A Meandering Account of a Lazy Afternoon, Throughout Which my Neighbor Smokes Marijuana

(See title for description.)
  July 28, 2002

On weekends, the sweet smell invariably rises to my window several times a day.  It may be in the air on weekdays, too, but I can’t tell because on weekdays I’m at the office, where windows aren’t even designed to open and let in smells.

Early in the morning, it makes me smile.  “That bastard downstairs is smoking a bowl again,” I say to myself as I stop reading or typing and sniff the air.  “Good stuff, too.”

By mid-afternoon, it begins to annoy me.  “Does he have any brain cells left?” I start to mutter crossly.  Deep down inside, I’m probably jealous that I’m not partaking.  I wonder if he has a really shitty job.  Something high-stress, like investment banking or law; something that requires massive quantities of better living through chemistry to take the edge off.  The demographic of Pacific Heights would support this theory.  Of course, he could just be a shiftless laid-off dot-commer with a fat savings account whiling away lazy afternoons with Dukes of Hazzard on the tube and rings of smoke around his brain but I think they all have moved out by now.

Sunday afternoons are lazy for me, too.  I read a book, then break down and turn on the television.  Fortunately, my resolution to phase it out of my life is easy to maintain despite an occasional relapse—the drivel on screen fails to entertain me and fills me instead with a vague sick feeling, like I have suddenly tasted the waiter’s spit in my soup.

I call my parents on the other side of the Atlantic.  (I wrote this and realized that “Pacific” is more accurate given my San Francisco residence, but I’ll leave this outcropping of East Coast mentality intact.  I plan to move back East soon enough.)  They are happy that I called; they wanted to talk to me.  My sister is about to start her last year of high school and she must go to college in the States, or at least in Western Europe; what are we to do?

For the next hour, we anxiously discuss an alphabet soup of tests (SAT, ACT, TOEFL), the niceties of financial aid, and, most of all, visas.  Only those who know the full humiliation of an unwelcome passport understand the immensity of the visa problem.  My sister is young and pretty, not to mention female.  The automatic assumption of a US consular worker will be that she is trying to sneak into the country, get hitched to the first alive, remotely human male she happens to come across, and spend the rest of her life taking away jobs from American citizens.  I would think she’d at least make sure he’s ripped first, she’s sixteen and choosy, but then I don’t give out the visas.

(“Damn fer’ners stealin’ our jobs,” teased my friend Christina in college, when she found out Lanie and I were dating.  “Stealin’ our handjobs, an’ our blowjobs...  Dern y’all to hell!”)

The conversation is exhausting; my mother is worried and tense.  “We have to get her out of here,” she keeps repeating.  “You have to help us, A..  This is no place for her to be.”

“We’ll figure something out,” I try to soothe her while millions of wild fruitless plans, not all of them legal, flash through my mind.  “How bad can it be?”

“You have no idea,” she says sadly.  “You left so long ago, and the last time you visited you weren’t here long enough to realize how much things have changed.  Besides, Marie was little then; now that she’s a teenager, we got a sense of how kids are doing these days and it isn’t pretty, let me tell you.  You were lucky; you saw the tail end of the time when there was still order, and laws, and ideals, and people believed in more than just money, and everybody wasn’t out to cut everybody else’s throat.  There was culture back then.  Now if you look at the street you’ll see a bunch of young hoodlums racing one another in BMWs thinking they are the kings of this dung pile.  They have money, they have girls on their laps, they have drugs and alcohol, and a completely empty look in their eyes.  They can drop a hundred dollars on lunch but they can’t spell.  That’s because all the smart kids bolted for the States a long time ago; these imbeciles are the only ones left.”

“I noticed that Marie makes mistakes in her e-mails,” I say.  “I thought it was because she didn’t go to a Russian school until fourth grade.”

“Oh, she can correct them if she wants to,” my mother says.  “But they don’t bother.  They say, ’If you can understand it, it’s close enough.’”

We are silent for a moment.  Finally she sighs.

“You were different,” she says.  “I keep bugging Marie to read as much as you did...  What are you reading right now?”

“Thomas Aquinas,” I say and feel almost guilty at the abstruseness of my choice.

“Wow,” she says.  “Why?”

“It has to do with these thoughts I had on the nature of Truth and how god fits into it,” I answer.  “I figured it was time to brush up on my theology.  I just got the book last night.”

“I have to tell you something,” she says and stops, unsure.

“What?” I ask worriedly.

“Well...”  She hesitates.  Seconds pass, and finally she tells me: “I’m converting into Orthodoxy.”

“The Russian Orthodoxy?” I ask, surprised.  My mother is a woman who believes that you can draw cosmic energy from the universe if you sit in the right position with the palms of your hands upturned.  I would expect her to plumb eastern religions first.

“I believe in Him,” she says simply and I accept that she does.

“Good for you,” I say and smile.  “Honest.  As long as it makes you feel good.”

“I didn’t tell anybody yet,” she confesses.  “Your grandfather may be an old commie” (she says it lovingly) “but deep down he’s still Muslim.  And you’re a hardcore atheist.  I’m surprised you’re taking it so well.”

“I haven’t cared about other people’s religion for a while now,” I tell her.

“I figured you were too smart for that,” she says with approval.

Suddenly, I laugh.  “What a family we have,” I say and shake my head, unseen to her.  “My grandfather is a communist sort of Muslim.  My aunts are Jehovah’s Witnesses.  My mother will be Russian Orthodox and my wife is Jewish.  Talk about a war brewing!”

* * *

When I go out to get dinner half an hour later, an incredulous smile still plays on my lips and the smell of weed still hangs thick in the stairwell.  Dan, the super, is on the landing trying to replace a burned-out lightbulb.

“Got a problem there, Dan?” I ask politely.

“The damn thing broke on me,” he complains.  “All you can grab onto now are these metal rods, and they’re live.  How am I supposed to take it out without gettin’ electrocuted?  I have to cut the power to the entire floor now.”

“Take a potato, cut it in half,” I say.  “Put it on the rods so they’re stuck inside, then unscrew the bulb.  That should do it.”

He eyes me suspisciously.  “Where’d you learn that?” he demands.

“I don’t know,” I shrug.  “I think I read it somewhere.”

He sighs and returns to the unhappy examination of the broken bulb.  I leave him to his doubts and proceed to Eliza’s, a really good Chinese restaurant a couple of blocks away that, unfortunately, doesn’t deliver.  I walk in and come up to the guy at the counter.

“Hi, I’d like to get take-out,” I say and, taught by experience, start spelling my name: “It’s B-A...”

“Curry chicken, right?” he interrupts with a smile.  “And a small side of rice.”  Without my prompting, he finishes scribbling on his pad: “-Y-L-I-N.  That’ll be eight-fifty.  It will take about ten minutes, have a seat.”

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