A History of an Unlikly Wordsmith

I remember when my terminally ill father asked me if I was happy with the career I had chosen. That might have been a good time to lie and make him feel assured that I was doing something I enjoyed–as in the way he enjoyed making boats and my brother presumably enjoyed running a lumber company. I told him I was somewhat content. The fact is I wanted to be a writer and I ended up a civil servant for the State of California, but I didn’t want to dump that on him, so I said something like I just followed the career path that I saw when I landed inside civil service and didn’t look back.

The problem was there was plenty of rubbernecking going on over the thirty years in civil service, but I never wanted to take the chance and just dive into a career in writing. I was too afraid. When it came to going after what you wanted in life, my father seemed fearless. He liked to race cars, boats, and dirt bikes, and he did all that with vigor and success. He seemed brave to me in other ways too, the ways that many grown adults are fearless–starting his own business in a leisure industry. An industry that was reactive to recessions, droughts, and the caprices of human nature.

Thankfully, my father didn’t point out that my mealy-mouthed answer to his question wasn’t much of an answer at all. So I got out of telling him my fear of pursuing a career in writing–my fear of rejection and my fear of the unknown (unknown paycheck, unknown medical/dental, unknown retirement income).

Passions Never Developed

I have always had a passion for telling stories–the vehicle was the problem. In elementary school, I liked drawing comics–well, sort of. My art was horrible–even considering I was an adolescent and just starting out. Unlike a few classmates, I didn’t have the raw talent for drawing. There was Scott Marmaduke (Yep that was his name!) He started drawing when I did, but he not only had a sharp eye, he also understood satire. So his pictures were far more sophisticated in style and message. I remember staring at one of his drawings: A parked Mayflower Moving van, the driver in the cab snoozing–the driver’s speech bubble filled with ZZZZs–while the company’s ship logo was sinking into the sea. My submission was Batman in his Batmobile. For starters, the chassis was excessively too high like the caped crusader was driving a monster truck. Comparing the two drawings was painful.

I recently read David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How it Changed America, a book about the early comic book industry and the censorship that nearly killed it. The author wrote how the old masters like Will Eisner (author of the seminal comic book series “The Spirit”) started by tracing images. I did that as well, but I apparently didn’t get as far as Eisner and his peers. I just didn’t have the raw talent, the observation skills, or the patience of the people who–through blood, sweat, tears, and the avoidance of clichés–made it.

And like my short-lived training behind a drum kit, as a child artist, I was all dreams and precious little dedication. Getting my idea across on paper took too much time and patience. I liked conveying stories. I didn’t want to invest the time it took to draw or write them. I kind of had my own oral tradition and the friends around me were my audiences. Think of Homer, but instead of Odysseus and the Fall of Troy it was the neighborhood kids and the Collapse of Mike’s Fort.

I do remember handing in an assignment when I was in the third or fourth grade where the teacher encouraged the class to add drawings to our written assignment. I remember authoring my assignment “by Luke Isles.” Luke was my nickname. As for Isles, well it just sounded cool at the time. I remember being thoroughly embarrassed when I saw the teacher attempting to suppress a smile when I told her Luke Isles was my pen name. Perhaps I was overly sensitive at that time and/or I am overly dramatic now, but I believe that moment may have been a harbinger of my doomed professional writing career. Am I going to have to put up with those kinds of condescending smiles the rest of my childhood? When would someone take me seriously? Later, I would be crushed by bad marks on the few writing assignments I cared about. I think I received criticism from readers of my college newspaper articles harder than most of my fellow journalism students. If this stuff bugged me so much during these tender years how would I endure the rejection notices and having editors keep turning down my ideas for articles?

I think the cocktail of fragile ego and impatience prevented me from taking up writing (or any kind of art for that matter) over the next ten years. In the meantime, I would tell stories (usually true but embellished, self-deprecating stories that often had listeners responding through laughter, “You should write this stuff down!” At one point I became re-acquainted with a childhood friend, Rick, who was managing a shoe store. Against his better judgment, he hired me and we became close friends. It was at this point he suggested I take a journalism class at American River College with him.

Beaver editor
In my office at The Beaver. Hot shit!

I had begun studying there right out of high school in 1977 but dropped out. Thanks to Rick, I got back into college and (after a few scattered semester-long breaks) received a BA in Journalism in 1987–The Ten Year Plan. In the meantime, I got the writing bug again. I was a little more resilient and patient, but as I would find out later, not resilient or patient enough to make writing a career. Rick, who became the Editor-in-Chief of the campus paper, The Beaver (now The Current) and the journalism instructor, Charles “Doc” Slater, introduced me to the Inverted Pyramid and the Who, What, Where, When, and How of reporting. After a too-short stint as a news writer, I started writing film and music reviews. The following year I became the Entertainment Editor with my friend Erik taking over the helm when Rick left for film school at USC. After reading Greil Marcus’ Mystery Train, I decided I was going to be a music critic. For the first time since elementary school, I was expressing myself via the written word with a passion.

A few years later, I transferred to California State University, Sacramento (CSUS) and started writing for the campus paper, The Hornet, though I was not very productive–only submitting a review or story every few weeks. I remained a journalism major with hopes to become either a rock critic or now maybe an investigative reporter. A lot of hopes, but not much else. This aspiration began to show its weak foundation when CSUS had a career fair one spring day and I spent a couple of hours talking with Sacramento Bee writers under the paper’s big blue tent. When I left their tabernacle, I was filled with that all too common self-doubt.

Just like giving up on being the next Charlie Watts when told I would have to put in many years of diligent daily practice (not to mention even more years working in cover bands for tip money) before I would become a great drummer for an internationally-known band. I was told the road to a position like a music critic for The Bee (and ultimately on to Rolling Stone magazine) would take years of writing death notices or working with ad copy. Then, when I got through that gate, I would then most likely become a reporter doing straight news while submitting ideas to the entertainment/culture editor on the side, trying to get my foot in the door. Like a kid in the back of a station wagon on a cross-country trip, I wanted to be there and didn’t want to endure all of the miles between my diploma and my desk at The Bee with the other writers on the entertainment beat.

VMG 1987
The closest I’ve ever come to my “15 minutes.”

My dimming hopes of being a writer were marginally brightened when Mick Martin, the film critic of the now-defunct daily newspaper The Sacramento Union, approached me and fellow Tower Theatre employee, Paul Plain at a press screening with a proposition: write film reviews for his upcoming Video Movie Guide. I submitted six reviews and saw my name in print in a national publication (albeit buried deep in the Acknowledgements). As the first edition went to print, I agreed to be a Chief Contributor for the 1987 Edition. Paul was wise and turned down the “promotion.” When it came out it was nice to see my name under “Chief Contributors” with only twelve other names around it. But at a substantial cost to me as well as Mick and Ed Remitz, the Guide’s Consulting Editor: with only a few exceptions the films I reviewed were “Direct to Video” releases (read: crap) and I quickly tired of reviewing the worst of the worst.

Paul and I used to love laughing at horrible cinema together, but watching this shit all by myself, taking notes and then writing about it was a hell I never wish to tarry again. I kept misspelling words in my reviews as well as the names of cast members–a cardinal sin in journalism. Mick called me a couple of times to remind me to proof my work before submitting it. Finally, one night he had enough of my misspellings and general lack of care and gently fired me. You’d think that would have crushed me, but I was relieved. The embarrassing thing was that I hung on way past my welcome. Mick needed to fire me since I wouldn’t quit. A tiny part of me wanted to keep doing it, keep cranking out shitty reviews of shitty movies, peppered with misspellings; the tiny part that wanted to remain a proud Chief Contributor instead of an insignificant name in the crowded field of Acknowledgements. This is how truly horrible writing is created: lazy work and false pride. I still keep a couple of the guides around though I never recommended them to anyone–there are far better guides out there–especially online. After changing the title and format a couple of times, Mick stopped the Guide about ten years ago.

