently located for those lacking a car. There was a Lucky’s (which became Albertson’s) about a mile away that we would hike to every two weeks and come home with our backpacks full and a plastic shopping bag on each arm that we prayed wouldn’t break on the way home.

Our other option was 99 Ranch Market, an Asian specialty grocery store inside a strip mall full of other Asian stores and restaurants. I once went to an upscale food court shop with Mark and we each bought a bowl of Chinese seafood and noodle soup. I’d never had it before, but it sounded delicious with the shrimp, scallops, and sea cucumber in a nice rich broth.

The guy behind the cash register brought our soup and set mine down in front of me.

And there was the biggest shrimp I’ve ever seen looking back at me.

Just staring at me with black, beady eyes and antenna waving up into the air and shimpy little claws stretching out to me like he was asking for a hug.

I ate 3 bites before I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I removed Shrimpy McShrimpalot and even that didn’t help. I never ordered that soup again.

Then there was a hot pot place and the best Thai food I have ever had. And it was cheap, which was important because there wasn’t a one of us in the house that didn’t qualify for food stamps. (And none of us ever signed up for them.)

But all that paled in comparison to the wonder that was 99 Ranch Market.

99 Ranch Market is a vast field of fruits and vegetables and aisles of cans, bottles, and packets. Then there were the boxes. They had boxes of stuff everywhere. It was like an episode of hoarders. More cans. More bottles. More crates of fruit. Just sitting there. You know, in case they ran out on the shelf.

It’s so tight you can’t get the regular American-sized carts through the store so you have to use a hand basket or a very slim model of cart. And apparently the market version in China are much fuller than this. The writer of the Wikipedia page (so take this with some salt) says that the “aisles that are wider and less cluttered than in most other Chinese markets.” If that is true a normal sized American will never fit through the aisle of an actual store in Shanghai. (I checked the page to make sure I had the name right. There is a Ranch Market, a Ranch 99 Market, and then this 99 Ranch Market. I had remembered it as Ranch Market 99, which doesn’t exist, so there is room for growth in this industry.)

My favorite aisle was the frozen food aisle. I could buy giant packets of frozen pot stickers and dumplings for pan-frying and steaming in the comfort of my own commune. And then I’d head over to the condiment aisle to get the necessary spicy hot mustard and duck sauce.

They even had a take-out counter. After my experience with the soup I wasn’t brave enough to try and order the pork spare ribs because I was afraid of what else would be included. But I did go to the bakery counter and get some sweet buns and a coconut and lychee cake once. That was delicious.

And then there is the fish aisle. You smell it before you see it.

In a surgically clean and virginally white case there were stack upon stacks of fish. Some whole and some fillets. The men behind the counter wore spotless white lab coats and handed out pristine packets of fish to the shoppers.

But the smell of fish was still there. Just from the sheer volume of fish for sale in that store.

Maybe it was from the wall of aquarium tanks that held actual live fish. Tanks of crabs, swarms of live shrimp, and heaps of live lobsters. The live fish in the tanks were of a variety that I couldn’t name even on my best day. Sometimes there was just one and sometimes you’d come across a tank with 3 or 4 huge fish swimming around.

In front of the wall of tanks was a water trough filled with baskets of fresh clams, mussels, scallops, and oysters. You took a wide flat slotted spoon and spooned out what you wanted into plastic bags. You could have them steamed there or you could steam them at home. But after the Food Poisoning Debacle of 1997 I never wanted to be near a mussel again so I passed on those.

It was like a bizarre wonderland of Asian food. It held things that I couldn’t have even imagined. I mean, I was from Iowa and the most exotic place I’d traveled was London and Dublin. I couldn’t even imagine munching chicken feet or snacking on pig snout on a stick.

But 99 Ranch Market was famous in our area. They even advertised. Our friend, Russell, once saw a TV ad for 99 Ranch Market. The slogan was “99 Ranch Market! With you 99 out of 100!”

99 What out of 100 What?  Days?  Dumplings?  Pig snouts? What was it that you were with us on?? And why not a full 100%? Why only 99%?

Everyone went there – to shop, to eat, and to gawk. It was a valuable source of entertainment for those of us who couldn’t afford cable. Or a TV.  The stuff you could buy was fascinating. The people were more fascinating.

There was a tattoo and piercing parlor nearby and so the evening food court was almost always filled with guys of various heights and girths with white bandages and/or plastic wrap covering some new and very irritated inked skin. This was also a place where they took a look at those tattoos for the first time.

This was my favorite part. You sort of walk through. Slowly. Acting like you are minding your own business. And you look for some guy who has just a few tattoos and a plastic wrap over some new, serious ink. Tattoos covered with only plastic was my favorite because you could see the tattoo before sitting down and waiting for what was to come.

“Dude! Check out my new tat!”

“Awesome, dude!” Pause. “I didn’t know Sheila spelled her name with two Es.”

“She doesn’t.”

“Awwwwwwe sshhhhhiiiiit.”

Dude has just found out that he doesn’t heart Sheila. He hearts Sheela.

Or the little punk goth chick over there who is now Daddy’s Little Angle.

My favorite though was this one tough guy and his idiot friends. This guy is built like a fireplug – short, wide, and solid. His four friends are wannabes in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are sitting at a table eating Phò. He’s got some bandages and plastic wrap over his arm, so clearly he’s gotten some part of his sleeve done today.

And I guess it had been covered for long enough because the Fireplug asks one of his friends to help take off the bandages. All his friends get up and crowd around to see the work.

From where I’m sitting I can only see that most of his upper arm is covered in a vivid traffic cone orange color with some outlining. So he’s in the middle of a very long process.

“Cool, man!” one of them enthuses.

“Yeah, very cool!” says another.

“The orange is, ya know, deep. Orange,” says the philosopher of the group.

The other one stays quiet. I can hear the gears in his head grinding while the other ooo and ahh and heap compliments upon Fireplug. Then he says, “Why did you get a girl dragon?”

Fireplug turns from his Phò, “What?”

“A girl. It’s a girl dragon.” Then sensing danger he adds, “But girl dragons are cool.”

“What do you mean a girl dragon?” Fireplug drops his chopsticks and they clatter to the table, splashing drops of broth in an arc across the table. He heaves himself up and goes to the wall of mirrors across the room. “Is there, like, a cooch?” He twists and turns trying to see up by his shoulder where the – ahem – bottom part of the dragon meets its tail. “Did that fucker give my dragon a fuckin’ cooch??”

“I don’t see a cooch,” soothed the philosopher.

“Dude. There isn’t a cooch.”

“I see no vagina, Jeff.”

Fireplug turns on the 4th guy and kind of stalks him down, “So why did you think it was girl dragon? Huh?”

“He doesn’t have no dick. Boys got junk and girls got a cooch. I don’t see no junk so there’s got to be a cooch.”

“Son of a bitch!”

“Does it really need to have a penis? I don’t remember seeing dragons with junk swinging.”

And so then they start going around the room to the various pictures and tapestries and studying any dragons they saw looking for signs of genitalia.

Everyone was staring as they went slowly around the room peering, and occasionally pointing, at the dragon butts in the food court. I could see them nodding their heads and chatting as they made the circuit around the room. As they came by my table I could hear them talk.

“A lot of these don’t have anything.”

“They could all be girls. ‘The female of the species is more deadlier than the male,’ and all that.” I admit I was impressed. Perhaps the philosopher wasn’t as dumb as I thought. Until I realized that he was quoting lyrics by Space and not the actual poem by Kipling.

“Dude, that is deep.”

“There could be at least a bulge.”

“Yeah, man. Maybe we can talk to him about adding a bulge.”

“Dude! A bulge would righteously cool!”

And, having decided a bulge was needed to macho-up his flaming day-glo orange dragon, they hunkered over their Phò and started slurping noodles.

All-in-all, a completely satisfying and cheap dinner and a show. Phò Real.


Berkeley Chronicles Episode #9: Neighborhood Watch

The house that we all lived in had a Target store in the backyard and was within a 2 minute walk to a BART station. Actually, the BART tracks and bike path were between us and the Target. We used the bike path pretty much all the time. We’d often cross over the bike path to get to the Target to window shop when we were bored in the house.  It was also a convenient alternative way to get to Mark’s house and to get all the way to the Berkeley campus without having to dodge cars on our bikes.

It was also a bit dangerous. There was a small gang that liked to hang out near our BART stop of El Cerrito Del Norte.  Mostly it was just a couple of kids; some toughs dressed in ripped jeans, punk rock t-shirts and buffalo plaid. (It was the ’90s, after all.) They were maybe 13 or 16 years old. It was hard to tell. I never got close enough to them to get mugged.

We were fine during the day for the most part. The bike path was clear and wide and you could see these kids hanging out from blocks away. You just took the first corner off the path you came to and went around them. They weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer.

It was at dusk or at night that you had to worry about. You couldn’t really see them in the shadows of the track pillars. They would jump out and surprise you holding short steak knives they’d plundered from their mom’s silverware drawer.  They would demand your wallet and then take off running. They never demanded our watches or jewelry or anything else – just the money.

It happened to Sarah Beth and Fitz. Fitz had just come from buying a really nice and very expensive guitar from the local Guitar Center and Sarah Beth had met him to walk home. He had the guitar slung across his back and Sarah Beth had her purse draped across her body. They were walking along the bike path at about dusk, chatting so intently they didn’t notice the gang hanging out and waiting for them.

Tough Guy #1 looked at Fitz barked out, “Give me your money, asshole.”

Fitz responded with, “Okay. Just hang on. I’m going to take my wallet out and give you the money inside.”

Tough Guy #1 waved his steak knife around and said, “Just give me that wallet!”

Fitz said, “Hey man. Be cool. I don’t mind giving you the money, but I’m not giving you the wallet. I really don’t want to go through the hassle of getting a new license.”

Tough Guy #2 said, “Yeah, man. That is a real pain in the ass.”

Tough Guy #3 nodded and said, “Yeah. You have to wait in there for hours.”

Tough Guy #1, still waving the knife said, “Okay-okay. Just hurry it up.”

Fitz fished out the money – a whopping $3 – and said, “Okay. Here you go.”

Tough Guy #1 gaped at the 3 wilted dollar bills and sneered, “That’s it??

Fitz shrugged, “That’s all I’ve got.”

Tough Guy #2 nudged Tough Guy #1 and said, “Just take the money! Let’s get out of here!”

So they took the measly $3 and ran off, leaving Fitz’s wallet, a $1500 guitar, and Sarah Beth’s purse with $50 in it behind. Again – not quite a full picnic going on up there.

But for Duncan enough was enough. No longer could he stand idly by while people were mugged by criminals too stupid to rob people properly. He called the local Neighborhood Watch.

I had no idea that we even knew our neighbors let alone had a honest-to-goodness Neighborhood Watch. But he contacted them about forming a patrol squad and having regular patrols in the evening hours for a while.  They scoffed and said, “What you think we are? Vigilantes?

And he thought, That would be awesome!

So he contacted this group called The Guardian Angels. They are a volunteer organization of people who patrol some high-crime spots in the city. They wear dark or navy blue pants and shirts with a white t-shirt labeled “Guardian Angels” in red writing over the top. However, it’s the bright red beret they all wear that really stands out. It makes them look like a low-budget military operation. We saw them all over the city in small groups. On the BART. At different stations. Hanging out on street corners that had been particularly plagued with crime in the recent weeks. They are all really nice and they do make you feel safe.

He asked if he could start a Guardian Angel chapter in the Del Norte. The guy he talked to said, “Son, if you want to start a watch group just start one. You don’t need to be affiliated with us or wait for your Neighborhood Watch to catch on.”

So he didn’t wait.

What he did do was to start a Vampire Sabbat live action role-playing game with two other friends and about 30 of their closest friends.

On the appointed evening they all showed up. In vampire character. Complete with fake teeth, pale make-up, teased up hair or wigs, glitter (in some cases), and wearing their most revealing and dangerous-looking leather and vinyl outfits.  They paraded up and down the path between the El Cerrito and Del Norte stations for hours that night. Completely cleared the path out of all thug-like or wannabe-thug people.

This is before vampires sparkled in the daytime and right smack during the Anne Rice vampires-are-monsters part of the mythology.

They did this on and off for about a month and it got rid of those little toughs. I bet they’d never seen anything like it before in their lives. 30 people in various states of vinyl undress parading around and pretending to be vicious or seductive vampires and playing out various role-playing scenes in the night time hours under the BART tracks.

They and their steak knives never showed up on the path again.

The Neighborhood Watch never thanked him. Jerks.

Berkeley Episode 8: F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Crack Pixie

After Kristi had fled from various responsibilities and lies and we’d kicked out Goth Boy we needed another roommate. As it turns out Sarah Beth had one for us.

Before she had lived in Berkeley and become a professional caffeine pusher, Sarah Beth lived in San Diego with her boyfriend Fitz. Theirs was a highly strung love affair full of passion and broken plates. Like all such relationships it was hard for them to quit each other and they changed their relationship status more times than I post on Facebook in a day. When they broke up for the final time Sarah Beth packed her bags and moved up north.

A few months later, Fitz was writing and calling trying to woo her back. And he was good at it, too, being a professional writer. (Or at least a simple SoCal boy trying to fulfill the dream of pounding out the Great American Novel.) He must have gotten some encouraging responses because one day he showed up in Berkeley. And a week or two later he had taken up residence in Goth Boy’s former room.

We were all kind of surprised. It wasn’t like the Sarah Beth was laying around pining for Fitz. She had actually dated people in the intervening time. There had even been a couple of guys of note. One was a Henry Rollins clone without any of Henry’s intelligence or wit, but all his muscle and chiseled jaw. The other was a tattoo and piercing artist who fixed a crooked tramp stamp on her lower back and then proceeded to use her as a piercing canvas for his “portfolio.” He suddenly disappeared when we sent him joke kidnapping ransom demands for pizza complete with pictures of her sporting smeared mascara and a ball gag in her mouth. It turns out he wasn’t that kinky or that into pepperoni.

It was easy to see why she liked Fitz. We all liked Fitz. He had a boyish face with brilliant red hair that was always casually messy and just a little too long. He was lean and lanky and funny and smart with a certain old-fashioned Gatsby charm. He oozed a zen calmness that balanced Sarah Beth’s (the Crack Pixie’s) frenetic energy.

