From April 14th, 2013
“The puzzling behavior of squirrels…The coffee and the unknown world of Los Angeles…The old woman, the juju fetish and the owl…”
My neighborhood is overrun with squirrels. They are everywhere. There are also a lot of cars. Not a lot, but enough. There are enough cars to pose a direct threat to a reckless squirrel. It’s not the cars so much as the tires. There are four times the amount of tires than there are cars, which, if I were a squirrel, is a statistic that would give me cause for alarm. Inevitably then, as I go for my morning dog walk around the neighborhood, I will pass some poor smashed squirrel on the tree-lined street, crushed to aspic right in the middle of the road. From the position of the body and various states of compression it is easy to see that some had almost made it while others look like they had accidentally ingested a lit M-80 bomb. I find myself affected, sympathetic, overcome with feelings of powerlessness in a brutal universe. I’m surrounded by the reality of senseless demise. Then one day I noticed something really disturbing in the face of such holocaust. A squirrel was lying in the street, gone from the world of the living, and another squirrel running across the street just jumped right over him and continued on without a second glance. It was a little spooky. Heartless little buggers. Not even a concerned gesture. No regard for a fellow critter. No enlightened, self-interest-based curiosity that maybe something extremely dangerous is rolling around the vicinity and should be considered in order to prevent this from ever happening again, whatever it was? I continued walking, absorbed with the flutter of my dog’s ears as she trotted along, and found myself beginning to construct a self-absorbed monologue for apathetic squirrel number two.
“Hey look, there’s Jim. He looks a little down today. Not his usual playful self. Usually he’s insatiable, chasing the girlie squirrels, stealing acorns, running along the electrical wires like he owns the world. None of that today. Kind of quiet. Kind of still. Flat head and such. Wonder what that’s all about? Limbs stiffly pointing in the air and his new head-style and some nasty stuff spilling out of old Jim’s anus. Maybe I should ask but I don’t want to create an awkward situation between me and Jim. Jim’s obviously doing Jim’s thing. Oh I get it, he’s too good for us squirrels, now he just hangs out with flies and bugs, I guess. Seems a bit rude, is all. I thought we were friends. Fuck him, really. I’ve got plenty of other stuff going on. Not like I’m waiting on him to show me a good time. I’ve been ignored by bigger, better and smarter. I’ll just ignore the son of a bitch back and see how he likes it. I can be friends with flies and bugs too but I choose not to. It’s a choice. It’s a life choice. Now, where’s that goddamn bird feeder again?”
“Take counsel when appropriate,” my mother never used to say, but probably would’ve if she had thought of it. There is the possibility of a grander cross-reference to the squirrel’s ignorance that I would do well to heed. I sat around the house for a little while trying to piece it together, the thing that would be so obvious to a higher life form that I’m scampering right by. Then it dawned on me. I knew just what to do. I had to go get a cup of coffee from the local coffee shop, part of this huge shopping plaza about five minutes from my house. I drove cautiously, beeping to the few squirrels that looked ready to break for the other side of the road as I approached. I got to the shopping plaza without a hitch, parked and walked around the bend to the coffee shop. A few tables are scattered outside of the place, most filled with people reading, tinkering on the computer or engaged in serious “steeple-fingered” conversations, as David Foster Wallace used to say. All had one thing in common. Nobody even bothered to look at me. In general I am easily ignored. I am fairly nondescript, my energy is tucked and I walk fast. As I zoomed by one table, though, I felt a weighty gaze upon me. An old, or at least extremely wrinkled woman from somewhere south where the sun burns bright in the sky all year round hooked me with her eyes and gave me a smile that sent my stomach into a free fall. I walked into the safety of the coffee shop wondering what the hell that was all about? Mentally I went over the split second interaction I had with her. She was going to say something to me, but had stopped. Her eyes suggested she knew more about me than I knew about myself. She had a bunch of necklaces and tchochkes on the table in front of her. She was the car and I was the squirrel, or she was me, I was the squirrel, and she had clarity of the “car” I needed to avoid. That I was sure of.
The line was long, thus I had time for the harsh exposure of a 24-hour news channel from a television mounted above my head. I’ve expressed my displeasure for constant television news in prior “Alembics” and the experience of watching it while waiting for my coffee did nothing to lessen my irritation. A representative of the Stepford Wives was suggesting I “enjoy more and stress less” while the chyron, the heading underneath, boldly declared, “Breaking News: Police Still Unable To Find Vital Clues.” The chyron ran three times in about a minute and a half, which supported my theory that these shows are meant for people in the process of walking away from them. The warm, deep coffee aroma kept me in line, however. Commercial time. There was an advertisement for a show called “Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain, Chef and World Traveller.” Apparently Mr. Bourdain was going to… Los Angeles. Parts unknown? What the fuck? Parts unknown except to five million people, give or take. The show may be a fine one, I don’t know. I don’t watch television and I definitely tend to avoid watching other people eat. I’m not what you call a ‘foodie’. But I’m sure it’s a fine show. It just seemed like a strange title, though, particularly since the episode was descending on one of the largest cities in the U.S.. With a title like that I expected a narrator to overdub his mischievous, whispering voice like in those Folgers’ Crystals commercials from years ago.