Hornet credMeanwhile, my friend and fellow journalism student, Erik, had graduated a year earlier than I had and was already in the field. He was happy doing what I began to think was a  high wire act without a safety net. How easy would it be for him to be let go? Would if his employer had to downsize and he was the least critical staffer? Let’s not forget starting out in a small operation where there were no health benefits. I take a lot of meds and need a neurologist and occasional EEGs and MRIs. Would I be able to afford to pay for my own health insurance? I was on my parents’ plan at the time and whenever this crossed my mind, it scared the shit out of me to think I will someday have to pay for this myself if I don’t get a job with some employer who offers these benefits. This was not the kind of mindset that fosters creativity.

Bailing Out

In my last year of college, I got a job as a proofreader for the State of California. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the beginning of a career with benefits that would last to the time of this writing–over thirty years. From the first night, I showed up to work I kept thinking I wasn’t going to pass the probationary period. I clung to Dale, a veteran proofreader, who kept assuring me I would pass probation. I could tell this job was significant compared to stuffing tacos, selling shoes, tagging Giorgio Armani dresses, and tearing movie tickets. And because of this feeling, I became addicted to the security of civil service though I hadn’t finished my first month of service yet. Writing, what writing? I’ve got medical, dental, vision, and a CalPERS retirement account, Y’all! How quickly I dashed my dreams.

What little yearning to make a career expressing myself in the printed word was virtually suffocated by the security blanket that is civil service with a significant pay boost and a benefits package. A year later I was married and instantly became a stepdad. Erik was doing what he always wanted to do–working for a paper. I was proofreading bills, amendments to bills, and legal opinions. But let’s not bullshit, I never attempted any kind of professional writing gig.

Recently, Erik and I had lunch. We talked about our college days, our softball team, old college friends including Ethan and Barry, and Erik’s time as a newspaperman. (He now teaches high school English and Journalism in the Sacramento area.) I told him how I admired him pursuing what I was too cowardly to go after especially in a neoliberal economy with growing worker insecurity. Then there was Ethan who was on The Beaver staff and the softball team. He left American River College to go back to his New England home. He got into the small-market film business. I guess that’s not bringing in enough money because he is now a Lyft driver to help make ends meet. Ugh! Ever the showman he’s promoting his moonlighting job as a unique experience for his customers.

Barry, who Erik and I worked with on The Hornet had it rough after graduation. He bounced from one job to the next often having to settle for telemarketing. At the time of my lunch with Erik, Barry had been unemployed for so long that his unemployment insurance had run out. Erik and I had given him money to help make ends meet. He was also getting some assistance from his LDS ward. Barry set up a GoFundMe account at one point and a request for “mini-grants” through his Facebook page. At one point, the Sacramento theater community that he was once a part of came together and held a fundraiser for him at a local watering hole. Within a year of that event, he was found dead in his apartment. The same apartment he had nearly been evicted from on more than one occasion due to not being able to pay his rent. I realize Barry’s case is unique and as for Ethan’s, well one could say that comes with the territory.

I remember when, in my early teens, I made a weak attempt to learn my father’s craft. He was at times a harsh taskmaster because he was a perfectionist. Also, he couldn’t let me practice and screw up on boats that were already paid for by customers. I bailed out of that apprenticeship before it ever got formally started. A few years later, I asked if I could train to be a boat builder. I doubt I was earnest. I was probably just looking for some positive reinforcement. He snapped back at me, “Why the hell would you want to build boats…?” I don’t remember the rest of the reply, but it had something to do with his business weathering the OPEC Oil Embargo, followed by a recession, then a drought. I was hurt by his words, but a few years later understood what he was talking about when Reagan’s supply-side economics hurled us into another recession and I started reading about layoffs and businesses struggling or going under in the papers and orders for my dad’s boats sagging again. I got nervous about venturing out and doing something that might net true happiness with the understanding that I would occasionally have to weather unemployment due to the nature of the industry I chose to work in. I ended up “choosing” (more like stumbling upon) an industry that is virtually impervious to economic downturns.

My father’s career choice ultimately provided enough money to raise a family even if the waters got a little choppy at times. Then there is the kind of career that is similarly reactive to economic downturns but doesn’t net much money when days are fat. I give you the professional yoga teacher. I used to practice with a teacher named Aviv. Unlike the other teachers I’ve practiced with, Aviv exclusively taught yoga for a living. He bounced around town doing contract work in various studios and, occasionally, the City of Sacramento (the Yoga in the Park programs). He loved his career and that made me both jealous and sorry for him. He wore his hair long and out, dressed in basketball shorts and jerseys, and dirty, beat up crocs. He looks like the most comfortable–if not the most presentable–man in town.

His love for teaching yoga was evident: he was funny and talkative. On the other hand, in some of his ramblings, he would let slip about jobs that have fallen through that he said he needed. I also saw him come close to begging for more work; trying to sell an idea he had for a workshop to the group exercise director of the athletic club where I am a member. I became anxious just listening to him stress to the director how beneficial this workshop would be to the members. It sounded more as if he needed the money. This is the downside of being free and making your passion your paycheck–especially if your choice is something like yoga teacher or going it alone as a professional musician or–like my college buddy Ethan–try to break into the film business. I knew I never had to do that kind of thing to keep my job at the State. “Just don’t dump a pot of hot coffee in the manager’s lap and you’ll be fine,” Dale, my proofreading big brother assured me whenever I worried that I wouldn’t pass probation in my new job for the State.

Still, Aviv was doing something he really loved. My career is repetitive, mostly a dull eight to five with an hour lunch and excellent benefits. I have run projects before, but never felt the stress Aviv seemed to be emitting as he was trying to sell that workshop idea. For him, it could have meant a little something extra in his pocket towards replacing a worn tire on his failing car or maybe some coin to sock away to ensure he could keep the lights on next month if the work got thin. If my boss didn’t like an idea I had for a project I would just go back to the thrill-seeking job of verifying asset movements and scanning barcodes. A project didn’t earn me any extra scratch; my paycheck is the same size each month project or no project.

About three months ago, I found out Aviv was moving to Maui. We were all happy for him, but over the last two classes he led, many of his students including this blogger asked him what he had lined up over there regarding employment. Avoiding the question, he just kept repeating the locution, “I always wanted to live in a place where I could walk around without shoes and a shirt and not get hassled.” All I heard was the absence of gainful employment while also knowing the horrible homeless problem Hawaii has. The other students kept talking about how jealous they were. Not me, I thought of poor Barry.

Journaling & Blogging: the Amateur Writer

journal pix 1
The Keaton Canon

While I was finishing my ten-year stint as a college student–a dying career in journalism or some kind of job writing now removed from life support–I began journaling. Jimmy, my best friend at the time, fancied himself my muse, as once did my old girlfriend, and encouraged me to keep writing regardless of what I do for the rest of my life. He kept telling me to write every day. He instructed me to buy writing materials and get to it. He would repeatedly say to me “Read a word a day and write a word a day.” Presumably, he didn’t shoot for a high goal knowing my tendency towards idleness. I ran out and bought a fancy pen (because that’s the key to great writing!) and one of those diary-style notebooks. When he saw the journal, he chuckled then said he was thinking of something along the lines of a college-ruled tablet. I guess I wanted my writing to look like it was in a book. How utterly sad. (Then again, I found out a few months ago that’s how Joan Didion got her start. Of course, that’s where the Keaton-Didion comparison ends.) Looking back, I think I would have written a little more if I had the elbow room to wax eloquent instead of the cramped 5″x8″ format of the–at times femmy–looking notebooks I bought and wrote in over that short phase.

