Saturday, October 12, 2013

Goodbye, Bob

If you’re lucky, you get at least one whack neighbor in your life (and if you’re a writer you’re super lucky!) Doesn’t have to live right next door, just has to be someone in the hood that everybody tolerates up to a certain point and avoids like leprosy the rest of the time. Ours was Bob. In our family all we had to do was roll our eyes and say “different worlds” and we knew one of us had just recently had a “Bob attack”. 

I read today that old Bob had indeed moved on to a different world about a month ago, according to the Marin Independent Urinal obits. I was saddened and surprised to hear that Bob, at age 87, just two years older than my Dad when he checked out, was gone. Saddened because old Bob was really a helpless, desperately lonely widower with a disturbing Rube Goldberg face of unmatched features who also had no compunction invading our privacy at all hours for some harebrained, spastic dilemma he had conjured over on his side of the fence that required immediate assistance. And surprised because even though he looked like he had been buried under mud, rocks, sticks and dog turds for the last decade, he was incredibly spry. When he got all of his arthritic joints moving in relative concert he could get from his back door to our front door in 3 minutes flat, and never once did he use the phone. Whatever was on his mind - he got an extra copy of the Gazette in the mail and did we want it? Or could he move his trash can a couple of feet closer to ours just this once because his cat was lost? Whatever it was, the only way to deal with it was face to face. And so he got his workout at least once a day, sometimes several, doing his cattywumpus shuffle in his fire engine red jacket from his driveway to ours. How could such a committed, hands-on problem solver just up and die?

I also can’t help but feel profoundly fortunate for having lived next door to Alaska Bob just when he needed a new neighbor the most: his wife of several centuries was on her deathbed when we moved in around August of 2005 and made her escape (the neighbors claimed that Bob was somewhat vocally critical of Helen’s general existence) just a week or so before Christmas. So I considered us doubly blessed: not only had we moved next door to the neighborhood “drunken Republican curmudgeon”, but now he was freshly widowed too! 

But it wasn’t long until Bob remarried. He even took advantage of California’s new permissive views 
on gay civil unions and hooked up with an old buddy he had been out of touch with ever since he married Helen: Johnny Walker!* (He even took his brother Hiram in for an extended stay, as well as their cousin Jim Beam.) It wasn't long until he forgot Helen altogether, except when he couldn't find something, which happened every time we either "sprung forward" or "fell back", because he couldn't find the instructions that belonged to the 40 year old GE Oven. Why would someone need oven operating instructions every time we switched from Daylight to Standard back to Daylight time? Because the instructions were the only way to figure out how to change the time on the goddamned oven clock! So there I was, twice a year, setting Bob's oven clock which I doubt he could even see - given his phenomenally fucked up eyes I was surprised he could see anything at all. They were so walleyed and out of whack that he couldn't even get glasses that worked. Which all would have been heartbreaking if Bob had possessed one tiny iota of basic manners and hadn't been such a hilariously incompetent sad sack. It didn't matter if I was sitting on the can - Bob could wait until I could come over to his kitchen with him and set his fucking clock. 

I guess we were triply lucky then, for our whack neighbor wasn't only a step n' fetchit, drooling, half-blind, half-deaf pain-in-the-ass, but he made us all wonderfully angry! If we were driving home and we saw Bob out on the street stalking the neighbors we would drive around the block until the coast was clear. On the weekends when we generally farted around outside we would leave the garage door open which Bob found super convenient because he didn't have to walk all the way around the house to our front door, he could just walk right through to the kitchen door that led to garage and pound away. If we weren't fast enough to answer he would come bargin' in yellin' "Hullo!? Anybody here?" (he never did learn our names). Of course he knew someone was there because the garage door was open, clearly beckoning to passersby to come in, fill up their bike tires and have a couple of beers. We never ever offered him a beer for fear that he would end up a permanent fixture in our guest room, having forgotten where he lived. At least then we could make sure he didn't have any spittle running down his chin when he went out to harass the other neighbors. 

Bob's apparent lack of training in civilized discourse was always puzzling, for not a Bob attack went by that wasn't accompanied by one of about a dozen anecdotes in his repertoire, all of which featured Bob in the hero's role to varying degrees. The one that sent him on his path - he was a fireman, an EMT, and after retiring from the force an insurance salesman - is the story of a sledding accident near his hometown of Juneau where he managed to pilot the sled into an obstacle in such a way and with such force that a 12-penny nail was driven directly into his temple, causing one side of his lovely visage to appear caved-in and also disrupting the muscles and optic nerves such that the eye basically had a mind of it's own. 

Sometimes I wonder how Bob managed to serve in his public safety capacity all those years with a nail in his temple. Apparently all the kids at Bob's Catholic Church up in Juneau were expected to give blood, and Bob (it's no wonder) had a unique variety: O negative with a side of O Henry. Whatever it was one of the nuns - Sister Mary Katherine - would call Bob's Dad at all hours of the night and instruct him to tell Bob to get his ass down to the hospital, often at 2AM after some local had been brained with a pool cue and sliced up with a fish filleting knife. So off Bob would go on his bicycle down the icy hill where he would just lock up his brakes and fishtail all the way down to the hospital, where Sister Mary Katherine's nurse flunkies would stick him and he would get drained for an hour or so, and then after a few cookies and a glass of brandy he would try and ride back up the hill. By the time he got home it was usually time to go to school, and, according to Bob, Sister Mary Katherine expected him to be there on time. 