He fit right in with our easy and free-flowing lifestyle.  He could talk about all kinds of literature – from Plato and Steven King – and loved burritos from questionable restaurants as much as the rest of us. He got a job a Sarah Beth’s coffee shop and, unlike Goth Boy, managed to make it to his job shifts with absolutely no problems. And he brought home leftover sandwiches on the nights he closed up, single-handedly doubling our food supply.

There was only one thing about Fitz that wasn’t so perfect. It was, in fact, the main reason Sarah Beth had left him in Southern California.

He drank.

When he moved back up he was sober. Or so he said. He was probably slightly sober or almost sober. Or trying to be sober.

None of the rest of us knew that he had a drinking problem. Maybe we were naive or maybe he was just such a professional drinker that he’d had years of practice (already at 23) hiding his problem.

Even when he carefully put an armload of empty whiskey bottles in the recycling container I didn’t think of him as an alcoholic. All the bottles were of those small hip-flask varieties that you can only get if you go up to the counter and ask for them. How drunk could he possibly get off of one of those?


Because he wasn’t just drinking one per night. Oh, he would start off buying just the one for the evening, but then by whatever o-clock it was gone and before the alcohol could really hit him and incapacitate him for the evening he would jog off to the liquor store around the corner and buy another one.

And he was sneaky about that, too. He’d leave by the backdoor or sneak out my private entrance. Or he’d ask one of us if we wanted to go to the burrito place that was just a door or two down from the liquor store. Then as we were waiting for our burritos he say, “Heyya. I’m just going to pop into the liquor store and get a little something. You want anything, too?” Sometimes we’d say yes and give him money and instructions for our own booze. Most of the time though we didn’t have money for alcohol and a burrito so we’d pass. He’d nod and smile and slip into the store.

I went with him once. We had been chatting and he said he needed to just run a little errand, did I want to come along.

Sure! I’m up for anything!

So we left through my private door and went off down the hill to the liquor store. He went up to the counter and was greeted by name and the guy automatically grabbed a flask of Jim Beam and put it in front of him. He fumbled out his wallet and paid the $5 in cash. And suddenly, before I’d even made it to an aisle to look at the colorful bottles of booze, he was tucking the flask into the inner pocket of his black leather jacket and heading out the door. The whole transaction took 2 minutes. In fact, I spent longer typing this one paragraph than he did buying his bottle of Beam.

When we came in the front door Sarah Beth was there sitting on the couch reading a book, Chemistry for fun and profit. She gave a hard, squinty-eyed look as we shut the door. Fitz gave her a “hey” and went downstairs. I came and sat down next to her to chat.

“Where did you guys just come from?” she asked.

“Oh, Fitz and I just took a walk and stopped at the liquor store,” I said. “What are you doing?”

Sarah Beth narrowed her eyes further and gave a look at the stairs. “I think,” and she closed her book, “I am going to bake.”

“Ooo!” I squealed, because I love anything baked, “Whatcha making?”

As she sailed into the kitchen she called back to me, “Brownies. You’re probably not going to want to eat them”

Ah. These wouldn’t be just brownies. And they certainly wouldn’t be the fun kind. These were going to be revenge brownies.

Sarah Beth didn’t just get mad, she got even. Her specialty was chocolate brownies with laxatives baked into them. Occasionally brownies would show up on the counter. The most recent was in response to Goth Boy eating her Thai leftovers. She’d warned all of us and we were more than happy to let Goth Boy suffer. And suffer he did. The noises that came out of that bathroom were worthy of that famous scene in Bridesmaids.

He blamed it on another set of leftovers he’d swiped.

The results of eating these brownies were so horrific that any baked good on the counter was looked at with suspicion and dread.

As she was baking her brownies I took the bar stool on the opposite side of the island. “So,” I asked. “What did he do?”

Her face was pinched and her lips were thin and tight and she measured out her ingredients. “He’s drinking.”

“We all drink. What’s the big deal?”

“He can’t stop drinking.”

And learned all about alcoholism. The sneaking around was just the tip of the iceberg. She told me all about how he drank until he passed out. How he stashed his bottles in the closet. How he was picking up flasks of Beam 5 or 6 times a day. How back in SoCal it was so bad he was regularly shitting and pissing himself after he’d passed out. How she had had to drag him down the hallway to the bathroom and get him into the shower to clean him up. And how he never woke up or, if he did, he never remembered any of it. How she had scrubbed the mattress or floor or couch almost every day. How many sheets she had just thrown out because they were beyond repair.

For years.

That’s the real reason why she’d left. He was killing himself and she couldn’t watch. And now he was doing it again.

By the time she was done telling me all about her life with Fitz the revenge brownies were done.

They smelled delicious.

We sat and stared at the small pan of chocolate pain.

“Maybe tell the others not to eat these.”

“I will,” I said. “Maybe cut them and throw a few away. You don’t want to kill him.”

“Don’t worry. I just put in one dose.”

One dose was enough.

On the plus side, he couldn’t make it to the liquor store for over a whole day.


Things are crazy here. Spring break was a disaster. We were supposed to fly back to Iowa and Minnesota and got caught in that whole Delta Flight-Canceling Fiesta that was going on. We were there. Ready to go. Bag checked. Mickey-D’s food choked down. And then ….

Flight canceled.

We were alerted to this fact by a woman behind us yelling FFFUUUUCCCCKKKKKKK!!!!!! At the top of her lungs.

Eyes swiveled to her and then towards what she was looking at, eyes and mouth twisted up into full-on bitch-face mode.

CANCELED flashed next to our flight number and the fine print below informed us we would be rescheduled to the next available flight. Yeah, right. If the 100 foot-long line at the customer service desk – evidence of the previous day’s cancellations – in the check-in area of the airport was any indicator the next available flight would be in June.

A seismic groan echoed through the concourse and a gate attendant clicked on his microphone. His tone as he went through the typical apology was only quasi-apologetic and mostly pissed off. This had been going on for days and, as he peevishly told us, “I was here for 16 hours yesterday and I’ve been here for 8 already.” So buckle up.

I immediately called Delta’s help line and was just as instantaneously put on hold. Seeing no hope there I got up and stood in the line for Mr. Cheerful.  As I stood there watching our hopes for seeing our family fly away, Delta cheerfully told me all the ways that I spend more money with them. Not bloody likely, Delta.

I actually reached Mr. Cheerful before I was helped on the phone. I suspect everyone in the help room was cowering under their desks and waiting to wake up from this nightmare and no one was getting help anywhere.  He gave an attempt at a gracious smile as he asked what he could do for me. I told him I needed re-booking for 3 tickets.

He turned white and broke into a sweat. Then he literally rubbed his face with his hands and said, “Oh, God.” Then he clacked some keys and looked at me with a severely down-turned mouth. “I can’t get you out until Monday afternoon. Maybe. At the earliest.” This was a Friday and we only had a week of break to see 2 different families and there was driving to do in the middle.

So we had to cancel.

Everyone was devastated. But we did try to make the best of our now stay-cation. They had a fine time with museums and movies and sleeping in. But it wasn’t the same.

And then, instead of blog (I’m stuck on a Berkeley Chronicle), I got focused on a new project of summarizing some conference videos (more on that in another post), getting pre-schoolers enrolled in Rock Creek, and writing another 2 or 3 parenting articles. All for pay.