I wrote consistently if not rousingly in these journals from October 1984 through August 1987. I would reboot journaling in the early 1990s. The last two “reboot” journals are marked with long gaps of inactivity. The last entry in the last journal was dated March of 1996. All the journals, especially the last two, are peppered with short entries questioning my worth in this endeavor. For instance my ability (“Who am I fooling? My writing is crap!”); my passion (“I don’t know what I am doing.”); and my diligence (“Word.”). A bitterly sarcastic dig on Jimmy’s “Read a word a day and write a word a day” charge.

I was already working on this post when I ran into these journals while prepping my bedroom for painters. There they were, packaged lovingly in a box spine up to save space though I admit it looks kind of like it was in some library bookshelf: The Keaton Canon. As if, the collection would look entirely at home between the works of Dickens and Orwell. The only thing missing was my name and volume numbers on each of the masterpieces’ spine. When the paint was dry, I stashed them back up in my closet unintentionally mimicking Jimmy’s chuckle. Then laughing aloud in spite of myself. They are waiting the day I go through them one more time–looking for some rough-hewn nugget of genius to transcribe into this blog before I take a Zippo and lighter fluid to the lot.

About ten years after my last journal entry I got the writing bug again; this time without any pretense of being a great writer or journalist. I just wanted to express myself in prose. My friend and fellow State employee, Chip, had created a blog and was posting articles. After reading his posts on Blogger, I started my own.

Jockomo, my first blog, was born.

I named it in honor of Jimmy. That’s what he called me. Or at least that’s what I thought he called me. The first time he saw the blog he queried, what is Jockomo? When I told him he corrected, “No, Giacomo, as in Giacomo Puccini.” I didn’t chuckle this time, but a smile that delivered the same patronizing punch. I felt like an ass, but I also liked Jockomo despite its birth through ignorance.

I started posting my writing at this site in February of 2006. In June of 2010, with my blogging activity waning, I added an additional blog where I combine hamburger joint reviews with posts about my new scooter and scooter culture. The first version of Burger Scoot was born. The blog you are reading is my latest stab at writing along with some stuff I transferred over from my old Blogger account.

PublishSomehow, I forgot all the grammar, punctuation, and structure I learned in my College English classes that got me a degree in Journalism with a minor in History–both disciplines requiring a high volume of writing. Speaking of college, many of the better-written, earlier posts were actually proofread by college students. I found an online service where I could email my drafts to a proofreading service and the service would have an English student go over them; mark them up (with some of the better proofers writing lengthy explanations why specific corrections were made). These notes also revealed just how far I had (have) to go to be a good writer. (I don’t think I’ll ever drop the passive voice. I like it too much.) I believe this service was replaced by a computer program similar to the Grammarly.com service I use now which just doesn’t come close to catching the plethora of errors an English college student finds in my prose. It may seem to the reader that paying a proofreading service for a blog post only a few people will read is indulgent. (Or is it overindulgent? See what I mean.) The practical side of me agrees, but I feel naked without that help–as I’m feeling right now as I am typing this, and how I felt when I hit the big green Publish! soft key.

If you are still with me, thanks for sticking it out. This post has meandered quite a bit. It started as one thing then became something very different with some awkward transitions in between and at least eight long paragraphs cut. (I nearly cut out many more. Perhaps I should have.) I usually start with some kind of outline in my head, but this one may have got away from me. What do you know: a post about writing, poorly written. Hang on. It is almost over.

My life as a writer has been marked by fear, insecurity, laziness, frustration. With all those attributes it is incredible this blog doesn’t cave in under its own weight. Ultimately, my desire for self-expression is the arch stone that keeps it together and me continuing to express myself.

Horrible Sports Team Names

It will be nice to see the Chief Wahoo logo finally phased out since the initial removal of the offensive logo from the players’ caps and batting helmets back in 2014.

 

Here’s a timeline from Mother Jones of offensive sports mascots. Some of them are quite unbelievable.

Before the Washington [Redacted], there were the Duluth Eskimos and the Zulu Cannibal Giants.

via Timeline: A Century of Racist Sports Team Names — Mother Jones

Backing Out of Facebook

Last Tuesday a friend stopped me in the lobby where we both work and told me a political meme that I had posted the day before was false–or at least Snopes.com claims it was false. That was good enough for me. In reflection the quote Vice President Pence supposedly said was crazy. Now, he has said and done some stupid things, but saying that the American people don’t need healthcare, but Jesus Care should have sent up a red flag when I first saw it.

But it didn’t.

Before I got back on Facebook to look at the quote and the comments Friends had left, I knew it was a lie. Then why in the hell did I post it? What I believe I did was part of a massive problem in social media. To be honest, I’ll get over the shame of posting this falsehood, but this kind of thing has been bugging me for a long time–people posting shit for other Friends to see. It’s an epidemic and I just added to the disease! David Harvey, author, distinguished professor of Anthropology, Geography at CUNY, and leading Marxist scholar says social media has had a radical democratizing effect on society, but it also is a form of social control and part of the Consumption of Spectacle. He suggests people, alongside using social media sparingly and responsibly, cultivate a circle of friends to discuss issues of the day. This works as a form of “group truthing.” He also suggests creating or joining reading groups.

My wife and my brother find social media a colossal waste of time. My youngest son and his best friend (who is an activist and I hope to interview for this blog someday) don’t have social media accounts because they value their perceived privacy and know whatever valuable information they can glean from Facebook they can access directly from its sources. I would be a pompous ass if I said I am leaving Facebook because of the Russian influence on the social media or Mark Zuckerberg’s reactions to that fake news scandal. However, some of the latest revelations are a concern. However, the problems with my relationship with Facebook are many. Here are the main ones.

Not Checking Sources

Too often I don’t check my sources before posting a meme or a quote. This incident was the last straw. I posted a political meme that a friend pointed out was false. This event was very embarrassing. What’s worse, it wasn’t the first time it happened. I have probably done this half-dozen times. I have also been one to bust others on this kind of activity.

Trusted Source, Excellent Writer, Hard-Hitting Title. Meh, I’ll Read It After I Post It

Too often I don’t wholly read an article before I share it. This is a big problem (see the first point) though I always post articles from reliable sources. Still, posting something I did not wholly read (or did not read at all) is believing in a source, but not necessarily the actual text. After years of putting up with followers and sycophants who seemed to take every word he said as the infallible truth, Noam Chomsky began to end his arguments with, “It’s all right there in the documents. Read them for yourselves.” I have the utmost confidence in sources like The Intercept, The Nation, and In These Times, but it is lazy at best, arrogant at worst to tell someone they should read an article on corporate farming on the assumption that whatever I read must be the truth.

My Facebook Page is Intended for the Serious Reader (That’s why it’s on Facebook)

I should be posting videos and pictures of cute kittens instead of damning quotes from/of boxing daypoliticians. Maybe I should change my material to better suit people like my wife. I think the only thing she likes about my otherwise useless and negative Facebook page are my humorous videos, extended family photos, or an image or video of cats (dogs too, but mostly cats). The funny thing is, I would love to share more stuff like the adjacent image, but most of my Facebook Friends don’t post that kind of stuff. That’s the Zuckerberg algorithm at work (i.e. I painted myself into this corner). I have friends and family members who almost exclusively use Facebook as family albums. That is a great idea. Almost as if Facebook was created especially for that. If I wasn’t so damn ugly, I might have used Facebook in this manner more often. Finally, there are the positive vibe posts. There are plenty of memes of Jesus, Buddha, Rumi, Yogananda, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other philosophers that I could choke my FB page with. Yesterday I attended a talk with the health expert and author Ruben Guzman who reminded me how when it comes to self-improvement I have always been un grand saboteur or as the philosopher James Allen said: “You are today where your thoughts take you.” And I just referred to myself as ugly. Un grand saboteur stricks again!

