Betsy Shebang - Column for 12/18

The Bell Tolls for Thee
(Stop Requested)

Drove a rented SUV all day Saturday, moving furniture and buying a Christmas tree and travelling to Vallejo for a semi-obligatory party with my wife's co-workers. Thirty miles and half a tank of gas later, we entered a maze of sprawling streets named after wines - "Burgundy", "Chenin Blanc" - each picketed with identical stucco palaces planted in slopes of brown dirt where nothing else will grow. Found"Blush Court" (so named because one of the residents had forgotten to leave his 4x4 in the driveway) and, amid concern about losing our Ford Explorer in the row of identical vehicles that lined the curb, we parked a few houses away. The corner dwelling was choked with Jeep Cherokees and Mountaineers, each white as a nurse’s uniform (the color of adventure), the largest of them parked across the driveway between two others and blocking two more from getting out. We knocked, heard noises and let ourselves in.

The party was well populated and somehow I knew instantly this was "not my scene". I have no SUV stats to share, no kids to compare, no career to discuss, couldn't pretend to care. Sure, I could yak about the rugged handling of the rental thingie we'd driven up here, if I then wanted to listen to a lecture on the subject from someone I'd rather look down upon from afar, but this was a party and I'd come to have fun. My wife asked me to talk with her, so we turned to chat as if we'd just met, shielding each other from outside conversation until the next tour group left to explore the bedrooms.

The hostess, an executive from my wife's office, mid-thirties and determinedly sexy, wore a lace shirt over a black halter top and tight, low-cut pants that barely concealed the shadowy valleys where torso becomes legs. She hugged my wife enthusiastically and shook my hand with a genuine smile as we departed to stroll through the unused-bedroom wing, the Loop of Luxury, led by our very own suburban Cher.

The master bedroom was small, with a huge bathroom reaching off one side and an enormous drive-in closet opening off that, plus another closet for the toilet; a thief chased into the hallway could evade capture for hours in the fractal maze of doorways and plumbing and storage space. We followed the sound of unnecessary conversation back into the hallway and found an “unused” bedroom, home to several framed pictures and a chest of drawers, and next to that a guest room featuring our hosts’ old bed, one end table, one lamp and one copy of “If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend” displayed like the bible in a white-collar prison cell.

The golf-is-life motif was expanded in the office that connected the hallway to the front room, which housed only a baby grand piano and a table of food; while the racks of monogrammed balls and trophies set a dramatic tone for the office desk and its surrounding space, however, it was the “unused-storage-space” look that defined the rest of the house and provided its special welcoming glow. “Why, I could store anything in here!” I excitedly observed, visualizing the emptying of my damp storage locker into the second bedroom and the purchase of new equipment to fill the third. The inviting emptiness, enough to contain a lifetime’s haul of vital keepsakes and crap from garage sales, had stirred a lust in me that our hostess’ outfit could never have achieved.

We chatted with other co-workers I’d heard unpleasant things about and left early, now in the habit of yawning and sleeping while the rest of civilization gathers in noisy rooms to repeat automotive statistics and wait for the beer to rain attractiveness upon the world. Somehow this makes me both smug and bitter, as if I had the social life of a new parent and the enthusiasm of a forced-into-retiree.

Next morning I drove to Oakland Airport to return the SUV and I was joined at the busstop by an old black man in worn-out clothes who’d gotten off the “Not In Service” bus I’d thought would be my ride home. We sat on the island between lanes of traffic, watching shuttle drivers pull expensive luggage out of vans ferrying white college students to their flights, when a long shiny limousine pulled up to the curb behind us and several chubby black men in their fifties stepped out. One wore a black beret; another carried a tan guitar case over his shoulder. A slight, weathered black female airport traffic officer stepped up to the railing beside me. "I better find out if that's B.B. King," she said. "If I let him get by me, I'm gonna die!"

"WHAT GROUP IS YOU?" she shouted across the two lanes of traffic. The man holding the guitar case said "HUH?"


"JAZZ ALL-STARS," the man announced, pointing out his colleagues to the left or right on the sidewalk, each paying no attention. "MILT STEVENSON, JERRY CARTER..." I don't remember the names, actually; all I remember was his smile and the practiced pause after each name for applause and a moment’s solo. I fought my instinct to clap.

The bus arrived and the old man and I got on. Several other passengers boarded at nearby stops, all African-American, like our driver. Hmm, I thought. These people are not dressed like the people at that party last night. I thought. It’s as if there are different social classes in America, and some of them live in a make-believe commando world where they drive enormous top-heavy gas-swallowing battering-ram cars equipped with winches and roof racks and four-wheel-drive that will never be used, while the other half rides the bus because they haven’t got any money. It’s a psychotic costume party, with half the guests sharing a single, huge, filthy costume.”

“It’s like we’ve all been castrated,”
I thought, every last one of us, and a few of us have taken the proceeds from the event and purchased oversize make-believe dicks to be displayed in their driveways. It’s as if our one purpose in life, our only goal to achieve before we die, is to purchase shit we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like or even know. This is called prosperity.”

An elderly lady with wiry curling hair, looking a bit like Shirley Chisolm, wearing a white dress and a heavy tweed coat against the cold, reached for the broken cable that ran along the side of the bus and was sloppily knotted around one of the loops two windows from the front. "RING RING RING! RING MY BELL! RING RING! RING MY BELL!!" She shouted, lowering her hand. The bus pulled over. "Oh, no - I meant the next stop. Sorry."

The driver turned back toward her. “Does the bell work?”

“No, it’s broke on this side.”

“Okay.” The driver continued and the lady – a nurse, maybe – got off at the next stop.

Copyright 2001 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang