Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Return to Ground Zero, Che Pt. II

Okay, so I'm at back Mission Grounds, all set to re-read this morose, unwieldy tome of woe I'd written "to" my current ex-girlfriend, which I'd probably never send her anyway, so I really wrote it to and for myself, when who should I run into but the Che Guevara bike violator. He was missing his red beret, so it was one of those-is that him? is that not him?-kind of deals. But then he said, "Hey, sorry about your bike." I assured him that it was "all good," which it decidedly was not, the only thing making it approach the vicinity of even "partially good" being the fact that I nearly broke my hand pounding him about the skull. ("It's all good." Who came up with that boner? I'm reminded of my security friend White Trash Gary's line: "It's all good? No it ain't. Some of it's downright stank.")

And that's when the scene became comic. I mean really comic, sublimely so-somewhere between Shakespeare and the early episodes of Three's Company, before Chrissy left. (Which were really just a modernized version of Twelfth Night anyway.) The guy behind me, who Che had previously given the "hey what's up?" to, said:

"Why are you sorry about my bicycle?"

Che may have been waiting for me to clarify things, to tell the confused man behind me that it was my headache-inducing bicycle that he was sorry for. He just smiled cryptically. A good revolutionary, I suppose, sews chaos and eschews clarity.

"It wasn't my bicycle," the man behind me continued. "It was my guitar. You messed up the tuning pegs on my guitar." Apparently my Gordie Howe style, jersey-over-the-head drubbing was the first beating in a long line of petty vandalisms. Maybe the first beating would prove the end of said line, but you can't beat common sense into the clinically stupid, and to be sure, I had no idea how many beatings Che had received before I jumped on him on 16th Street. Maybe it was only the first of the week.

There was a bit of silence, then the man went on: "You got in a fight with some lesbian in a bar. That's what messed up the tuning pegs. They're stripped out."

Wow. Amazing. Che's trail of terror has widened to include some unsuspecting reader of Rubyfruit Jungle trying to mind her own business while sipping Guinness, or perhaps chamomile tea, at the local watering hole. Che, like most revolutionaries, seemed to have more of a knack for stirring up shit that for actual violence. Maybe he was the one who drew the picture of the telephone with the Anarchy circle 'A' on it and the words: "Freedom: Dial 1-800-AK-47" on the wall of the crapper in this very eatery. Clearly, this café revolutionary, this potty Trotsky, wouldn't know an AK-47 if it crawled up his ass and shot him. And Che? If you're going to swing a guitar at something or someone, clearly the idea is to swing it by the neck, down near the head stock and those easily damaged tuning pegs, and smack the body-especially if it's solid-up against the object of intent. Maybe he was Eastern Bloc. He'd evidently missed rock 'n' roll from the time Elvis smashed his first guitar, through The Who, and past Sonic Youth and Nirvana. But if The Velvet Underground could inspire Vaclav Havel to start a revolution behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, what the hell was Che's excuse? He was too primitive to even use a club correctly. And that's pretty fucking primitive.

You might say that it's so primitive it's advanced and that Che is some kind of quasi-enlightened Coyote trickster character, stirring up the shit pot with the wrong end of the stick so us normal folk can see the humor and folly in our attachment to things of this world. Good spin. My counter to that would be: "Uh, I don't think so."

"So now what's wrong with it? It needs new strings?"

"No, it's the tuning pegs. The things at the end of the neck that the strings go into. They're all stripped out. You went to a bar and got into it with some lesbians"-ah, the plural-I'm sure Che had tried to crowbar his way into some kind of sapphic seraglio-but would a man who couldn't use a club show any aptitude with a pry bar?-maybe he attempted an unflattering Janis Ian cover at open mic night at the Lexington-"and now I've got a guitar with strings that I can't tune."