Can I Get a Hallelujah, Somebody!

When it comes to my posts, I’m preaching to the choir. Over the years my Facebook Friends list has been sifted to separate the politically faithful from the infidels. I rarely did the sifting. The chafe separated itself–sometimes with angry adieus. The few exceptions include conservative family members who, I am confident, gag on my political posts all the while hang on as a Friend for the occasional family image (not to mention a wine-drinking joke or a video of kitties sliding around on a moving turntable). So this business of posting something Bernie Sanders said or Kshama Sawant did so we can all metaphorically slap each other on the proverbial back seems foolish when a moment like the impetus of this blog post occurs. My Facebook posts aren’t converting anybody, only making some of my political kin feel good and in turn, making me feel good when they click on the Thumps Up.

… and the Obvious

I spend too much time on social media. From time to time I have looked for a time-motion tool that would tell me just how much time I burn up on Facebook. Between checking my feed at work and on my phone it has to be in the double-digit minutes each day, with a slight drop during the weekend and days off. Hanging out on Facebook is so unproductive, but who am I kidding? The void created by leaving Facebook will not be filled by Bible study, re-thinking the way I do my job, or thinking of what home improvements I can do this Saturday. Is there a cool zombie-killing app that can take the place of my deleted Facebook app on my iPhone 6?

The Other Time Wasters

Facebook takes up the lion’s share of time I spend on social media. I’m so glad I don’t take a lot of pix. Otherwise, I might spend as much time on Instagram as I do on Facebook. If you looked at my camera roll you would wonder if there is anyone more boring than me: pix of unique cooking ingredients taken at a grocery store, images of bike and scooter parts; also, a lot of pix of stuff I send to myself to investigate later. None of it the kind of things you usually see on someone’s Instagram.

Images of my wife and me on vacation? We rarely take those kinds of vacation pix, at least not us together. Pix of me far far away against the background of the Thames, or a famous Cape Cod restaurant, etc. When I first got Instagram, a weird error occurred. I would see that I had some new images of two or three young ladies crammed into a narrow picture, eyes full and up, lips in a pucker a la Marilyn Monroe, one of the young ladies wearing plastic sunglasses in the shape of stars. Over the next couple of weeks, I kept getting these kinds of pictures. It couldn’t be sex spam–the women were too scrubbed, the settings kooky, not suggestive–like the photos were intended for friends. I initially ignored them after wondering how they made it onto my phone and if the other account holder knew I could see these pix. Then I began to worry, would if the account holder might introduce a boyfriend into her/our photo library? Would if the pictures started to show more skin, intimate kissing, and, well, you know. I didn’t want to feel like a peeping tom so I finally broke my silence and commented on one of her “My Friends and I Having a Rad Time!” pix. The sender said we had the same handle so the pix were getting mixed. She must have seen one of my rare posts. Perhaps an image of an old fat fart in an A’s cap stuffing his hole with a hot link, the Oakland Coliseum in the background. There’s nothing cute or kooky or rad about that! Finally, the Instagrams from her stopped. Perhaps my brutal gray-beard double-chin close-ups did the trick and she changed her handle. Poor girl. Better changing your handle than gouging those pretty baby blues out, Sweetie.

Being an avid reader and a nut for lists I will always use Goodreads. Even if all my Goodreads Friends left me I would still use it. Of course, because I’m losing my marbles I often add a title to my Want to Read list then, a few months pass and I’m checking out the list and wonder what this book is and why did I add it to this list. The same goes for my Read list. I’ll hear about an exciting book and login to Goodreads to add it to my Want to Read file only to find I have already read the book. Getting old is a bitch.

I can’t say how many times I have downloaded then later deleted Nextdoor just to download it again. If you don’t know, Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods. At first, I thought it was kind of handy and I still do today (mainly because this time around I turned off the notifications). I have now made peace with the app. I think the notification part of the tool is supposed to make the social networking app helpful. Do you see a stray dog running around in your yard? Check your Nextdoor app. There’s no information on a missing dog? Create a post. If someone is missing a dog that fits the description of that pooch they might respond. In the meantime, your phone will sound off whenever a fellow Nextdoor neighbor has a notification.

I do turn on the notifications if I see something strange, the power goes out, or I can tell a police helicopter is flying circles around my neighborhood. When there is some kind of activity happening in my hood I’ll turn on the notifications and my phone will go off every few minutes with a neighbor chiming in. About 80 percent of the announcements are dumb-ass comments or redundant information. Someone posted something they thought was important without checking the thread and wasted everyone’s time. Recently, there was a murder on a street adjacent to mine. An abusive husband did his wife in. A fraction of the updates was helpful–information someone got from the Sacramento Police Department. The rest of it just annoying beeping on my phone–Gladys Kravitz gossiping all night until I turned the notifications off. The developers made a useful tool that is often abused by the users (at least in my neighborhood).

I’m also on WeChat, a Chinese multi-purpose social media app. (Think Instagram with a messaging service.) Since China restricts most of the social media tools we use in the U.S. my wife and I use WeChat to keep in touch with our son and daughter-in-law and see the latest pictures of our granddaughter. I use the image viewer part of the tool the most. Being a stepfather means not being the point of contact. Sad.

Speaking of one-word sentences, I don’t think I will ever part with our President’s chief mode of communication to his citizens. Assuming I really stick with cutting back about 90 percent on Facebook I’ll keep my political ravings to Twitter. Did I say I was going to cut Facebook entirely out? Hmm, I’m reconsidering that. I logged off of my account on my work PC and removed the icon from my phone. If I don’t log in using either of these two devices I will have drastically cut my Facebook time. I’ll stay logged in at home. Gotta keep up with people’s birthdays, right?

 

giphy

Oh yeah. I almost forgot.

 

More Bread for Mopping: Eating with Jimmy

fat kids

“Two fat guys walk into a restaurant…”

I don’t know what the punchline of that joke would be. It’s been so long since I lived the actual setup. The last time I had lunch with my friend Jimmy was over seventeen years ago. I miss our time together, our unhealthy attraction to food, my guilt for pigging out on the stuff and his utter shamelessness for bingeing.

I met James Tatsch at a party of Tower Theatre and Showcase Cinema employees way back in 1980 when I was a new Tower employee. I was my usual wallflower self–not talking to nearly all of the guests since I had just met some of them as fellow floor staffers and the rest being complete strangers to me–some Showcase Cinema floor staff and the remaining friends of Tower/Showcase employees. I would find a corner in this Midtown Sacramento house to inhabit or just walk around aimlessly–rarely stopping at a cluster of chatting attendees. At one point I wandered into a bedroom with a one-sheet of Lina Wertmüller’s 1974 film “Swept Away” on the ceiling. There sitting at a desk playing one of those now considered “old school” wooden labyrinth games was this morbidly obese man–older than anyone else in the party by at least fifteen years. (Yeah, that doesn’t seem much now that I’m 60, but the difference seemed significant at 23.) His isolation, WearGuard clothes, ankle-supporting leather hightop shoes, and his advanced baldness also added to his years, I suppose.

While I was stared at the sexy movie poster, Jimmy said hello. I said hello back and a perfunctory conversation ensued. While we talked–he working the labyrinth game and I staring at Mariangela Melato’s body. He rarely looked up when he spoke that night. He said his name was Wolfgang, a reinvention moniker after Wolfgang von Goethe–a name I would refer to him as until the last ten years of our friendship when I began to call him Jimmy–the name his family called him. I thought Jimmy was more endearing than Wolfgang or James.

He would only make eye contact briefly after he lost a game and just before he fetched the ball from the return and resumed the game. Was that rude? I don’t know. I liked that he was not so intensely engaged in our conversation. It provided an easy way out if it got uncomfortable and anyway, I was too transfixed by Mariangela Melato’s body. Later, I would find Jimmy fascinating, witty, charming, and–ultimately–tragic when others found him either weird, uninteresting or repulsive. Over the next thirty years, I found that most people chose one of the latter qualities rather than agreeing with my assessment of the man. We would become famous friends with many negligible things in common and one big one: we both liked to eat!

This post is about our friendship and mutual love for stuffing our faces. I originally wanted to write a comprehensive history of our friendship. Thanks to my poor memory I settled on the beginning and what I’m afraid is the end of our friendship and one element in between.

I have struggled with my weight since settling down with my wife. That’s not her fault. I have always been a little on the thick side. By the time I was in college–occasionally living (and nearly starving) outside the home–I was probably at my best weight. In fact, when I met Jimmy I might have been near my best weight. Yeah, I’ll blame my weight on him.

A few years into my marriage (in the early 1990s) I had gotten used to home-cooked meals again and was getting far too comfortable watching TV after dinner until bedtime. It was at this time Jimmy would come over about two or three times a month. We would sit and chat and often fetch fast-food dinners for the whole family. Other times he would buy some exotic food that he would share with my wife and I after the kids went down. We would sit at the kitchen table–Jimmy testing the tensile strength of the wooden chair he sat in–and chat and eat into the late night. So it was logical in that environment that I would gain weight.

Perhaps the best example of how the consumption of food was the bond between Jimmy and me was the night we chowed down somewhere in the ballpark of a dozen Jimboys Tacos. My wife had called from work or shopping to ask what I wanted for dinner. I replied, “Just bring home a shitload of Jimboys Tacos. Wolfgang (Jimmy) is here.” She didn’t disappoint. Jimmy and I ate somewhere in the vicinity of a twelve beef tacos along with some taquitos and plenty of Jimboy’s fake guacamole. We also emptied a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke (being on a diet and all).

It’s funny how, at the time, my wife thought that the whole scene was grotesquely humorous–two fat guys going through a sizeable greasy-orange bag of taco and taquitos, our bald foreheads glistening with sweat from the hot sauce we didn’t spare. Those days are long gone. Now, whenever I down a large flauta (basically a giant taquito) and prep myself for Flauta No. 2, she says in, with absolutely no humor in her tone, “You’re not going to eat both of those?” She’s right, of course. I’m a lot fatter and older than I was when I ate all those tacos and I need my wife to remind me of that, but I miss Jimmy and the free-wheeling taco jam; and hey, why did she buy two of these things when she’s eating a taco salad?

Then there were the excursions. About twenty years ago I had to surrender my driver’s license to the DMV after I started experiencing seizures that are usually suppressed by the medications I have been taking since I was twelve. This problem, it appears, has passed and I have my license back, but for nearly ten years I was at the mercy of my family and the horrible Sacramento Regional Transit District to get around. Jimmy–always wanting to be the hero–offered to take me out to lunch every so often and help me run some errands. We would sometimes go shopping at off-beat places: Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese markets where Jimmy–a student of linguistics–would try his hand at understanding the help that didn’t speak English. I bought stuff that I would have never purchased for my family. I’d show it to the household and Jimmy almost always took it home with him.

We would sometimes go to Morant’s Old Fashioned Sausage Kitchen where I would buy him some sausages and buy some landjäger for myself that I could take to work. (The stuff would keep without refrigeration for over a week!) Along with his bouts of Manic Depression, Jimmy suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and an obsession to know virtually everything there is to know German sausages. We got kicked out of Morant’s once because Jimmy asked too many questions and when the butcher at the counter was through answering questions Jimmy dished out some of his choice sarcasm and the butcher told him to take a hike, shooting me a look like I somehow insulted him as well.

Whenever we went to a sitdown restaurant I had the misfortune to have an attractive woman wait on us. Despite his looks, Jimmy was a charmer, but his charm didn’t woo the waitresses. They always said their boyfriends were at the bar or waiting outside in the car or was “a line cook here–right on the other side of those doors”–pointing at the swinging doors as if to say if I scream he will hear me and kick the shit out of you. These waitresses would tell this to Jimmy as he continued asking them questions that got more and more personal. They always kept their cool but I couldn’t help thinking the replies to these queries were thinly disguised “back off, fatso” lines, and that these smoke signals were also intended for me, too, though I usually kept my face buried in the menu.

And if Jimmy was serious about flirting with the help his ordering completely obliterated what remote chance he had with these ladies. He ordered as if he were feeding two people and a small child. Jimmy also asked a lot of questions on various items, keeping the waitresses at our table and away from their other customers. The kicker came when we finally ordered he insisted on keeping the menu–on one occasion having a tug of war over the menu with the waitress. Jimmy won, placing the big laminated thing between his gigantic ass and the chair. (I dare you to try to snatch that menu now, flustered waitress!)

The weird menu-hoarding thing was because he had to “pavement checked” the menu before surrendering it. It was his OCD–he had to thoroughly scan the information and the actual physical menu before he felt secure enough to relinquish it. Also, he always ordered dessert. No matter how embarrassed I was, I also ordered something after our large lunches.

Bread was another thing. Whenever we ate at a restaurant that served a complimentary basket of bread, we would buzz through at least two baskets. Jimmy would stuff the un-eaten slices in his “bagatelle” (a double entendre for the brown paper bag he would carry with him everywhere that contained his glasses, a magnifying glass, tissue paper–trifles). He felt absolutely no shame in requesting additional baskets of complimentary bread. The waitress would come by asking “Is everything alright.” Jimmy would always be polite and say “Oh, yes!” or “It’s all excellent. Thank you.” Unfortunately, he took that time to ask something about the waitress: how long had she been working there, what kind of earrings was she wearing, does that ring signify you are married? As embarrassing as this was, he would always top all of this by waiting until the waitress was about two tables away before yelling, “AND MORE BREAD FOR MOPPING.” I wanted to slink down under the table grabbing my Penne Rustica and the remaining slices of bread on the way down, of course.

I ran into a clip from Louis C.K.’s FX TV show “Louie” and immediately thought of my lunch dates with Jimmy. I’m not sure how the reader feels of C.K. after his gross sexual misconduct. I am sympathetic of his and all other victims of sexual misconduct, but I also am selfish enough to wish the whole thing didn’t happen so he can keep making standup specials, TV shows, and films like the indefinitely shelved I Love You, Daddy. Anyway, below is a clip that is the closest thing I have ever seen on TV to my lunches with Jimmy. Jimmy would be Bobby, Louie’s friend: utterly shameless in his gluttony. I would be Louie: willing to stuff my face with my friend, but self-conscience about it.

For some reason, the lunches with Jimmy stopped. Maybe Jimmy ran out of places where he was welcome. I’m not sure, but around that time I got a scooter and I was pigging out on burgers alone and reviewing them for this blog. One of a few big reasons I do so few Burger Scoot reviews these days is because the empty chairs around me remind me of our Saturday lunches. His visits to my home were also on a less frequent basis.

