Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category


Wednesday, June 28th, 2006

While I was at work tonight, there was a problem in the kitchen. The printer broke and a lot of the orders didn’t come through. I scrambled to get everything out in time, and the chefs in the kitchen did their part putting them together as fast as possible.

Only one table really felt the error, two men eating grilled Halibut. One was an older white man, kind but oddly out of place. The other looked Indian, and his accent suggested the same. He seemed to speak English poorly at best, and the white man would repeat everything I said slower and louder to him, as if my English were somehow harder to understand.

When I brought the plates out, I told him, “I’m sorry for the delay. There was a… miscommunication in the kitchen.” I imagined that my annoyance with the kitchen probably showed on my face.

“Yes, delay,” the older man barked. Then he ordered a cup of hot tea and another house wine.

I do acknowledge some fault in the situation. I should have stopped at the table and explained the situation before bringing the plates. I also was busy and probably not at my most personable. Anyway, I wasn’t the least bit surprised when I got the check back and the tip was 12%.

Hours later, when the restaurant was winding down, I picked up the check from my last table. I had to stay pretty late with one table, but I didn’t mind because it was a nice couple having a nice dinner and the tip was probably going to be pretty good.

But when I turned the corner and opened the book, the check was blank.

“Oooh MAN!” I groaned aloud. There was a rookie waiter standing next to me.

“What?” he asked.

“This table… they I’m sure they left me a check, but the dude took the wrong slip! I don’t know what the tip is!”

“Does that happen a lot?”

“Occasionally. Usually I can just get the tip off the indentation the pen left when they signed the first slip. But it doesn’t look like he had it on top…”

“So what happens now?”

“Well I’m supposed to call it 0.”

“Ooh.. that sucks.”

“Yeah… screw it, I know these guys were going to tip me. I can put ten bucks on here, its less than 15%.”

“Yeah. People don’t read their credit card statements anyway.”

“Well some of them do, you do have to be careful. The rule around here is that if there’s a complaint, you have to pay the entire check. But if you get away with it, you’re fine.” I looked over his shoulder. Standing behind him was the old man from the earlier table. I had to switch very quickly into customer-mode, and I wondered how much he heard.

“Can I help you, Sir?” I said in my waiter-voice.

“Well… I was in here earlier. And there was a delay in the food arriving, and in my mind I blamed you and that wasn’t right. So here.” And he handed me a five dollar bill.

“Thank you, very much sir. That’s very nice of you.” I really appreciated the gesture.

“However, I do think I left something here. A check, folded in three. Can we look?”

“Well, certainly, sir, but if there were a piece of paper under the table I would imagine that the bus girl took it.” We walked over to his table and glanced on the surrounding floor. There was nothing.

“Listen, I’ll go ask the bus-girl. She may have found it.” I said it and actually believed it. On Father’s Day the same girl had saved a Father’s Day card in the bus station for hours, and immediately found it for me when I asked for it. So I knew there was hope.

She was 19, and probably second-generation from Korea, China or Japan. I’ll admit I can’t tell which. She was tiny, probably no taller than 5 feet and extremely skinny. And very, very sweet. You might come out of the restaurant angry at management, customers and everybody else and she would belt out a few bars of Mariah Carey and you couldn’t help but laugh.

So I went and asked her if she ever found the check. I knew that if she found something important like that she would have immediately known it, and she just looked at me with genuine concern that she hadn’t found it. I felt kind of bad for even asking her, since I really thought it bothered her.

“It probably looked like garbage,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.”

I went back out and explained to the man that I couldn’t find his check.

“Oh that’s ok. I’m not even sure I left it here anyway. But thank you for your concern. If it does turn up, here’s my card.” He handed it to me. He was a Reverend for an Episcopal Church in Richmond, one of the worst ghettos in the Bay Area.

He left and the bus-girl stopped next to me.

“That sucks. I feel bad for him.” she said.

I made sure I gave her extra when I tipped her out that night.

Sketches V

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

The next day I had planned on going to the Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco. This was my first big foray into self-promotion: the idea was that once you get a few hundred comic book people into a room together, they’re bound to start networking sooner or later. Maybe I could pick up a connection or two.

I went with my roommate Ben. While I got out my portfolio and a few hastily thrown together photocopies, he headed for the longboxes and the promise of back issues for twenty-five cents or less.

When I think back on the conversations I had that day, I laugh a little in embarrassment. Whether it’s true or not, I think I usually overstayed my welcome, I’m not sure if people were insulted that I didn’t so I can sell a little merchandise and quit my job. But the real point is I don’t want to work, I want to draw comics instead.

So weary from shoving my plastic covered pages in people’s faces and anxiously awaiting their approval, I slumped down against the far corner. After a while, Ben came over.

“Dude I just picked up the Denny O’Neil Question numbers 1-6 in that quarter bin.”

“Really?” I asked. “That’s good stuff.”

“Yeah, dude. They got a bunch more in there too. A couple Spectre issues too.”

I put my portfolio in my bag and shuffled over to the nearest longboxes. In the next two hours I put together complete runs of the Question and the Spectre, a few random Batman issues and scored a hardcover Batman collection and trade paperbacks of Green Arrow and Spiderman. I spent forty-five dollars. That shit was awesome.

