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20. Silverfish


One thing you can say about getting old: It beats the alternative.

It’s been shocking to me—the jock, the competitive runner, the karateka, the weightlifter with a six-pack—how rapidly the body deteriorates. Once I hit 70, Wham! “The ills the flesh is heir to…”I think of that movie, Cocoon, where those old people become young again and…

But no, you can’t dwell in the past, or retreat into fantasy. I know that. Still, it’s hard not to revisit the past: after all, 90% of my life exists there. And there’s not much else to do during this shelter-in-place. Hence this memoir.

I find myself recalling things from 40, 50, 60, 70 years ago—smells, sounds, sights, colors, feelings, people, a cliff in Franz Siegel Park, somebody’s eyeglasses, the smell of the schoolbus, the rumble of the D train. The resuscitation of a single memory triggers an avalanche of other memories. It’s scary to think that we’re lugging all that trivia around in our brains. But it doesn’t feel heavy. It’s more like a gift.

* * *

My immediate challenge, once I left Jackson Family Wines, was: What the hell am I going to do now? My life had been busy, crammed, complicated. I’d worked since the age of 13. Suddenly, waking up meant figuring out what to do for the rest of the day. There was always the gym, and my blog, which I immediately devoted to anti-Trump agitation. But what else?

First thing I did was to join the Oakland Senior Center. But the truth is I’ve never gone there in all these years. Maybe I’m not ready to take up tango lessons or crocheting. What I did do was to resume something I’d done back in the Eighties: performing live comedy.

It was around 1986 when I read that the comedienne Joan Rivers was going to be in San Francisco to promote her memoir, Enter Talking, at a Barnes & Noble. Joan was my father’s cousin. I’d met her at family events. She once invited me and Eugene to one of her shows, at a South Lake Tahoe casino. She was very nice, getting us a good table and bringing us backstage afterwards.

I went to the bookstore, bought her book and stood in line so she could autograph it. She inscribed it “To a cousin!”

Enter Talking inspired me. Joan tells of her fierce, burning ambition to be in show business, and of her parents’ unrelenting objection. Her father, a doctor, even threatened to have her committed to a mental institution; Joan went through some very tough times. But she triumphed. After reading the book, I thought, You know what? Joan Rivers and I have the same blood, the same warped, Jewish New York sense of humor. If she can do it, so can I!

So I became “Harry Stevens,” Harry being my middle name. I began doing open mikes at the comedy clubs that were popular in San Francisco in the Eighties: Cobb’s, Holy City Zoo, the Other Café, and at a few places in the South and East bays. I hired a comedy coach and outfitted myself in my stage costume: seersucker jacket, orange tie, green shirt. My shtick was Woody Allen-esque: My parents were so poor, the only thing I inherited from my father was male pattern baldness. But people liked it. My first performance ever, at the Other, the audience went nuts. They gave me a standing ovation. I went back to my car and cried…I can do this.

I was getting good, building some reputation. But this also was during that super-busy period of my life, and staying up until 1 a.m. or later every night was exhausting. I had to make a decision—it was the commune vs. London all over again. Either I’d have to quit my day job and devote myself fulltime to comedy in order to take it to the next level, or I’d have to quit comedy.

I quit comedy. The old fear of being broke was just too much.

Fast forward nearly 30 years to retirement. In Oakland, near where I live, there was a little streetfront theater. It had a sign that said “Improv.” I must have walked past that theater hundreds of time and never given it a second thought. But now, looking for something to do, I checked it out. Hmm, I thought, this could work. I’ve always had that hammy part of me that likes being onstage and performing (and many aspects of my wine critic’s role were, in essence, performances: I played Steve Heimoff, Famous Wine Critic). Improvisational comedy would help stimulate my brain, prevent it from atrophying. And the theater was only six blocks from my home.

I began improv in early 2017, starting with introductory classes and then working myself up to joining a troupe. It’s been an interesting and wild ride. In improv (you probably know this, but it’s worth emphasizing), there’s no script. Unlike the standup comedy I’d done in the Eighties, which was entirely scripted, in improv (as the saying goes) you don’t know where you’re going, you only know where you’ve been. Everything is entirely made up on the spot.

The number one rule they teach in improv is called “Yes, and.” The “Yes” means you have to agree with the reality that your partner defines. For instance, if two of us are about to begin a scene, I might get the idea in my head that I’ll be a little boy who wants to go out and play. But let’s say my partner gets in the first line: “Grandpa, you forgot to take your medicine again.” So much for the little boy! I am now officially “Grandpa” because that’s the reality my partner defined.

