Welcome to the Wallaby.

I wasn’t due back at my job until Monday, so Stephanie and I had a three-day weekend in the Mission District, our new home. It was the closest we came to having a honeymoon, but not being the romantic sort, I had nothing planned, except helping her get acclimated in San Francisco.

On one of those early days, Steph and I were walking across an open plaza. In my memory it seems we were in or near Frisco’s financial district, but it could’ve been anywhere. I’m only certain it was far from our neighborhood, and that it was fairly early in the morning. The plaza was between buildings, and it was all paved or concrete, a 1960’s architect’s idea of “open space,” at once eerie and beautiful – and clean. That’s how I know it wasn’t our neighborhood. The Mission has its charms, but nobody would accuse it of being clean.

Nothing happened while we were out that morning, but we were in love and that was nice. She was cold and I gave her my jacket. It doesn’t often or really get cold in San Francisco, but it was still December and goose bumps were a danger.

What I remember so vividly about that morning in that now-unknown plaza is that we talked about our plans for the future – she’d get a job, and we’d get an apartment, and move out of the residential hotel. And that, my friend, was the extent of our plans for the future, so our dreams were not excessive, but the thought that our dreams might start coming true that very day would’ve seemed crazy. And indeed, what happened that afternoon was a bit crazy and came completely out of the blue.

We bused back to our neighborhood, ate lunch, and probably did some other stuff long since forgotten. Stephanie and I were walking along Mission Street between somewhere and somewhere else, when she slowed and stopped in front of a rez hotel that wasn’t ours, and didn’t look like ours.

Most of the city’s rez hotels are bare-bones affairs; the front door is just an ordinary wooden door, with the words “Such-and-Such Hotel” painted by stencil. But this place had double doors, which seemed much more welcoming, more like a business than literally a hole in the wall. It had three windows looking into a small lobby with a couch, and I’d never seen a rez hotel with a lobby, let alone windows at the street level. The name of the hotel had been painted on the glass – Wallaby Hotel, a ridiculous name – along with weekly rates which seemed reasonable.

“That’s less that we’re paying at our hotel, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

“Looks like a nicer place, too.”

“Yes it does.” I looked at her, and saw wheels turning behind her eyes. I opened the right-side door, and motioned for Stephanie to step inside. As we entered, someone exited – the double-doors meant someone could enter at the same time someone else was leaving, without waiting, which struck me as a luxury in itself.

Once inside, I noticed an elevator, with a sign that said “Sorry, out of order.” In my experience, rez hotels in San Francisco are always several stories tall, always have an elevator, and the elevator is always, always out of order. But I’d never seen a sign apologizing for the elevator being out of order.

While that thought was brewing, Stephanie crossed the lobby without me. The lobby – this place had a lobby, with furniture that was old but looked comfortable. A gray-haired gentleman was sitting in a recliner and reading a magazine, and he didn’t look at all scary. He seemed perfectly normal. There were more magazines in a pouch on the wall, next to the pay phone. The carpet wasn’t new and hadn’t been new for a long while, but it also wasn’t threadbare.

When I reached the counter, Stephanie asked the day clerk, “Do you have any vacancies?”

He was a youngish black man, and he said, “Certainly, ma’am.” I remember those words distinctly, because while I hadn’t particularly noticed it until that moment, none of the Patels had ever called me “Sir” or Stephanie “Ma’am.” I’m not sure they’d ever called either of us anything but “Hey.”

“Nightly or weekly?,” the clerk asked.

“Uh, weekly,” Steph replied.

“We have smaller rooms at $95 p/week, and larger rooms at $115.”

“Double occupancy,” Steph said. “There’s two of us.”

“Same room, same rates, whether there’s one of you or two.”

“Really?” I asked, sort of stupidly and shocked. I was still agog over the lobby, and the clerk’s politeness, and now this? Who’s ever heard of a hotel – rez or otherwise – that charges the same for two people as for one? A few weeks earlier, when I had told Mr Patel that my wife would be moving in, he had tried to double the rent. I had negotiated the price down to a little less than doubled, and thought that was a reasonably good deal. But if this hotel had “larger rooms” at $115 weekly, we’d be saving so much money it would be ridiculous not to move here.

I thought I’d been thinking the preceding paragraph, but from the amused look on Stephanie’s face it seems I’d said most or all of it out loud. She motioned me to the side, and we excused ourselves from the clerk and stepped in to the lobby. I was still flabbergasted that there was a lobby.

“Would you object to moving here?”

“I would absolutely and so very much not object.”

“You don’t seem to have a lot of things we’d have to move,” Stephanie said. “Correct me if I’m wrong?”

“I’m a minimalist. Everything I own is in our room.”

“So if we moved to this hotel, it wouldn’t be a huge hassle?”

“It would barely qualify as moving. We’re only two or three blocks away. We’d need a few boxes to pack my zines and clothes and dishes. That’s about it.”

“Is that something you’d want to do?,” she asked me. “I don’t want to consider this unless we agree.”

“Let’s look at the rooms before deciding, but right now I’d say the answer is yes. A whole lot of yes. Between the lobby and the better vibe this place gives off, just – yes.”

We approached the office again, and Stephanie asked, “Can we see one of the rooms?”

“Absolutely,” the clerk said. “I’ll show you the basic and the deluxe rooms. And my name is Mike.” We introduced ourselves, and he locked the office and led us down a hallway, and we continued to like what we saw. This was an old building but not dilapidated, and some of the doors had pictures or signs posted. “Jimmy’s Room,” said one sign. Another just announced, “Brent.” The effect was homey, and I’d never seen such signs at our rez hotel.

A guy walked past us, and said “Excuse me,” but he said it nice and normal, not rudely or weirdly. Even little things like that seemed to announce that this place was different.

I was also impressed that we were still on the first floor. Most rez hotels don’t have a first floor; from the sidewalk, you immediately ascend a flight of stairs to the hotel. This place had its lobby and multiple rooms on the street level, and I was already thinking how nice it might be to come home with a couple of sacks of groceries and not climb a flight of stairs.

What really blew my mind (to use genuine San Francisco vernacular) was that there was a fountain, or pond, at one corner of the hallway. It was dry and empty, of course, but it wasn’t gross. I can’t decide which was more surprising – that at some time, generations earlier, someone had taken the trouble and expense to install a fountain or pond in the hallway of this hotel, or that in the years after the fountain had been shut off, it hadn’t been allowed to rust or rot.

Mike pulled a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked a room, then ushered us in. “This is the basic room.” It was about the same size as the room in our rez hotel, but the bed looked sturdier, and a sturdy bed is no small concern when you’re as large a man as me. It was also wider than the beds in our rez hotel – a double or queen-sized bed, not a bed built for one.

“Can we see the deluxe room?”

“Absolutely, sir,” Mike said, and he continued making easy chit-chat as we walked down a different corridor, and passed some stairs but didn’t climb them. “Let’s try room 12,” he said, unlocking another door and leading us into a space that was substantially larger, and brighter, than where I’d been living for the past few years, and Steph for the past few days. The window was bigger and at a better angle, letting more light bounce into the room. There was a sink, a chair, a small desk, a dresser, and a bed that looked comfy, big enough for two, and robust enough to bear my weight. Actually, all of the furniture looked less flimsy and less cheapskate than the furniture our old hotel had provided.

Stephanie asked about the bathrooms, and here’s where I knew I’d fallen asleep and was dreaming. Mike showed us rooms marked “Ladies Showers” and “Men’s Showers,” each of which had a few showers, and then took us to rooms marked “Ladies’ Restroom” and “Men’s Restroom,” that each had a few toilets and sinks. At our old hotel – and by that moment, it was already our “old hotel” – there were only “Ladies” and “Men’s” rooms. Each room had both showers and toilets, which meant you might hear someone showering while you were sitting on the throne, or worse, you could smell some stranger pooping while you took a shower.

I was also slack-jawed at the general cleanliness of the showers and restrooms. The tile was faded and stained, but it looked like someone scrubbed it on a fairly regular basis, and while the room full of toilets didn’t smell particularly clean, it also didn’t particularly smell. Which was another nice step up in quality, from our old hotel.

“I don’t think we need to talk about it, do we, Steph?”

“Yeah,” Steph said, “we want to rent a room.”

“The larger room,” I said.

“That’ll be excellent,” Mike replied. “Welcome to the Wallaby.”

“Are there any, um, strange rules we need to know about?,” Stephanie asked.

“Strange? Well, let’s see.” We were walking back toward the lobby. “Nothing strange comes to mind. We ask guests to treat other guests with respect, and to keep it quiet after 10PM. There are some other rules posted in the lobby, but it’s all common sense, and keeping it quiet is the main rule we care about. That, and the rent is due in advance.” He unlocked the office, went inside, and put a clipboard on the counter. “I just need you to write your names and a permanent address. If the permanent address is a problem, you can use the hotel’s. But I will need to see some ID.”

While I struggled to get my driver’s license from my wallet, Stephanie said, “What’s the rule on cooking?”

“There are no kitchens, but hot plates, toasters, and microwaves are allowed. All we ask is that you don’t burn the building down.” He looked at Stephanie and gently smiled, “You won’t burn the building down, will you, ma’am?”

So we wouldn’t be breaking the rules if we baked a pizza! “You have my word,” Steph said, and raised her hand like she was taking an oath in court. “I will not burn the building down.”

“We come with some baggage,” I said. “Seven or eight boxes of her stuff, and about as many boxes of my stuff. Is that a problem?”

“No, sir, that’s certainly not a problem,” Mike replied, as if he didn’t quite understand the question but he’d be polite with the guests, even with guests who ask dumb questions.

“I’ll also bring some chairs, and a table, and a TV set,” Stephanie said.

“Well, if you folks need help carrying anything, just ask at the front desk. I’m happy to help, and if I’m not on duty Marge or Raheem can help.”

Is this acid flashback?, I wondered internally. Did the front desk guy at a rez hotel just volunteer to help us move in? At the old hotel, I had seen the Patels help people move out, but only for evictions. I’d sure as heck never seen them help people move in.

Mike handed each of us a key, and I’m sure I shook my head, because this place seemed like a rez hotel on Sesame Street. I needed to test this new reality with another stupid question:

“Can I ask, are we allowed to sit in the lobby?”

“Allowed? Yes sir, our couch and easy chair are intended for guests and their visitors. Just keep it low-key, quiet, and you’re welcome to enjoy the lobby any time you wish.”

We shook hands, and I said “Thank you, Mr Mike.” In our time at that hotel, I never called him Mike; it was always Mr Mike, and Stephanie took to calling him Mr Mike, too. Not sure why. Maybe it was our natural response to someone calling us “Sir” and “Ma’am.”

We decided to move Stephanie into the room first, to see whether there would be, as promised, no hassle about bringing numerous boxes and a few small pieces of furniture. We bused to the U-Haul place and rented a truck for the afternoon, and carried all of Steph’s boxes and furniture into the hotel, with no scolding from the management. Our only hassle was maneuvering the truck in city traffic, and finding a place to park near the hotel.

Then we returned the truck, and moved all of my stuff via four trips with my handcart, down three blocks of Mission Street. I had expected some resistance from whichever Patel was on duty, but it was Mrs Patel, and she seemed happy to see us moving out. She refunded our pre-paid rent in cash, without any fee, surcharge, or argument. We never saw anyone from the Patel family again.

It was about 1:00 when Stephanie stopped in front of our new hotel and we’d first gone inside, and by 7:00 that evening we lived there. We’d talked in the plaza about three things we’d wanted to accomplish – she’d get a job, and we’d get an apartment, and move out of the residential hotel. Well, last things first, we had moved out of the godawful rez hotel, and into a much better one.

When we’d finished carrying boxes and arranging the furniture in our room, we sat on the couch in the lobby, just because the hotel had a lobby, and we could. Mr Mike had gone home for the evening, and the office was now staffed by an older woman who seemed just as nice as Mike had been. We introduced ourselves, and made a few minutes of meaningless but not unpleasant conversation.

“I have a question,” Stephanie said. “I’ve only been in San Francisco for a few days, but I haven’t seen any wallabies. Why is this place called the Wallaby Hotel?”

“The owner is Australian.”

My gaze again fell to the magazines in a pouch on the wall, and I noticed that the pouch was a bit furry and vaguely marsupial. Imitation, I hoped, and still do.

Posted 1/19/2019.

More about Stephanie.

Steph’s grandmother.

Today I heard from Jack (Steph’s father), that his mother (Stephanie’s grandmother) passed away a few days ago. Stephanie loved her a lot, and if Steph was here today she’d be crying, and we’d be driving to the wake. But the wake is in Iowa, a long and snowy drive, and I wouldn’t belong there without Stephanie, so I’ll just write a few words about Ella Webb.

I didn’t know her well, but I knew her well enough to be impressed. We’d met and visited with her perhaps half a dozen times, and there was definitely some Stephanie in her grandmother, or some Grandma in Stephanie. Jack told me that she was a quiet woman until her husband died in the 1990s, but after that she became more outspoken. I didn’t meet her until 1997, so she was always the outspoken Grandma Webb to me. She was nice, she was smart, she didn’t mince words, and she didn’t suffer fools at great length.

She was the Grandma that Steph visited as a kid, for Christmas, for Thanksgiving. She was the matriarch of the family. She kept a very detailed scrapbook of Stephanie’s childhood, from which I’ve scanned many photos and learned some details of Stephanie’s youth that I’d never known.

When I first met Steph’s grandmother, she made me feel welcomed to the family, immediately and enthusiastically. Whenever we saw her, she always wanted to spend a little more time with Stephanie – and to a lesser extent with me, but mostly (and understandably) with Stephanie. I remember that she was sharp-witted and very much there, right up through her 90s, when we last saw her. I’m 60 and I can already feel myself fading through the years, so I envy that. She was 100 when she died.

My clearest memory of Grandma Webb was when Stephanie and I put on our best clothes and drove a few hundreds miles to attend a cousin’s wedding in Iowa – a cousin’s gay wedding, it must be said, and this was back when that was a very new and still quite controversial idea. Enormous societal changes can be difficult, especially for older folks. My niece got gay-married a few years ago, and my own mother refused to attend. But Stephanie’s grandmother was there for the occasion, and she was 100% on board.

During the dinner afterwards, while Stephanie was talking with someone else, we had a ten-minute conversation, one-on-one, just me and Stephanie’s grandmother. “So, they’re lesbians,” she said. “I don’t approve, but they didn’t ask for my approval and they don’t need it. She’s my granddaughter and I love her and I’m glad she’s happy. That’s all that matters.” Old and wise don’t necessarily go together, but in Steph’s grandmother they surely did.

When she was lightening her load many years ago, she gave Stephanie and I her dining room table. It’s probably the table where Steph’s father ate dinner when he was a kid. That table moved with us to San Francisco, to Kansas City, and now it’s in the main room of our apartment in Madison. We usually ate at the table, but we called it “the desk,” since that’s where Steph and I kept our laptops plugged in. I’m typing these words at that table, so thank you again, Grandma Webb.

Posted 1/18/2019.

More about Stephanie.

The Patels and the pepperoni.

Ecstatic but exhausted, Stephanie and I had arrived in San Francisco. Not the San Francisco of Full House on TV, but the real city, and a particularly grungy neighborhood, near the corner of 16th and Mission Street, where I’d been living. I liked the location because a BART station was only footsteps away, but the hotel itself was exactly like hundreds of other residential hotels in the city. It was sixteen steps up from the sidewalk, but one step up from homelessness.

The formal term is “single room occupancy,” or SRO. They’re generally ramshackle old buildings from an earlier era, constructed as working class housing for single people, but now used exclusively by the poorest people in the city. An SRO or rez hotel might have dozens of residents, and each has a room with a bed and a dresser and a sink, and that’s all. There are shared toilets and showers down the hall.

Here’s a picture I just snagged off the internet; it’s not the rez hotel where I lived, but it’s similar and probably close by. There are shops and restaurants on the street level, and behind a nondescript, unlocked door, up the stairs and behind the windows, that’s where poor people live.

rez-hotels.jpg

The rez hotel was a rather rough place to live, in a decidedly sketchy neighborhood. I was worried about Stephanie living there – the notion of her navigating from the sidewalk up the stairs and down the hall to our room, was cause for concern. I’d given her a canister of mace, and asked her to keep it handy when I wasn’t around.