And in that, I'm sure, there's a metaphor for this whole fucking thing. And maybe a moral to the story: The guitar of the revolution is always out of tune (and thus, all the more revolting to the establishment)? You can't keep a good lesbian down? If you're going to smash the state, you'd better know how to swing a guitar? Don't sing it, bring it…and if you're going to swing it, better know how to grip it? ("This machine kills fascists.")

You can't play guitar with a broken hand?

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Che Part I

Everyone tells me they're crazy.
Crazy people aren't so fucking boring.

Friday night and I'm sitting outside in front of Mission Grounds on 16th Street. Coolin', drinking a cup of coffee, reading my book, getting ready for what I hope will be a smooth evening in the drug-addled, sweat-soaked, 200 b.p.m. terrarium of my "day job" working security at The End Up. Just relaxing, you know-trying to have a quiet, contemplative moment so I can maintain my Zen from ten p.m. until six in the morning in a possibly stressful environment: house music and tweakers may go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but it's a horrible combination to be around for those trying to approximate sanity.

I also work graveyard cashier at the Lusty Lady. My boss there, Midnite Mike, and I have a running joke about me having a freak magnet hidden in the nether reaches of my bowels, hidden by aliens, no doubt, or maybe tucked behind my ear microchip style, a cunning CIA plot. Midnite comes in at six in the morning to pull the nut-stained bills and quarters from the machines and always asks if any of "Scott's Guys" came in the preceding evening. An example of one of "Scott's Guys" would be a character we named Gumby the Crack Monkey, who one night vigorously scrubbed his face using a mop bucket for a cistern. This mop bucket had been used to clean all the video booths in the place, probably for the only time that day. A dancer came up from the dressing room and stared at him aghast as he knelt on the carpet, trying to work the brown water into a lather. He looked up from his ablutions and shouted at her: "Do you have a stick of gum?"

See what I mean by freak magnet?

This being said, up walks a guy in a red beret, not cocked at a jaunty French angle or folded crisply a la special forces, but sort of plopped on top of his head like a dollop of strawberry sauce on a sundae, a few squiggles of hair poking out under the edge. I immediately think of the stark, hungry image of Che Guevara emblazoned across some hipsters T-shirt, except this Che seems a less like a lean, hungry revolutionary than someone who wants to affect the look of one. He is hungry, though, despite the underdeveloped, babyfat look about him: he hunkers down in a chair across the patio from me, pulls out a few cartons of leftover Chinese food from a plastic bag, and starts eating. Okay, fine. Got my coffee, got my book, got another half an hour to myself, got my side of the patio, you've got yours. Do your thing, Che.

Problem is, I'm facing him and he's facing me and I can feel him trying to project this jail-time, Bobby Badass menace in my direction. I try to pay attention to my book-Awakening the Buddha Within-but when I inadvertently glance up, Che shoots me one of those "I'm psycho-don't fuck with me, man. I'm totally 5150. Danger time. Warning Will Robinson," type looks, chow mein hanging down his chin like Genghis Khan's beard. As if it's my leftover Chinese food he's grubbing, and he's saying: "now watchu gonna do, PONK?" No doubt about it: Che wants something from me. He wants to impress me with how unhinged and salty he is. He wants to push me into a confrontation. I can feel it.

But I'm not going to bite. No, no-not me. It's all about restraint, self-control. I'm here for me. I'm here to relax, enjoy the present moment, wipe my mind free of its karmic accretions and let it rest in its natural state: pure, shining void, unadulterated Buddha nature. Sunyata and all that. I recognize the being across from me a fellow bodhisattva on the long and winding path to enlightenment, and I'm not going to be drawn into some bullshit even if he has started to whistle off key and play a coffee house Jon Bonham drum solo on the nearby tables and chairs.

There's a central-brain organ that sorts out incoming stimuli according to intensity, thereby directing one's stream of consciousness toward what seems most important, what needs to be dealt with now. My friends Mike and Trent used to say it was it was called the superior colliculous, but I can't seem to find anything remotely like that in the dictionary. No matter. It exists, and it does its job. Trent once clapped his hands together to distract a liquor store owner while Mike dashed out with a 70s Schlitz sign featuring two smiling young lovers with giant blowout afros that they just had to have for their apartment wall.