In 2010, Jimmy overdosed on Lithium–a prescription drug his psychiatrist prescribed for his manic depression–which he had been taking irregularly since before I met him. I dropped in on him at the request of a mutual friend who could not reach him and was worried. I found him in a horrible state. I called 9-1-1 and saw the EMTs haul him off in an ambulance. I visited him in the hospital a couple of times. When he was discharged from the hospital his sister picked him up and delivered him to an assisted living facility in Washington. I called him about a year or so after he moved to his new residence, but now his medications were being managed by professionals and I was no longer talking to my old friend. It was like the meds killed the manic part and left him just depressed. I spoke with him a second time, but there was no change. He didn’t want to talk very long and I suppose that was a good thing: the old Jimmy–the Wolfgang I met at that Midtown house party back in 1980, the guy I ate a shitload of tacos with and got kicked out of Morant’s with–was gone.

As I type this Vivian, my lab mix is eating her dinner behind me. It hasn’t happened yet, but as soon as she wolfs her food down–not too different from the way Jimmy and I would attack our food–she will drink some water. When she is finished lapping up the water she will return to the empty kibble bowl with her wet mouth and lick the bowl clean. Aah, there she goes! Vivian doesn’t need bread, her tongue does all the mopping.

I miss my friend.

jimmy2
After a Sacramento Symphony concert in the 1990s, I believe. Jimmy is center with his Women’s Philharmonic t-shirt, I’m on the right laughing my ass off at something I wish I could remember. Our mutual friend from the D.C. area, Carl “Mad Dog” Hattery, is on the left.

The Wobblies Past (and Present, I guess)

IWW

One night a few years ago I showed a 2-for-1 coupon for a local pan-Asian restaurant to my son. I wanted to know if he had visited the restaurant. He is a pescatarian, and places like this noodle restaurant are right up his alley. “Yeah, I’ve been there–many times,” he said. “It’s good. Our local chapter of the Wobblies meets there.”

Dad’s jaw dropped.

I wasn’t surprised that he would be associated with something like the Wobblies (Last time I checked he was still a Marxist.) I was shocked that the Wobblies were even around!

A week or so later I asked one of the officers of my local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organization if he knew the Wobblies (or the Industrial Workers of the World or IWW) were still around. He said yes, with a cynical chuckle. All I had to do was look online. The IWW has a presence on the web, but unlike popular political organizations like my DSA or progressive political parties like the Party for Socialism & Liberation and the Socialist Alternative party, the Wobblies don’t get a lot of coverage in the alternative press. Their history, however, is more vibrant than any other progressive organization in America.

Established in in 1905, by William D. Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners, the great Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, and Daniel De Leon of the Socialist Labor Party, the IWW was comprised mostly of unskilled farm workers, miners, and loggers–many of these people immigrants. Unlike other unions, the IWW welcomed all working people–immigrants, minorities, women, and the unemployed. They advocated the overthrow of capitalism, placing workers in control of their own work lives. The IWW used walk-out and sit-down strikes, boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of direct action to achieve their goals.

This excellent interview Arvind Dilawar did in Jacobin with the coeditor of a new anthology, Wobblies of the World. leaves out the IWW’s current activities and focuses on its significant past. This history of the organization is fascinating and–to a socialist like me–ultimately frustrating. This book is now on my shortlist along with Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World Edited by Paul M. Buhle and Nicole Schulman.

True to its name, the Industrial Workers of the World spanned the globe — an international history that has long been forgotten. IWW supporters in the early twentieth century. Even Americans familiar with labor history might be surprised by the slogan of the Congress of South African Trade Unions: “An injury to one is an…

via Wobblies of the World, Unite — Jacobin

Hi-V and my ugly safety vest

Early this month I had my third near collision on my scooter with a car. This time just like the first time the driver of the vehicle pulled out of a parking lot to cross my lane only to notice me too late. Thanks to me I stopped in time and didn’t hit the car’s left fender and go sailing over the car’s hood. And like the first time, the driver remained in my path–presumably gathering their wits. The first time this happened I was pissed, but calm and gave a kind of sarcastic bow with a flourish of my left arm as if to say, “Oh you first. I insist!” The third and last time, I violently waved the car away multiple times as if saying, “Okay, so you didn’t hit me. Congratulations. Now, get the hell out of my way!” Yeah, I was a little rattled. The third time was a charm. When I got home, I pulled the Hi-V vest from the hold under my saddle and put over my riding jacket and hung that jacket in my closet–as if the ugly safety vest was a part of the, previously, cool-looking jacket.

When I first got my scooter, I attended an intensive motorcycle safety program. The program was comprised of a night of classwork, followed by two full days of hands-on training at the company’s course with the company’s own motorcycles. If you pass the rider’s test at the end, you are given a learner’s permit. All you have to do from there is pass the written DMV test and you get your M1.

Easy enough, right? Alas, like everything in my life, nothing comes easy. Back in the mid-70s, it took me five times to pass my driver’s test. (No, gentle reader, that’s not a typo FIVE times! That’s got to be a record. Also, I almost killed the DMV employee the first time.) It also took me multiple attempts to pass my written motorcycle test back then. So you won’t be surprised to find it took me two times to pass the final riding test in this class. The permit cost me a crash & burn finale and a cracked rib!

The thing that has stayed with me well beyond this one of a multitude of humiliations in my life and the pain in my chest that came with it was the acronym I learned in the classroom. It has become a mantra whenever I catch myself daydreaming while I ride: S.E.E. or Scan, Evaluate, Execute. The Scan part is ongoing and should never stop, but the mind does wander. If the Evaluate is followed by the Execute it happens in a split second. If it doesn’t, you are either dead or the truck that almost crushed you had your Guardian Angel behind the wheel. Either that or you did some fancy maneuvering.

A second thing I remembered was the depressing stat that over ninety percent of all accidents involving motorcycles happen in intersections. (So much for being safe by staying off the Interstate.) The final takeaway from the motorcycle safety class was for the rider to always be visible to the surrounding traffic. That’s where Hi-V comes in. Hi-V, HiVis, or HV means high visibility wear or measures. I wore some Hi-V when I first got my Vespa with a learner’s permit–a cheap synthetic, black and fluorescent jacket that was always uncomfortable and hot as hell in the summer. I still use it from time to time since I can cram it into the hold under the saddle. Later I bought an expensive, bulky, but a breathable black jacket with a tiny fluorescent bead across the upper back of the jacket and no Hi-V element in the front.

OccupyI loved this jacket, but I knew when I tried it on I would need more Hi-V and I had just the thing for it. I was an armchair supporter of Occupy Wall Street–supporting the movement monetarily. I bought American-made products for the protesters through Occupy Supply. Occupy Supply, like the movement, is long defunct, but I was proud to support the campaign even if no one ever asks me what’s that design on the back of my safety vest mean. The problem is, you can’t make a safety vest look “cool.” I’m sure if anyone took a second look at the design on the back of the vest they probably thought it was some CalTrans sign or maybe a cryptic Seal of the Fraternal Order of TSA Operators. Occupy Supply supplied the Occupy activists in Zuccotti Park and in the other protest centers. If you bought two tents, they sent you one and another to an Occupy center in need. I ended up ordering a few items then I just started posting them money, when I could.

Time past and the vest got to be a pain; I would forget to zip it up and it would flap in the wind. When I had the time to pull over and zip it up, it would be rolled up into an impossible mess under my arms. I finally stowed it. After this last incident, I found the thing where I had left it. I also found this website that shows how critical high visibility motorcycle clothing is.