There should have been a sign: “Drunks and drug addicts welcome.” I was probably the only person in the building who had a job. Everyone else seemed to be on Welfare, or Section Eight, or other government assistance or charity programs. Well, not everyone – Joe, the friend who came to visit me in Madison after Stephanie died – lived in the building for a while, and he had a normal job working at a video store. But by the time I met Stephanie, Joe had already met and married Shawna, and they’d moved into an ordinary apartment.

I lived there for the super-cheap rent, and also, of course, because I was an idiot. Everyone else in the building lived there because they had no place else to go. The occupants were virtually all single men, who seemed about half a welfare check from being homeless. Very few women lived in the building, and it goes without saying that there were no children – that wasn’t a rule, it was just common sense. Seeing a kid walk into the building would’ve been reason enough to call Child Protective Services.

None of the rooms came with a kitchen; all came with roaches and mice. Cable TV and the nascent internet were not options, since the slums were not wired for such services. You could have a phone, if you paid for installation and paid the monthly bill, but most of the residents didn’t have that kind of spending money. I could’ve afforded a phone, but I’d never seen the need. There was a phone booth in the building, with a posted ten-minute limit on conversations. Another sign said “No Visitors,” but that rule wasn’t enforced, unless your visitor seemed particularly distressed or distressing.

There’s no guessing how old the hotel was, but it was in poor repair. There were cracks in the walls, funky smells in the hallway, and in the hallway you could see through the carpet. Loud arguments could often be heard – residents arguing with each other, or with themselves. Once in a while you’d find a needle in the hallway. We had a view of the dumpster out my window, though the scent only reached us on very sunny days.

The landlords were married immigrants, last name Patel, first names never mentioned. They ran the hotel with their two sons, Ramesh and Saju, both of whom were born and raised in America. Any of the four Patels might be working the front desk during the day, but at night they all went home to the suburbs, leaving only a phone number posted on the locked door to the office.

I was on good terms with the Patels, or thought I was. They kept the shared toilets and showers reasonably clean, and I paid my rent on time or early. I even called 9-1-1 a few times when I smelled fire, and the Patels thanked me for it. See, once in a while someone in the building fell asleep while smoking a cigarette in bed, which singed the walls and made for some overnight excitement. In several years at that hotel, I called 9-1-1 in the middle of the night three times, and then stood on the sidewalk while the firefighters did what firefighters do.

So me and the Patels weren’t pals, but we would smile and say hello in the hallway. I wished them a happy Diwali every October, and they wished me a merry Christmas each December. Twice they had asked me to be the big guy on their side when they were having problems with a tenant, and they gave me half-off on the next week’s rent for my trouble. I’ve never been tough, but for a lot of years I’ve been big, and big can be almost as useful as tough in such situations.

My point in telling all this, is that I was the ideal tenant for a rez hotel. I certainly never had any problems with the Patels – until Stephanie moved in, or tried to.

On our first afternoon in the city, we had rented and mostly filled a unit at a storage facility, so the truck was empty except for the things we were bringing to the hotel – several boxes of Stephanie’s books and zines and clothes and kitchen stuff, a box of sheets and blankets, a coffee table, a few chairs, and Steph’s TV. When we parked the truck in front of the building, Ramesh Patel was smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk. He eyeballed us suspiciously, and when we started carrying stuff from the truck toward the hotel door, he reacted as if we were smuggling in bombs.

“What’s going on? What are you doing?”

“We’re moving my wife in, like I told you.” I had already cleared it with Ramesh and his father a few weeks earlier.

“Well, you didn’t tell me she’d be moving a truck full of stuff into the room!”

“It’s not a truck full of stuff. We’ve already put most of Stephanie’s things into storage. This is just a few boxes and chairs and –”

“No!,” he said, emphatically. “You can’t do this.”

“What do you mean? We’ve talked about this, you and me and your dad. We’ve arranged this. We’ve paid for this.” I had paid the rent two weeks in advance – the new rent that was almost double the old rent, since Steph was moving into my room.

“No! You never told me she was moving all this stuff in to the hotel. That changes everything. That isn’t allowed.”

“What do you mean, ‘all this stuff’? We’re not homesteading. It’s eight cardboard boxes, two chairs, an end table, and a TV set. Everything else is in storage, and we’ll never bring it here. I’ve already told you, we’ll be moving out in a few weeks or months.”

“No, no, you don’t understand.”

Stephanie put down the box she’d been carrying, and approached Ramesh, and joined the conversation. “You’re right, we don’t understand,” she said, in a calm tone of voice. “We’re not trying to make things difficult, we’re just trying to move me in. I don’t understand what the problem is.”

Ramesh took a breath and sighed. He was trying to remain calm; we all were. “The problem is, this is an SRO hotel. People who stay here bring a duffel bag or a box or two. Nobody moves in like they’re moving into a home or an apartment. Nobody comes with a moving van. You can’t bring that much stuff into the hotel. I won’t allow it.”

