It was just around midnight when I sat down at the bar to order a beer and wait for Psycho Dish’s shift to end. The brew pub was a nice place – sure nicer than a lot of other places he had worked. The buses didn’t run too late out in that part of town, and Psycho Dish was once again without wheels of his own, so I’d offered to come pick him up and drive him home. The bar closed at 2AM, but the kitchen closed at midnight, and even on a Saturday night they wouldn’t really need him at the dishwashing station after that. The next morning he’d come back, finish up any leftover dishes, take all the beer bottles piled up from the night before out to the trash, and maybe even chop some vegetables with the prep cooks before heading over to St. Giles for the 12:30PM service. But the buses would be running again by then, so he wouldn’t need me for that.
Everybody around me hates Psycho Dish. My dad says that he’s a bum and I shouldn’t have anything to do with him. My mom tells me that he’s mildly scary, though I don’t know that I’d go that far. My old girlfriend used to say that he’s a weirdo and a magnet for bad luck. I won’t deny that there’s a little bit of truth to that last part. But I guess I always saw something in him that they didn’t. Maybe I just have a higher tolerance for flawed people and hard luck cases than they do. Or maybe it’s that all of the most interesting people I’ve ever known have been weirdos.
I’d been nursing my beer and tapping away mindlessly on my phone for maybe fifteen minutes when the barstool next to me slid back and Psycho Dish settled onto it. He’s in his mid-50s, tall, with a beer gut and short, thinning hair that was once a dark blond, but is now as gray as not. He was still wearing his linens from the kitchen. He looked tired, but in good spirits.
That’s his normal greeting.
“You paid for that beer yet?”
It was an obvious offer to pay for my beer. Unexpectedly generous. Don’t get me wrong, Psycho Dish isn’t naturally stingy. He’s just naturally broke all the time. Some people are like that.
“Yup. Typical – when it’s time to pay a bill, you’re always late”, I answered.
Psycho Dish held up his right hand and raised his middle finger at me. Well, as much as he could, anyhow. The middle finger on that hand is missing above the center knuckle (it all had something to do with his having “borrowed” his dad’s WV Beetle without asking one snowy night when he was 16 on a quest to maybe get laid, and having ended up wrecked in a ditch), so all I got was the half-bird. He smiled though, and turned toward the bartender to order a beer for himself.
It was late, but we had time, and the crowd had thinned out enough already that it wasn’t too noisy to sit and talk. I still owed him one for flipping me off, so I decided to start with a topic that would really annoy him.
Psycho Dish on Interracial Romance:
“So… how’s The Empress?”
Psycho Dish groaned the way he always did whenever someone brought her up, and half-whispered “Aw, fuck…”
The Empress is Psycho Dish’s ex-wife. She came from China, and was the daughter of some army general back home. I guess someone that important not being able to find a husband for her should’ve been a bad sign. Man, the temper on that girl… what a hellraiser. She never learned that if everything is X, then nothing is X – if everything justifies a volcanic eruption, then nothing does. If you go straight to the redline over every little thing, then nobody has any way of telling when something’s really important and they need to pay attention. The important stuff just gets lost in the noise. And she was always really good at making noise when she flared up.
The story behind them goes like this: Sometime in his late thirties, Psycho Dish decided that it was time to finally get respectable and go to college. That’s where I met him. He was living in my dorm building and, being tall, pot-bellied, and almost 40 years old, he stood out. To tell the truth, college really did expand his horizons. He got fascinated with Asian culture – he ended up taking Japanese for his required foreign language and even joined the kendo club – and through all of that, he got fascinated with Asian girls, too. There were lots of them living in the dorm, but the fact that he was 1) chronically broke and 2) old enough to be their dad kept him from having much success with them until The Empress showed up. She was in her thirties too, still not married, and was being shunted off to school in America by her family for reasons that were not entirely clear. She was open to his advances, they had a whirlwind romance, and before long they were engaged.
She took him to China to meet her family (I couldn’t tell you where the money for that came from), and I think that’s where he really fell in love. For weeks after he came back, he talked about China – all the things he’d done and all the places he’d seen and all the people he’d met and all the food he’d eaten. He loved what he saw and he wanted to be a part of all that. When they got married, he finally was.
And then the reasons why her family had sent her a few thousand miles away from all of them started to become clearer.