When we left the sun had set and a slight drizzle had set in for the evening. In the morning and afternoon we were granted a reprieve from the bad weather and the sun shone brilliantly. Even in the ever-foggy San Francisco.

Ben headed back for the East Bay with his Bounty of comic books. I started walking fifteen blocks uptown: a friend from work had told me his photography exhibit was opening at a gallery there.

The gallery was a storefront between a bar and a pizza parlor. It was sparsely decorated in the front, but inside its freshly painted walls and hardwood floors reminded me of a museum. It’s claustrophobic walls reminded me that it was not.

In the center of the ground floor a spiral staircase led to the upstairs. Here a DJ was setting up, and a bar was in the corner. This is also where my friend Jack was greeting people in front of his photographs.

He greeted me with a handshake and a hug. After a minute he showed me his pictures. I remembered that he had told me he went to Mexico, and now it turned out the trip was for photography. His work was characterized by vibrant primary colors, sometimes in stripes of skirts or brooms, or just bottles of hot sauce. There were strong religious themes to his pictures as well, in fact the exhibit was shaped like a cross with a statue of the Virgin Mary as the top image. There were also subtle corporate logos throughout a few of the pictures, something I never got a chance to ask him about.

The exhibit next to his was a painter with a strong comics or manga influence. I was very excited about these, particularly a series of canvases of various sizes telling a rather abstract story. By this I was extremely impressed.

I went back to talk to Jack who was sitting next to an older woman. He stood up.

“Scott, this is my mother.” I shook her hand and kneeled on the floor in front of the two of them. “Scott’s a coworker at the restaurant, and also a fellow artist.”

“Oh, you are? What do you do?”

“Comics. I write and draw comic strips.”

“Oh! What are they like?” Jack was looking at me anxiously as well. He had never seen my comics. In fact, I had just found out he was a photographer the day before.

“Well it’s kind of a political thing. About kids my age trying to find jobs…”

“Oh! Political. So like the Boondocks. My, its hard to believe he’s taking a sabbatical already.” I found the fact that she liked the Boondocks encouraging. “So where can I see your work?”

“Well, since I was at the convention today,” I said with a smug smirk, “I just happen to have some stuff with me.”

I let them look through my portfolio, with a bit less of the “I really hope they like this” feeling that stubbornly kept invading my gut.

Jack turned to a page that had Sid and Bounty watching television from behind. It was drawn mostly in silhouette with the television offering the only source of illumination.

“Now this is good illustration I think.”

“I wish I had my glasses.”

After a few more minutes of conversation Jack had to greet a few more people at the door. I stayed kneeling in front of his mother.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“New York, originally.”

“Oh, really? But you don’t have an accent.”

“Funny, some say I do.”

“Oh so are you from Manhattan?”

“No, Poughkeepsie. A bit upstate.” People always seem to feel cheated when you tell them you’re from New York, but not New York City. Like you lied to them or something. New York is a much bigger place than most make it out to be.

“Oh I grew up in Queens,” she said. “But I moved to California when I was a little girl.”

“Oh. So did Jack grow up here? I thought he lived in Chicago.”

“No, Jack just went to school in Chicago. He grew up here with us,” she motioned toward on older man standing in the corner. I presumed this to be Jack’s father.

“So did you live here your whole life?”

“Well no,” she said, polite yet slightly annoyed, “I grew up in Queens.”

“Oh, yeah. You just told me that.” Suddenly feeling the fool I decided it was time to end the conversation.

“Well, it’s been lovely talking to you.”

I sat down at the bar next to Joe, another coworker. He had told me that he was a friend of Jack’s that had moved out to stay with him from Chicago so I wasn’t surprised to see him turn up at the gallery.

I had arrived early in the evening, and guests were just starting to trickle in. Joe and I chatted with the bartender a little.

She worked at the gallery, and helped organize the event, but knew nothing about running a bar. Most of the time she was running around the gallery. Joe noticed some commotion between her and an older man with wild hair and a purple shirt about the price lists for the exhibits. Apparently, someone forgot to make photocopies. He turned to me and said, “I know she’s about to ask us to get copies of that.”

She came back over and put the document in front of us. She offered to buy us a beer and the deed was done.

The bartender’s directions to the copy store were vague. Go up a block and turn right is all I made out. Another guy at the bar said we should pass Sacramento and California before we got there.

On the way we chatted about Jack’s artwork, the gallery, San Francisco, and the weather. Joe had moved to the Bay for very abstract reasons, mostly just to see the area and live there for a while.

Filling a slight pause in the conversation he asked, “have you ever been in love?”

“Yeah, once I think.”

“Well where is she?”

“It didn’t work out. We put some distance between us and it was more than the relationship could bear.”

“Was she a keeper?”

“A keeper? I guess… I don’t know. To be honest I’m really glad things didn’t work out. I don’t think life would have been very much fun.”

He laughed. “I got this girl back in Chicago. Man, I dunno, it’s tough being apart like this. But I’m not sure I should go home just because of a woman.”

“I hear that. If I’d done it, I would have regretted it.”

“Yeah, we fight a lot, but I really think she understands me. And that’s not an easy thing to find.”

“No, it’s not.” The conversation paused. “What do you do, man?” I asked. “I mean, are you an artist like Jack?”

“No, noo… Well, I was a film student.”

“Well what happened with that?”

“I don’t know. I was drinking a lot back then. You know, I’d get so drunk or high and I would think differently. Bad thoughts, about fighting and women.”