And he meant it. Ramesh wouldn’t allow it. There was no yelling, no cursing, nobody even raised their voices, but there was also no budging. This was years ago, and I’ll probably mangle the legal details, so let’s not put the rest of the conversation in quotation marks. The gist of it was that the Patels wanted us to be hotel customers, not tenants. Tenants – someone renting an apartment, for example – have certain rights under law in the City of San Francisco, which makes tenants difficult to evict, so the Patels were adamant that none of the hotel’s customers could legally claim to be tenants. If we carried eight boxes of Stephanie’s stuff up the stairs, and some furniture and a TV set, the Patels were worried that it might legally make us tenants, instead of hotel customers.

Stephanie took the lead in negotiating with Ramesh, and he agreed that we could bring three boxes up the stairs and into the room – but no more than three boxes, and no furniture, and no TV set. She feigned crying and went back to the truck, but inside the truck she re-arranged the contents of the boxes so that her toaster oven was inside a box that looked like it was full of books. Thus, we carried up three boxes of stuff as agreed, and now we had a toaster oven on top of the dresser, alongside my hot plate and microwave. All prohibited, of course, but Ramesh didn’t inspect the boxes we brought up, so we got away with our crime.

Tuckered and frustrated, we drove the truck back to the storage facility, and unloaded the rest of Stephanie’s stuff. Then we drove it to a U-Haul shop, took care of some paperwork and said goodbye to the truck, and took a #14 bus back to the hotel.

We picked up a few groceries at a neighborhood bodega, then cooked some frozen mini-pizzas in the toaster oven, in violation of the rules. Then we watched some TV on my tiny black-and-white boob tube, and Steph wished she had her magnificent 21-inch set.

Between the last of the driving, unpacking the truck, and the argument with Ramesh, we were ready to turn in. When Steph had visited five months earlier, she’d had her own room at the hotel, so this was the first time we had spent the night in my tiny bed. It was definitely a one-person bed – single-size or twin, I think it’s called. “This is the same size as the bed in my room, at the house where I grew up,” she said, “and in that bed I was almost always alone.” So our first night’s sleep at the rez hotel was a tight fit indeed, for a very fat man who snores, and a woman who wasn’t petite.

The next day I spoke with Ramesh’s mother at the front desk, and for an extra $10 per week we agreed that she would supply us with a second bed. The hotel didn’t have any doubles, queens, or king-size beds, so for the remainder of our time at that hotel we slept in separate beds, but side-by-side sharing a blanket. The rest of our time at that hotel, though, was only a few days.

Posted 1/12/2019.

More about Stephanie.

Wyoming to Reno to Frisco.

baybridge.jpg

It was early December, 1997. We woke up in a motel just outside Green River, Wyoming, and hit the highway after breakfast, westward ho. I don’t remember any interesting conversations from that morning, but the conversations must have been interesting because Stephanie was there. She did the driving again, while I handled the map duty – basically, my job was finding the freeway on-ramp. The terrain was mountainous and snowy – pleasant to look at from a big ol’ truck, but you wouldn’t want to be out walking in it.

We crossed into Utah, down from the mountains, through Salt Lake City, and drove over the salt flats – arid plains where nothing grows, a desert of salty white stretching into the horizon. In all of Utah, we stopped only at a rest area and a gas station, and at both places the soda machines were enclosed in metal cages, behind bars as if they’d been convicted of a crime. The candy machines didn’t have cages, but the Coke and Pepsi machines did, which seemed odd. We wondered whether the Coke machines were caged to prevent anti-caffeine vandalism by the Latter-Day Saints faithful. (And yeah, I know, the Mormon Church isn’t officially opposed to Coke, Pepsi, or caffeine. But lots of Mormons are.)

In Nevada, we lunched at the Pizza Hut just over the border from Utah, sharing a Supreme pan pizza that was perfect. That lunch was so darn good, we went to several different Pizza Huts everywhere we lived, trying once or twice every year to have that perfect pizza again, but alas, it was not to be. Every other pizza from every other Pizza Hut was just a fast-food pizza, nothing special.

Onward across Nevada, and for a few hours toward the end of the day we talked about finding a hotel in one of the small towns along the way. The places we passed as the sun dimmed that afternoon – Carlin, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, Lovelock, and Ferney – are dots on the map I’m looking at now, as I write these words many years later. But Steph decided to proceed to Reno, and that’s where we spent the night. Our hotel was also a casino, but it was a small one, and the gaming area was already closed for the night when we arrived. No loss; neither of us wanted to play blackjack or baccarat. Steph wanted a shower and a nap, so I took the truck to find fast food and gasoline.

In Nevada, even the gas stations have gambling. As the truck’s tanks were filling, I watched as a woman inside the gas station, wearing a wedding dress, dropped coin after coin into a nickle-slot machine, while her newlywed husband, still in his tux, cheered her on. In a gas station. She lost every time, and I wondered about the odds on their marriage. I don’t have much interest in gambling – it’s a bad bet by definition, or the casinos would be out of business. But even if I was a gambling man, I couldn’t and still can’t imagine going straight from “I do” to playing the slots at a gas station.

The next morning, Stephanie and I had Egg McMuffins, and then discovered that I’d left the truck’s headlights on overnight. Nowadays, you have to twist an extra knob to leave the headlights on after the vehicle is parked, but back then if you forgot to manually click the lights off, the headlights stayed on even after you’d taken the keys out of the ignition. So there we were, standing in the hotel’s parking lot, with a truck that wasn’t going anywhere without a jump-charge.

“Do you have triple-A?,” I asked Stephanie.

“Nope,” she said.

“Oh, man,” I said, “you should have triple-A. They’ll give you a free jump, even a free tow, if you’re a member. But you have to be a member. I’m not a member, because I don’t own a car. But you owned a car – so why aren’t you a member?”

