Thursday, December 23, 2021

From the Archives - Bits & Bobs Volume I


I’d say albertnet isn’t really a blog, per se, in the sense of a “web log” (i.e., diary or journal). I try to write essays, reports, or humor pieces that have a point other than simply documenting my life. (After all, who cares about my particular experience?). All this being said, I’m emboldened of late by recent published volumes of David Sedaris’ diaries, which people seem to like well enough, and by an account in The New Yorker of the upcoming publication of (part of) the journal of Claude Fredericks, a classics professor in the ‘50s whose output exceeded sixty-five thousand pages. Fredericks extols the virtue of on-the-ground immediate reporting of one’s experience; as the article explains, “A journal is a ‘living thing,’ he says; a novel is a ‘taxidermist’s replica.’”

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m publishing here choice snippets from old letters to my brothers, which I think can give the reader a flavor of the era during which I wrote them. These bits and bobs should be better than diary excerpts because at least I wrote them with an audience in mind, so I had incentive to make them good. This post comprises a handful, in chronological order; others will follow in these pages periodically. I’ve provided, for each snippet, the locale I was writing from.

January 26, 1989 – Isla Vista

My roommate S— came home today telling me that Joe, the owner (and sole employee) of MicroPro, where I bought my computer, was busted on a felony computer piracy charge. Joe was S—’s roommate here last year. S—was bummed about the news, of course, but also seemed a bit titillated. I myself was kind of worried, not so much for Joe, but for myself if anything goes wrong with the computer I just bought. S— tried all evening to call Joe, giving me the impression they were best buds or something. “He must be in jail!” S— ultimately concluded. But finally the phone rang and I picked up. Sure enough, it was Joe. I asked, “So, how’s everything going?” He said, “Oh, okay I guess.” I asked, “Are you calling for S—?” He said, “No, I actually called for you. This girl left a message for you on my machine. Her name’s Lisa. Let me give you her number.”

Now, as you can well imagine, I was pretty confused. A presumed felon, who we’d thought might be in jail, had instead called me to relay a message from some random girl. I took down the phone number and was about to ring off when Joe said, “By the way, I think I fixed your WordStar 4.0 program. It should work now. I’ll bring it by tomorrow.” By this time, Scott was practically ripping the phone away from me, bewildered and perhaps hurt that the big shot criminal hadn’t asked for him. I told Joe, “S— wants to talk to you. Should I put him on?” Joe replied, “Uh, well, I guess so.” (I reckon he gets as sick of S— as I do.) They talked for about thirty seconds, S— offering to give the judge a character reference.

You’re probably wondering about the girl by now. Gosh, this sounds like a spy thriller, doesn’t it? The elusive computer hacker, the nosy roommate, the mystery girl, and the microfilm (okay, MicroPro). Turns out when Joe moved out of this apartment last summer, he took the phone number with him—but somehow it’s listed as my number in the student directory. (I didn’t even know I was listed!) The girl, Lisa, is in my French class. I guess I’m flattered she reached out to me, because it’s not like I’m her boyfriend or anything (though I’ve been trying to insinuate myself into the role). She called because her cat got run over on Wednesday, so she was too distraught to come to class, and she needed the homework assignment for tomorrow. She’s had a run of bad luck lately: over the weekend, she fell asleep driving and crashed her car into a ditch, sustaining a minor concussion. I guess these are the perils of college life.

October 6, 1989 – Isla Vista

You know how you always wish you could get one of your bike crashes on videotape? Well, I did. I was cruising around on my mountain bike and reached this big concrete boat ramp that goes down to the beach. (I assume the ramp reaches the water at high tide.) There was a guy standing at the top filming with a little VHS camera, and I asked if it was cool for me to ride down. He said yeah, so I went down at top speed and then locked up the rear wheel and did all these sweet fishtails (showing off for the camera, I confess). What I didn’t realize was that there was like a foot drop-off at the end. But I figured no big deal, I still had plenty of speed, so I jumped off it and made a perfect landing, rear wheel first. Thing was, once the front wheel landed it bogged down in the sand and I was flipped right over the bars. I landed in tons of sand, and tucked and rolled, so it didn’t hurt at all. Like twenty people were out there sunbathing and they all cheered as I leapt to my feet and put my hands up in a victory salute. I wonder how many times the guy with the camera will watch that footage, laughing his ass off.