“But you stopped?”

“Yeah well…” he stopped a second. “When I tell people this they think it means I’m trying to preach to them when really I’m just trying to answer your question.”

“Go ahead. No worries.”

“OK, well I started reading the Bible, and it made a lot of sense to me.”


We both stopped. Before us was an enormous hill like you would only find in San Francisco.

“How many more blocks you say we’ve got?” he asked.

“Um.. about four more.”

“Hm. Probably take us about to the top of this hill.” Joe took a deep breath.

“Glad I quit smoking,” I said. We started trekking up the hill.

“Do you read the Bible?” he asked me.

“Me? Well, not seriously, but I’ll browse it now and then. It’s an important book. But let me ask you this: there’s a lot of different ideas about what the Bible means or says these days, and some of them I don’t understand. There seem to be such intolerant ideas floating around.”

“I hear ya, bro. I don’t think that a Christian should do anything to harm another. I mean, being a Christian, it’s like love for… for everything! It’s like ultimate compassion, ultimate love.”

Those are good philosophical ideals,” I said. “It’s unfortunate that some people want to corrupt that message with war and intolerance.”

“I hear ya, bro. It’s like they’re not even reading the same book! Oh, shit.” He looked away.

“I shouldn’t have said that. I don’t like to judge people. Do you think you judge people?”

“Well I… yeah, I do judge people! At least people who cause war and suffering without a second thought. Those are the people I think do wrong in our world. The ones with power. In fact, I’d rather hold on to a philosophy of love and compassion, but one that didn’t exist under a higher power. I don’t think we need leaders as much as everyone thinks we do.”

“Word. That’s cool, you’re still my brother.”

“Right on, man.”

We reached the top of the hill and turned around. San Francisco as spread out before us like a giant amusement park, twinkling lights and fits of laughter and music drifting up into the stars. A few stars even did shine through the receding clouds. The moon hung over Oakland, about at our eye level, with the Bay Bridge dissecting in in between. To our right was the copy store.

We got the copies and headed back to the gallery. I stayed for a few more PBRs and saw a few people from work and met a few of Jack’s friends and family. Good times.

I sent my Apple back in for repairs the next day. A week later, they sent me an email telling me that repairs were completed, but not specifying the repairs. I was dubious.

On my way down to the Apple store I had to go over a small bridge. I glanced over the side and had to stop for a second. The bridge was over a small stream that wound through a bed of rocks and scattered plants. It reminded me of the banks of the rivers that surrounded the mountainous region of western Massachusetts where I attended school.

We used to sit by the banks of those rivers for hours, enjoying the sunshine, wading a bit, and breezily politicking on subjects ranging from gardening to philosophy to simple reminiscing. I found myself mesmerized and filled with a sudden desire to sit down by the stream and sketch the flow of the water and let the frustration ooze out of me rather than force it down the throat of some young technician at Apple in over his head. I sighed and trekked forward with a heavy head.

I took another glance at the stream, the sun glinting off the water and winding down underneath the bridge. The water was probably polluted and the spot hardly serene. But it was like a window back to those lazy afternoons along the river soaking up the sun. I looked up: I stood in the shadow of the parking garage. I stepped forward and felt its rays hot on my black shirt. The rain was over.

Maybe, I thought, the introduction of computers and promotion and networking, maybe it pollutes my art. Already it takes time away from the actual creative process. I have to be working for my comic in order to make my comic. Throw in the technological factor of equipment breaking, and I’ve lost another chunk of time. When is there actually time to draw??? I keep finding it, but at the expense of other responsibilities.

I should be back at that stream sitting by it day after day, sketching the flow of the water as it winds lazily by stacked rocks and falling twigs. I’d look up in the autumn and see the red and yellow hues of the changing leaves, and perfect the stark winter landscape in charcoal and graphite.

But then where would my story be?

Enough of this emo shit. New comics start on Monday. And if you think you recognize yourself in this story, you’re wrong. And if you’re right, just remember: at least you’re not that dentist. And if you are that dentist: dude, you CRAZY.

Sketches IV

Thursday, May 25th, 2006

Despite my seemingly constant dental work (in addition to the root canal and the broken crown I had 9 cavities that needed filling – smokers, beware) I had been trying diligently to keep up my comic production. I was still riding the inspiration from Kieth Knight’s class, so if I wasn’t slanging fish or sitting in a dentist’s chair I was at the drawing board.

The drawing board, specifically, because the day before I even went to Keith’s class I dropped my shiny new iMac off at the Apple store for repairs. Seems there was a malfunction in the power supply which was causing the capacitors on my motherboard to burst. But the good news is Apple covered the whole repair under an extended warranty, and I just had to wait 7-10 days.

Fine, I thought. Inconvenient, but I’d manage. I took most of the time for inking and sketching out storylines. It was difficult at times to keep up with the story I’d written, as a lot of it was already on my new (broken) computer.

About a week later a tech from the Apple store called me. He told me my computer was still broken, and I did not have a warranty for these repairs.

A good deal of arguing with the techs in the Apple store followed. Eventually I took the computer home and tried to fix it myself. This took weeks.

It turned out the problem wasn’t what they told me at the store. So I kept digging. Two weeks later I found out the real problem was the same part they had just replaced.

The weeks that I spent working on the computer were agonizing. I had geared myself wholly into making a comic strip, and suddenly that project screeched to a halt and I was hacking away at command lines, diagnostic software and reinstalled operating systems.

And outside it rained and rained. Day after day. The weather report said it was a record-breaking month for rainfall in California.

One day in the middle of the whole mess I was at home working on a third reinstall of the Mac operating system. The phone rang and I answered it.

“Three rings. Yo you know whenever you see that 413 you know you better pick up.” It was my downstairs neighbor. For some reason he always thought I was avoiding him when he called up to my house. “House could be burning down. You gotta pick up.”

“Alright… I did pick up. What’s up?”

“You gotta move your car.”

“I just got home, why?”

“Cuz Theresa just got home. She’s blockin you in.”

“Well why didn’t she park on the street?”

“Man there’s two spots down here. Y’all got one, and we got the other. I’ve been here! I paid my rent for twenty-five years!” He hadn’t paid rent for twenty-five years, his mother did for most of it. He was twenty-seven.

I got off the phone furious. My roommate had come home after me, but rather than bicker about who was going to move their car, most of our anger was directed at our downstairs neighbor. His girlfriend had recently decided that she didn’t like parking on the street, so he had decided that it was disrespectful when we both parked in the driveway. We were outraged because he constantly had visitors coming in and out of the house whom had no regard for where or when they parked, and would frequently block us in. I didn’t like the lectures about respect, either. He was a rap producer, and frequently our floor would shake with beats under construction from 9AM to 2AM. But we never complained.

When my roommate finally did go down to move his car, his girlfriend refused to come out. So a couple hours later she had to move her car in a downpour, when I had to go to work.

“I thought you parked on the street,” she snapped when I showed up at the door dressed for work.

“Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.”

“Well just park on the street and we ain’t gonna have no more problems.”


I drove to work as buckets rained down on my car. When I got there the parking lot was flooded, so I skipped over them as best I could, pointing my toes like a ballerina, as raindrops bounced off the top of my head.

I was surly and solemn with my coworkers that night. But I still put on a smile and a show for the customers. I’m not sure if its a virtue or a vice if you can be way too nice to people that don’t deserve it on demand.

I was still grumbling when I finished my shift and headed to the back for cash out.

A couple of my older coworkers were sitting back there chatting over their finished lunches when I sat down at the calculator. They mostly ignored me except for a slight smile and a nod of the head when I entered the room.

There were two of them, a man and a woman. The woman’s name was Mary, I talked to her sometimes. She seemed lonely when I spoke to her. She worked on Thanksgiving because her children had all moved away. She often lamented being on her feet for so long, and seemed tired. More than once she mentioned feeling depressed to me. In a business where people are constantly bounding around as fast as they can, Mary always moved very slowly.

The man I had never seen before. From the looks of his uniform he worked somewhere in the kitchen. He was telling a story about a relative of his that was very ill: “…so they did a blood transplant on him. I guess that means that every day they flush out his blood stream. And I went to see him last week and he showed me his hands. ‘Look Dad! No gloves!’ he said. He usually had to wear gloves since his hands were so sensitive…”

“That’s wonderful. I wish we had a cure like that with mother and all – I’m going down to the hospital all the time for the radiation treatments.

“And medicine is so expensive. I was thinking of signing up for this experimental treatment at Stanford. I figure once they’re willing to test them on people they must be OK. And they’ll pay you a thousand dollars…”

Mary stood up, slowly and clutching her back, “…oh but I don’t have any time. I don’t want to wait on these people anymore…” she headed back towards the madness of the serving floor.

The man stood, shaking his head. He picked up his plate and walked out.

In the silent break room I could hear the rain pounding the roof. It echoed throughout, thousands of tiny drops forming a sustained yet chaotic rhythm. And on and on it went…

Sketches III

Friday, May 12th, 2006

He came back in two hours. The numbness of the Novocaine had come and gone. When he finally returned, he started asking me about myself:

“So you are college student? In Berkeley or San Francisco?”

“No, no. I finished school. Two years or so ago.

“I see. What you study?”

“Political science.”

“Ah! So now, law school!”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not smart enough for that.”

“Bah! Is not how smart, is how hard you are willing to work. So now you work? What for newspaper or political organization?”

“No, I’m a waiter in Berkeley.”

He barked at this, “What? Is no good job for you. I hope is only temporary. Is a temporary job?”

“Well if you call three years temporary…”

“Bah! My son, he is very smart. He is in school studying history or some such thing. But now he gets job in… how you say, park where you can look at animals. Safari! Yes, that is it. But he also play sports for school and volunteer. The people at his job they cannot understand why he does such things. I tell him he does not need to work such a job, that I can take care of him so he can focus on studies. Ah but he is stubborn, very stubborn. Who is paying for surgery today? Your father?” He took the tool he was using out of my mouth. I guessed he wanted an answer.

“No, I am.” The nurse shook her finger at me.

“Ah, this is good. It will build character to pay for root canal.”

Eventually the doctor must have decided that I was boring, not being able to talk and all, and instead engaged the nurse. As it turned out, she was Russian and he was from the former Yugoslavia. I think he said Macedonia. So they had something in common: they’d both lived behind the Iron Curtain.

Eventually, the doctor became quite heated when talking about the Pope. “Ah, he is American spy,” he said. “There are many American spies, you see. Bush would not go to someone’s funeral unless they were spy.”