She looked at me, and I saw clouds forming. “I’m not a member because I’m not a member. It doesn’t help, now, to tell me I should be a member.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“Also, I’m not the one who left the headlights on overnight.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right, too.”

Stephanie walked to the hotel’s front desk, and asked if they could recommend a service station, but instead the worker wheeled a charging device across the parking lot, and gave the truck a jump-charge. Guess I wasn’t the first guest at that hotel who’d left his headlights on. It took about ten minutes, and they didn’t even make us pay for the service. Problem created, by me, and problem solved, by Stephanie and by the helpful hotel staff.

When the truck’s engine started, Stephanie was no longer miffed at me, but for twenty or forty miles, I mulled over the words I’d said. They were stupid words.

When the truck is dead in the parking lot, hundreds of miles from home, that’s a time to shut up, or say something helpful. Instead I’d said something thoughtless and counterproductive, and hurt the lady. I had already apologized, of course, but internally I vowed to never again be so careless with words, to never again hurt Stephanie by speaking without thinking. But of course I did, again and again. I was trying to be a better man, but I’ve always been a slow learner.

It was snowing heavily as we left Reno, and on the radio they were talking about perhaps closing the freeway, but we persevered and outran the snowstorm. An hour later we were in sunshine, and a few hours after that we were in the suburbs of Sacramento. Soon we were in the East Bay, driving through cities I semi-knew, because BART’s trains sometimes took me to Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland. As freeway traffic slowed to a crawl, we could see San Francisco’s skyline across the Bay.

We paid the toll, and then we were on the Bay Bridge, inching our way across and toward the city. I started singing the song, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Steph sang along, with tears in her eyes. This brave, beautiful woman had given up everything she had – her job, her friends, her life in Madison – to come to Frisco with me. How could we not be emotional as we finally crossed that bridge? We thought it was the beginning of happily ever after. And you know what? It was.

Posted 1/5/2019.

More about Stephanie.

 

Straight from the bottle.

We start by uncorking the bottle. Unscrewing it, actually – corks are for fancy wine, and this is utilitarian stuff. Good, but cheap.

It’s New Year’s Eve, an alleged holiday I never gave a fraction of a hoot about, until Stephanie came along. She made it one of my favorites, though. There’s something marvelous about kissing the woman you love at midnight, as the annual odometer rolls over.

We never went out for New Year’s Eve. Every year, Stephanie and I would share a bottle of wine or champagne and have a little two-person party at home, eating something nice for dinner and then just enjoying the evening and each other’s company. When I say we’d share a bottle, that means that I’d have one glass, watered down, and Stephanie would drink the rest. She always drank more than I did, but she was still quite a light drinker. She’d have a glass of wine with dinner once or twice a week, or a beer with dessert. Rarely, she got a bit tipsy, though I never saw her drunk.

Me, I drink even less – perhaps a six-pack of beer over the course of a year, and fancier liquors only in very small quantities and on very special occasions. Rarely have I had so much to drink that I felt a buzz, and I’ve never been drunk or had a hangover. I was raised in a liquor-less household, and my parents believed that alcohol is the Devil in liquid form, so I never acquired the taste for it, or the habit.

The bottle is already about ¼ gone.

So on New Year’s Eve, Stephanie and I would break out a few noisemakers, and toot them enough to frighten the cat. Steph would drink a bit more than usual, and she’d develop a delightful mood, and she’d share that mood with me. Everything she said was amusing, clever, and cute. Everything she ever said was amusing, clever, and cute, but even more so on New Year’s Eve, when she became the screwball comedy version of herself. We’d laugh all evening, until the countdown and the kiss at midnight. As I started getting older, though, the hour and my few sips of alcohol put me to sleep earlier in the evening, and Steph would need to nudge me awake for my midnight kiss. She always did, and she never complained – at least not much – about my alcohol- and age-fueled drowsiness.

Tonight is my first New Year’s since her death, and my plan was to do nothing, drink nothing, fall asleep early, and hope the fireworks at midnight don’t wake me up. It’s the end of the worst year of my life, the beginning of another that holds no promise of improvement, and there’s no-one to kiss, nothing to celebrate.

But … I’ve reconsidered. It’s still a stupid holiday – everyone gets drunk over turning a page in the calendar – and 2018 has been shitty indeed, so let’s loudly kick it out the door. I’ve purchased two bottles of Stephanie’s favorite wine, a hard-to-find import from California. Electra, it’s called, from Quady Winery in California. We discovered it when we lived in San Francisco, and Steph was delighted when I found years later it on the shelf at a giant liquor store here in Madison. She always liked its pretty label and fruity taste. I like it too, though to me, to be honest, a cold root beer tastes better. I plan to consume one bottle of Electra tonight, and leave the second one as a gift in the Shrine.

Never before have I consumed an alcoholic beverage alone, but there’s a first time for everything. Perhaps this is what I should’ve done, right after Stephanie died. It just never occurred to me. And I don’t expect that getting drunk will help. I’m stupid, but not that stupid. All the public service announcements tell me it’s wrongheaded. I’ve known a few drunks, and the bottle didn’t seem to help them. It only makes things worse. I know it’s pointless and pathetic, but that’s not going to stop me.

So I had a biggish dinner, ‘cuz I’ve heard you’re not supposed to drink on an empty stomach. I don’t know why, though. Does food blunt the effects of the booze? Or is it just so you’ll have something solid to puke up? Took my daily regimen of vitamins and prescriptions, all downed with a swig of the bottle. Our fancy wine glasses were for Stephanie, but since she’s gone I drink milk and apple juice out of the jug, so why wouldn’t I drink this moscato straight from the bottle? Hey, that rhymes.