No matter how much I try to focus my attention on my book and my buddha nature-boom-shaka-ta-dow!-something in my mid-brain keeps making me look up when Che makes a particularly loud rimshot on his impromptu drum kit. And there he is with that Travis Bickle "you lookin' at me?" glare on his face. I'm just about to pack it in, unlock my bicycle and maybe get to work a bit early for a change, when he starts milling about the patio with shooting the same sinister look. At least he's stopped drumming. My superior whatever-ulous gets a rest, and I go back to my book.

But the brain never truly stops processing information, and maybe my work mode of unobtrusively cataloging the minute movements of freaks has kicked in early. My peripheral vision tracks Che's be-bop stroll to the sidewalk; he's about five feet away from my bicycle where it's locked to a parking meter. And closing. Yes, it seems that he's now looking directly at it. It has captured his attention.

The following happens in slow motion: Che reaches the bicycle. He puts his hands on it. I close the book, and stand up. Che climbs onto the bike, but not in a normal, riding position. It is locked up to a pole, after all. Instead, he uses the parking meter to brace himself as he stands on the bike's seat with both feet together. He lets go of the meter and stands surveying the sidewalk, king of all he sees. I have conquered this bicycle seat in the name of the people. I push some tables and chairs out of the way-I'm somewhat blocked in-knocking over my coffee in the process, and run toward him. He raises his arms up slowly to enjoy a split second of crucified equilibrium: Che Guevara, King of the Jews. I'm halfway across the sidewalk when the bike falls from under him and he hits the concrete, the tail of his mangy, untucked dress shirt raised halfway up his back.

Now, I ask you: Is this something you do if you don't want to have your ass kicked? Seriously, now? I admit that it's not quite as suicidal as sitting on the bikes in front of the Hell's Angels clubhouse, twisting the throttle and saying "vroom vroom." I also freely admit that I'm too old to be riding around on a BMX bike, but the thing did run me about $800 and it's not a public pommel horse for the gymnastics of a chow-mein chomping wannabe nutjob. I was trying so hard to maintain, trying so hard to drink my coffee and mind my business and not get drawn in to any kind of nonverbal macho challenge and well, I have lost all track of the Buddha within. As The Pixies once asked: "Where is my mind?"

I jump on top of Che and pull his shirttail the rest of the way up so it's over his head. Now his head is a nicely-wrapped, warm little package, like a kitten in a pillowcase. I start punching him, and from the feel of it, I'm not connecting with any of the point-scoring places-eye socket, nose, mouth, even the earhole. No, I'm far beyond aiming at anything in particular; I've got his shirt pulled up Gordie Howe style, and I'm punching away like a hockey fight, whacking on skull. Che, who was so bent on apprising me of his fully psycho potential, has his arms flailing about helplessly. If I could hear myself, I'd probably hear, "I'm gonna fuckin' kill you!" over and over. Course, if I had that kind of awareness, I'd probably stop wrecking my knuckles on the back of this guy's head, take a couple of deep breaths and go away.

Reality fades in. Down the sidewalk a crowd of cools is barbecuing on a hibachi in front of The Kilowatt. They're staring at the homicidal maniac-ah shit, that's me?-somewhat intently. I just know one of them has a Che T-shirt on. Che is whimpering: "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry. I didn't know it was your bike. Just stop punching me."

A crackhead has sidled up to the violence: "Hey now. Go ahead and let him up, now." (It might be a tad too late to tell you I'm not a violent person, but I really try to avoid that shit. I'm trying to be the shepherd, as Jules said, if you feel me. But I can tell you that crackheads have some innate Ghandi radar in their coke-addled brains. When you want to have a quiet moment at the front desk of a peep show after three a.m., there's no shortage of baseheads yapping glass-dick gibberish up your earhole, but on the rare occasion you want to pound someone's brainpan like a raw T-bone, your local cracky is there to remind you "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.")