In reality I did that for about 40% of my time. The rest of the time I read, watched movies, and cruised around home decorating sites fantasizing about my new house. I have narrowed it down on that chandelier – we have a top 4: 3, 5, 7 & 9 in case you are keeping score at home.  We need to go to a lighting store to see them in real life just to make sure. That might happen this weekend. Maybe.

The moving is going to happen soon! We can start at the end of the month! I already have some things in boxes – things we didn’t bother to unpack when we came back to America. I kind of feel ahead. It’s a luxurious illusion that will pop like a soap bubble in about 2 weeks. Then I will be scrambling to purge out what we don’t need and pack away what we don’t need right now.

We have the truck scheduled. And my parents are coming to watch the kids while we haul boxes and then drive that obscenely huge metal box on wheels to our new house and unload things. Mark is insisting I get a back brace. He has even threatened to get it for me for Mother’s Day. I asked for a Roomba instead.

In the meantime, I am getting the boys reassigned to new schools. (Oh, yeah! I have a phone call to return!) And I’m trying to put off buying anything large that has to be delivered until our new house is officially open to us and the previous owner has moved out. — Like a new bed for Mark and I. I am totally not moving that thing more than I have to.

But all this will be soon!! Soon! Soon! Soon!


And I promise that I will finish that Berkeley Chronicle and a couple other projects I’ve been working on for you. Uh … Soon.

Berkeley Episode 7: Goth Boy and the Peach

One of the best things Kristi ever did was to rid us of our aspiring singer. He was bloody awful. Like listening to a herd of cats fighting with an amorous water buffalo.

Singing was all he did all day long. He sang while he made his food. He sang in the shower. He sang as he cleaned. And he only left the house to go to his vocal lessons. I don’t know who his teacher was, but they should have been jailed for fraud.

There was only so much we could take. We played our stereos at top volume to blot out the sound and Kristi started a steady campaign to annoy him until he cracked and left, shouting about how we didn’t appreciate art as he slammed the door behind him.

So we needed a new roommate.

As it turns out Will had one for us. His friend Steve from somewhere in the Midwest. Nebraska, I think. He was just turning 18 and was chaffing to leave the blandness of the prairie and get away from his parents.

The feeling was apparently mutual. Two weeks after we decided to take him in his parents had shoved him on a plane with two brand-new suitcases and a one-way ticket to SFO. They were probably high-fiving each other as he boarded.

Will went to the airport and brought back a tall, chubby, pale kid with a mild case of acne on his cheeks. He was dressed all in black and had hair that looked like it had been inked by a squid. He blinked at us like he only sporadically saw the sun or real, live people and then retreated to his basement room with his suitcases.

Burt showed up later in the day with his hopeful caulk gun and a lease for Steve to sign. And then it was official. He was in.

Lucky us.

Steve went through the next couple of weeks getting his feet under him. It was clear that he’d never A) had a job, B) cooked food, or C) done laundry.  Not only had he never done any of these things he didn’t seem inclined to attempt them. (Except for a single ill-fated attempt to boil water where he forgot about the pan and boiled all the water off and I found it red hot and making alarming popping noises.)

He just seemed helpless. When I laughingly told him he was helpless he was offended and told me he wasn’t “helpless” he was just “sad” and found the world “pathetic.”

I had never heard that being “sad” could contribute to not being able to boil water, but what did I know. I was Wonderbread and naive. When I told Sarah Beth about Steve’s being “sad” she just rolled her eyes and said, “He’s such an Emo.”

“It’s that a Muppet?”

She laughed and said, “No. He’s a Goth, silly!”

I was intrigued. I’d never really met a Goth. Goth didn’t happen in my farming community of 7000. Skater punk? Yes. Pot-smoking hippies? Yes. Preppies? Sure. Farm boys? Of course. But Goth was a foreign land to me.

I started trying to observe Goth Boy in his natural habitat. Like Marlin Perkins from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and the Lions of sub-Saharan Africa. He didn’t make it easy, though.  His door was closed most of the time and I’d catch snippets of bands like This Mortal Coil and Nosferatu coming through the thin wood. And he kept his shades drawn, which made it difficult for Sarah Beth and I to spy on him from outside.

Somehow he found other Goth Peoples to hang out with. I have no idea how it happened. Suddenly I was meeting him comping home at 6am from Goth Clubs while I was on my way out the door to work at the vet clinic.  And that was pretty much the only time I saw him. Sweaty and tired and stumbling from God knows what drug he pretended to take.

According to Sarah Beth, my reliable informer on all things Goth Boy, he would get to bed at 7am and then sleep until 4 or 5 in the afternoon.

We didn’t care. People are going to do what they want. We weren’t his parents. Once he ran out of money he’d smarten up.

And then food started disappearing.

I want you to understand. We were poor. None of us made more than $16K per year. Hourly. With no benefits. I could barely afford to keep myself housed and fed. And that was with a diet of instant Ramen and beans & rice. My primary thought each day was “What am I going to eat today?” Next was, “How much can I afford to eat?” And after that was, “What am I going to eat tomorrow?” It was a very tight existence that we shared. So to have food that we were counting on disappear was more than just an inconvenience. It threatened our existence.

The first to disappear were some of the unsold sandwiches from the coffee shop Sarah Beth would bring home when she closed. That wasn’t so bad. That was extra bounty. Then different cartons of leftover takeout food started to disappear.  That was much more serious so we had a house meeting. Goth Boy couldn’t be roused from his sleep and so he missed the meeting. It was just as well. We knew it was him and so we bitched about him the entire time.

It was decided that Goth Boy needed to get a job. An income and responsibilities would solve most of his issues.

Duncan flat out refused to recommend him for a job at the game store where he, Will, and Raj worked.  I certainly wasn’t going to invite him to join me at the vet clinic. So it was Sarah Beth who offered to get him a job at the coffee shop.

His shift was 3pm to 7pm. Just 4 hours, but that’s all the manager would give him until he could prove himself. Easy work and he didn’t have to get up early in the day. And, bonus, the coffee shop uniform was black so he didn’t need to buy new clothes. In fact, he just added a new t-shirt to his collection of Gothwear.

So here’s how Goth Boy’s new career as a coffee jockey went:

Day 1: Good. He got up, showered, and made it on time. Worked his shift. Came home.

Day 2: Good. On time. Worked. Brought food home. Went to Goth Club with Goth Peoples. Got home at 6am.

Day 3: Bad. Couldn’t wake up on time for his 3pm shift. Chose to not go in as opposed to being just “late.” Went to Goth Club with Goth Peoples. Got home at 7am.

Day 4: Not Good. Sarah Beth drug him out of bed and got him to work. Bitched the entire time about being “sad” and “misunderstood.” How we “norms” don’t get him. Finished his shift in a huff and went out to Goth Club with Goth Peoples.

Day 5: Bad. Did not get up and go into work. Locked door of room so Sarah Beth couldn’t get to him. Snuck out to club. Got home at 6am. Hid behind fridge so I wouldn’t see him as I was on my way to work. Thinks I am stupid.

Day 6: Way Bad. Fired.