* * * * * * * * * *

The smallest things could make her so happy, and her smile would light up several square miles. If the cat came to visit her unexpectedly, she would be happy. If I brought her home a candy or a pastry, she would be happy. If a neighbor knocked on our door to share some leftovers, or if she saw cattle out the window while we were driving on the freeway, Steph would be positively giddy. The faces of little girls, enraptured at watching the collegiate women’s hockey team, made her happy. The scent of bacon made her happy. Little things lit Stephanie’s smile to 100 watts, out of all seeming proportion with the things themselves, and she would be so deliriously, delightfully happy, it shivered my spine. I miss the sight and sound of Steph being happy.

* * * * * * * * * *

Why did she leave me? She knew I needed her, so much. It’s only legally that I’m a grown-up; inside I’m still a boy, a big dumb boy. I don’t know much of anything about anything. I don’t really know how to take care of myself. I haven’t vacuumed the apartment since a couple of weeks before Steph went into the hospital. I am not a responsible adult. I just pretend to be one. Been pretending for decades, but if you’ve read this far, you already know, I’m a bit of a mess.

* * * * * * * * * *

… And I woke up on New Year’s Day, to find the bottle of Electra about half-empty on the table. Or half-full, if I’m being optimistic. I didn’t get drunk last night, just buzzed and a little loopy and lethargic, and I’m not hung over this morning.

As expected, a few swallows of wine didn’t deaden the pain, and a few swallows is enough to knock me to sleep. Still, I’d judge the drinking experiment a success, because it was followed by a nice dream of Stephanie.

The dream had nothing to do with New Year’s Eve, or anything, really. She was alive and well, and we were fishing at Tenney Park, as we had occasionally until a few years ago. “We,” meaning, Stephanie was fishing, and I was sitting nearby, reading a book. An ordinary, quiet, pleasant morning we’d spent together, now the stuff of dreams. I woke with a smile, though.

Posted 1/1/2019.

More about Stephanie.

And so this is Christmas.

christmas-sad.jpg

We had some snowy Christmases, Stephanie and I. It’s unavoidable when you live in the midwest. But the snow had always been on the ground for days or weeks before. Only once did we have what I’d call a genuine White Christmas – where there’s no snow on the ground the day before, but you wake up on Christmas and fresh snow has covered everything overnight.

Well, we had a genuine White Christmas in Madison this morning. Where yesterday there was grass, today’s there’s snow. It looks nice, and Stephanie would’ve been enchanted. Me, I’m a little less than enchanted. “It looks nice” is all you’ll get from me.

Actually, Steph would’ve squealed like a little kid at the snow, and would’ve wanted to go outside and play in it (though there isn’t really enough snow to do anything but look at it). And if she was here, she would’ve gotten a stocking full of trinkets and mini-whiskeys, and I would’ve gotten one too, and we’d be having Mom’s Breakfast Casserole, our traditional breakfast for Christmas. Maybe we’d go for a walk, to see the nutty neighbor’s house that always decked out like the Griswolds, or we’d go for a drive through the delightful light display in Olin Park.

Instead I ate a Spam sandwich, read the newspaper on-line, and now I’m writing about the spirit of Christmas Past. Christmas Present has no spirit, and the notion of Christmas Future seems unlikely and irrelevant.

For years before Steph, and for almost every Christmas we were together, we went to a movie on Christmas – except for one year when she wasn’t feeling well, and one year when there was nothing playing anywhere that interested either of us in the slightest. Goes without saying, I didn’t go to the movies today. Didn’t even check to see what’s playing.

And so this is Christmas, but I’m really not feeling it. It’s just another day. No tree, no twinkly lights, no ham roll-ups, no cards, no season’s greetings beyond the bare minimum required by social interaction – meaning, if someone says “Merry Christmas” to me, I’ll say it back and try to make it sound sincere. Heck, it is sincere – if I wish you a merry Christmas, I bloody well want you to enjoy your 25th of December. I ain’t lying. I’m just not participating.

Any day with Stephanie was a good day, and we had some memorable Christmases. Our best Christmas story is probably our first one, half-told already, but I’m saving the second half for where it fits chronologically. It was 1997, not long after we’d arrived in San Francisco, so we’ll get to that point in our stories within a few weeks or chapters or whatever these entries are.

There is, though, another Christmas story I’d forgotten, which came to mind with this morning’s snowfall. It’s worth telling because it shows just how stubborn, how plucky Stephanie could be. One Christmas some years ago (2008, or 2009 or 10, I’d guess), we were going to eat at a Chinese buffet on the west side of town, and then catch a movie at the discount cinema.

Our apartment has a parking lot in the back, and before Steph was in a wheelchair we usually parked there. So we strolled out to the parking lot, and found glass and snow all over the seats of the car. Yup, fresh snow – that was the first genuine White Christmas we had, before today. And some time between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, someone had smashed our driver’s side window, and rummaged through whatever was in the car.

They didn’t steal the car, and that was nice of him or her, but why anyone would break into our car is a mystery. Our car was a beater, almost ten years old, with rust stains and dents and a cracked windshield, and a mess of fast-food wrappers in the back seat. And what did they get for their trouble? The only thing missing was a map-book of Wisconsin, value perhaps $10. And the driver’s side window.

