For most of my life I’ve been scared. I’m not sure why but I was born nervous. Maybe it was due to what researchers are discovering about genetic memory, emotional experiences passed down through generations through our DNA.
Yet while grandfather and his nine siblings endured the pogroms of early 20th century Russia my fears were of the suburban, upper-middle class kind.
Even though I was a fat kid I was rarely bullied. Early on I developed a set of social skills intuitively designed to make sure people liked me. I was very nice, especially funny and remembered everything about anyone I met.
Quick Hide Under the Bed
Yet even though my fear wasn’t an updated 1970’s upper-middle class variety of raping and pillaging Cossacks I had plenty of angst including my brother’s wanton cruelty, my father’s scotch-soaked rage and a variety of those unexpected challenges life throws at everyone all along the way.
Falling out of a pine tree. Crashing my bike on the downhill stretch of Old Long Ridge Road. Seeing my 2nd grade friend Tracey dead under a blanket in the middle of my street. Traffic was backed up in all directions. I asked someone three times before I finally understood the answer to my question “what’s that in the road?”
But lucky for me every night I’d sleep well, thanks to the love of a sweet dog. My sister named her Ohme, which she thought was French for friend. Ohme was a stray that appeared in our yard one day and despite my mother’s best efforts we could never find out who lost this great pooch. She was especially sweet and extremely well trained. She could do all the standard tricks, roll-over and beg, but she would howl like a joyous wolf when commanded “Sing, Sing.” Conversely she’d bark and snarl angrily, showing her teeth if you pointed your fingers at her in the shape of a gun, more viciously if you pretended to shoot.
The summer when I was twelve, away at the Bridgeport YMCA camp in the Berkshires, Ohme walked outside and never came back. Despite the fact that dozens of us kids traipsed all over those woods year round, her body was never found. She probably drowned in Miller’s pond or in the lake off Rock Rimmon Road but I think she might have been a prophet sent to soothe our suburban angst.
Each year after, whether picking concord grapes late in the summer, playing in streams year round, collecting firewood, catching fireflies launching firecrackers or looking at Playboy Magazines we found in a shed at the golf club nearby we never found a trace of her.
Not All Cossacks Are Alike
As an adult my fears morphed into college age anxieties and coming out concerns, then abated until my anxiety and had a new lens to focus on. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, gave me new things to fret about. How long do I have to live? Who will love me now that I’m sick? The anxieties are well known.
Today I’m confident in my wellbeing and feel I’m more likely to die doing something stupid – like texting while crossing the street. Sheeesh he never saw that truck coming right at him. Yet my worries remain, the more primal ones now replaced by those of the industrialized world. I wish I had planned for my retirement. How will I live when I’m old. All together now: Hallelujah and holy shit.
Who Needs A Ride?
Before we ever heard about Bangalore, India we were told and excitedly believed that freelancing is the new economy. Yet while I wish I never quite my office job, things aren’t that bad. I get to live in San Francisco, at least for now. And after nearly a year of working on-call for a number of caterers I’ve started working as a pedicab driver.
After my first week of driving on the not so mean streets of San Francisco’s waterfront and financial districts I’m frankly awestruck. No, not at my powerful legs – though they are powerful – but at the twists and turns of my HIV-infected life and the fact that I can actually do this job.
Thirty years after driving a taxi in Manhattan – the gas powered kind made in Detroit – and twenty-eight years after contracting HIV I’m both dumbfounded and grateful. Dumbbounded that this grad school educated upper middle class fifty-two year old Bar Mitzvah boy currently has no better ways to pay the rent and so very grateful that my body is strong enough to propel a tricycle rickshaw that weighs 160 pounds with no one on it.
I’m not powering up any of San Francisco’s famously steep hills. No rides to the Fairmont Hotel or down Lombard Street. But I made it from the Ferry Building up the incline to Sutter and Montgomery Streets and even though that caused the closest thing I ever felt to having a heart attack the passengers got there and I didn’t throw up even without stopping once because all those damned street lights were green.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1989 I still had dreams of opening up my own natural foods store.It never happened. That same year I was riding my bicycle from my job at Buffalo Whole Foods (right - author and his sister, Buffalo Whole Foods, San Francisco 1990) and while speeding west down a hill on Castro Street near 15th Street, an elderly man in a big car didn’t stop when he should have.
The impact of the Cadillac threw me in the air, propelling me ten feet down the road. I landed near a work crew from Pacific Gas & Electric. Dazed I got up, surprised I could walk and had very little pain. The utility men looked shocked, staring at me surprised I could even move.
That accident was a blunt christening that reminded me that while my fear of death was very real, the randomness of life was equally powerful. If that car didn’t kill me maybe HIV wouldn’t either.
It could be worse in so many many ways
This week I ran into this sexy young writer I used to adore. He was in line just ahead, waiting to pay for his groceries at Trader Joe's. Handsome and smart, he looked really good which surprised me, given how drunk he was every other time we had hung out.
I asked him what he was up to and he sheepishly, or so I believe, told me “I'm a realtor now. Been doing it for six years.” Realtor, writer, waiter, pedicab driver. I guess its all the same, a way to pay the rent, eking out what happiness we can along the way. But this small little part of my brain felt smug, Lord only knows why, that I wasn’t showing million dollar homes to bankers and techies that I both loathed and desperately wanted to be.
Whether I'd be more embarrassed selling real estate then peddling a bicycle rickshaw I’ll never know. But next time I’m struggling against the headwinds hoping my next passengers aren’t three 225 pound salesmen in SF for some convention I know that even if they are I’ll get the job done the best way I can, just like I always do.
No it’s not easy, even for a once avid cyclist like me. The first two days I worked I got so dehydrated and by the end of my shift I felt queasily high, exhausted, shaky and nervous as if my body didn’t quite understand what just happened.
And these days instead of fearing those genetically inherited Cossacks tormenting me along my way, I hear my old Russian relatives talking to me, providing advice, minus the accent and gayer too . .
"Girl, you are strong but don't get all ‘that’ meshugunah and overdo this shit because I will hurt your motherfucking ass if do.”