Monday, November 16, 2009


(Note: This entry is rather long.)

My first job was a paper route. That fact makes me feel like a real American boy. I started in my neighborhood when I was about twelve, delivering my hometown paper, The Davis Enterprise. It was published six days a week: Monday through Friday in the afternoons and Sunday mornings.

I started off using the bag, the one that goes over your head like a poncho, with pouches in the front and the back. Putting on that bag, heavy and tight with newspapers, was a skill that took me months to learn. At first I would try to crawl under it, stick my neck through the collar, and stand up. Then I figured out how to use the bag's own weight to generate enough momentum to swing it up and over my head. It was a fluid movement, graceful, I think, and you had to commit to it otherwise that bag would hit your shoulder or rake the side of your head and you'd have to try again. The only thing I can compare it to is putting on a backpack carrier with a thirty-pound toddler in it.

This is just like me, except I had more freckles and less gumption. Also, note how such a system requires constant rotation lest the back pouch become so much heavier than the front pouch that the carrier gets choked, or pulled backwards off his bike, or worse.

* * *

A guy in a van dropped the papers off on the sidewalk in front of my house.

The papers were delivered in a stack, flat, the way they look inside a vending machine, bundled with a plastic strap that I could saw through with my house key. I clearly remember the pop that the plastic would make as it snapped and fell away.

If it wasn't raining I would sit down on the sidewalk and fold the papers right there. If it was wet, I would haul the bundles up the driveway and fold them just inside my front door, my pile of papers spilling off the cold tile onto the living room carpet leaving faint smudges of newsprint on the floor and being constantly tramped on by pets and people. If anyone was perturbed by the sight of a muddy paw print on their front page I never heard about it.

* * *

The nice thing about working for a hometown paper was that it was small. Not a lot of news. It could be easily tri-folded like you would a letter.

But there is an ideal range of bulk for the tri-fold. Too thick and not even a double rubber band will keep it in check--it doesn't pack well and to throw it with any force is to risk a mid-air explosion. But too thin and it's like throwing a piece of cardboard or a playing card: weak, erratic, unpredictable. A good tri-fold can be thrown like a frisbee, one flick of the wrist and it sails in a straight line right up the driveway, or the stairs, depending on if you are delivering to houses or apartments.

On most days a tri-fold was ideal. But sometimes Sunday was too big for anything but a sloppy bi-fold (or, on holidays, a tubular approach where the paper is rolled lengthwise without bending the spine), and Mondays were almost always so word-hungry that a quadruple or quintuple-fold was in order.

By the time you finished a quintuple-fold you were basically holding a hard stick of newspaper in your hand. A stick that could be tossed off sideways like a typical tri-fold, but that could also, on extremely miserable or extremely rapturous days, be thrown overhand like a baseball. And travel at great speeds for great distances, even right up to people's doorsteps.

And get you in trouble.

Screenshot from one of my favorite original Nintendo games: Paperboy.

* * *

At one point there were three paper routes in our household. I had the streets in our immediate neighborhood as well as a stable of student-dominated (I grew up in a university town) apartment complexes on Lake Boulevard, three blocks away. Dustin, my younger brother, got the new development on the other side of the drainage pond that backed up to our house.

I say "household" because I have very nice parents. In particular, my father would often get up with us at 5:00 am on Sunday mornings and drive while we threw papers from the back of his gold Mazda pickup truck, or hopped out at key locations to make pinpoint strikes into the apartment complexes. This was the same pickup truck I drove through fields, parks and pedestrian overpasses late at night. The same truck whose beautifully textured vinyl seat I allowed to be burned by a rogue ash from a friend's cigarette. The same truck I decked out with an Alpine tape deck and hi-fi box speakers behind the seat. The same truck from which budding vandals threw leftover jack-o-lanterns, Christmas trees, oranges and eggs. The same truck.

Sometimes, when we were sick or otherwise afflicted, he would even do the whole route for us.

We certainly didn't deserve that kind of a father.

* * *

Somewhere along the way we acquired a bike with a big front basket.

Ours wasn't quite this cool.

What we gave up in ability to avoid walls, cars, and bushes we certainly gained in coolness, capacity, and dignity.

* * *

One Sunday morning I loosed a bundle of papers in the twilight and looked at the top headline. A boy my age had been murdered. His name was Andrew Mocus, and he had been on my baseball team the year before. He was beaten and then pushed into a passing train by another boy I knew and definitely feared.

I didn't know Andrew as much more than a kid with the wrong friends from the wrong side of town. There was definitely an east/west class division in our hamlet. And the dividing line, believe it or not, really was the railroad tracks. Anything could happen east of those tracks, we knew that. The only three fights I've ever gotten in happened in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade when I was being driven across town to Valley Oak Elementary School. East of the tracks.