August 17, 1990 - Oakland

It’s kind of a trip living in Oakland. I mean, this place is huge. I’ve never lived in a big city before, but so far I like it. That said, sometimes the complexity of it all can be intimidating. Here’s an example. A couple of friends and I went to this Thai restaurant, and ordered this big fancy soup. It’s served in a ring shaped bowl, which has this chimney deal that comes up through the middle of the ring. A flame at the bottom of the chimney is supposed to keep the soup hot. Our waitress struggled to light it. Not that the chimney was the problem; she just had no idea now to strike a paper match. She was trying to squeeze the head of the match between the striking surface and the folded over book, and I half expected her to catch the whole book on fire, or inadvertently fling a burning match at me. She finally got the match lit, dropped it in the chimney of the bowl, looked at it with an air of uncertainty, and walked off. Remembering a waiter who failed to successfully light my flaming baked Alaska a few years back, I was pretty sure it hadn’t lit. I looked down the chimney of the bowl to see. Never, never do this. To my horror, it ignited very suddenly and the ensuing fireball completely engulfed my face for a split second before I pulled my head away. The bright blue flame extended a good six inches past the top of the chimney!

I could smell burning hair. Fortunately there were mirrors on the wall and I ran over to survey the damage. Sure enough, my eyebrows had been singed. It really doesn’t look very good. At least I don’t have the shoulder-length hair I was sporting last summer. If I did, I’m sure it would have caught fire and I would have burned to death, right there in the restaurant. I can envision my last dying moments: my life flashes before my eyes as the hapless waitress fumbles stupidly with the fire extinguisher, eventually giving it up and returning, with a shrug, to the kitchen.

I wasn’t very pleased with the whole situation, so I dipped the tablecloth in the flame and very quickly the entire table was on fire. We were out the door and running down the sidewalk when the massive explosion hurled us to the concrete. (Okay, I’ve exaggerated quite a bit about my response, but the part about my eyebrows is 100% true.) I’m going to have to be more careful until I’m accustomed to the sophisticated cuisine of the big city.

November 19, 1991 - Berkeley

So help me God, I’m going to make this the best letter I’ve ever written. This is my goal. It has been stated. Were it possible, I would get you a few sandwiches to munch on while you’re reading. Anything to make this a special time for you. I would do that for you. I would.

Jesus, Geoff. Just think of all the letters I’ve written, always just writing along, knowing that I’m not being graded, you won’t send it back with all the errors circled, little arrows to show where I left out something I should have put in, no general comments like “Little or no relevant material. See me.” No, it’s a simple job, I just write for a change, nothing to get stressed out about. But who says that’s good enough? Things are gonna change. You’re my brother, after all, and you deserve at least as much hard work as a stupid TA who’s paid to write tetchy little comments like “watch your pronouns” in my margins. (Why should I watch my pronouns? Are they misbehaving? Do I need to take them outside?)

Ah, but I also have selfish reasons for wanting to write well. I want to be a great writer someday. No matter what I write, it is nothing more than a stepping stone towards this goal. Writing this letter, or indeed anything, is just a chance to polish my style into the one which will propel me to fame, fortune, and maybe a gig on “Hollywood Squares” or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” So I must confess that through all my correspondence I have only been using you. And that’s not right. This is your letter, not an exhibition of the literary machine I am trying to build: a machine that so far requires eighty tons of coal, a tanker truck of natural gas, twelve gallons of premium unleaded and eight D-cells just to produce passels of pointless pages of trite, trifling text. It’s a machine you would expect the military to build. Tons of money, marginal promise, dubious worth to future generations. All unacceptable. So I’m going to double down and improve my letters. They will henceforth be of the highest quality I can muster.

