I’m reading, the sentences start to disappear, beginning of the aura, the visual disturbance, pulsating like a strobe light rave in my eyes. When they first happen in my 30’s, the anxiety would arrive with the flashing. Am I teaching? Driving? Out to dinner? Mind racing, knowing that the clock is ticking down, 30 minutes until the explosion, when the side of my brain becomes an internal wound, a bullet shot out from within. Four Advil, deep breathing, if I’m alone, but in front of students it’s like a bad acid trip, I avoid eye contact, their faces glittering, misshapen. I focus on voices, hoping the drill pounding starts after the class ends. When the migraines first began I ended up in the ER, a shot of sumatriptan in my butt, they offer me pills, but warn about the boomerang, tell me I’m just pushing the migraine off until later. Elimination diet starts me down the homeopathic path, no sugar, MSG, caffeine, alcohol. The migraines keep coming, I get philosophical, appreciate when they end, feel superhuman, like Teddy Roosevelt after his asthma attacks. My dad tells me that he got them too, genetic connection, cellular transfer of invisible suffering. I continue to track them and my diet; they come at least every two weeks, while sleeping, on Fridays, after eating sugar, when I’m tired, when I’m not tired. MSG becomes a known trigger, and I never get them when I’m outdoors, two truths in the guessing game: Causation of Pain. Now they visit less frequently, are less severe, I try to understand why. Is it the honey I added to my breakfast? Is it the extra writing I’m doing, the mental focus absorbing the energy of the migraines? Is some form of God taking them away because I’ve been pondering prayer more? Unanswerable, like so much of the everything is. Maybe they have left because I’m no longer afraid, acceptance replacing fear, lesson learned.
I tighten my grip on the Wilson Aggressor racket, my thighs wet with denim sweat. Varsity tennis tryouts and I’m up 3-1 against Nerwin, wearing my Levi’s and a pair of docksiders. No Reeboks, no Le Coq Sportif shirt, no Adidas pants, my outfit tells everyone that I don’t give a shit. But really it’s my guise, so I don’t have to try my hardest and lose. I don’t want to be like them, with all the gear, going to tennis camps at Hilton Head, going all out. Then I’d have to admit that I made the effort and failed, better to be the guy wearing jeans, owning my number 10 spot on the team. Nerwin is getting frustrated by me; they all hate the way I play. Backhand slice, backhand slice, lob, forehand dinker, point Polk. In my head I’m singing Cool it now, You got to slow it down, by New Edition, my tennis game is like Patrick Ewing, lead-footed and lumbering. Up 4-1 now, and I’m in Nerwin’s head, fuck you Polk, I hear him panting under his breath. It’s all part of my game, psychology, you must prove that you can overpower me, otherwise you will lose, Danny the dinker will beat you. They call me g-string, the gatekeeper, the bouncer; you don’t make the team unless you can whoop me. I take my role seriously, that’s why Nerwin is getting his ass kicked. I win the set 6-2, Nerwin looks at me like I’m a demented Rubik’s cube. My tennis hasn’t improved since the 9th grade, I’m the middle way, the Buddhist in waiting, or maybe I’m just scared.
I’m on it again, the Facebook, as Zuckerberg first called it, the guy who doesn’t believe in privacy. I’m here with the photos of lunch, landscapes, selfies, the everything, the nothing, on a flat screen, on a computer, on a phone, it notifies me, assures me that I’m not alone, together with all my friends, who I like. I quit it for years, hated that they tracked my clicks, that it addicted me (or I that addicted myself), that I was their free market research. But yet, I post this on Facebook, the hypocrite who wants to be noticed. My ideas or my self-promotion? We brag with our snapshots about going to Hamilton, riding on cruise ships, meeting celebrities. We want everyone to know, that we exist, have money, status, are real Americans. Compulsive clicks show we care about the environment, the presidential policies, the status of women. And we do care, we raise funds; promote books, films, cuddly cat videos. Curated, we pick the best parts, the worst parts, the wars, the almost wars. The screen is our battlefield, our competition, our attention already waning as the electronic ink disappears into the next post, the one that will mean more. But I stay on Facebook, because you’re here, we’re here, together in this internet-tethered world of distracted connected humanity across zip codes and continents.