That morning I sat in front of my papers for a good twenty minutes, silent and still. If it had happened ten years later I would have been calling someone on a cell phone, relaying the news in breathless tones. As it was I was alone, trying to remember Andrew whipping a ball from third to first. He had a good arm. His hair was longish and stringy and he was skinny and tough. His face is smoky in my mind. I see dark features, a bony elbow, a sharp smile.

When I go home I am still a boy. Andrew, also, is still a boy. But there was nothing wrong about him. He got pushed into a train, that's all.

* * *


Bags of them. I loved holding big squishy plastic bags full of rubberbands. Thick rubberbands that smelled like wet asphalt and snapped like jaws.

About one out of every thirty would break and leave a small welt on the back of your hand. Sometimes one found your face.

I still like to shoot rubberbands. At people. Especially my brother.

* * *

I gave up the paper routes in stages.

First, I unloaded the apartment complexes. Delivering to apartments was always a hateful chore. Every complex had its own numbering system that never seemed to make much sense. Apartment 3A might be nowhere near 3F. Building 1 was next to buildings 3 and 4 with building 2 nowhere in sight. The doors were too close together, the whole thing just a little too intimate. I preferred to be gliding down the street, flinging the news with abandon. No slowing down. No harassing stares from nosy neighbors or tenants trying to squeeze past on the narrow walks with their laundry. No pretty college girls looking at you like the paper boy that you are.

I gave the apartments to a man named Richard. He was married with a son my age and a college degree, and his last job had been as a successful computer engineer. He was 45 years old, but with the cognitive abilities of a 12-year-old. He had been in a bike accident. Basically, something hit the reset button in his brain and he had to learn how to be himself all over again.

Richard and I, as interpreted by these two professionals.

I walked the route with Richard for several weeks. We actually got along pretty well and shared some of the same concerns: do girls like me? what is the best kind of candy? do farts ever stop being funny? But then I would remember that he was 45 with whitish hair and a son. I had seen Big with Tom Hanks and I knew things couldn't possibly be that easy. I was 14-years-old but in full ownership of those 14 years, having lived each one of them in their proper order. It didn't take long to see that Richard was living in the interstitching between universes, too old to be chucking newspapers and too young to be anything else. A paper man.
* * *

It seems strange to me that less than two years after I delivered my last paper, I was hired as a high school intern at The Davis Enterprise to file photos, type letters to the editor, and write the occasional feature article. It seems logical, I know, but I still don't see the thread. Seriously. I wanted to swim with dolphins. Maybe there are residual ink particles in the decision-making part of my brain. It's not like I entered into this love affair with newspapers, wallowing in their black and white idyll, dreaming about moving from the streets to the editorial offices. When I quit I left nothing behind.

I was going to be a scientist.

Though, I always did like to read the San Jose Mercury News at my grandmother's kitchen table with a plateful of donuts. And I did make some hilarious newscasts with my parents' video camera, complete with skycam footage of a lego car accident, fake anti-diarrheal commercials, and the inexhaustibly humorous trope of anchormen picking their noses. But I never thought I would end up in a newsroom.

I just answered an ad in the paper, that's all.

Friday, November 06, 2009

On Remembering a Wedding Photo of My Parents

My father doesn’t really do facial hair. But there he is in his wedding photo with a mustache. A nice one, too, the color of September though it was only June, fading gold, a final bronze punctuation mark. He is wearing a white tuxedo, and I don’t have the picture in front of me but I swear there are ruffles in there somewhere. Maybe on my mom’s wrists. They, the two of them, look like a perfect match. Two eyes, two ears, one nose each. Hair like fine wool. I never had hair like that.

She is thin. Arms bowing in blithe symmetry, hands meeting at the navel clasping a shock of white roses. She glints like a piece of quartz. She is absolutely real right then—this picture more de facto, more present than my most recent memory of her. Her face is the face under her face. A face I’ve never seen.

These are not my parents, of course. They are protagonists in the story of me. They eat coconut ice cream and lie about for hours and read novels. They motor around in old cars and hike mountains and wash each other’s hair and cook together, tossing ingredients across the kitchen, leaving the dishes until morning. They play frisbee, argue about politics, curse loudly and laugh louder. They stop to help strangers on the side of the road. They have dirt under their fingernails but they smell clean and raw like limes or fields of alfalfa. They know people. They have friends in Mexico and Canada. Sometimes people will visit and stay for weeks. My parents just smile and pull fresh linens out of the closet in the hall. Downstairs there is an open window where a cool breeze hurries in and tangos past the pot belly stove, up the stairs to the loft where they sleep gracefully on a mattress on a worn oak floor.

They are professionals, actors or models, posing for pictures while my real parents are getting dressed in the bathroom. My mom is sweating, her make-up is starting to cake up and she is dabbing her face with toilet paper. My dad is in his undershirt, bent over the sink with a safety razor, scratching at the hair under his nose, shaving off that mustache at the last possible moment, right before the music begins to play and the guests file in and the world is born and practice is over.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

It's a poem, son.

