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The Best Hamburger I’ve Ever Had In My Life


The only time this week I could do it was last night. So after work I jumped on MUNI and rode out to Bayview Hunters Point. I felt sleepy; an unusual feeling this time of day, but since the new year I’ve been out every other night or so. Last week I did two poetry events and a storytelling night within five nights of one another. Nights I wasn’t performing, I was meeting over coffee with one artist, then another old friend and then something else. Tonight and tomorrow, more of the same. So last night I had to do it. I had to go buy some weed.

A 40 minute trolly ride, then a wait for the bus up the winding hill towards John’s house. John: whom I’ve known now nearly twenty years, though it feels weird to count those years and realize how much time has passed. I was introduced to him years ago through my nephew who was under John’s employ as tech support for his website. My nephew and I no longer speak and, perhaps, were never really friends. I once emailed to thank him for introducing me to John who’s been a stronger ally in my life than my family has been. It was the first contact with my nephew I made in years. I got a sentence in return. Curtain closes. I’d have gotten a warmer response putting my tongue in a polar bears a-s-s.

I knocked on his garage door and announced myself and he opened the iron security door. In the garage sat a woman, Michelle, elegantly smoking a cigarette. A John Wayne picture was just ending. The film A Bridge Too Far was about to begin. This is intense, Michelle said. Being in the Man Cave watching war movies! She broke out laughing, but it was true. On television the sky filled with paratroopers whirling over Germany resembling a school of jellyfish. I hadn’t seen the film and was breath-taken over how the filmmakers recreated WWII with living actors and what seemed like miles of real tanks and filling the sky with planes.

John sat and rolled a huge spliff, then emptied his Hennessy bottle over two shot glasses, sliding one to Michelle, then the other to me.

Most of the times I’ve come here, there’s either him alone or centered in a room full of people watching the news. Tonight its the three of us, silently transfixed over the film and mesmerized how young everyone looks. I didn’t realize Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins and James Caan all appeared in one film.

The only conversation that rose and fell in the room was John fixated on hot dogs. With long grayed locks he looks like a Jamaican mystic by way of Texas. He went all the way back in time to name check Doggie Diner and talk about the quality of some hot dog stand well across town in the Mission. He’d fall quiet, smoke, engage with the movie, then send up another praise song for tender hot dogs and pillowy soft buns.

John handed me a sandwich bag plump with green bud and I gave him a royal flush of twenties. I opened my backpack and shoved the baggie into my coffee thermos, filling it. Then sat back and returned to Germany. He and Michelle both smoked Marlboro lights, alternating with weed, filling the garage with smoke, though he kept the door to the hallway open allowing the smoke to flow through the house. Both my parents smoked, I was used to it. But I was grateful for that open door. Its bad enough me being a committed pothead. I shallow breathed for a few minutes, my chest feeling shy.

At one point I looked up where John’s wife suddenly appeared in the doorway. Already in her nightgown, her long greying blonde hair cascading down her modestly short body. At her feet appeared a cat who quietly stepped into the room, approached me wide eyed and stopped a foot or two away. The cat meowed loudly at me, turned and vanished into the hallway. Not a sprint, just a model’s runway turn, then a stroll back towards the woman in the door. And hello to you, I said to the cat. I appreciate the greeting, hello to you, too. Michelle laughed. And then John’s wife said this:

Michelle, I just wanted to say– and James, you keep your ears and eyes open too– last night I had the best hamburger I’ve ever had in my life. It was really delicious. And it came on a soft, soft bread bun, kind of like that sweet Hawaiian bread. I mean, wow. That thing really knocked me out.

John, his eyes staying on TV, added slowly and talking as if through hypnosis: it comes with a fat slice of avocado which really added a nice kick to that motherfucker, too.

Oh my god, the avocado, She said.

Michelle nodded lovingly. I stared at her thinking: I didn’t realize this session was sponsored.

And then she said: I just wanted to let you guys know. And then the woman quietly turned and began making her ascent back upstairs. The war was still on.

Michelle soon afterwards left for home. I was going to make my long trek back through the City then back across the bridge to Oakland. But John announced: I’m going to the Mission. I asked him for a ride to BART. He grabbed his jacket, its colors of the Jamaican flag. We left the war popping on screen.

Night had fallen. The city stretched out in all directions with light; a kind of shimmering galaxy. He negotiated downhill while wrestling with his phone cord and plugged it in and the car filled with reggae; the singing devotedly praising Jah. Is there gospel reggae or is all reggae a kind of gospel?

John lit another spliff and passed it. Our conversation reduced to the wah-wah sound of music pumping out of the speakers easy as breathing.

The neighborhood we went to was one where I used to live. We pulled into the lot of a fast food stand on a corner, where years ago Doggie Diner once stood.

John ordered. I ordered a hot link and bought John’s order. He was as surprised as I was: I ordered hella shit, he said, taking two steps back. I didn’t care and handed the man behind the counter my last twenty and a five. I owe you more than that, I told John. John stuck his head back through the window and ordered onion rings.

We stood waiting. Three young, good looking white women strolled by. John said years ago they’d be snatched off the street by pimps before they would get to the next street corner. Times done changed, he said. I agreed– the previous night I had dinner with a poet friend, downtown Oakland and I was startled how many fancy restaurants there were. My friend and I were blocked from our first choice by a 45 minute wait; the place full of white faces, a friendly Samoan brother doing security at the door. We walked past a theater where Van Morrison was playing later that night; every restaurant was a packed fish tank. Five blocks, three inappropriate options and a 10 minute wait on the corner later, we found a place to sit and eat. Its not supposed to be like this, my friend said. Its a Tuesday night.

John kept talking and joking and preaching while we stood beneath the light of the hot dog stand. He went all the way back to the Black Panthers Breakfast program before our order was ready. I took my hot link out of the bag and stuffed in into my backpack, which also helped cover the residual odor of weed stuffed into my thermos. He gave me a warm, loving handshake and we parted. I walked a few blocks over to BART through a part of the Mission that’s still rough and raw and just a little scary. Its one of the few parts of the city left that reminds you of the verse in the Bible: ‘Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death’… But its a place of character, beautiful in its own way, and it let me through. Strolling past the homeless and heroin walkers here, I’d forgotten all about the war.

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