“Doctor!” The nurse scolded. “What are you saying? Surely there are other reasons.”

“No,” he said and turned to me, “why else would Bush go to funerals? He only goes for spies.” He took the tools he was using out of my mouth. I glanced suspiciously at the nurse before answering: “well sometimes its just politics.”

“You see?” the doctor said. “This one is political science major. He knows many things.” The nurse was clearly exasperated with the doctor. “You know story about Stalin’s son?” He looked at me, then the nurse. We both quietly shook our heads. “Stalin’s son was soldier in Russian army, and was captured by Germans. The Germans, they told Stalin they would release his son in return for captured German general. But Stalin thought that all captured men were traitors – that they betray secrets to the Germans. He said a soldier for a general is not a fair trade. His son died in camp, two years later.”

The nurse and I were both quiet.

“That is mark of good leader,” the doctor told us. “ You devote yourself to country. Country is more important than family for leader.”

There wasn’t too much more chit-chat as the doctor finished up the procedure. I was X-Rayed a couple more times, the nurse fiddled with crowns a bit. I was pretty drained from the pain, and confused about exactly how many more steps there were before I would walk out the door.

Finally, the doctor sat down next to me.

“So just a few things to go over before you leave. Crown you have now is temporary crown, you will have to make appointment for real one in two weeks. It is not as strong as real crown, so you cannot chew gum. And no foods that are, how you say… sticky. Like these Chinese foods… all with sticky sauces. No sticky.”

“Doctor,” the nurse interjected, “can’t we give him something for his pain?”

“Bah, always with the pain. I have many prescriptions I could write, but you probably prefer vicodin.”

“Yeah, vicodin.” I said.

“All you Americans and your vicodin,” he exclaimed. He must have heard the request frequently.

“Well, what I’m really after is some whiskey, doc.”

He laughed. “Scott it has been absolute pleasure working with you today. You see, now you have root canal that last you fifty or sixty years. But you won’t remember me next year.”

He left and I got up to leave. The nurse saw me and scolded me again. I had to sit down again but I don’t remember what for.

I walked out of the dentist office and the rain had shortened to a slight drizzle. It was chilly, but I had my green sweater on for St. Patrick’s Day. I walked 12 blocks to Jack London Square, next to the Bay in Oakland and picked out which restaurant was going to rip me off. I settled on a place that said they served the best ribs in town.

I had two shots of Jameson and a chicken sandwich. Something about the taste of the chicken sandwich reminded me of one of the chemicals the doctor used during the root canal. So the sandwich was terrible, but the fries were good.

A root canal on St. Patrick’s Day. I couldn’t think of a better reason to drink whisky.

That night my roommate Ben and I headed up to Berkeley to check out the St. Patrick’s Day parties. We quickly discovered that the local Irish pub was filled to way over capacity, with people spilling into the streets jammed just as tight as they were in the bar.

Ben worked with someone that was apparently throwing a frat party that night, so we headed there. We walked down what Ben told me is called “frat row,” a street in Berkeley with frat house after frat house. That street was alive that night, from the drunken stumblers to the sick girlfriends to the flashing lights. Police would shut down one party and the drunks would stumble next door to the next party.

When we did find the frat house we were looking for, we couldn’t find an entrance. It looked dark outside, and the front door was entirely dark and uninviting. It looked like there were several doors around the front and back of the house, but they were all equally foreboding. There was a small crowd of drunks standing in the driveway, so we walked over to investigate. There was an open door and a party behind it, but a young girl had her head out the door like that annoying little guy that talked through the gates of Oz. She was demanding to know who the people in the crowd knew at the party. They said a name so we got behind them.

We had to actually climb over a table that was blocking the door to get in. The room we entered was enormous and circular, and a luxuriously wide staircase wound up the side. Drunks were all over the steps, sitting leaning, sleeping. Ben and I shuffled over to the keg.

We parked ourselves there for most of the night, guarding the cheap beer as if we owned it. When we decided it was time to leave, we headed back toward the door we came in. The table was still in front of it, as well as a taped sign that read: “Please DO NOT Use This Door.” Wanting to be respectful of our hosts, we tried to find another. There was an enclosed porch set off the main room, full of windows and with a door at either corner. But those doors were dead-bolted with a key and had no doorknob.

We checked a few other rooms adjacent to the main one, and could find no other doors leading to the outside.

At this point Ben and I panicked a bit. Why didn’t they want us using the only door that exited that area of the house? Would someone be angry with us if we went to leave, just as the girl was when we entered? Eventually, of course, we took our chances and headed out the door. Nothing happened.

The pavement outside was wet with fresh rain, and a thin mist covered the streets. We walked back toward downtown Berkeley to catch a cab. I stuck my hand in my pocket for my flask and ran my tongue over my my temporary crown. It was wider than my other teeth and awkward. The whiskey ran over my teeth and numbed my sore gums.

The next day I went back to work. The restaurant I worked at was a large fish house near the Bay in Berkeley. It was a family owned establishment for nearly a hundred years, but when the proprietor died his wife retired from the restaurant business at 92.

They turned over the reigns to a corporation that ran seafood restaurants throughout the country, and they proceeded to remake the business in their image. The steady decline of revenue that was common knowledge among the staff suggested that the image wasn’t nearly as popular.