By that time, she was pregnant with their son, and things were complicated. They kept it going for a few years, but in the end the divorce was probably inevitable. When it came, it was messy and nasty and made everyone miserable.
“I’ll tell you, this is what happens when you get married for all the wrong reasons,” Psycho Dish told me, as he stared down into his glass, “and it’s easy to do when you’re blinded by the other person being different or exotic. Relationships between people of different races or cultures are tough that way. I’m not saying that nobody should ever do it, but you gotta be extra careful – way more than you’d be otherwise. You have to make damn sure that what you’re marrying is the girl: not her culture, not her country, not a mystique, not your dreams of what Asian girls – or whoever it is that you’re involved with – are like. Marry the girl, or don’t, because in the end, it’s her – not any of that other stuff – that you have to wake up next to every morning.”
Psycho Dish on MGTOW:
Psycho Dish took a long swig of his beer, and waited a little while before he let his next thought pass his lips.
“Here’s the honest truth – women got two things: pussy, and bullshit. It’s all a matter of how much of one you’re willing to put up with for how much of the other.”
That one made me smile a little. “So the problem with The Empress is that she’s got a bad P over B ratio?”
“Right now, dude, all of ‘em do. Bad enough for me to stay away, at least. I did the husband and father thing, and I tried my best at it. I like to think I’m still a good father to the boy. But where I’m at in life right now, I’ve got my little place to myself where it’s nice and quiet, I’ve got my books to read, I’ve got an old laptop with Netflix on it, I’ve got a fifth of not-half-bad whiskey sitting on my shelf, and no offense to womankind, but I can’t think of anything much I need to add to that to be content.”
“Nothing?” I asked, with a little smile.
Psycho Dish smirked. “Yeah, okay, so maybe Netflix isn’t the only kind of videos I watch on that laptop. But getting the real thing just isn’t worth disturbing my peace over.”
I took a little sip from the drink I’d been nursing, and thought. Finally I asked: “Does that mean you’re done with women for good?”
“Hey, if the right one came along, who knows? But I’m not putting myself out on the meat market just for the sake of doing it, and I’m not going to chase after women I don’t really like just to not be alone.”
“So what you’re saying is that no company is better than bad company?”
“I’ll drink to that!” – he raised his glass, and so did I.
Psycho Dish on Personal Responsibility:
There was a little pause in the conversation, and when I looked back at Psycho Dish I saw that his smile had faded. He looked serious; even a little regretful.
“I’m not saying that none of it was my fault, though. I’ve made mistakes. Lots of ‘em.”
And that he had. I knew about a fair share of them. He had a talent for talking his way into jobs he couldn’t really handle and then getting fired after a few months when the bosses finally caught on. This was usually followed a long period of poverty. Sometimes serious poverty – there were stretches he’d spent in homeless shelters, some of them for months on end (he’d never landed The Empress in one when they were together, but they’d come close a couple of times). Even when he had money, he was never any good at keeping it. He had a bad habit of blowing the money in his pocket on nice things that he really couldn’t afford, and then not having any to pay his bills later on – a habit which he called the “Fuck-You Budget”. It didn’t make for a lot of financial security. The Empress might not have handled it the right way, but that kind of thing wasn’t going to make any woman happy.
But at least he knew about his faults, and didn’t make excuses for them. You’d think that his time living among the poor and the homeless would have given him sympathy for the tales they told about how they ended up where they were. But it was just the opposite; he’d heard too many of their stories, which were all basically the same and that all basically turned out to be horseshit. They usually weren’t completely untrue, mind you – but they always held back some important details and inflated some others, which left the impression of them being way less responsible for their own sad circumstances than they actually were.
“Everybody’s got a story that’ll make you cry” is what Psycho Dish would always say about them. And it’s true – the world is full of hard-luck tales. The people in the shelters had tons of them. They’d tell stories about losing jobs, going through divorces, ending up in bankruptcy, getting kicked out by relatives – all for no good reason whatsoever; never because of anything they’d done to make any of it happen. Always it was bad luck, or somebody else’s fault: a jerk of a boss, a bitch of an ex-wife, backstabbing friends, racist cops and judges, incompetent social workers, or any of a whole army of people who had it in for them and who were responsible for them being where they were.