Imagine how lucky we felt to be able to hear this story at least once a week if not more, told as if he were telling it for the first time, every time! When he wrapped up his anecdotes with his trademark closer: "different worlds", we really couldn't help but say "no shit!" But when he wasn't waxing eloquent about his days in Juneau, or about how he met Helen at the Irwin St. Blood Bank in San Rafael where she was a nurse (obviously he liked women in white who stuck him, sucked his blood, and later gave him booze), another weekly refresher, he was complaining about the perpetually late and getting later daily delivery of the mail. This would have been a perfectly normal driveway discussion (we didn't have any sidewalks on Hidden Valley Road and the moms would go racing down there to drop off and pick up their kids via the back door like they were channelling Dale Earnhardt, so we took refuge in the driveways) had it not been for the fact that Bob had a PO Box in downtown San Anselmo, where he picked up his mail daily. But he also had a mailbox which only received junk mail, in which he took an unusually enthusiastic interest, as if perhaps he was expecting Ed McMahon to reincarnate himself in his mailbox with a check for the Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.

 So almost every day Bob would show up at our door: "Ya git yer mail yet?" he would demand in his
drunken southern Alaska twang. This would entail either my wife or myself (since I work at home) checking to see if our mailbox flag was up or down. If it was up and we had not retrieved our mail yet, Alaska Bob was always eager to retrieve it for us, since he was already roaming the streets, and his mailbox was at the other end of the block. There were a couple of times when I had to tell old Bob, who was so sweet in his hunched over spastic drooling way, that he had better keep his stinking mitts off of my mail, and that it was a federal offense for him to so much as touch my fucking mailbox. This we did in the sort of sensitive fashion one might expect of responsible adults who were in the process of losing their own aging parents. Since Bob was admittedly about 80% deaf, I might have taken a few liberties just for laughs, but unlike my wife claims, I never called him a "snow monkey" to his face. If I did, he probably smiled and said "different worlds". 

Perhaps it was his deafness that made him such a fan of Bon Tempe and other various live music projects that rehearsed in my garage. He would come over and sit on the stone wall and tap his foot, insisting that he "enjoyed it" and asking weekly when the band would be back. All the guys in the band shot the shit with him for a little while, or at least until they realized they were getting reruns of their previous conversation. Old Bob didn't give a damn when whatever he was jawing about actually happened, he was just happy to have the company. 

It's true, to Alaska Bob everything beyond his lonely life in the big deserted family home in Sleepy Hollow, leave-it-to-Beaver-land USA, was a "different world". He spoke of guys that he would exchange real letters with (which may explain his obsession with the mailbox) who were dying off in droves. Every week it was another high school friend from Alaska, but my favorite was the guy who married a Mormon who insisted that if she was to marry him he would have to give up the sauce, which he did, according to Bob, for over sixty years. When she died he followed in short order, pickling his liver in under a year. "Different worlds" is right, Bob. One a sober, long arduous ride up an icy hill, and the other a fishtailing downhill run. 

It's hard to picture our old neighborhood on Hidden Valley Lane without picturing Alaska Bob doin' his step n' fetchit shuffle in his bright white tennies and jeans, plaid shirt and red jacket, head always lolling to the right - maybe the weight of the nail throwing him off a bit. We were lucky to have made a brief visitation to Alaska Bob's world and get our share of surprise Bob attacks - I think a lot of the other neighbors were missing out, or they just wrote him of as a crazy SOB who would just waste their time with his goofy stories about his Uncle's labs (save that for next time) and changing his goddamn clocks. I don't know that I consciously considered what it must of been like for old Bob in his big boxy multi-level sixties-modern house with all the original Modern Eye furniture, talking to his cat and, as the day wore on his companion, Johnny. I guess that interior world explains a lot of Bob's behavior when he broke out of his prison and hit the street, for it was quite a different world just outside his front door. 

I suppose if I were gonna get all mushy and sentimental about it I would thank the cosmic powers that placed Bob on our chessboard, and of course thank Bob himself for leaving evidence of his own twisted Alaska shuffle indelibly printed on mailboxes the world over. 

If you ever wonder where a writer gets his ideas for the various characters that may populate a story or a novel, there ya have it. I've already slotted Alaska Bob into several episodes of The Healing of Howard Brown which probably won't publish until early 2015

*Personally I think it would have been hilarious if Bob took up with Johnny Walker Black, and equally hilarious if he took up with Johnny Walker Red. But such an observation would surely be judged as "racist", for it seems in today's world a writer can't even acknowledge the existence of race without being labeled a racist. So I'll just say that he took up with Johnny Walker Red, a Native American childhood friend from Juneau, and leave any mention of Johnny Walker Black up to your imagination.
Still as harebrained as the day it was written. Go get it on Amazon now!

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