“We’ve taken Mr. Bourdain to Mauna Loa and thrown him into the expectorating volcano. He’s got a parachute, a helmet with a camera on it, a two-way radio and a three day food ration. The Gods are pleased.
“We’ve shrunk Mr. Bourdain to the size of a raisin and placed him in a small capsule and washed him down the gullet of a silverback gorilla to investigate the chronic “borborygmi” or growling stomach that seems to be constantly distressing the beast. By the time he gets done with this he’ll be pooped.
“We’ve catapulted Mr. Bourdain into the Hang Ken cave in Vietnam during the Monsoon season. Guano, and see-o, what you can find-o.”
The news channel, as it always does, left me feeling a little fatigued and somewhat beaten, so I got my coffee and headed out the door. This time the woman sitting at the small table outside was not about to let me by. I had forgotten all about her in the whipsaw of coffee and sensationalism. She said something about a handsome man in trouble, ostensibly me. Flattery and mystery, the woman was a born salesperson. She held up one of her necklaces and said I needed a juju fetish.
“No, I don’t… what?”
I was vaguely familiar with both terms, when used separately. Fetish as related to an inanimate object with magical powers and not deviant sexual stuff like trying to eat someone’s rubber boot. A juju has a similar meaning. I had never heard them used in conjunction, but I liked the sound of it. The woman seemed to know I would. She held up the necklace. I asked if it had tannis root in it? Having recently sat through another screening of Rosemary’s Baby for lack of anything better to do it was still fresh on my mind. She waved off my stupid question. She used the word energumen, as in someone possessed by an evil spirit. I asked her if she had ever seen Tom Jones dance. She said nothing, but I could tell she understood. Suddenly, with the clarity of a drunk sorority girl who pops full blast out of her haze to realize she’s in dangerous surroundings, I stepped back from the woman’s mesmerism.
“I’ll buy your juju fetish,” I said. “But I’ve only got a credit card on me. I do have some money in my car, though. I’m just going to go get it and I’ll be right back.”
She nodded. I walked briskly to give off the appearance of my zeal to retrieve my money and get back to her to purchase the necklace before she sold it to another individual. Really I was just going to get in my car, drive off fast and find a new place to get coffee from then on. I got to my car and that sinking feeling took hold, that feeling when you’re stuck in a glue trap of your own creation and the only way out is to gnaw your legs off.
I had left my car keys on the counter of the coffee shop. I considered for a moment that maybe the counter girl might see them and run out and try to give them back to me but this was all folly. The counter girl was filled with such a precision strain of ill temper that I would be lucky that she hadn’t just tossed them in the garbage or given them to a homeless fellow so he could clean the cottage cheese out of his toenails. Could I go around the other way? A quick calculation proved that this would be the circuitous equivalent of walking to Alabama. It meant scaling fences and avoiding delivery trucks. Maybe I could just walk home and walk back in the dead of night, throw a garbage can through the front window of the coffee shop, climb in and get my keys then. Buck up, I said to myself. You’re now the proud owner of a juju fetish.
I walked back around. The woman looked like she had not only known what had happened but had read everything in my mind since I had last departed. Fumbling an explanation that in retrospect made no sense, I got my keys out of the shop, came out and paid her for the necklace, brought the damn thing home and hung it on my back porch, feeling a little uneasy about taking it into my house.
I’ve yet to mention I have an owl that lives somewhere in the vicinity of my backyard. I’ve seen him perched on my fence, on a naked branch, and on my roof, at the top of the pitch. He’s a magical thing. He only comes out on nights with a bright moon, or I guess he’s only visible on nights when the moon is like a slightly softer reflection of the sun. He paces, and the way his feathers run down his back it looks like his hands are clasped behind him (if he had them, of course) and his profile looks exactly like Alfred Hitchcock’s. It’s a marvelous thing to see at four in the morning, half-asleep, the effects of the alcohol slowly wearing off, and this enormous fat-feathered bird with a big round head and all the wisdom afforded to his species walking out to survey what the night has to offer. Rodents, a dog barking somewhere in the distance, featherless human gawker. He likes me. We’ve exchanged communication. I slur. He answers. He doesn’t coo or whistle. He warbles low like he’s got a smoking habit.
The next morning I came out to the porch and the juju fetish was gone. So be it. It made me a little nervous anyway. But the following night, as I happened to be up late enjoying the inspirational effects of a fine cab franc, I walked out into the cool air and heard my friend warble from above. I grabbed my magnum flashlight and put him in the spotlight. The owl stood there at the tip of my roof with his big eyes and something flashing beneath his chin. The little son of a bitch was wearing the juju fetish. Not only that he seemed to have had the chain fitted to a comfortable, fashionable length for his little neck and cambered chest. He took off, big and beautiful against the indigo sky. I felt like I had been used, nothing but a pawn, a messenger between two forces beyond my comprehension. But feeling I had succeeded in the small part of the ineffable task, I sensed for the moment that the hazards were at bay and I felt the satisfaction of a job well done.