Oh, for the sake of inclusivity, the incident between the first and this last episode involved traveling in the left lane of a two-lane, one-way street (J Street in Midtown Sacramento, for local readers) and the driver on my right decided to change lanes with me presumably in his blind spot. The car forced me off the road not before I slapped the back door of the sedan before heading for the gutter. (I’m not a horn person and so forgot which button it was.) I have nightmares wondering if I would still be alive if we were on a four-lane, two-way street and he pushed me into the on-coming traffic. The kid behind the wheel turned out to be a student driver with a very embarrassed and apologetic mom trainer. The scariest thing about this situation is I could have been wearing a fluorescent clown suit, my helmet a revolving disco ball and it wouldn’t have made a damn bit of difference.

Another reason for the heightened concern with visibility, independent of the last incident, is that I have been racking up more miles than usual and many of them in the dark. I started an early-morning exercising regime recently. Before I turned over this new leaf I was commuting to work via bicycle and most of that commute was on bike trails and roads that saw very little traffic. Now, with the mornings so cold and the family not wanting my alarm to go off early enough for me to make it to the club on time via bike, I have been forced to ride my scooter. That doesn’t sound like a scooterist, does it? Well, it’s just the law of averages: the more I’m on the road, the higher the chance of an accident. And add to that the fact that it is dark–I’m harder to see.

This commute is not a scenic ride either. I love riding my scooter, especially on the River Road (California State Route 160) and Garden Highway, but I usually try to avoid the more mundane rides–especially when it is dark. Oh, and in case you didn’t know I don’t drive, so taking a car in is out. Why I don’t drive is directly connected to why I ride a scooter, but that’s a long story. Perhaps for a different blog post.

“But Jack,” you might say. “There’s the public transportation system.” This is Sacramento, I reply bitterly to the visitor from Chicago or NYC. We have SacRT–one of the most poorly served (and ironically expensive) transportation systems in the country. No, there is not a line near me that will get me to the club on time. Cabs are too expensive times three days a week and don’t you dare tell me to Uber it!

Maybe I should get me one of those belligerent stereo systems for motorcycles and have it installed on my ride. I could crank Slayer to eleven and play it all the way to the club in the five o’clock hour. Even some of the names of these products scream, Hey everybody, here I come, an asshole on a motorcycle. Don’t hit me!: “Reckless,” “Thunder,” and “Rumble Road.” At least they would know where I am. I also noticed most of these systems are waterproof so they will work on personal watercrafts. Aah, those things assholes ride wide open around 5-mile-an-hour limit boat landings. Got it!

The motorcycle safety trainer who failed me had a much more elegant way of listening to music (and chat on the phone) that would not help me here at all–a Bluetooth helmet. So he sounded pretty hypocritical in the classroom when he told his students they need to “always be listening to the traffic.” I guess the physics of traffic didn’t apply to him.

My friend and fellow State of California employee, Dave, does not like Hi-V. (Well, to be honest, neither do I. I just consider it a necessity.) Dave is a member of the Resurrection MC, a “one percenter” so a Hi-V safety vest would obscure or completely cover his colors and all the motorcycle clubs colors–their back patch and rockers are a critical part of their identities. Considering how dark they dress fluorescent green or yellow would just not cut it.

Dave was in a horrible accident some months back. This incident has absolutely nothing to do with visibility since he hit a car from behind when attempting to split lanes at high speed and the vehicle in front of him suddenly stopped when he was executing the move. His Harley hit the corner of the car and spun the bike violently around. By the time he hit the road he had five broken ribs and a broken shoulder. He walks with the assistance of a cane for now. I spoke with him about my latest incident and how I was now wearing a Hi-V vest. He gave me a dirty look and said something like I’m not helping to combat the specter of mandatory Hi-V legislation. Sorry man. I just can’t get into walking with a cane or in an electric wheelchair.

When I got my first promotion in the State of California, I was working in a small courier unit with a guy named Hector. Hector was a bit of a wild guy. He once rolled his girlfriend’s Honda Civic down an embankment. I don’t know the details. He could have been driving defensively and he swerved off the road to avoid worse damage. I’m betting he was pushing the edge of the little car’s envelope and he pushed too far. Years later, after he moved to a different agency, I attempted to contact him for information having to do with a project I was heading. I found out he had got in a motorcycle accident and was now a quad. I don’t know the details of that crash only that he was on a motorcycle. That’s enough for pause.

Then there’s my friend Mathieu and his accident. He was hit from behind at a stoplight by a woman in a Mercedes SUV. The big truck catapulted him and his small scooter six feet into the corner of the SUV in front of him where he bade his ride adieu and careened off to the right about 15 feet to the asphalt. Miraculously, he suffered no broken bones—just bruises and cuts and his recent back operation mercifully held. I wish I could say the same for his little red 50cc Yamaha Vino. The scooter folded in on itself–like The Hulk had played it like an accordion. Like a lot of riders (including me until recently), he wasn’t wearing any Hi-V wear, though one wonders if it would have mattered since it happened broad daylight.

And that’s the rub. Mathieu might have been hit even if he was lit up like a Christmas tree. The driver could have been texting or giving a Thumbs Down to some song that started on her satellite radio. I recall riding home on my bicycle just behind a guy with psychedelic-looking wheel lights on both his wheels along with a blinking headlamp, a flashing tail light, and a fluorescent-colored helmet and lycra top. A car came out of a parking lot and nearly hit him (and me) stopping at the last second. “Jesus Christ, how many lights do I have to put on this fucking thing until people can see me!” he yelled back at me in frustration.  He was right, but most likely the driver just wasn’t paying attention.

Update on Mathieu: he recently purchased a used SSR 150cc scooter. It broke down on the ride home from the seller’s house. A bad omen for any bike, but especially considering it’s a Chinese scooter. He took it to the right guy–the local legend of vintage scooter techs, Tim from Midtown Scooters. Mathieu rode it into work yesterday. He plans on applying a minimal Hi-V solution–reflective tape on his jacket. I’ve investigated the tape solution, 3M makes a Solas tape that seems to be popular.

So to avoid nightmares like Dave’s I keep lane-splitting to a bare minimum. As for Mathieu’s unrequested launch ‘n’ crunch, I am wearing a Hi-V vest, but am looking for more solutions to either add to or replace my current preventative measures. I have a black helmet and am thinking about maybe some of that reflective tape Mathieu plans to use. There are standard retroreflectors (like the kind that come standard on bicycles) and then there’s flashing lamps. The battery-powered LEDs for a helmet look good, too.

One idea that does not come from a DMV manual or a motorcycle safety program, but from the world of bicycling in traffic is waving your hand in the air in the situations that you may think a driver cannot see you. The idea is if retroreflectors, fluorescent riding gear, and even LEDs don’t get the driver’s attention movement will. This may work for bicycling, but I wouldn’t want to lose even a little control when I’m on my scooter.

So, I wear a safety vest, and as long as I don’t notice it and drivers do, I’m happy–I guess. Still, whenever I see my jacket with the vest the first thing I think is CalTrans, not a smart-looking motorcycle jacket. Of course, the other option is looking into Hi-V accessories for my scooter. I’m investigating fluorescent wheels or fluorescent-wall tires, but that’s a lot of money. There is also tape for your tires or wheels. My top case has retroreflectors on the back, but there are some top cases that have LEDs in them hooked up to the electrical system so they give drivers behind the scooter extra break lights and directional signals. Call me vain, but I would like to keep my current top case because it is the same Portofino green as the rest of my ride. (If my Dad had a grave he would be rolling over in it about now.) I’m passively looking into lighting up the retroreflectors so I can keep my current top case. I’m also looking into other measures for my ride, but it kills me to turn my beautiful Granturismo into a rolling neon “Eat at Joe’s” sign. I guess it’s all about balance.