Maybe a running account of my latest exploits isn’t the right approach. Perhaps I need to look back over my past, determine the most salient events, and recount them as vividly as possible, while framing them in the context of why they were so formative. I’ll try that out. Here goes:

That summer ended childhood. I hoped there would be work in San Luis Obispo, my new home [during my gap year before college]. Every day is the same: I collect the paper and move swiftly through it, starting with the comics. Charlie Brown is about to get laid for the first time. Nancy finally put a good one over on Sluggo and they say he’ll never walk right again. Garfield has slumped over on the fence, killed by a clock thrown at him. Now, on to the Classified Ads: unspecified work for Ernie Ball under the title “day laborer.” A data entry job in Grover City, a fifteen mile commute for $5 an hour. Dishwasher at Sizzler. Well, so much for that. What else is here? A letter to the editor insists that for all Sarah Riordon’s trouble at the free throw line, she is a valuable asset to the Mission College Prep team. Front page: REAGAN SAYS “EVERYTHING’S JUST PEACHY.” Yeah, now if he could just solve unemployment, starting with mine. I head down Foothill to Spirit Cycle Works. Jay, the obese head mechanic, is sitting on a stool popping plastic bubble wrap in the vise. Garrett is cussing about a bottom bracket adjustment he can’t get right. You’re reaming a seat tub, violently, viciously, a tyrannical grin on your face as you subvert the soft metal to your will. I would take a job here for two bucks an hour, just to work with you. But Spirit isn’t hiring.

It was fun hanging out with you for that year, but I couldn’t ever act excited about it, nor can I reminisce fondly about it now. Maybe it’s because I was un- and under-employed and needed to act cynical. I wonder if you saw through my cool front. (I never did.) But was this front my own idea, or was I unconsciously mimicking your own tough guy act? The thing is, you veer between hard-boiled and almost cloyingly nostalgic. Which one is the real you? Let’s admit it, you yourself are, and have long been, a hard dude to try to figure out. And “figure out” implies that there is an answer, which there is not. There is no solution in the back of the textbook for Geoff Albert. He just is. You just is. We just is.

August 18, 1992 - Berkeley

Let me tell you a little story about my roommate A—’s brother, Robert (I think it is). He’s been couch surfing here for weeks, and even stocked the kitchen with all his own food. He had the cheek to label it all so we won’t steal any. His stash consists mainly of hot dogs, cold cuts, Oreos, white bread, and milk. This guy has no idea how to cook. He prepares a hot dog by putting it, raw, on a slice of bread and microwaving it for thirty seconds (just until the bread’s hot).

Well, one night A— had cooked himself a meal (some weird South American thing) and offered his brother his leftovers. Robert hemmed and hawed, as if put off by the notion of secondhand food, or perhaps by the cuisine being outside his norm, and finally asked us what nearby restaurants delivered. He wasn’t interested in pizza so I suggested a few takeout places within cycling distance. “The bike is kind of what I wanted to avoid,” he said, peering down forlornly at his big belly, which sagged down below his belt. Okay, so no leftovers, no pizza, and nothing beyond walking distance. For a guy who doesn’t even have a place to live, he sure does seem picky.

Finally I thought of a barbecue place like four blocks away. A— explained how to get there, but I guess Robert wasn’t satisfied with the directions so he asked us for a map, which my other roommate eventually produced. After studying the route a while, Robert finally embarked on his daring solo mission. Well, like half an hour later he came back empty-handed, looking totally grief-stricken. Apparently a street hoodlum spotted an easy mark and grabbed the bag of food right out of Robert’s hands! Poor dude was too upset at this point to go buy more, and settled for a couple more hot dogs.

Is there any moral to this story? Yeah: don’t be a dork.

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