When I arrived that night I headed to the hosting stand to get my section for the night. The manager was there and he looked at me and said: “where’s your haircut? And the buttons on your collar?” My hair had gotten a little shaggy recently, and all waiters were required to wear windsor shirts, that is with buttons on the corners of the collars, but managers only bothered you about this if they were feeling particularly obnoxious.

“Didn’t you just take some time off to take care of these things?” He said, referring to the time off I needed for my root canal.

“I spent that time in a dentist’s chair,” I told him, immediately exasperated. “Is this how we’re saying ‘hello’ these days?”

He shook his head and went back to the hosting. “I hope you’ll find some time to take care of these things,” he said. “You need to be in uniform.”

I went to get my tables ready and was seated twice before long. I took the order and put it in and found a few spare minutes on my hands so I dished myself a cup of the shrimp and lobster bisque.

I ate a spoonful and chewed the tiny shrimps a bit, and suddenly I felt something uncharacteristically hard and square in the soup. It was my temporary crown, fallen off. I slammed the soup down and took off for the bathroom. I spent several minutes in the bathroom flipping my crown around, checking different angles, while my tables were almost certainly tapping their fingers and wondering where I was. I finally found a spot where it would sit comfortably, but wobble a bit and eventually fall off. With my toungue I could feel the tiny bandages that covered the repaired nerves in my mangled tooth.

I decided I didn’t like the idea of holding a small pebble in my mouth while trying to wait tables that evening, so I told the manager I needed to go home.

It was Saturday night and I had to leave. Worse, I was scheduled to work during the day on Sunday, and I knew there was no chance of seeing a dentist until Monday. I was convinced that for the moment eating was out of the question.

When I left that night it was pouring. I ran through the parking lot to my car and still wound up soaked. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with the force and volume of the rain drenching the Bay Area.

Sketches from the Rain II

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

I spent the next week in agony. My tooth let off a dull, throbbing pain for most of the day. Not bad, but unpleasant. The problem was when I ate, a stray particle of food could cause searing and remorseless pain. I think the pain itself didn’t bother me as much as the idea that it hurt to eat. That negative stimulus could be attached to food — I felt like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

On St. Patrick’s Day I got up early and headed to the dentist’s office. It was packed. The root canal specialist flew to the office from San Diego, and they tried to squeeze as many root canals as they could into his day. Because of this, during the surgery I would often be left by the doctor for several hours, and I spent eight hours in the dentist’s chair that day.

Luckily I came armed with a copy of the Great Gatsby, so I was prepared for some long sits. That’s what I was reading when the specialist first approached me that day.

“Ah. You are using time efficiently,” I heard in a gruff voice behind me. I glanced over my shoulder; the dentists I’d met so far in that building were Asian and not very chatty. This guy was pretty old, with a wild white beard and stark white hair that grew over his ears and collar. He wore thick rimmed glasses and a white coat that gave him a kind of mad scientist appearance. And a thick accent that I guessed to be Eastern European.

He treated me with Novocaine and left to stop by a few other patients. The rooms in that office weren’t rooms at all, but merely sections of a large hallway. I could see two or three patients from my seat, and I believe that they as well as others there that day were all getting root canals. I kept my nose in Gatsby.

The old doctor came back and asked me if I was numb.

“Shlure am!” I told him.

“Good.” He sat down and started strapping me in for the long haul. He was chatting with me while he wired my mouth open, and all I was left to respond was grunts and gestures. It must be lonely at times to be a dentist.

His accent was thick and took me time to get used to. His ideas and expressions were odd as well, so I was surprised by what I was hearing him say and attributing it to misunderstanding.

“You see you never know what may happen, young man. I am old man, who would think I could meet women? But now I find myself sitting across from pretty young lady.” He motioned to the nurse sitting across from him (over me), a pretty Chinese lady. She giggled.

“Oh doctor, your wife!”

“Yes, yes my wife. I love my wife very much.”

“She is in San Diego, doctor?”

“Yes. No time to see each other, I am always flying. Always flying. You see?” He looked at me, “you see how many patients here? This is slow day.”

I laughed, and the nurse tapped me and shook her finger in a scolding manner.

The doctor proceeded with the drilling and the noise drowned out conversation for a while.

After a while I was finished with the drilling part of the ordeal, and about to find out that was the easy part. After he finished the doctor removed the metal clamps holding my mouth open and indicated to the nurse that I needed an X-ray. He left, presumably to work on other patients, and I was led to the X-ray machine. The rubber fixture clamped to my tooth still dangled out half my mouth. I held the film in my mouth just like she told me to, but the picture apparently didn’t come out right. She had to keep taking it again and again.

Meanwhile, the flimsy napkin affixed around my neck was soaked through with saliva.

She finally noticed once when she came back. “Oooh… are you drooling?” she cooed at me.

“Yeesssh!” I slurped back.

She pulled out her sucking tool and sucked some of the drool out of my mouth. I felt momentarily better. Eventually, she got the right pictures and I was led back to the original dentist’s chair.

I immediately went back to reading the Great Gatsby:

Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me. On the contrary, they were merely casual events in a crowded summer, and, until much later, they absorbed me infinitely less than my personal affairs.