Anyone can catch a bad break or two, and there are real traps to poverty: payday loans, check-cashing ripoffs, having to buy cheap merchandise that constantly needs to be replaced. But with patience, hard work, and good judgment, the bad breaks can be recovered from and the traps can be avoided. The thing that Psycho Dish had found out in the shelters is that what nobody can recover from is refusing to be honest with themselves, to take responsibility for their own bad decisions, and to work on improving themselves. It’s easier to blame the whole world, and to tell all the people you meet a story that’ll make them cry. But at this point, Psycho Dish was immune to those. And so was I, because I’d remembered something he’d told me once long ago: “Never trust anybody who always has a reason why all the bad things that’ve happened in their life are somebody else’s fault.”
Psycho Dish on the Work Ethic:
I realized there had been a long silence when I looked over at Psycho Dish and saw that he was plinking away at the screen of his phone. They’re cheap nowadays, and he’d finally been able to afford to get one. To tell the truth, I think he probably could have gotten one before he did, but he’d resisted it for a while. They’re the future of computing, that’s for sure. But they’re also prepackaged, sealed little boxes that you can’t really tinker with, and I know that bothers him. Psycho Dish was always fascinated with computers, and he’d always wanted to work on them – almost all of those jobs he’d talked his way into and gotten fired from had to do with them in one way or another. But the firings told the real story: as much as he liked working on them, he wasn’t ever very good at it. No, I’d only ever known Psycho Dish to be really good at two jobs: washing dishes and driving a cab. He was great at both of those, though. There was a cycle to his life these past few years. He’d get fired from a computer job, be poor for a while, grudgingly go back to dish washing or cab driving, build up some money and confidence, apply for another computer job, talk his way into it, and the cycle would start over again. At least it was predictable.
Normally, getting fired all the time might raise questions about somebody’s work ethic. But not with Psycho Dish. You could question his computer skills. You could question his judgment in not giving up at a kind of job he didn’t have any talent for. But you couldn’t much question his work ethic. As a matter of fact, the nickname “Psycho Dish” was given to him by the people back in the kitchen at some or another of the dishwashing jobs he’d had – they said he washed dishes like a psycho, and that was a compliment. You could’ve just as easily called him “Psycho Cab” too, though I’d imagine that wouldn’t have made any of his customers very confident about riding with him.
When it came to customers in his cab, Psycho Dish considered it part of his work ethic that he had some rules for them, too. But there were only two of them, and they were real simple:
1) Shut up
2) Pay up
Those two rules were negotiable to different degrees. Rule 2 was not negotiable at all. Rule 1 was a strong preference – he’d heard plenty of bullshit stories in his time, and didn’t really need any more of them – but under the right circumstances, he’d be flexible on it. For example, there was that one woman…
“Hey, what was the name of that crazy rich broad you used to have in the cab all the time back when you drove for Taxi Unlimited?” I asked him.
He answered without looking up from his screen: “Mary Parker”.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
Mary Parker, that was her name – and a truly crazy rich broad she was. He’d told me all about her. She was a trust fund baby who had apparently decided to drink herself to death because she didn’t have anything better to do. At some point even her money and her family name couldn’t save her driver’s license from yet another DUI conviction, and that’s when she became a regular customer of Taxi Unlimited.
One night back in the early 80s when Psycho Dish was young and new to cab driving, Mary Parker got into his car someplace downtown and wanted to be driven home. She was drunk out of her mind, as usual, and probably had some impressive amount of cocaine in her system too (it was the 80s, after all). She blabbered on and on about one thing or another for the whole ride; a total violation of Rule 1, but she always paid and she usually tipped pretty well too, so as much as it annoyed Psycho Dish, he let it go. When they parked, she asked him how much money he’d made in his best night of driving ever. After he told her, she offered him the same amount to come inside and listen to her talk for the rest of the night. That was it – nothing weird, nothing kinky, and no sex – he just had to sit and listen to her until either the sun came up or she fell asleep (which, considering the amount of cocaine that Psycho Dish figured she’d done that evening, was sure to be a while). It was easy money, and better yet, it was guaranteed, which making money never is when you’re driving a cab.
So he came inside, got the money (even back then he was smart enough to know that you always make drunks pay you in advance), and sat down to listen to her talk. And talk she did – rapid-fire, on and on, not making a whole lot of sense. He couldn’t recall what she talked about, and wouldn’t even care to try – she paid him to listen to what she said, not to remember it. A couple of times she offered him some vodka, but he said no – she wasn’t paying him to get drunk, either, and eventually he had to drive the cab back to the garage. He did exactly, and only, what she was paying him to do: to sit there and listen to her booze-and-drug-fueled rantings about something or another the whole night long. In the end, she passed out on her couch right around daybreak. With her out cold and the sun coming up, the job he’d gotten paid to do was done, and it was quitting time.