So that’s “Yes.” The “and” part means that after you accept your partner’s premise, you then build on it—add another brick to the structure. So, listening carefully to what my partner said, I’m not only “Grandpa,” I’m on some kind of medication, and I seem to have a habit of forgetting to take it. I might respond with, “Those pills make me dizzy.” That would be a good “and.” I’m not forgetful, I’m deliberately not taking the pills. There’s lots of stuff in there for my partner to use in her response. From there, the scene develops, building on itself. But it’s not about the pills, it’s not about my symptoms, it’s about the relationship between the granddaughter and Grandpa. That’s what audiences care about: relationships. They don’t necessarily need to be made to laugh; they want authenticity. If it engenders laughter in the audience, great, but our instructors are always telling us they’re just as happy when the audience is “on the edge of their seats” because the developing relationship is so compelling.

I like performing a lot. It’s amazing how any aches and pains I have completely disappear while I’m onstage. I don’t get nervous (although our director’s feedback afterwards can be uncomfortable.) Currently, because of coronavirus, our shows are on hiatus and so are rehearsals, although we’ve managed to use Zoom to rehearse distantly. Some of the talented young people who have been in my troupe have moved on: their ambitions carry them to Los Angeles or Chicago or New York. Me, I’m no longer ambitious.

That’s the most distinctive thing about getting old: you come to understand that not much is going to happen anymore (except physical deterioration!). You have to accept a more limited horizon. My life has always been about wanting stuff: Sex. Money. Approval. Friends. A good body. A sense of accomplishment. Book sales, blog views, great reviews. The admiration of my neighbors. More, more, more! Gimme, gimme, gimme! I’m still tempted to want things—old habits die hard. But I know there are many things I will never have; I must accept the burgeoning reality of nothingness. After all, death is the cessation of possibility. And it can’t be far away.

Do I have regrets? Not really. What’s the point? When I was younger, jogging around Lake Merritt, I’d see dads playing ball with their little sons, and it gave my heart a pang. I’ll never have that.  I could have denied my gayness, I suppose–married a woman and had kids. On the other hand, I might have been as unfit a dad as Jack. And, as I’ve written, had I had a family, I doubt I would have been able to afford being a wine writer. So it’s been a tradeoff.

The funny thing about this coronavirus shelter-in-place (well, it’s not funny-ha ha but funny-ironic) is that my life isn’t all that much different than it was before. Since I retired, I’ve spent a great deal of time alone. That’s fine with me. I’m not only freed from traffic, but from life’s other petty annoyances. I like napping, and reading (I usually have several books at once, history, biography, art and science; I’m not big on fiction), watching T.V. (especially MSNBC and streaming) and YouTube, and talking, talking, talking on the phone. My neighbors in the condo are very nice; I’ve been here 33 years now, and hundreds have come and gone, but the current crop is wonderful—younger people, a few with children, who work in tech, or in the arts. It’s like being back at 760 Grand Concourse: you’re constantly running into your neighbors in the hallways and having chit-chats. I host parties for my favorite neighbors (I serve my famous vodka gimlets); my current plan is to have a big post-coronavirus fête, and then another one when Joe Biden is elected in November.

But by far the best thing in my life is Gus. My Little Baby. The Peepee Puppy. (Why do we revert to baby talk with our pets?)

His name at the Oakland SPCA was Michael. I thought, “Michael’s a great name for a kid, but a horrible name for a dog.” So I renamed him Gus—the nickname Gertrude had when she was a little girl.

I adopted him ten years ago, although I like to tell the story of a time I was walking him. A black guy stopped and said, “Really cute dog.” “Thanks,” I replied. “I adopted him three days ago.” The guy is quiet for a moment, then: “Did you adopt him, or…did he adopt you?”

Thank you, stranger! Yes, Gus adopted me as much as I adopted him. When we first met, he jumped into my lap and licked my face; that sealed the deal. On the drive home, he threw up in my car.

* * *

When I was five or six, back at 760 Grand Concourse, we had silverfish in our bathroom. 760 was an old building; there were cracks where the baseboard met the floor. I used to take a piece of toilet paper and let the silverfish climb up onto it, then bring it to one of the cracks and shoo the insects out, so they could escape. I felt sorry for them; I wanted them to live.

We now have a silverfish problem in my condo building. Sometimes at night, when I get up to pee, I’ll put on my flipflops, switch on the bathroom light, and there it is, a dark, slithery thing, easy to spot on the tile floor. Down comes my foot. Squash!

What happened to the little boy who felt sorry for silverfish? How did he turn into the old man who kills them?

I don’t know. There are many things I don’t try to figure out anymore. We’re just silverfish, after all, every one of us, crawling around in the dark, searching for crumbs, until a giant foot comes out of nowhere and squashes us.

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