 

 

Rolf Soltau and the Vespa Tech Workshop I may never use

I was looking up something about my Vespa. In grand Jockomo fashion I had forgotten what a particular indicator light meant on my scooter’s instrument cluster and after failing to find the information in either the Google or Google Images results I pulled up YouTube and entered the same criteria.

When the results came up, I saw something that instantly reminded me of my father and his legend, of my struggle with making new friends, and of the icon parked in my garage–the thing I’m trying to figure out, the thing I will never really figure out. I saw an image of Rolf Soltau on a Vespa. Rolf Soltau: Preceptor of the American Vespa Technician.

Immediately, I was taken back to the first rally I ever attended, IL Inferno Scorciante Due (or The Hottest Hell 2) hosted by the Vespa Club of Sacramento (VCOS). It was July of 2010, and I had recently purchased a used 2005 Portofino green Vespa GT 200L. On the Friday-night Meet & Greet, Billy, a member of VCOS, had walked up to me at Bonn Lair, an Irish Pub here in Sacramento, and shook my hand as if he meant it. He was so friendly, making it his honor to introduce me to all the club members that I nearly didn’t believe him when he said No to my query about becoming a member of VCOS.

It was Billy who, on the second day of the rally, introduced me to Soltau. We were now at The Shady Lady. Billy yelled in my ear over the music something like “I want you to meet Rolf Soltau,” as if I was supposed to know who Rolf Soltau was. Soltau looked like any guy in his mid-70s or so, but he was surrounded by adoring scooterists–many of them young enough to be his grandchildren. As Billy and I came closer, I heard others mention his name in reverent whispers. It was Déjà vu in the dark. Replace Vespa owners with Keaton Boat owners, The Shady Lady with a boat ramp or the Stockton Ski Club and Soltau with my father and it was the same thing. I was not fully aware of it at the time, but I was in the presence of a living legend.

Rolf Soltau was born in Hamburg, Germany. (As a student of journalism, I’m a man of dates, but as a particularly poor student of journalism, I haven’t been able to find an obituary or a death notice on the man. I only know he is dead because I accidentally stumbled upon the sad news in Modern Vespa one night some months ago.) It’s a crime that Wikipedia.org doesn’t have an entry for the man, but no one has come forth with enough information to post one, I suppose. (I would think someone at Vespa Club of America or his own Vespa Club of Los Gatos (VCLG) would have enough information to at least start a post. Hell, maybe if I ever find a death notice I’ll start one!)

Soltau worked for Porsche from around 1951 to 2000. In 2000 Piaggio (the company that owns Vespa) approached Soltau with a five-year contract to spearhead a training program for Vespa‘s newly formed North American division. Soltau trained over 700 technicians in five years across the U.S. and Mexico on how to fix these iconic scooters. He would go into semi-retirement in 2005 and work five more years in a similar capacity before finally hanging it up in 2010–around the time I met him. Soltau was living in the South Bay Area most of the time he worked with Vespa and, in retirement, was the celebrity (and I would imagine the heart) of the VCLG. He died in May of 2016. From the posts of that time period, it appeared the Vespa world wept.

So that’s who the old guy with the silver hair and glasses keeping the young scooterists in rapt attention was. Billy introduced me to Soltau. Billy told Soltau my name and what kind of Vespa I rode. Everyone stopped and looked at me with their judging vintage-scooter eyes. Soltau smiled and said hi and then said in a thick German accent, “GT 200? All you’ll need to do is keep oil in it, and it will serve you for years.” He smiled at me again then continued to explain how P125s or some other old Vespa needed so on and so forth. I walked to the bar and ordered some non-alcohol drink at an alcohol price while Billy and the rest of the vintage VCOS listened to every word that proceedeth from Soltau’s mouth.

That evening the rally moved to Midtown Scooters for a barbecue. Midtown Scooters is a tiny shop, in fact, it is a fragment of a larger property that is leased out to multiple small auto service business, but the word among the vintage crowd was that it is the place to get your older scooter fixed. “Tim is the only guy you want working on your scoot,” I recall someone saying when I asked how good the mechanic was. I doubt the person I was talking to knew I was one of the few Judases riding a newer Vespa.

I didn’t see Soltau there. I did meet someone else besides Billy from the VCOS though I don’t remember his name. He was tending the grill and explaining to me when Vespa cut over from the two-stroke motors to the four-stroke a little bit of its soul got lost or some BS like that. Despite that foreboding (and stupid) comment I decided to ask him if he thought someone would sponsor me with my late-model Vespa as a VCOS prospect.

He smiled, handing me a hotdog in a bun and said, “No. We’re a vintage club.” Then started in on how great it is to have a vintage Vespa. I wanted right then and there–hotdog in hand–to ask him rhetorically isn’t the whole reason the Vespa Club of America exists is to promote the Vespa product? Not these old ones (and maybe even not my five-year-old Granturismo, for that matter). Vespa does not get a dime from someone buying a rusty old 1966 Super Sprint. Of course, I held my tongue and ate the dog. My teetotalling ways probably won’t mesh with these excessive beer drinkers, anyway. After I finished the dog, I downed a diet soda and quietly mounted my ooooh so gauche GT 200 and left. Since I decided to never attend another VCOS rally (and hazard the chance of photobombing club members’ shots of all their K00L P125s, Super Sprint’s, and Rallys with my butt-ugly GT 200), I never had the opportunity to see Soltau again.

Belated vindication! Soltau is using a late model Granturismo in the attached videos. (Either a GTS 300 or 350; a Super by the looks of the detail.) Take that, VCOS vintage snobs! Soltau also took a swipe at vintage snobs in the first video, as well. 

Sorry for the rag-tangent. This post is sounding like it’s about me rather than the Master Technician. Then again this blog’s foundation is principally made with first person singular cement. Also, in the spirit of full disclosure, I never turned out to be a club guy. I tried to hang out with the Sacramento chapter of the Royal Bastards Scooter Club. A club that happily accepted owners of all makes/models of scooters–Billy! After only a few awkward meetups and a Rio Vista run gone sideways I was reminded there’s a reason I’m a loner: whenever I make an effort to become a part of something beyond myself someone usually pisses me off. I’ve been riding solo ever since.

Anyway, below is the ten-part Vespa Tech Workshop I accidentally ran across. Strange I didn’t find this earlier. I don’t think any of my usual readers are going to go through the ten videos lasting over six and a half hours. I’m posting it anyway because I’m a hopeless hero worshiper and though I only saw him for a moment (and occasionally see his immortal image on many VCLG Facebook posts popping wheelies, eating, drinking, smiling, and laughing with his club members) he was a monumental figure in the scooter world, though very approachable. Kudos to Ryan Kirk who recorded and posted these on his YouTube channel back in 2012. Will I ever use these videos? Me? Ha! I’m the guy who struggles to replace an inner tube on his bicycle! No, I don’t think so, but my model is mentioned throughout the videos, so one never knows. I’m just glad Soltau and Kirk had the foresight to record these treasures and share them with the shooter world!

Postscript: While watching these videos, Rolf answered the question that indirectly led me to the discovery of this treasure trove: the light on my instrument cluster is a diagnostic LED for the electrical system. Now to look up the flash sequence codes to figure out what my ride is trying to tell me. So I did glean something from these videos.Thanks, Rolfie! You were a mensch!