When he got to the door, he turned around and took one last look back at her as she lay there on her couch in the glow of the morning sun. Poor little rich girl – she couldn’t have been a day past 30, wasn’t half bad-looking, and was rolling in cash, and yet she had to pay a broke cab driver money to keep her company.
Oh, well. Everybody’s got a story that’ll make you cry – but at least she had that and money. That’s better than a lot of people ever do.
Psycho Dish on Communism and Anarchy:
“So when are you finally getting a car of your own again so I can stop wasting my Saturday nights coming down here to get you?” I asked him. That was kind of a lie, though. I didn’t really have much of anything better to do on a Saturday night, and besides, the brew pub was a fine place to be.
By this time, he’d put his phone down and was back to concentrating on his beer. “Soon, I hope.”, he answered. “You know, I’ve been thinking of maybe driving for Uber or Lyft once I get back on the road.”
“That sure sounds a lot more respectable than Taxi Unlimited.”
Psycho Dish gave a little smile of approval, and then said: “Yup. And a lot more stable, too.”
When he was 18, Psycho Dish left home and hitchhiked to California with nothing but the clothes on his back, a hundred bucks saved up from a summer job in his pocket, and the address of one of his grandmothers – a woman he had barely ever met and who lived somewhere just outside of Berkeley. Once he got there, he set himself up on her couch and started looking for work. He found it with Taxi Unlimited.
Taxi Unlimited was one of the communally-run businesses that had been founded in Berkeley during the hippie era. There were no bosses or employees at Taxi Unlimited, it was all just members of the collective – everyone had an equal say in how it was run, with decisions being made by consensus at all-hands meetings. The original members were people who had been part of the Berkeley Food Co-op and the Free Speech Movement, but despite their hippie leanings they were still mostly bourgeois middle-class white kids who had some basic understanding of things like good financial practices, the need to follow local laws, and basic business ethics. But by the time Psycho Dish joined a dozen or so years later, things were very different. People had naturally drifted in an out of the place, and the change had not been for the better. The fact that it was a collective and there were no bosses meant that nobody could hire or fire anybody – people just sort of showed up if they wanted to and started working (It should be noted that Berkeley was and is what’s called a “free city” for taxis – it does not require cab drivers to get a hack license, a fact which which further lowered barriers to entry for employment at Taxi Unlimited). The quality of the people involved started going down until, by the beginning of Psycho Dish’s time there, it was essentially a collection of burnouts, addicts, and petty criminals (many of which used their cabs as delivery vehicles for their main business of selling drugs).
For the first little while he was there, Taxi Unlimited was (barely) functional. The real breaking point came when it became obvious that the business had become big enough that it needed someone sitting behind a desk full-time doing the kind of paperwork that businesses need to have done. In the early days, each driver had taken a little time away from driving (which earned them money) to do some share of the paperwork (which didn’t). The free labor they donated was a form of what’s called a “tax paid into the commons” – a sacrifice that each individual makes for the good of everybody. The original bourgeois hippies who’d founded the place understood why this was necessary. The burnouts, addicts, and petty criminals had a harder time wrapping their heads around it. They tended not to do the paperwork at all; or if they did, it would be a mess precisely because they were burnouts, addicts, and petty criminals – the kind of people not known for their good business management skills. Without any bosses in the company, there was nobody who could make them do it, or make them do it right.
So in came Ginnie, the lesbian ex-hippie with a brand-new degree from S.F. State in Management and Accounting. The first thing she found was that nobody had paid Taxi Unlimited’s insurance bill in long enough that if it wasn’t paid right away, the insurance would expire, effectively putting the company out of business. She paid it, and the money had to come from somewhere, so everybody’s next check was light. Not a good way to start, popularity-wise. The same members who couldn’t wrap their heads around why they should do any paperwork started to speak up at meetings questioning why a person who did do the paperwork ought to be in the company at all. Somebody who sat in an office all day while they were out driving and whose work wasn’t directly bringing any revenue into the business seemed a little too much like a boss to them. Some even accused her of secretly being an agent provocateur sent from the government to sabotage the collective. It was a stupid thing to say, but again, there weren’t any bosses, so nobody had the authority tell them to shut the hell up, which was really the only reasonable thing to do.