We had another meeting, this time with him. (One of Raj’s many talents appears to be lock picking.) We explained how there was this thing called Rent that happened each month and Goth Boy needed to get his shit together so he could pay Rent. Otherwise he’d have to talk to Burt and the caulk gun and that was bound to be unpleasant.  He swore he would get a new job. The coffee shop job was just too cheerful for him.

So we decided not to kick him out.

And then more food went missing.

Specifically the peach I was going to have for breakfast. The only piece of fresh fruit I was going to eat all day – maybe for 2 days – and this freeloader has swiped it from me. This is a line you just don’t cross.

I was beyond furious. I wrote an incredibly bitchy note about the theft of my peach and demanded that “whoever” had eaten had better go out and buy me another one. I left it right on the kitchen island for everyone to see and them I went to work. At 6am. Like a muthafuckin’ adult.

Everyone saw the note. And apparently everyone knew what was coming, except Goth Boy. When I got home Duncan, Will, and Sarah Beth were standing in the kitchen with Goth Boy. The note was still there and written across the bottom of it was “IT WAS JUST A FUCKING PEACH!! GET OVER IT!!”

I looked up and glared at Goth Boy. He shrugged and said, “Well, it was.”


The next thing I remember Will had his hands on my ankles and was pulling me back across the island and Sarah Beth had her hands around my wrists. Goth Boy was pressed against the stove, eyes wide, holding his throat.  “Jesus Christ!” he yelled, “She’s a psycho!”

Duncan turned to him and said, “She’s right. You have to move out. We’ll help you pack.”

I never saw him again.

And we needed a new roommate.

Berkeley Episode 6: Dance of the Sugar Plum Ecstasy Fairies

The Berkeley of my twenties was an era of experimentation. My experimentation was pretty tame, though, and limited to food, sex, and pot. (They didn’t call me White Bread for nothing.) I wasn’t even much of a smoker. Back in college I had made an attempt at coolness that ended after a case of strep throat that was so bad I needed oxy to help with the pain. Smoking just didn’t taste the same after that.

My roommates were much more bold in their experimentation. They reveled in their mostly-harmless Free Spirit lifestyle. I was never sure what I was going to come home to. And that wasn’t even taking into account whatever Burt had come and caulked lately.

After one particularly heinous day at the vet clinic that included a puppy sick with parvo virus and a Chow that tried to take my hand off I trudged up the stairs and shouldered my way through the front door hoping for some decompression time with Sarah Beth. However, I rammed into a woman I’d never seen before. She was smack in the doorway swaying and writhing to the music of Mazzy Star.  I started to say, “Who the fuck are you?” but only got as far as “Who-” when it hit me that she was buck naked.  The only thing covering her was her long red hair and it wasn’t doing that great a job.

Just as I determined she was a natural redhead my roommate Duncan can pirouetting through the living room. Naked. All 5 limbs flinging around. He saw me and crooned, “Heeeeeyyyy,” pure joy on his face. “Yoooouuuu!”  He twirled to me and gave me a big, full-body hug. He leaned back, grasped me by the shoulders, and looked me full in the eyes like he was looking for my soul. “You,” he said, layering the word with about 500 pounds of meaning.

Then he twirled away to a shirtless guy with stringy blonde hair who was petting one of our cats named Tank. He was so focused on Tank’s black fur he didn’t even register the penis that almost slapped him in the face.

I shut the front door and came a few more steps into the living room. Van, our new Goth-wannabe roommate came bursting into the room from the kitchen wearing nothing but his baggy tighty-whiteys. “You guys! The water! You have to try the water! It’s the best water ever! It’s like water, but water.” And he ran back into the kitchen.

Raj was the only one fully clothed, wearing his typical uniform of black jeans and black t-shirt. His feet, however, were bare. “The air,” he said, gulping in big breaths. “It’s sparkling. It’s sparkling in my lungs. It’s making my lungs sparkle.” He knelt down to Sarah Beth who was sitting on the couch. “Am I sparkling on the outside?”

“You sure are,” she said. She hadn’t even looked up from her book, Growing Mushrooms for Fun and Profit, but Raj seemed totally satisfied.  “Cooool,” he said and started taking huge breaths again.

I plopped down next to her on the couch, “What. In. The. Fuck,” I asked.

“They’re on E. I’m the watcher.”

“The watcher?”

She turned a page, “I make sure no one thinks they can fly or that the cat is edible.”

“Who thought the cat was edible?”

She nodded over to Blondie with Tank. He was trying to lick Tank’s fur.

“He tried to shave your cat earlier so he could wear the fur.”


“That’s why his shirt is off. If you look closer he’s got dried glue on him to hold the fur. Don’t worry,” she said to my horrified face, “He only got a little bit off. Vishnu and Buddha are locked in your room for now.”

“I’m going to check on them. You should probably check on Van. He seems to think the water is amazing,” I said.

She sighed and hoisted herself up off the couch. “Yeah. We don’t want another flood.”

I got up from the couch and hurried downstairs to check on my cats. They met me at the door, meowing with indignation. Well, Buddha met me at the door. Vishnu, the one with the survival instinct, was hiding under the bed.  She’d probably been there since the first pill was swallowed. Buddha, however, was a sucker for love and was sporting an inch square bald patch in the middle of his back.

I changed out of my scrubs and into some clean jeans and a t-shirt. After soothing the cats and carefully locking my bedroom door I rejoined the group upstairs.

The music had changed from the slow angst of Mazzy Star to something faster with a thumping bass line. Everyone was dancing. Kind of. They were all bumping and grinding and jumping and twisting around and into each other. Van was wet – I hoped only from his adventures with the sink. Duncan and Redhead were still naked. Raj was gliding his feet across the floor moaning, “smooooooth,” with every step he took. Tank had finally made his escape from Blondie, who was now rubbing his torso along different vertical surfaces – walls, curtains, people – and he was purring.

I had never, ever seen anything like this before. It was like watching a car crash. I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to.

When Blondie came over and started rubbing both sets of cheeks against Redhead and Van I decided it was time to take myself over to Mark’s house and offer to cook him dinner.

I have no idea what happened after I left and I don’t want to know. But I was never bored.

The Unexpected Banker: Berkeley Episode 5

Back in the late 1990s the California economy was booming and interest rates were lowering. Refinancing a mortgage was fairly common. (Or so my economist husband informs me…)

Apparently our landlord Burt rose of his haze of booze and pot smoke long enough to figure this out, too, and we were given notice to expect him with a banker at some point “next week.” Now, for Burt “next week” could actually mean next week, but it could also mean tomorrow, the next day, next month, or never. We didn’t take him too terribly seriously or act with any urgency.

Plus it’s not like we were slobs. We were actually fairly neat and tidy. We were serious about not having roaches, so the dishes were done everyday and food was cleaned up. Laundry was kept in our own rooms and the shared areas were relatively free of clutter.  We were dream tenants. Well, dream tenants might be a bit of a stretch, but we were pretty low maintenance.

We even didn’t bother Burt with the pesky details of roommates moving in and out (with the notable exception of Kristi).  In order to keep life harmonious we found our own roommate replacements. Around August, Will told us he was moving out. He was going to live closer to the college he was attending with a couple of other computer nerd friends. We were saddened, but that is life. It gave us an empty room and another roommate to find. But we were in no hurry.

