Sunday, January 06, 2008

Labor of the Lost Wallet

Wonderful to housesit/catsit for Kenneth and Rafael at their house off Huckleberry Road in Marin where an hibiscus may grow inside.
I loved sleeping in a room with one of the quilts made by Kenneth's mother. (Some more pieces throughout what follows.)


I chose to see the most useless and absurd day I spent during my recent retreat, as housesitter/catsitter, as a classical Labor, as in the Labors of Hercules or of some other mythical figure. When Psyche, overcome by curiousity, wanted to see the lover, Eros, who had been visiting her nightly, she broke his rule when she raised her lamp to look at him as he slept, and Psyche was condemned by Eros’ mother Venus, ruler of love’s silly games, to suffer for her new knowledge. She would not be allowed to recover love without enduring some maddening task -- in her case, finding something tiny in a large pile of grain, searching seed by seed. Call them the tedious days we work for the sake of certain golden days or moments – we who live where love is not at all a constant. Now that I’ve gone all mythical on you, for my own sake I want to review my Labor of the Lost Wallet grain by grain, but you may skip all that by jumping to the paragraph that begins with the capitalized words: “SHOWERED AND READY….”

Late afternoon on 25 December, my friend Fred dropped by on his way back to San Francisco after spending time with his relatives in Sacramento, and, faced with the challenge of finding a place to eat on Christmas Day night, we met up with his friends, Howard and Tom, who live, with their son Matthew, near where I was staying; they arranged for us to meet them at the House of Lee in San Rafael – How many times have I found that the one restaurant open on Christmas Day night was a Chinese restaurant?

After dinner, we dropped a weary Tom off at their home, and Howard and Matthew took Fred and me on a tour of houses with elaborate holiday decorations. Late that night, “home” alone, I discovered that I had lost my wallet. I went back and forth between kitchen and bedroom looking every place I had been since returning to the house. I went over the same route a dozen times, meanwhile imagining how someone was using my credit card, and spending the cash in the wallet. All the cards would need to be replaced, including my driver’s license. And there was that extra key to my car that I must conceal in my wallet as I am always locking myself out of my car. Sleep was almost impossible as I continued to run a circuit through the house in my mind, forced to get up at times to explore some new notion of where the wallet might be.

In the morning I called Fred who searched his car thoroughly, especially around the passenger’s seat. I also called Fred’s friend Howard. He was about to take his son to his school nearby, and he would pass by the houses we had seen last night and write down the addresses. He called me later with the list of addresses, and I drove around to each house, all of them looking so different by day. Moving bean by bean, I was searching for that needle, my wallet. By day the houses, without their lights, lost their magic, like the painted canvas backdrops at a carnival show that come alive only at night among the revolving lights of amusement rides, with the barkers' magic incantations. This was the clear light of day, and even before 9 in the morning, a wallet would have been noticed.

Following an obvious sequence of actions, I drove into San Rafael and parked near the House of Lee. They would not respond to my knocking on their glass door (of course nothing comes easy during a Labor): Someone inside shouted, “We open at 11!” After killing time at the Kenneth's favorite morning sot, the Aroma Coffee Shop, a few blocks away, I returned, and finally gained admittance to the House of Lee. I looked under the table where we had eaten. One of the women folding napkins there obliged me by stepping out of the chair where I had been sitting. No wallet to be found. The manager said, “If you had called us after you left last night....”

“I didn’t discover it until after midnight,” I explained.

The days of my enjoying a retreat by housesitting in Marin were precious and numbered in my mind, and this was a day that, of necessity, would be spent in a long series of absurd measures that I had no choice but to take step by step and in sequence. Up until now, there had been some vestige of the hope that I would be handed the familiar wallet, embossed with “Borinquen” – a loved gift from my friend Victor who brought it back from a visit to Borinquen (Puerto Rico); it would suddenly appear before me as if bathed in a holy light: You know, that great surge of relief when something lost is found again – and the pain of hope would be healed when hope was no longer needed.

But, clearly, this last step, back to the House of Lee, was the end of false hope. The thing was dead and would not be revived. I remembered how I had fumbling with the wallet after dinner, as we calculated the bill, at the same time that I became entangled in my carrying bag and jacket as I was also needing to go to the restroom. It was time to accept that whoever followed us at that table, consistent with the U.S. and California tradition of “panning for gold,” could not resist considering the wallet an official “find,” with no connection to any person’s “loss.”

In a way it felt good to be rid of that search to find the lost wallet. All the next steps were rote -- initiating the replacement of cards, etc., by driving back to Oakland to find the appropriate numbers to call with the information I would need to convey by phone. Dropping by the Post Office in Oakland on the way home, to pick up whatever mail had accumulated, I wondered how I could persuade them to give me my mail without the customary identification, a driver’s license. I had recovered my mail the week before from the same short, cheerful Asian woman standing before me. At that time she had asked who that man was on the button on my jacket.

“Lt. Ehren Watada,” I explained. “He is refusing to serve in Iraq.”

“He’s very handsome,” she said, amused.

On the basis of my plaintive manner and the button of Watada that she remembered, the woman was willing to accept primitive proof, my name typed on a piece of paper in my wallet, and gave me my mail.

The very last wisp of hope evaporated when I reached home and found no message on my home phone telling me that someone had found my wallet. Now there was just the tiresome but necessary business of making copies of auto insurance and registraton papers, etc., then calling to have a new credit card and a new Bank ATM card generated and sent to me (enduring the Bank employee’s usual speech about taking advantage of other Bank services.

Then I drove over to the DMV in San Francisco to order a replacement Driver’s License and obtain a temporary paper one. So, next step: Drive across the Bay Bridge. Take the Octavia Street exit. Turn on Fell Street and proceed to the DMV. Stand in a line while filling out a form. Then receive a number and wait among the mass of seated people until the number attached to your form appears on one of the television screens, telling you to report to a particular window.

Figuring that there would be time to get a new V.A. card before my next appointment there on 2 January, I drove back to Marin, with my tedious Labor behind me; I had ticked the tasks off so efficiently that I even had time to stop for another look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin Civic Center, this time with the tower shining bright and golden in the late afternoon sun; and I even had time when I got back to my temporary “home” to climb the high hill behind the development of Eichler houses. The trail began at the wooden sign where someone had indicated with an upward-pointing arrow and clear white letters: “To NeverNeverLand." Up there on the hill, the autumn oaks were gold and umber in the dying light as I witnessed the earth’s evening turn away from our Mother Sun.

It was time then to go to my borrowed “home,” shower, and settle in for the evening so that their cat Lucky might have time to enjoy a nap in my lap.

SHOWERED AND READY for the sofa and the cat, I opened the container in which I had brought my favorite tea bags, and found the wallet embossed Borinquen inside the tea container.

What a relief, albeit a relief somewhat degraded. I was grateful to have the wallet back, although now it was a wallet with inivalid credit and ATM cards. I am too Freudian to see this as complete accident. I had to believe that putting the wallet in with the teabags couild not be pure nonsense. As the hours were approaching when I would need to leave this latest house I had cared for as a happy solution to the need now and then for a period of isolation, a place for a creative retreat, I realized that I put the wallet in the container of tea bags because that was where I wanted to "put my money" -- place my values -- where my heart abides: Making tea after twilight and settling into those evening hours when one is free of obligations and other commitments, hours when the imagination is free to roam where it will and create what it likes.

After the usual initial period not of being "blocked," but of "avoiding," with the time narrowing for my stay off Huckleberry Road, but I continued by making a mobile, revising verses or a play, making collages – such as this one – an image for beginning the year 2008:

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