Monday, February 21, 2011

black & white daydreams

I met Charlie Chaplin on the street today. The years had left him rather heavy, but he still had his trademark cane and mustache. It was around 9th and Market-- what some insist on referring to as The Armpit of Market-- close to high noon, and the crowds of lunch were dispersing to various channels of consumption. Being ambushed and lacking efficient energy to do anything constructive with the next hour of my life, I decided to have a little chat with the old timer, if he’d have me. His black dress shoes were rather clownish, the toecaps bulbous and scuffed, and his general appearance-- sloppy suit tails, shredded soup-stained tie, baggy shoelace-belted trousers, bowler hat and all -- could be succinctly summed up as grubby. His hair had grown a bit long and was curling out in thick, black tangles from under his hat. He was walking towards me, and I dead-in-my-tracks stopped and began to walk along with him in the other direction. At first he was silent, only giving me a few hat tricks and gestures of cane and eyebrow twitches to communicate his present situation in the modern world. I didn’t mind. I’m used to being the one who does most of the talking.

Now, I’m not somebody who looks good in short sleeves. I’m a long-sleever until the day they plow over my grave. I believe Charlie feels the same way about such matters, and this may be part of what made us comradely towards each other. We both were enjoying a rare splash of sun on the face as we walked along Market’s north side just before the shadows of afternoon took over and flooded the streets. It was a pleasant way to be passing some time, and Charlie seemed content to just dawdle along for a bit, poking his cane at things, tap dancing around fire hydrants and pedestrians, and making faces in the storefront windows as we went by. His newly acquired girth didn’t stop him from goofing around; his heft was still straddling the lithe side, and he twinkled on his toes more than most-- though it was, at times, a tad labored, and he probably huffed and sighed more than he used to afterwards. It’s possible that his gestures were more compensatory than before too, but this wasn’t but a meager surface claim or a dollop of scuttlebutt to toss into the mixing bowl of his personality’s quirks and elbow grease. His habits were intact, the ticks and hooks of cane and fake trips and all, and he even blew a few young ladies a kiss from behind a white daisy safety-pinned crookedly to his lapel. Nobody seemed to pay him much mind. His theatrics were not enough to distract people from their gizmos: tiny phones and portable electronic devices pumping music into their ears. I asked him what he thought about this colorful age of information. He flapped his lips with his fingers and, with his patented overdramatic flare, rolled his eyes and tossed back his head. It seemed I’d found a kindred spirit. We both pretended our legs were made of rubber bands and limboed back as far as we could. Walking in this absurd manner, as if being blown down by a hurricane-force gale, was great fun for us both, and neither he nor I cared what anyone else thought about it.

A man walking by offered us a color television set for 25 bucks. I told him we preferred ours in black and white with the sound off. The man kept walking. Charlie eloquently turned up his nose, squatted, and stuck out his rump in such a way as to show that humor and style trumped technology and money. Watching his eyebrows wiggle around like electrocuted caterpillars was a sight nonpareil. We both turned and, in dramatic unison, stuck out our tongues at the traffic going by. A bus honked. Charlie flipped it the bird. We walked on.

We strolled by the head shops and the hawk shops, the cheap food vendors, the retired movie marquees with missing letters, the abandoned buildings and the wrecked lives of those who squatted about. Charlie passed out some coins among the homeless, and performed a smattering of legerdemain for some interested passersby. I faked a trumpet solo as he pranced about like he was a robot with many screws loose, showing off his poker face, beset with a trembling demeanor, hyperextending his soul. It was fun to watch. He’d spit on his hands, wind up like he was going to hurl a fastball at you, stop midway, turn around and tap an unsuspecting cop on the shoulder, then duck when the cop turned around. Sometimes he’d spin while holding the foot of a bent leg in one hand, his cane held tight beneath the other arm, bowing and doffing his hat when done. I admired his poise. We walked on.

I began noticing things I’d never seen before, like they’d never been there and had just arrived to say hi to me. Colors were somehow different than I’d remembered them being. A white carnation appeared to be floating on a heap of copper wires. Curls of clouds were splitting blue lips, puffed to life, floating lazily and twirling in a slow pinwheel of white. Resting in a sun-drenched window of an old redbrick tenement was a chubby cat that seemed to be made of the same stuff as the clouds; it yawned and swatted at a fly. Slightly crushed aluminum cans, a few crusty melted AA batteries, a pecked on carrot strung with weeds, a dead lighter, spilled popcorn, the remains of newspaper slushed in the gutter. I spotted an abandoned umbrella spread half-open over a newspaper dispenser. A few of the support poles were bent savagely, as if they’d been thrashed in a brawl with the wind, and the fabric of its skin was torn and crumpled. Charlie picked it up, crushed it closed, and began using it as a sword, performing a little dance as if he were fencing with a ghost. He’d spin and twirl, and toss the umbrella from hand to hand, sometimes flipping it around backwards, sometimes catching it behind his back. There was an ease to his motion, a soft effortless ease that was swift and precise, yet also gentle and, in the way of any lost art, profound. It was like watching a mime perform ballet. When he was finished, with a delicate fling, he sailed the umbrella perfectly into the metal mouth of a garbage can. I held my applause; I sensed that clapping would have been inappropriate.

As we came to the Civic Center fountain I noticed that Charlie had wandered off. I spotted him standing on one leg on top of a bench, almost tipping over. He kept leaning farther and farther forward until he was delicately perched there like a crane doing ballet. He stretched out both arms beside him as if they were wings. His head tilted skyward. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more wonderful sight. I stood there and watched him like that, holding statue-still with the makings of a slight smile on his lips, and I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just stay here. Maybe I won’t ever leave.’ The water in the fountain stunk of urine. A dog had a bit of diarrhea on the grass behind the benches. A junkie vomited on the BART station escalator.

Melting strands of melilot gushed and forged sweetness through the evaporating puddles of Charlie’s now blurry and crackling silhouette-like image. I scratched my head and swept my eyes, which had turned to green in my sleep, and let the dust fall where it may. Something was gone away for good. In the limelight a clattering spool was spent. The reel caught and snapped off a last frame of film, a dull thudding over and over, a final clunk. Rolling over under the covers, I threw a rock at a window. Nothing shattered, and the radio’s weak signal sang along with me. Over time, and under it too, I had many days left to wander around in, and the coffee was only going to stay hot for so long.