It would’ve been easy to scuttle our plans. That was my reaction – it sucks, but Christmas was over. Maybe we could call out for Chinese delivery, and watch one of our DVDs or something on Netflix, and start pricing our options for getting the window replaced. Because what else are we going to do? Are we going to drive across town and go to Christmas dinner and a movie without a window?

Yup. That’s what we did. Stephanie insisted. “Nobody’s going to Grinch our Christmas,” she said. “Do we have cardboard? Do we have duct tape?” While I swept glass bits from the seat and floor, Steph measured the window with a ruler, and then cut a chunk of cardboard to exactly the right size and shape, and duct-taped it to the car. She left one side of the cardboard only lightly taped, so she could fold it back while she was driving, allowing her to see out the side window. Total time lost: perhaps twenty minutes.

Then she drove us across the city, where we had a good but not great Christmas dinner at a so-so Chinese buffet that’s not there any more. And we went to the movie theater, where we enjoyed the show very much, though I don’t recall what we saw.

What I recall is, we celebrated Christmas our way. What I recall is, my wife was stubborn and determined, an impressive woman – and I told her. Once Stephanie’s mind was made up she got things done, and she was pretty good with an X-Acto knife.

Posted 12/25/2018.

More about Stephanie.

Where the sidewalk meets the driveway.

Today I took a winter walk, which is slower than a usual walk because there’s slippery snow and ice everywhere. I walked past Ogden’s, our favorite breakfast spot, and through the park, and stopped to to sit and pump on the swings, floating up in the air and back to the ground like I did when I was a little kid. Every time I walk that route, past the swing-set in the park, I sit on the swings and pump for a few minutes, until I get dizzy. So I’m sixty years old, but still a kid.

All along the walk, and even while I was on the swing, Stephanie was on my mind. Then I walked back via Johnson Street toward the apartment, past the coffee and tea shop where we’d often spend hours together. I turned the corner, and stopped at the driveway in front of our apartment complex.

This is where Steph got into the car for the past few years. Curbs and grass were difficult in the wheelchair, so we needed a place where there was a sidewalk for her and pavement for the car, and nothing in between, so she could wheel her chair right up to the door of the car.

I would bring the portable ramp down from the apartment to the sidewalk, wheel her down it, and then I’d put the ramp back in the apartment, and while I was doing that she would wheel herself toward the car. It was a race, to see if she could get to the car before me, but usually she only made it about 2/3 of the way before I was back, and I’d push her wheelchair the last twenty or forty meters to the car.

Stephanie’s wheelchair is still in the trunk, but I never stop the car in the driveway any more. Today I stood where the sidewalk meets that driveway, and started crying. How many hundreds of times did we loiter at this spot on the sidewalk? If we were leaving, and I hadn’t already brought the car to the driveway, I’d leave her here while I brought the car. Or if the car was already in the driveway, she’d scoot into the passenger seat, and I’d fold up the wheelchair and stash it in the trunk, and we’d be off to wherever we were going. If we were coming home, this is where I’d pull the wheelchair out of the trunk and unfold it, then hold it while she scooted from the car to the chair. A few feet away is where we often stopped on a sunny day to chat with the neighbors. But today, Stephanie is not racing me in a chair, not chatting with the neighbors, and not waiting while I put away the ramp.

That stretch of sidewalk is a sadder place now, than it was. The world is a sadder place. And a dumber place, less interesting, less amusing, less creative, and a heck of a lot less funny. I wonder frequently what Stephanie would say – about the news, about our neighbors, about my day at the office – that would make me laugh. In all our years together, Stephanie never stopped making me laugh. Well, until she died. Not much laughter lately. Her jokes and clever comments remain untold, and my giggles ungiggled.

And on serious subjects, whatever the topic, Steph would offer a valuable insight I hadn’t considered. Generally, my reaction to news or events is a knee-jerk. Stephanie was more contemplative, and often broadened my perspective by adding some nuance to the news, bring up some aspect that hadn’t occurred to me. So much insight, now unseen. I’m going to have to work at it to keep from becoming a stereotypical “Get off my lawn” old man.

She’s not anywhere at all except in my memories. She is gone. Absent. Never again will she laugh, or make me laugh. Never again will she cry. Never again will she make her delicious scrimpy noodles, or make the cat purr, or make me stop and think about things. Never again will she anything, everything. Never.

As recently as last summer, when I came home from out in the world, a dang terrific woman was waiting for me, and she was absolutely, unquestionably happy to see me. She would kiss my face, tell me stories, make me dinner, make me happy, point me to news she knew I’d care about, and she would always, always, make my evenings so sweet I didn’t particularly want to sleep. Even if one of us wasn’t in a good mood, even if Steph wasn’t feeling well, even if she was in a “give me space” mood, there were about three evenings total in all our years together when we didn’t sit in the same room and have a nice time.

No more. Now there’s no-one. I’m still surprised sometimes, to find myself alone. Still flabbergasted, every day, at how dull and pointless it all seems without her. Everything we did, everywhere we went, from the driveway to you name it, we were making memories. Everyone does. It never occurred to me, though, how every little thing in the universe would be the opposite of what it was, when she’s gone. How utterly empty everything would feel once we were no longer “we,” and those memories are all that remains. It breaks my heart that she’s gone. We had such a good time together, and stupidly, we thought we had years left, and then suddenly we had no time at all.

It’s twenty-some degrees outside, as cold as it’s been all winter, yet I stood at that driveway and that short stretch of sidewalk, and cried for ten minutes.

Posted 12/22/2018.

More about Stephanie.