Things got worse, especially for Ginnie. She’d do something responsible, checks would be lighter than expected, and the usual suspects would complain louder. And that wasn’t all. A few of the drivers made crude passes at her that were inappropriate even by early 80s standards. Ginnie broke down in tears at a meeting and asked the more responsible members of the collective to back her up, and some wanted to, but there was really nothing they could do about it. Nobody was the boss, so nobody could discipline or fire anybody else, no matter how badly they behaved. Factions developed – roughly, pro-Ginnie (i.e. people who wanted the business to be stable so that they’d still have a job in the future) and anti-Ginnie (i.e. people who wanted to take every cent they could get, right now, and to hell with the future). People denounced each other at meetings instead of making decisions. Getting anything done became impossible.
“I understand why communism always ends up with a tyrant in charge”, Psycho Dish once told me, “I was just about ready for a Stalin to come in to Taxi Unlimited, kick some ass, and put things back in shape.”
But no tyrant ever came to save Taxi Unlimited. Ginnie soldiered on for about a year and a half, but when the economy started picking up and she could get something better, she left. Over the next few months, more people followed her out the door until one day Psycho Dish realized there was nobody sober or sane left in the collective. He knew a sinking ship when he saw one, and made for the exits himself. Taxi Unlimited foundered on for a couple of years after that before finally closing down for good. Today all that’s left of it is a Facebook group open to all the ex-employees who didn’t end up eventually overdosing on something or other. Psycho Dish is on it. So is Ginnie, so I guess that not all of her memories of the place were bad ones.
The lesson that Psycho Dish took away from the whole experience was that communism works fine at the scale of about ten people who all know and trust each other. Get past a dozen people, and problems start to appear; beyond about 25, it gets totally unmanageable, and either collapses or ends up in tyranny. Trying to run a big enterprise or even a whole country like that – well, that’s just a non-starter.
Psycho Dish on Capitalism:
These days, Psycho Dish is a proud, unapologetic capitalist. He’s even tried his hand at being an entrepreneur. Of course it was a computer-related business, and of course he wasn’t very good at it, and of course it failed in the end.
The story goes like this: one of his firings came with some sort of severance deal which meant that he left with an unusually large amount of money in his pocket. So he decided to open a small computer sales and repair shop where he’d be the boss and nobody could fire him for not knowing what he was doing. (This, of course, ignores a basic truth of being a small business owner, which is that you don’t have one boss – you have a thousand bosses. You can piss off any one, or two, or five of them, but piss off too many of them, and you end up just as unemployed as if a single boss had fired you.) The Empress, who he was still married to at the time, bitched him out over it, telling him that it was a stupid idea and that he was going to waste his whole severance on it and end up broke. As usual, I couldn’t quite disagree with her logic, and as usual, she turned out to be right, but also as usual, she couldn’t have handled it any worse. He got defiant and decided to do it anyway. He somehow talked the city into renting him out a small abandoned firehouse that they’d closed a couple of years earlier for dirt cheap. He set up a connection with a wholesaler, blew most of the severance on inventory, and set a date for the grand opening.
As soon as I drove up to the place for the opening celebration I knew the business was going to fail, and why. I also knew why the city had rented him the firehouse so cheap, and why they’d abandoned it in the first place. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the place was in the middle of the ghetto. That’s not to say you can’t make money selling tech in the ghetto. In fact, tech represents one of the four kinds of stores you’ll always find in the ghetto: fast food, the beauty shop, the liquor store, and the cell phone store. But that’s cell phone stores, not PC stores. There’s a reason why that one episode of The Boondocks coined the term “niggertech” to describe smartphones and tablets. It’s the same reason why Apple sells iPhones in a tacky gold color designed to match cheap bling. Ghetto-dwellers love cell phones. Desktop PCs and components like Psycho Dish was selling, not so much.
The first customer in the door on opening day was a grossly obese black woman with three unruly kids in tow. She wanted to pay her cell phone bill. He wasn’t set up to do that. She left. The next few were all young black men who wanted to buy cheap prepaid phones and SIM cards for them – burners for their drug businesses. He didn’t carry those, and they were unmoved by his explanations of the superior capabilities of a full tower PC with an Intel Core i7 processor. A couple even looked around the place with disappointed expressions on their faces, as if they didn’t even see anything worth coming back in the middle of the night to steal. And that was pretty much how the whole day went, as I sat there bored and The Empress sat there stony-faced, with her lips pursed and her teeth gritted. At dinner after closing that day, I decided to pre-empt The Empress and say the same thing I’m pretty sure she was going to, but a lot more gently. I suggested that maybe he ought to adjust his business plan in order to offer his customers products that they might actually be interested in buying, which seemed to be cell phones. He wasn’t having any of it. He had a dream of running a computer store, and he was going to stick with it to the end.