I recently put a poem in the latest online issue of Anti-Poetry. One of my favorite online poetry mags, and it's legit. The poem, truth be told, is kind of a departure from my usual haunts. But I like it, and happily someone else did too. Check it out the poem and bio here and then stay and poke around a little bit:

Friday, December 05, 2008

Guilty Pleasures (Episode Two)

It's time for the next installment of Guilty Pleasures. Click here for episode one and the basic premise.

Today's theme: Age of Innocence: Old School Hip Hop.

Okay, so not old old school, and not so innocent. But oldish. Let yourself drift back, back to a simpler time. Back when the words gangsta rap were just a phlegm ball in the back of Dr. Dre's throat. And let these three prime selections serenade you as you linger on the interwebs. Finally, it is interesting to observe several things that tie these tracks and artists together: 1) Storytelling. Rap (at least some mainstream rap like Tone Loc and Will Smith) had this thing for telling long, cheeky stories about mishaps and misadventures. Rap is still a narrative medium, but it is often hard, edgy, braggy, and in your face. LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" (not to mention Easy-E and NWA) is kind of a precursor to all that. But compared to much of contemporary rap and hip hop, Will Smith's "Parents Just Don't Understand" astounds me in its kind of wide-eyed, countrified middle-class tameness. That could be due to Smith himself as an artist at that point in his career, or the fact that these artists are being promoted by major labels with certain target audiences and the resulting self-censorship requirements. 2) All three of these rappers went on to launch extensive acting careers. Although I think it's safe to say that Smith's is a bit more successful and respectable.

And don't forget to vote for your guiltiest pleasure and then comment on your criteria for voting. Sentiment? Shame? Deliciousness? Mmmmmmm.

Tone Loc - "Funky Cold Medina"

Okay, this could be kind of creepy, but please note that it's from the pre-roofie era. Remember: innocence. And a careful examination of the lyrics reveal a fair amoung of raciness (caution sensitive readers), but no malintent on Tone's part. Just good old-fashioned fun. Tone Loc's voice is indescribably cool, a voice that turns every word into gravelly butter. "This is the 80's and I'm down with the ladies," and many, many other lyrical gems abound. Look for Tone in classics like Surf Ninjas, Spy Hard and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

Tone Loc - Funky Cold Medina

Found at

LL Cool J - "Mama Said Knock You Out"

"EXPLOSIONSSSSS" and "lyrics that'll make you call the cops." In 1991 it worked for me. And let's face it, it still does. Definitely working in a diffent sub-genre than Loc and Smith. And nice abs.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith) - "Parents Just Don't Understand"

Hey Mr. Big Film Star. What do you have to say about this?

Just enjoy. Although, for some reason embedding for this vid has been disabled by You Tube. So you get a link instead.

And if you still want more, here's In Living Color's very funny parody of LL Cool J:

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Oh! Awwwww.

I'm sure many people have heard of the astronaut who lost a tool bag in space the other day

but I just wanted to say, the more I think about it the funnier it becomes.

Observe: You train your entire life. You run miles and miles, sit through hours of meetings, throw up in planes, build up your resistance to G-forces. You're constantly studying and are forced to open every aspect of your life like a book. You are probed and poked and interrogated. You're given simulations and scenarios and you struggle through them a thousand times. You learn to love Tang and powdered ice cream. Then one day you fly up into space and walk out into the dazzling light with your trusty tool bag. You turn around for one second--ONE SECOND--to wipe up a dab of grease and ZAP! Your tool bag wanders off into orbit and you've just blown the first and maybe only mission of your little astronaut life. Within a few hours people on earth are laughing and shaking their heads and leaning back in their swivel chairs to ask their cubemates if they heard about that astronaut who flubbed the spacewalk and sent her wrench set on the slow train to Alpha Centari. Every Jim, Frank and John is walking around sneering to their friends and saying, "Geez, well they could have sent me up. I'm no 'astronaut,' but I could have probably tied up my tools. You know?"

Sorry, nice astronaut lady. It could have happened to anyone.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Pardon Me

With Bush leaving office, talk about federal pardons is heating up. Apparently, Bush has used his pardon less than any other President in recent memory. So he is, of course, being criticized both for his choice of pardons, and for not using his pardon powers enough.

Despite its potential for abuse, I like the executive pardon power. At it's best it speaks of mercy and the ability for an unfathomably huge bureaucracy to act in an intimately compassionate way. And, we get a little taste of what it might be like to have a King!

Anyway, what I really wanted to do was link to this. If you're short on time, skip down to the section called "Still in Prison" for some disturbing examples of people who should probably be pardoned, or at least have their sentences commuted.

Reminds me how thankful I am I didn't get into the lobster business.