We were a diverse group of strangers living together in our own little commune. The only people that knew each other beforehand were Duncan, Will, and Raj – who took bat-shit-crazy Kristi’s place. They all worked at a game store and had a nice friendship. Duncan and Raj were also both pagans and celebrated holidays like Beltane and Imbolic. And they threw a killer Summer Solstice gathering, complete with tasty melon sacrifices.

I got quite a religious education from Duncan and Raj. Not just rituals and customs, but also tolerance. I learned that people following and practicing their own beliefs and convictions had no effect whatsoever as to how I lived my life or what I chose to believe. In fact, being open to hearing and observing their practices enriched my own beliefs.

As we waited for Burt to show up with The Banker and his caulk gun to do whatever to the house, Lughnasadh came along. The room was still empty and Raj asked if he could use it to set up his harvest festival altar and have a little ritual to celebrate food being ripe enough to eat.  “Well, sure!” we said. “That’s not a problem! Set it up!”

“Thanks! Great!” he said, clearly relieved. “I’ll take it down right away the next day. Don’t worry.”

None of us were worried. It’s not like we were using that room. Plus Raj was a good roommate. He kept to himself and wasn’t too creepy, so we were willing to let him do pretty much anything he wanted. This ritual was no exception. I didn’t even know when he performed it. Suddenly he was done and we were having cashew chicken from the Chinese place a few streets down.

I was curious and checked out the room. Raj had moved a long, tall bar table in to the room. He had an orange and red brocade table cloth with gold trim that went all the way to the floor covering it. On top of the table were:

  • tall red pillar candles,
  • a brass goblet,
  • a 12-inch carving knife with an ivory handle,
  • a plate with tomatoes and zucchini hacked to bits,
  • a vase with stalks of wheat,
  • and part of a baguette,
  • with a 14-inch brass plate with a pentagram drawn on in drippy burgundy paint it hanging over the whole affair.

Against the stark whiteness of the walls and beige carpet the cacophony of bloody reds and butchered vegetables throttled my retinas and pushed me, stumbling, back out the door.

“Whoa,” I said to Sarah Beth.

“Yeah,” she responded.

It was a moment of bonding between someone being introduced to something completely outside their experience and someone who had been there before. We celebrated our deeper bonding by going to Target for a slushy and to look at all the stuff we couldn’t afford to buy.

A couple of days went by and Raj’s altar remained in place. Maybe this was a long-term ritual and it needed time to work? Like letting bread rise? I had no idea. We didn’t question it. We didn’t have a new roommate yet so there was no one to care.

Then Burt actually showed up. With an honest-to-God banker wearing an honest-to-God suit complete with shiny shoes and hair perfectly gelled and coifed. We were all in jobs that didn’t require anything fancier than jeans and a t-shirt and our shoes were Chuck Taylors so this was impressive.

Only Sarah Beth was home that day. Burt knocked and sauntered in with The Banker who immediately started giving the front living room a once over. He introduced himself and shook her hand and then Sarah Beth seated herself on a bar stool behind the kitchen island and Burt seated himself across from her, with his back to the rest of the house, while The Banker did his thing.

He gave the kitchen a quick look and glanced in the TV room. Then he announced he was going to check out the bedrooms. Burt waved him on and told him to help himself.

Sarah Beth had a clear view of The Banker over Burt’s shoulder as he opened the first bedroom door. The door to the bedroom Raj had used for the ritual. The bedroom that had nothing in it except the red altar still complete with red candles, a big pentagram, and a long ivory handled knife.

The Banker froze. He spent a long minute standing there, in his expensive suit and shiny shoes and perfectly coifed hair, drinking it all in.

Then he backed out of the room, shut the door, and practically ran from the house.

Burt was caught off guard when he heard the front door bang shut. “Oh!” he said, looking around. “I guess we’re done!”  And he hurried out the door after The Banker.

We never did hear if he got his mortgage refinanced.

And he didn’t even get to use his caulk gun.

Berkeley Episode 4: The Education of the Rube

Kristi was the first person I met in the house. She interviewed me only hours after I had arrived off the plane to see if I was “suitable” and would “fit in” in the house.

The irony in this will appear later.

Apparently the word “Rube” written in secret ink across my forehead told her I would fit in just fine.

Kristi was not what I had expected in a landlord liaison type person. I don’t know, really, what I expected, but it wasn’t an almost 30-year old Chinese Queen Victoria body double wearing Daisy Duke cut-offs and a short sleeved Henley t-shirt licking fried chicken bits off her fingers.

Kristi wasn’t going to be a model anytime soon, but she wasn’t bad looking either. She had long, shiny black hair, perfect skin, and fascinating clear light grey eyes. She was clean and seemed friendly and did have an air of professionalism about her, so I didn’t hesitate in taking the room.

Plus $300/month rooms with free laundry and close access to the BART didn’t grow on trees.

Still. Something about her nagged at me at being “not quite right.” After awhile I realized I had trouble reading anything in her eyes. They were flat with the emotion of a glass of water.

But I didn’t realize that until months later.

Sarah Beth and I liked to hang out with Kristi. She was always around, had a car, and was a native of the area so she knew all the great, cheap taco places. Great = somewhat tasty and being 95% sure you wouldn’t get salmonella.

There was also a certain amount of drama that seemed to follow her along. Not too much at first, just enough to be interesting.

First there was her sob story.

She had these two large 11 x 15 portraits of kids up on top of her gigantic entertainment center in the most opulent frames that Target had to offer. They were placed so prominently they were the first thing you saw when you walked into her room. They begged you to ask about them.

She had been married to this guy Jason for a few years and they had two kids together. But Jason had been mentally and physically abusive to her. Beating her and calling her names until she had just gone in to this deep dark depression. Her parents had stepped in and gotten her out of there, and then! It turned out that Jason had been dealing “a bit” of weed! So he ended up in jail for a while!

She had let her parents take the kids for a bit, “just until she got on her feet,” but then! They totally betrayed her! And they took her kids! Her parents had gone to the judge and implicated her in all of Jason’s horrible deeds in order to get full custody of the kids!!  She only got to see them once a month in supervised visitation! DUDE!!

It kind of set the stage for drama expectations.

Sure she was quirky and several of her “pieces of advice” would have sent me to the hospital if I had taken them, but things in the house really hummed along. She collected the rent and drove it over to Burt every month. She collected what we owed on the shared phone bill and got that mailed in on time each month. (Cell phones were brand new, kids.) It was actually kind of nice that she was home all the time. She was on disability – lord knows what the exact details of that were – and couldn’t work a full-time job. Burt was giving her free rent for managing this circus and that seemed like a pretty sweet deal.

My favorite little pearl of wisdom, and the one that tipped me off that I needed to exercise some judgement, was about highlighting my hair.

“You can use Clorox to highlight your hair.”

“What was that?”  I had been flipping through a fashion magazine that someone’s girlfriend had left behind and hadn’t really been paying attention, but the word Clorox was always an attention grabber. In our household, if you needed bleach it couldn’t be good.

“You know. Bleach. If you wanted to get highlights in your hair on the cheap. You use Clorox and then wrap the strands in foil. Let it set for about 15 minutes and then rinse. Poof! Highlights. I was a licensed hair dresser before I had to go on disability, you know.”