I let Che up. "Go the fuck away," I tell him. I pick up my bicycle, then go back to my table, and pick up my book. Okay, now I'm being stupid. I've been reading the same paragraph since dude walked up-am I really going to get a whole lot of reading done now? For some reason it's important to me to go through these innocuous, calming motions, to breathe deep and reassure myself that I didn't have a grand mal psychotic break in the middle of a public thoroughfare. Che roots about in his cartons and plastic bags, packing up his dinner. Instead of taking it with him and getting the fuck outta dodge, he leaves it there and moseys down to the Kilowatt crowd. Trolling for sympathy I guess. But first, before he leaves the patio, he shoots me a quick "why'd you have to hit me, meanie?" scolded puppy look.

Breathe deep. Breath goes in, breath goes out. Knuckles throb, breath goes in. Note to self: the knuckles are much softer than the back of the skull.

Cracky walks up. "You sure showed that guy. He knocked over your bike man-is your bike gonna be okay? Did he hurt your bike?"

Breath goes in, breath goes out: a prayer for those trying to maintain.

"Can't have that man, can't have somebody hurting your bike."

"Can I ask you something?"

"What's that?"

"Do you think I need to be fucked with right now? Could you maybe just leave me alone?"

Cracky sucks on a burnt lip and ponders. "Okay, okay." He holds a grimy newspaper towards me: "Wanna buy a Street Sheet?"
Che walks back up. "I'm sorry I knocked over your bike," he says again. "Here, man, let me pay you or something." He digs out three crumpled ones from his pocket. "You didn't need to hit me though."

"Don't want your money, man." Send it to Fidel. "Just leave me alone, okay?"

"I'll take it," Cracky says.

"Naw, man."

"No, you were gonna give it away anyhow. That money was gone to you. Now go ahead and give it up."

Che's face screws up as he considers it. He peels off a bill and hands it over.

"Oh, it's like that, huh?"

Che peels off another bill. "That's it. That's all you get." Cracky walks off with a significant downpayment on his next baking soda brainbomb, and Che goes back to his side of the patio. He pulls out the chow mein again. Unbelievable. I am determined to finish my chapter. Probably because I am an unmitigated idiot. The chapter is not uncoincidentally on Right Action, which, as defined by the Buddha, does not include rage-filled drubbing of Mission District revolutionaries. A guy comes out from inside, sets up his laptop. A guy rides up on a bicycle. They start to chat.

"Hey, what's up, man?" Che interrupts.

Bicycle Guy turns around. "Oh, hey." He doesn't seem too stoked to see Che, but maybe that's my own bias showing through. He turns back to his conversation.

"Hey, you see that guy over there?" Che points at me. "That guy tried to kill me."

My God. Maybe this guy is a revolutionary. He's indomitable. Maybe he's waiting for me to ride away so he hurl a grenade at my back.

"That's too bad," Bicycle Guy says, clearly bummed.

"Yeah, man. He's crazy."

I'm about to speak in my own defense, knowing full well that Ben Franklin was right when he said "the man who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer." Bicycle Guy saves me the trouble: "Well you probably shouldn't fuck with him, then, huh?"
"Yeah, I guess so." Che finishes his noodles and mercifully toddles off. I think he might knock my bike over again on the way. Then what could I do? I couldn't hit him again. It's not that the intervening moments between my episode and now have impressed upon the interdependence of all phenomena, and I've realized that there's no way I can harm him without harming myself, the self being largely an illusion anyway, caused by the interplay of the senses and the "shape" of my karma. No, it's really much simpler than all that. Fact as, Che is clearly too stupid to live. In the midst of my wonderment as to how he ever grew into his late twenties/early thirties without sitting on some Angel's bike and saying "vroom vroom" or pausing to pick up an expired bus pass in front of a speeding Muni, I feel kind of responsible for him.