Sunday, May 20, 2007
Reunion in Berkeley
The Berkeley reading today was as poorly attended as yesterday's in San Francisco: only one person came to hear us, although he arrived on time. But Ellen and I read for him and Gary and the bookstore folks and the Tachyon folks and each other, and it was very pleasant.
The fact that Ellen didn't get many people either (although she's local and had e-mailed everyone she knew) actually made me feel better: it's not just me! We chalked the poor attendance up to gorgeous weather and competing events: a ball game, UC-Berkeley commencement, and the Bay to Breakers race.
The best part of the day, though, was before the reading. Gary and I got to Berkeley about 11:30, and, mirabile dictu, got a parking space on Shattuck close to the bookstore. I even managed to parallel park on only the second attempt, although my first attempt had the car half on the sidewalk, which amused snickering locals no end (I can't remember the last time I had to parallel park in Reno). Then we hiked up to Holy Hill, dodging commencement activities, to grab some lunch and see if we could find my friend A.
Most of the lunch places were closed when we got there, either because it was Sunday or because it was still before noon. But A. was on his usual milk crate on his usual corner, and when Gary and I walked up he grinned at me and said, "I wondered if you'd be here this summer!" and pulled something out of his pocket. It was the rock I used to weight down the note I left him two years ago: he's still carrying it around with him. Gary shook A.'s hand and said, "I've heard a lot about you, sir," and A. and I chatted a bit about science fiction, and I gave him a signed copy of The Fate of Mice (because I know he loves short stories) and some money, and he gave me a small blue glass heart.
He had five of these glass hearts. He said he was going to keep one as a good luck charm and give four to friends. He had some SF magazines he would have given me, but they were somewhere else. We asked if we could buy him lunch, and he thanked us but declined, because he had some food saved up for today.
He seemed cheerful. His vision's much better after cataract surgery. He kept talking about "domestic terrorists" who were scaring him, and also told us some stories about taming one or more wild rats whom he feeds. Gary and I weren't sure how to interpret this: I've gotten indications of mental illness during previous conversations (and I'd expect it in someone so chronically homeless), but Gary and I both thought that "domestic terrorists" might just be A.'s ironic term for gangs who beat up homeless people. The rat stories were more improbable -- and alarming if they're true, since rats still help transmit diseases like Bubonic plague (which clears right up with a shot of penicillin) -- but I know A. gets medical care from the county hospital, and he told us that he'd told the doctors there about one of the rats who'd bitten him. I just have to trust that he's getting the treatments and services he needs . . . or those he'll accept, anyway.
I never did get around to sending him all those books I have for him, and I'd been feeling really guilty about that. Today I wrote down his full address -- he gets his mail at a nearby photocopy place -- and Gary said, "I'll make her send you the books, I promise!" I have an extra copy of the Tiptree biography for him, and he wants to read it because he doesn't know much about her life. He asked if I'd write him a postcard now and then. He was disappointed that I won't be taking a course in Berkeley this summer, but I'll just have to try to be a better friend and write to him.
Ideally, I'd like to send him a care package once a month: some books, a bit of money, some nonperishable food. But I don't want to make promises to him or to myself that I won't keep . . . so let's see if I manage to send the first box, before I commit to any others.
Gary enjoyed meeting him, and said later, "I really admire anyone who can survive on the streets for that long. We couldn't do it." No, indeed.
Gary also asked why I hadn't invited him to the reading, especially after what happened yesterday. I thought about inviting him but then didn't, and I'm not sure why. I think I had some dim, ill-formed sense that it might be awkward for him, especially since I thought people might be buying books he wouldn't be able to afford (I needn't have worried!). But there's some complicated piece of self-protection in there, too, something about how geographically localized the friendship has been, something about how I'm wary of stepping outside those boundaries. I'm not proud of this, and I clearly haven't even figured it out completely, but I decided to honor my limits and not push it.
If we'd been there longer, I might have been able to tease out what I was feeling, but it was a very quick visit: we zipped up the hill to see A. and then zipped back down again for lunch and the reading. After the reading, we got in the car and sped home, where the cats greeted us with great joy.
In any event, I'm glad we saw A., and I think he was glad to see us. I hope so, anyhow.