Now, I happen to know, courtesy of an experiment my brother performed on his own hair when he was in college, that should you decide to use Clorox bleach to lighten your hair you will not end up with highlighted hair. You will end up with practically no hair.  See, bleach will actually melt the proteins and oils in your hair. Pro Tip: Don’t do it.

I think I mumbled something about the color red and kept flipping the pages.

Kristi was a wonderful, vast field of educational opportunities for a naive little Iowa farm girl.

You know the podcast Serial?  I bet for most of you the awesome opening of Adnan calling from the Maryland State Correctional Facility is the first time you’ve ever heard what it’s like to receive a call from an inmate.

Not me.

“You have a collect call from ‘Christian Smith.’ An inmate at the _______ Correctional Facility. Will you accept the charges?”

But wait. There’s more.

“Please say ‘Yes’ to accept; ‘No’ to refuse; or, to prevent any future contact from this inmate, please say, ‘Stop Contact’.”

Stop contact?!?!


I went with my gut response of “Uhhhhh…… No?” and hung up.

As soon as the phone was in the cradle Kristi came bolting into the room. “Was that the phone?” she asked breathlessly, eyes wide.

“Yes,” I answered truthfully, because, duh. The phone had rung. It’s not like that sound could be anything else.

“Well, who was it?” she asked, hands on hips.

“It was some person in a prison!” I said, trying my best to convey my absolute disbelief that I had just received a collect call from a person currently residing in an actual prison.

She lit up. “Oh, that was Christian! If I’m home when he calls you need to just accept the charges so I can talk to him.”

“Excuse me?”

Now at this point, Kristi had never mentioned a man other than Jason in my presence. And I’d never answered a call for her. I checked with Sarah Beth later and she confirmed, “Yes, she has this ‘friend’ Christian who is in prison somewhere in California.” Then she shrugged, said, “I really have no idea,” and went off to have a smoke.

When I asked Kristi more about Christian she told me they met as part of a pen pal program at her church. (Which I never saw her attend, but I suppose the cross up on the wall of her room was proof enough.)  She said Christian had fallen in love with her, but, alas, she didn’t love him at all. He was only a friend. She was such a heartbreaker and felt so guilty, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Ya know?

When I asked her why she continued to accept collect calls from a man she (A) had never met in person and (B) didn’t have any real feelings for she replied that he was depressed and even a little suicidal and if she had cut off all ties with him, poor Christian would probably commit suicide.


Incidentally, I asked one of the other roommates about this Christian situation and he told me that Christian was an old friend of hers who went to prison on assault charges defending her from her abusive husband. He confirmed the “he loves her so much” and “he will kill himself if she stopped talking to him” parts of the story, but the state of Denmark was starting to stink.

In the midst of her weird little romance with Christian, there was Bob. Back when the internet was a dial-up affair and having it in your house meant that you were probably a college student, Kristi somehow managed to find her way onto it and then to what had to be the very first internet dating site and land herself a man.

Bob was as tall and thin as Kristi was short and round. He was a 30-something white guy with dark brown accountant hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a horridly thin mustache. Not a cool-thin mustache like Clark Gable, either.

He oozed banality and dullness, from his striped button-down shirts, to his too dark jeans with a brown belt.  He seemed so old to those of us who were in our exuberant early 20s.  And he was either painfully shy or completely unsure of what to say to a 20 year old.  I think I heard him say 4 words in our presence.

We would be hanging out in the living room, doing what 20 year olds do, and she would flounce in with Bob, plop down with us and leave him to find a place to settle in.  He would look around the room, hands in pockets, searching for the least intrusive spot to sit.  Bob would just get sat down, all legs and odd angles, and Kristi would bounce up again and pull Bob downstairs to her room.

Then one day Sarah Beth and I found Kristi in her room eating her way out of a half gallon container of chocolate chip ice cream.

“What’s wrong?” we asked.

“I’m pregnant.”

The words hung in the air as our jaws hit the floor.

Now, to a 22 year old who did not want children for a long, looooong time this was horrifying.  Sarah Beth, however, recovered first and got right down to the nitty-gritty.

“Who’s is it?” she asked.

Kristi took another enormous bite and said, “Bob’s.”

I asked, “Are you sure you’re pregnant?”

She gave me one of those looks that said areyoukiddingme?!?! and dropped the ice cream bucket. “Look at them!” she cried, pulling down her shirt to flash me her boobs. They were enormous, like two giant cantaloupes in a black lace sling. “They are practically climbing out of my bra!” She let go of her shirt and it miraculously snapped back into place. She stifled a sob, hoisted the ice cream back to her lips, and said, “This is just like the last time with my daughter.”

Then she proceeded to fill me in on details of her sex life with Bob that no amount of mental bleaching can scrub away and hints as to what lay ahead with this pregnancy that made me double check my birth control pill supply.

“Does he know?” I asked.

“Nope. I haven’t told him yet,” she said between bites. Well, not even between bites. Her mouth never seemed empty of ice cream and she talked around the spoon like a pro.

My sense of justice and fairness reared up. “Well, you have to tell him. He has a right to know!”

I’m not telling him,” she said, firmly. “No way.”

And because I was young and stupid I said, “If you want, I will tell him. He’s got to know.”

“Fine,” she snapped. She clenched the ice cream between her knees and dialed his number on the phone.

“Hello, Bob?”

“Yeah,” a wary man’s voice responded.

“Kristi is pregnant and it’s yours.” (I learned tact much later in life.)


Then, “What? Did you say?”

“Kristi is pregnant. And it’s yours.”


Dial tone.

We never saw Bob again.

Kristi, of course, blamed me for ruining her future happiness, but I’d like to think that I scored a few karmic points that day helping Bob dodge an enormous bullet.

No other signs of pregnancy appeared, but Kristi wasn’t with us for very much longer.

I came home early from work one day to find Kristi and a short, stocky Nordic looking man filling black trash bags with her clothes.

“Hey!” I said, “Cleaning house?”

“Moving!” she said, delight on her face that never, ever seemed to reach her eyes. “I’m moving in with Jay and I’m going to get my kids back!”

“Cool!” I said. I had never heard her mention a ‘Jay’. It was awfully close to ‘Jason,’ but I wasn’t going to poke too hard at this soap bubble. But then, proving I still had no idea who I was dealing with, I asked, “Need any help?”

“Naw,” she said, but then she added, “Can you just carry these bags to the back door?”

Her room was mostly cleaned out. Just debris remained and she was busily bagging that up as fast as she could.

“Oh, Mindy, can you do me a favor?”


“Don’t tell Burt or the others I’ve moved out yet. Wait until the end of the day.”

“Uh…. okay.”

And she rode off into the sunset in her car crammed with trash bags full of mostly her belongings followed by this ‘Jay’ person who had her enormous entertainment center in the back of his little pick-up truck.

And we never heard from Kristi again.

Berkeley Episode 3: The Crack Pixie

Of all the people who lived in the house I was probably the closest to Sarah Beth.

She grew up in a somewhat small town with a mother who clung to Sarah Beth and her sister only slightly more tenaciously than she clung to the ghosts of her family’s wealthy and glorious past.  Sarah Beth’s sister decided to make her way in her home town, while Sarah Beth went to New York City and majored in forensic anthropology and loosing her Southern accent.