A couple of months passed. The Empress must have worked him over pretty good in that time, because eventually he agreed to carry a small selection of burners and some accessories like chargers and cases. That helped things a little, but not enough. On top of that, the clientele was hard to deal with. Maybe especially so there in the ghetto, but they always are, everywhere.
One day while we were driving out to lunch he told me: “You know the problem with customers? Customers want everything for nothing, and they want it right now.”
I let my politics show a little more that I usually do when I answered him: “Ain’t that the truth. That’s the problem with democracy, too. In a democracy, the voters are the customers, and they want everything for nothing, right now. They want all their government services, and their Social Security, and their subsidized health care, and their huge military that makes them feel like they’re a part of something powerful, and they don’t want to pay high taxes or have anybody tell them about inflation or the debt clock. They want to have all the weird sex they can but without any consequences, to hire cheap labor from the flood of immigrants crossing the border but still keep their country like it is, to buy cheap Chinese-made crap at Wal-Mart but still have an economy that includes working-class jobs, and to start unwinnable hobbyist wars that make them feel strong but still stay a functioning world power. Only a damn fool or a con man would actually go along with that, but they’re the only customers in the world who can elect the people they do business with, so they end up electing a bunch of damn fools and con men who will tell them whatever shit they want to hear. And they’re gonna run the whole damn show right into the ground someday.”
Psycho Dish stared out the car window, obviously only half paying attention. When I finished he said simply: “Yeah, it’s pretty fucked up, alright.”
Well, anyhow, I thought it had been a good insight.
The more the store struggled, the more things Psycho Dish tried in order to keep it afloat. He opened up an online store as a complement to the one in the firehouse, which The Empress pointed out wouldn’t ever take off because Amazon sold all the same stuff he planned to, cheaper, with free two-day shipping, and they already had everybody in the world’s credit card number on file. He did it anyway, and of course it didn’t do any business at all. He tried posting flyers around the neighborhood, but that failed to drum up any interest in the ghetto over high-powered desktop PCs or the repair thereof. In the end, and too late, I think he did figure out an important secret of entrepreneurship. Yes, customers do want everything for nothing, and they do want it right now, which really is unreasonable, and you really can’t give it to them (even if you’re the government, you’ll fail at it eventually). But on the other hand, you have to at least try to sell them things that they actually want, for a price they’re willing to pay.
It had all been a mistake, but hey – he’s always the first to admit that he’s made plenty of those.
I had a job that kept me on the road all the time back then, so I wasn’t around when the store finally closed its doors. It started a chain of events that all happened in rapid order. He went broke, the Empress kicked him out for good, his car got repossessed, and he ended up in a homeless shelter again. He even kept running the online store from the shelter for a long while after that. I’d wonder how he managed to do it, but the truth is that I know how – it’s because he never got any orders, so he never had to figure out a way to fulfill them. Eventually, he got the job washing dishes at the brew pub, which brings us right back to where we started…
Psycho Dish on the Inevitable March of Time:
“Last call!” the bartender shouted. It was getting late, and the place was emptying out. Soon it would be time to go, but we still had a few more minutes to sit and finish our beers.
I don’t know what it was, but something made me think to say: “You know, I was out in Berkeley not too long ago. Up in your old stomping grounds around Albany Hill.”
“Is that right?”
“Yup. The back side of the hill’s all built up now. A bunch of new houses already there, and even more under construction.” I paused and took a sip of my beer before continuing, “Catherine wouldn’t have liked that one bit.”
Catherine was Psycho Dish’s grandmother; the one he’d stayed with after he hitchhiked out west. She was a Communist, too. And by that, I don’t mean she was a Democrat, or a liberal, or a socialist – I mean she was a lifelong, card-carrying member of the Communist Party. She’d been a Wobbly and a Freedom Rider and an antiwar protester during Vietnam, and even went through a brief phase of being a wife and mother (Psycho Dish’s dad eventually rebelled against his Communist mother by becoming an engineer working for a defense contractor that built Aegis missile defense systems for the Navy). In her old age though, she’d turned all of her energy towards a local issue: keeping the back side of Albany Hill free from development.