Most of the time I worked. In the early morning the sun threw my shadow westward as I hurried down the white chasms of lower New York to the Probity Trust. I knew the other clerks and young bond-salesmen by their first names, and lunched with them in dark, crowded restaurants on little pig sausages and mashed potatoes and coffee. I even I even had a short affair with a girl who lived in Jersey City and worked in the accounting department, but her brother began throwing mean looks in my direction, so so when she went on her vacation in July I let it blow quietly away.

I realized after a while that the doctor had been gone nearly two hours. I also realized that my mouth wasn’t so numb anymore, and I felt a dull, throbbing from the right side of my face.

Not long after that the doctor returned. The nurses had apparently changed shifts, and the Asian woman from earlier had gone on a lunch break.

“I never get to take break,” the Doctor complained. The new nurse was older than the last one and spoke with a similar accent to the Doctor.

“Some lunch would you like? We could have someone bring…”

“No, no. Don’t trouble.” the Doctor muttered. It seemed he cared less about eating lunch and more about having something to complain about.

He sat down next to me, prepared to work more on my teeth it seemed.

“Hey is this gonna hurt more?” I slurped through my mouth stuffed with rubber and metal, “I think the anesthetic wore off.”

“No. No pain.” And he wired my mouth open.

Before long it became clear that he was actually conducting the most painful process of the entire procedure, and stuffing metal pins into the roots of my teeth. When the first one slid in I let out a loud and earnest yell.

“What do you know of pain?” The doctor demanded of me. “Your country invades Iraq. When you go there you tell me about pain.”

He continued and jammed another pin into my tooth.

“AAUUUGHH!!” I yelped again. He stood up.

“You don’t yell at me. I don’t know how they treat doctors in.. where are you from… New York, but in California dentist is respected profession. You should treat me with such respect.”

He took the clamps and wires off my jaw.

“I’m just sayin!” I said, now aggravated, “I need a little bit of that shot! This shit hurts!”

“Doctor,” the nurse interjected, “couldn’t we just give him a little something for his pain?”

“Yeah!” I said. “Don’t you guys keep any Scotch or something around here? It is Saint Patty’s Day you know.”

The Doctor laughed. “You know there is Irish pub nearby. Maybe you meet me for drink after procedure,” he said.

“Yeah maybe, Doc. But what do you got for me now?”

“Ugh. You sound like everyone else. Why you want to use such bad language?”

“Here. This will numb pain.” He stuck a large needle into my throbbing gums. I started to feel a little better.

“I will be back. Twenty minutes. I get lunch now.”

He came back in two hours.


Sketches from the Rain

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

I was at a bar in the Mission. I’d been walking around downtown for the entire day, and my feet were killing me. It was a pretty dreary day, unfortunately. A cold rain had covered San Francisco and the entire area for weeks – an unseasonably wet winter even for the temperate climate of Northern California.

I’d been thinking about networking that day. You know, whose palms you have to grease to get ahead in life. This is something I’ve never been very good at. When it comes to selling myself to strangers, I’m a complete amateur.

I had gone to a class about the “Business Side of Cartooning” earlier that day. To me, the guy that taught it was a total celebrity.

When I’d first concieved my comic strip I was living in Charleston, South Carolina. I was broke (exclusive rice and beans diet broke) but suddenly fascinated by comic books and comic strips, and so I devoured them every chance I could.

Mostly this was through the Internet and public libraries, the bargain shelf at Borders, and the quarter bin at a local comic shop. There was also a City Paper that seemed to like to stir up trouble with the Good ol’ Boys. There was a mild controversy while I was living there over a cartoon that indicated those involved in Civil War reenactments had “backwards thinking.”

They also carried another controversial little cartoon called the K Chronicles.

The strip’s creator, Keith Knight, is fond of pointing out that the only newspapers that have ever censored his strips are right in the Bay area. I heard that first in his class on cartooning that rainy day in San Francisco, and I remembered that rebellious editor in Charleston.

I learned that day that I am a terrible salesman for myself. Case in point: I went to a class taught by a man whose work I admire, a class bound to be exclusively populated by local cartoonists with knowledge and resources for an aspiring artist like myself, and I did not bring one scrap of work with me. Not one measly doodle.

Ironically, selling myself, at least my personality and work ethic, is my job. I’m a waiter, and every day I smile, bow, place, run, laugh, joke and charm my way to bigger tips. But I never want them to know anything about me. And nearly any time I’ve let my guard down and let them know a little bit about me, the relationship cools. People don’t want their servers to be people, and they really don’t want to believe they’re smart.

The reason superheroes always have double identities is because most cartoonists have double identities. They are people that spend years in thankless day jobs, slaving over their drawings late at night hoping to someday carve out a living for themselves. But to keep that roof over their head so their paper doesn’t get all soggy, they have to keep showing up at the Daily Planet.

But now in a restaurant or bar setting I don’t want to be myself. As a server or bartender, I remove myself from the action of parties and view it from the outside with the other employees. Now I don’t speak to others at parties unless spoken to first. As an employee, someone must give you permission before you can speak to them.

So at the bar in the Mission, my friend asked me to go get a round of drinks. The bar was packed and steamy, a dance floor raged on nearby as funk music blared throughout the dimly lit rafters, so getting the bartender’s attention would be difficult. Worse, it would be difficult to maneuver the crowded bar with three drinks balanced between two hands. A round of four is impossible without help or a tray, three is doable but difficult. Of course, as a waiter, I have the skills, so I was elected.