Little known fact: Forensic anthropologists don’t just work with bones of the long-ago deceased. A lot of police departments have a forensic anthropologist on staff to help with much fresher dead bodies. After one too many brushes with a body that was more recently dead than she’d been hoping for, she went back to the south for a brief stay before she decided she just wasn’t meant for the Antebellum life.

She drove her wreck of a car out of somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line, with her mother hurling curses and “you’ll be sorries” behind her, and found her way to Southern California. After an affair with an alcoholic writer that she assured me was “torrid,” she decided to try the North.

The first time I saw Sarah Beth she was in mid-leap from her bed to the window with a string of Christmas lights in her hand on a mission to add twinkling ambiance to her room.

She was about 5’3″, had bleach blonde hair that was shaved in the back and long on top, and was a tiny 90 pounds of pure manic energy. It was like living with a perpetually caffeinated chihuahua. Plus she had a job at a coffee shop and would bestow free espressos upon us when we popped in. Thusly she earned the nickname “Crack Pixie.” I’m not sure we ever called her that to her face. If we did I’m sure she loved it.

I owe a lot to Sarah Beth. She taught me the art of living poor. Not this “living frugally” crap that the upper-middle class seem to attempt when they feel guilty about consuming so much of the world’s resources, but living bare-to-the-bone-Ramen-noodle-eating poor.

She was also the main reason that we didn’t starve to death. We were all making about $16k/year and couldn’t afford much. Sarah Beth worked for a coffee house that is absolutely not named Starbucks which also served sandwiches on fresh bread. When it was her day to close up the shop she would bring home bread that was going to be tossed and sandwiches that hadn’t sold that day. She was also known to hook us up with certain “mistake” sandwiches if we came by while when she was manning the sandwich bar. Probably better for us than a triple shot of espresso.

Sarah Beth taught me how to be an expert dumpster diver. I didn’t have a mattress for the first 2 months I lived there. I slept on a folded up comforter on top of a twin-sized bed shelf that Burt had hand-crafted for me. No, he didn’t ask if I wanted it. It was just there. Yes, it was made out of wood, nails, and caulk.  One day she burst into the house yelling, “You gotta come quick!” We ran down the street to snag a well-used queen-sized mattress before animals or weather could ruin it.

I was way too naive to think about what had had been done on and to that mattress or even consider why it was on the curb in the first place.  She did, however, stop me from putting sheets on it before she could spray it down.  She Lysoled it to within an inch of its life. My room smelled like a hospital for a week. However, we were confident no germs could survive the soaking of disinfectant and when it was dry I slept on it.

Sarah Beth was full of extreme contradictions. She had been a vegetarian since birth (her parents were going through a hippie phase) and could not physically eat meat, yet she loved cooking meat. She could be soft and kind and then turn right around and be caustic and hard as nails. She loved piercings and yet wouldn’t get them herself. However, she did goad future roommate John into getting a “very private” piercing and then showing it to all of us. (Ew.)  She was also a fan of drug culture, yet she would never even smoke tobacco cigarettes or pot. She had a couple of interesting looking bongs and a collection of herbal cigarettes, but her proudest possession was her terrarium.

One day she lugged this 10-gallon fish tank home from God knows where and spent a good hour scrubbing it out. The next thing we knew she had scavenged everything she needed from around the neighborhood to build a terrarium.  Then this chunk of wood appeared and started to sprout mushrooms.

And not just any mushrooms. Magic mushrooms.

The terrarium was under the window in a dark corner of the small TV room.  It was watched carefully not only by Sarah Beth, but by several hopeful members of the household. No mushrooms in the history of the earth received more loving attention.  Kept from the chill of a San Francisco summer. Shaded from any harsh sunlight when it decided to peak through window.  We watched those mushrooms slowly grow until they were just about the right size.

There were more than few tears when the mushrooms died before anyone could experience their magic. Unfortunately, John and his girlfriend accidentally left the window open on a particularly cold night and they didn’t survive. Elliot (another roommate yet to be introduced) offered to deliver mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but we decided a burial in the backyard was probably a better idea.

Every so often I wonder about burying those mushrooms. Putting them in the dirt might have saved the spores and growing outside under the lone tree in the backyard might have made them hearty enough to survive the weather. They could still alive in the backyard of that house and sprouting up on that tree.

Road trip, anyone?

Berkeley Episode 2: The Landlord Returns

After the episode with the Hole-y Stairs we learned we shouldn’t rely on Burt to fix things. When the kittens pulled the curtains down in the living room we put them back up with no problem. When the pliers we were using to shut off the kitchen sink water no longer did the job, Sarah Beth and I bought a new faucet and installed it ourselves.

However, when the toilet tank cracked we decided, against our better judgement, that we had to call Burt.

We had been having a quiet Friday night. Four of us were just leaving Duncan’s room to get some drinks from the kitchen when we discovered a wet patch on the carpet and water dripping from an archway in the hall.

A crudely and mostly accurately drawn floor plan of the house utilizing my 8th grade drafting skills. (Thanks, Mr. Koenig! And sorry!)

Sarah Beth, Kristi, Will, and I went upstairs to find a pond stretching from the bathroom, into the kitchen, and creeping into the dining room. We stared in disbelief as the water seeped across the carpet.

Will gave her 90lb frame a good toss and got Sarah Beth about half way over the water towards the bathroom. She tip-toed through the rest of the pond and managed to get the water running into (and then out of) the toilet shut off.

After assessing the damage she came out, put her hands on her hips, and sighed. “Well. We have to call Burt.”

Since she had seen the tank and the crack we elected Sarah Beth to call. Also, she had been raised in North Carolina and therefore had the ability to tap into a certain amount of Southern Charm. This made her sound unfailingly upbeat and she could be contagiously agreeable.

Burt picked up within the first couple rings even though it was 9:30pm and very late for him. Sarah Beth shortly explained that a rogue toilet had attempted to recreate the Great Flood and asked what we should do.

Her face went from bafflement to silent laughter during the conversation. At the end she managed to choke out, “Okay,” before she leaned up against the wall laughing uncontrollably.

“You are never going to guess what he wants us to do.”

Burt, who was certainly not sober enough to drive to the house, had instructed us to do the following:

  1. Turn off the water to the toilet. (Check)
  2. Drill a hole in the floor between the kitchen and the dining room all the way through and into the basement ceiling. (Uh huh?)
  3. Push the water down through the hole and catch it with a bucket below in the basement. (Wha?)
  4. Take a hairdryer and use it to dry out the hole and the insulation. (Seriously, WTF.)
  5. Caulk the hole shut. (Nope, nope, nopity-nope.)

“Are we going to do that?” asked the 18-year-old Will, clearly new to the fix-it game.

. . .

In the end sanity prevailed.  We had to use everyone’s towels, but we got all the water mopped up in no time. Then we put out a couple of fans to dry up the dining room and basement carpets.  No power tools, caulk, or duct tape necessary.

Burt came by the next day to check on our work. He bee-lined to the spot were he expected to see a hole, caulk gun in hand. “Huh,” he said, searching the floor, “You didn’t even drill a hole!” He then went into the bathroom where he found that the crack in the toilet was much too big to be caulked shut and would demand a new toilet be purchased.

Burt left us that day, caulk gun unused, a very disappointed man.