In the 80s and 90s, flush with new Silicon Valley money, the entire San Francisco Bay Area had seen in a boom in building. New houses and new businesses went up everywhere, and what was already there was got more expensive every year. There was a lot of money behind wanting to build more housing on Albany Hill, but Catherine waged a one-woman war against it. She did it by making a general pest of herself in the way that people who want to affect local politics do: by attending and speaking up at City Council meetings, by submitting comments to the Planning Board, and by calling the Mayor’s office over and over until they were sick of her. And it all worked. As long as she lived, the back side of Albany Hill stayed undisturbed and undeveloped.
Then one day she died, and they started building there almost before she was laid in the ground.
There are all kinds of good reasons to build houses on the back side of Albany Hill. It’s already in the middle of town, surrounded by streets and houses and businesses. The hill itself isn’t especially scenic or historic. Demand is high, and people need a place to live. There are parks around, and they’re nicer.
And Catherine was an old crank and a commie to boot and if she and I had ever talked politics (I only met her a couple of times, and it thankfully never came up) we probably would have ended up with our hands wrapped around each others’ throats. But when I’d seen the houses they’d built on the back side of the hill, I couldn’t help but feel a little touch of sadness.
“No, she wouldn’t have liked it at all.” Psycho Dish said in a gloomy tone, “She spent years fighting it. All of her later life, and all the time I really knew her. 25 years at least. All down the tubes, just like that.”
He took one last swig, finishing off the rest of the beer in his glass, and then he continued:
“But you know, dude, those houses won’t be there forever, either. Someday they’ll be gone – crumbled into dust. And the whole town around it, too. And everything you and I know in the world. You can’t get too attached to any of it. That’s why I’ve never cried too hard when I’ve lost everything and had to start over. The Kingdom of God is forever, but everything in this world is temporary – here today, gone tomorrow. You do your best; you win some and you lose some and in the end, you trust in God, because that’s the only thing you really can do.”
“Truer words were never spoken.” I told him, raising my glass in the air in a toast, then downing the last of my beer.
* * *
And now, finally, it was closing time. They’d started putting the stools up on top of the bar, and Psycho Dish helped with the last of them while I went to take a leak. When I came back out of the mens’ room, they’d turned off the lights, and the owner of the place was standing by the door waiting for us to leave so he could lock up. As I made my way to the exit, a thought occurred to me. There’s a lot of wisdom to be found on barstools. And a lot of bullshit too, so you’ve got to be careful sometimes. But if you know where to look and how to listen, you can learn a lot of truths about the world from the people who sit on them. Even – maybe especially – from people you probably don’t spend a lot of time listening to: working class people like deliverymen and house painters and garbage collectors, and even the guy who washes your beer glass.
We walked out to my car – the last one left in the parking lot – and got inside. While I reached for my seatbelt, I heard Psycho Dish, in a voice that was quiet and sincere, say:
“Seriously, dude, thanks for coming to get me. You really helped me out.”
“Yeah, well, I really shouldn’t stay up this late. Speaking of the Kingdom of God, I’ve got church in the morning. But hey – we’ll just say you owe me a glass of that whiskey you were talking about, and then we’ll call it even.”
“Any time, dude, any time.”
I turned the key, the engine came to life, and Psycho Dish and I drove off into the darkness of the night.
* * *
UPDATE: I hadn’t seen Psycho Dish in a while when out of the blue I got an email from him the other day. The news is bad and good (Isn’t it always?). His son flunked out of college for the third time, and, as he’d promised the kid he would if he came back without a degree in his hand this time, Psycho Dish had Navy enlistment papers waiting for him when he got home. Well, that’s not so bad – they say the service will make a man out of you, though maybe that’s not all that true these days anymore. As for Psycho Dish himself, he’s somehow ended up with a job that suits him so well I can hardly believe it. His new gig is driving a camera car around for a certain huge tech company that lets you view what a street looks like on their map site – the perfect blend of driving for a living and working in tech. He said he was up in Maine somewhere, but this job’s going to take him all around the country. So if you’re out on the highways and by-ways and you see a car with a big round camera bolted to the top, smile and wave – you might just be having your very own encounter with the one and only Psycho Dish.