My self-appointed alarm dog, Bunny Shmenkleman, got us all up at six a.m. as usual, pounding her tail against the wall with joy to announce breakfast time. And I began the day by yelling at her, as usual.
But even though it was Sunday, instead of going back to sleep as soon as they were fed and given pacifying rawhide chews, I got up and loaded us all in the car to make the two-hour trek up to San Francisco for a one-day outing.
The occasion was that my old friend, Norman, was in town with his seven-year-old son, Max. I met Norman when I lived in Brickbottom, an amazing artist's building in Boston, for eight years back in the mid-eighties to early nineties.
Brickbottom was an old A&P warehouse complex that artists had developed into 300 condo units of raw loft space. It was heaven on many counts. Great people, great spaces, just the right balance of privacy and community and underground heated parking.
We had a massive open studio and sale every year, but what really set us apart from other artist's buildings was our annual clean up day called the Ladybird Brickbottom Beautification Trash Round-up and Scrumptilliumptious BBQ. Every year we added a word to the title. The city brought garbage bags and we fanned out to clean up the industrial streets surrounding us. Afterwards we had a potluck dinner in our garden/courtyard and awarded silly prized for the most trash collected, most enthusiastic, best found object, best costume. Then, in dramatic culmination, a new trash queen (the title remained the same for either a male or female sovereign) was crowned by the previous year's queen, who was required to provide a custom-made crown for their successor. Being artists, there were some doozies over the years. Some outgoing queens, not content with mere crowns, also threw in hand-crafted scepters and once, a long cape with a train dragging behind, made of clear vinyl in which was embedded various bits of particularly lovely trash, artistically arranged.
One trash queen was especially memorable. He is a character among characters, a man who lives in a perennial Masterpiece Theater set of his own making, a man trapped in the wrong century, the wrong country, who bears it with grace and panache and a monumental sense of style. Being elected Trash Queen the previous year, he took his duties quite seriously, and showed up dressed in a military outfit that looked like he must certainly have nicked it directly from Tsar Nicholas's dry cleaners. White coat with gold epaulettes and buttons, white cap with a black visor and a white square of fabric attached at the back to keep the wearer's neck from the sun while reviewing the troupes. Suitable boots of the same vintage, riding crop, dress gloves. He was magnificent!
Striding into the courtyard, where several people were busy pulling weeds, he set up his gramophone, yes, really, and proceeded to favor us with some music from his collection while he mingled with the peasants, offered encouragement, kind words and advice, occasionally mopping his brow in ever-so-refined a manner with a monogrammed handkerchief.
Pier Gustafson, for that is the name of this unique individual, is also known as 'The Pen God' for the logical reason that he collects, restores and deals in old fountain pens. He can draw anything. Anything. And his humor is, well, perhaps you should visit his old site
and see for yourself. My favorite drawing of his, on the site at least, is to be found here
and the stamp he's included for those who scroll down a bit is special indeed.
If you're still with me, you may be wondering what happened to my friend Norman, the man who's been patiently waiting around since my massive digression in the fourth paragraph. He lived just down the hall with his girlfriend Debbie and ran a catering business while she went about the business of being an artist. Norman is a mensch with an edge, really nice and would do anything for you, but blunt and often delightfully outrageous.
In the decade since I moved back to California, Norman and Debbie got married, and at age forty-five, Deb had their son, Max. Today, as we were strolling on the beach watching Max and my dogs play, we got to catch up a bit, and I got to ask about many of the people we knew.
I remembered that Debbie had an amazing grandmother who had been busily planning her ninetieth birthday when I first met her years ago. The grandmother had been born an Italian Jew, and had become a doctor, and maried another doctor. During WWII they fled to Morocco and set up a medical practice out of their house, often treating people in exchange for chickens or other bartered items.
So I asked about the grandmother, assuming she was long dead, and was shocked to learn that she is very much alive. Apparently, she was in a car accident just before her hundredth birthday and suffered a broken neck, but recovered in time to celebrate the birthday. They've had some trouble with her in recent years, because her vanity was so strong that she refused to stop wearing high heels, and fell several times while negotiating stairs. Now she is planning her hundred-and-fifth birthday. She wants to have it in Morocco! I say, "Go for it, Grandma, kick up your (high) heels!"