“Here. Put them on this,” my friend said, handing me his credit card. Since he was buying, I felt a little better about taking the trip.

I got to the bar, and three orders later, it was my turn. I held up my friend’s credit card. “Can I run a tab?” I asked.

“Sorry dude,” came the reply, “cash only.”

“Shit!” I said out loud. And the bartender walked away. “Shit!” I said to myself, and pulled out a twenty. The bartender was back almost instantly.

“Okay, I’ll have a Bushmills neat, a gin and tonic and a pomegranate lemonade.” Pomegranate lemonade? What the hell was I ordering?

The whisky, mine, was up instantly. Of course it was the easiest to make and the easiest to carry. The pomegranate lemonade looked like a pain to make. He was muddling exotic looking fruit with vodka and brown sugar. This bartender was so busy, how could I have asked him for something like that?

I got back flustered that I had to pay for the drinks, and because I had one two many brushes with disaster. I have a sixth sense for when someone is about to randomly back up, but a place as packed as that bar was is frequently unnavigable. I didn’t even have a chance to give my friend his credit card back, when he asked me, “do you want to meet my friend Raquel?”

“Uh.. sure,” I said, forgetting that Malcolm (my friend) had once told me that I should meet Raquel, as in, try and hit it off with her.

He tapped a thin blond girl on the shoulder who was dancing nearby. She turned around and he told her who I was and I who she was. She took my hand by both of hers, and her hands were soft and warm. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Raquel. I work with Malcolm.”

“Oh. So you’re a teacher?”

“Yeah, I’m a math teacher.”

“Oh. Well it’s nice to meet you.”

“Umm.. yeah. It’s nice to meet you too,” she said, rolling her eyes a little. We stood there awkwardly for a second, and then she walked off to talk to one of her friends closer to the bar. I looked at Malcolm and his girlfriend, and I instantly knew what he was thinking: Why the hell didn’t you talk to her?

And I had no idea what the answer was. I was suddenly very embarrassed that I’d blown off the conversation like that, not asking any follow up questions, not offering any information about myself, nothing. I used to be a journalist, but I can’t think of a question for a math teacher.

I immediately started thinking of excuses, I mean, I did wake up hung over that morning, and I’d been wandering around San Francisco and Oakland for most of the day. I had a toothache, hence the whisky, and it was making it more and more painful to eat.

Still, here I was, and suddenly I was feeling like a fool that let this potentially pleasant conversation end after twenty words. As if a self-fulfilling prophecy, I spent the whole night muttering to myself about how terrible I was at talking to people.

Toward the end of the night I was standing near the exit. People were starting to file out as the band was winding down. One obviously very drunk girl crashed into me saying, “you have a very nice face. You look very innocent.” She then backed up and looked at me, “thank you,” was all I could think of to say. “Keep it up,” she said, and walked out of the club.

I stared ahead for a moment. Maybe she was right, I thought. What would an asshole do?

The bar was closing and we spilled into the street. It had stopped raining, at least for the moment. The streets of San Francisco are always loudest at 2 AM. The clubs empty and everyone is organizing after-parties, chatting on cell phones, and making their last-minute desperate pleas for someone to spend the night with.

Of course how all this plays out depends heavily on the neighborhood you’re in. That particular night in the Mission, the bar we had just left was piping out Louis Armstrong doing a wild rendition of the Saints Go Marching In. A group of passing bar goers had stopped in the street to form a dance circle. They swung their hips and twisted back and forth, and many of them dressed the part: the men wore rumpled suit jackets and feathered fedoras, and the women wore knee-length skirts and black hats, though they traded in the stiletto heels for Converse.

Raquel, the young lady that Malcolm had introduced me to, had heartily joined into the dance circle. She was wearing high heels with blue jeans, an unusual fashion statement that is apparently quite common at the moment in San Francisco. I was surprised by how effectively one could stomp their feet in high heels, as she pounded the pavement jumping back and forth with excellent rhythm.

Another teacher from Malcolm’s school, this one a biology teacher, noticed Raquel’s excellent Charleston and joined her, picking up the beat instantly. They danced so well that before long a circle of onlookers had formed around them, clapping and cheering the dancing couple. The biologist must have felt like he needed to put on a show, so he stuck his arm out and flipped Raquel over 360 degrees. The crowd went wild. One of the Biologist’s friends walked away shaking his head and smiling.

“I can’t believe he flipped her. Right over the pavement!” he exclaimed to no one in particular.

When we finally left, the Biologist was giving instructions in flips, holds and carries while dancing. “Wow,” I thought, “I wish I could do that.”

A few days after that I had a dentist appointment for my toothache. I didn’t have any insurance, so I had to go to a local clinic that offered credit programs for those who couldn’t afford dental insurance. It had been years since I’d seen a dentist, and my diagnosis reflected that. I listened in horror as the doctor rattled off a list of problems with my mouth that began with the most dreaded thing a dentist can say to you:

“Oooh. That cavity on tooth three is very bad. Very, very bad. It will need a root canal.” After he walked away I put my head in my hand.

“That sounds really expensive,” I said.

The nurse chuckled to herself sympathetically. “ Sorry,” she said, “that root canal alone is probably going to be a couple thousand…”

I groaned so loud I think the whole office heard me. It’s a big office.