I’m staring down at the rails, air whipping as we pick up speed. Holding onto the steel ladder, the blur of tracks look like melting kit kats one after the other. Arms exhausted, my two hiking boots are balancing precariously on a single round bulb of protruding metal, as I contemplate velocity and how hard my body will hit when I jump off the train. I envision a quick touching down of feet, then a shoulder roll, maybe a sprained ankle at worst. But at 35mph, realistically I’d be broken. I see Jack standing on the small platform between the trains, he’s only a few feet away, but there is no room on it for me, he has his elbows out protecting himself from being shoved off by six Peruvian guys, their shorter bodies jostling him while the locomotive thumps along. We are fatigued after four days of hiking the Inca Trail. We arrived at Machu Picchu this morning before the tourists, out of food, too tired to do much except sit and take it all in, the ancient rocks, the steps, the now open air rooms where god only knows what happened hundreds of years ago. Our group had hiked with the Brazilians, their drums and guitar echoing into the Andean nights as we sucked on coca leaves. We left the ruins and dutifully purchased our tickets for the afternoon train to Cuzco, stomachs rumbling, longing for a big order of pollo and papas. The train pulled in, masses of non-paying indigenous humanity swarmed past our dusty backpacks launching their squat brown bodies onto the train. The scene was how I imagine Bangladesh or India, they were on board before Jack and I had time to react and join the throng. No space inside, we jumped up, Jack to the platform and me to ladder, then the rectangular wheeled hunk erupted with that distinct chug of childhood stories. The Inca Trail gone, I readjust my grip on the ladder wondering how much longer I can hold on. Jack, I’m jumping off this fucking thing if doesn’t stop soon, I yell. He shakes his head at me. No way dude, he yells back. I’ve got maybe six minutes left in my arms, max. While I’m pondering how far to jump out to clear the gravel, the thing starts to slow down, then stop. I hop off, thankful to have my kneecaps and face abrasion-free. I’ll meet you guys in Cuzco, I shout up to Jack. I look around; the multitudes are gone, only mountain cloud forest, a few Quechan women in their bowler hats. They are selling cuy, I can smell the grilled guinea pig, a rustic delicacy I ate a few years back when I lived in Ecuador building latrines. I should be scared, but I have my sleeping bag and a little money, and I know the Quechua, know that they treat people like people. As I take steps towards the women, towards the communal life, I’m almost giddy. Will I follow the tracks back to Cuzco? Will I hitchhike? Will I live with the Quechua for days waiting for a random truck to pass by some isolated road? I feel free, knowing I’m about to drift into the beautiful ocean of the unknown. Behind me the train starts up again, and I hear Mark and two other guys from our group yelling, Dan, we have room. My fantasy bubble pops as I muster my legs and backpack for a sprint to the open door where Mark is holding out his hands telling me to jump for. It is my Indiana Jones moment and I make it count. They catch my arms, strip off my backpack, my ass hanging out the door, catching wind. I ride like that for many minutes until eventually more people get off and I finally sit inside the compartment. We make several more stops before finally getting to Cuzco, at each one, I stare at the Quechan faces, the people who were going to take care of me and help me get back to civilization.
I never interviewed for the legal assistant job, some poor suckers probably did, not me, my Uncle Aaron just hooked me up. In retrospect they should have paid people just to apply. I had two ties, one sport jacket, and a fear of being captured by the man, the capitalist system. My dad was an attorney, my uncle was an attorney, I was afraid that the law might get me too. Sunday night before my first day at the firm I announced that I would slumber outside of my aunt and uncle’s house. I lay my sleeping bag out on the Mill Valley deck, smelling the eucalyptus trees, feeling the presence of Mount Tam seeping into my being. I was looking for strength, for answers, for last breaths of freedom before joining The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The next morning starts out ok. My uncle and I take the ferry across the bay to the Embarcaderos, sunshine, gulls, lapping water. I try to ignore the suits, newspapers, the paisley tie that I’m wearing. I don’t feel like I’m on the conveyer belt until we’re in the elevator surrounded by steel and little blinking lights, everyone staring down at their shoes. We get out at the 22nd floor. My uncle briefly introduces me to Harold, then is gone. Harold is a middle-aged middle management man, sweater vest, navy blue tie, haggard, balding. Once upon a time he probably had lawyer dreams, but now he is king of the paralegals. These boxes all contain documents that need to be labeled. At any point you will be asked to discontinue one box and start another. We go to trial in late November, you will be working overtime, you will be working weekends, any questions? His coffee breath fills the small room that is packed with cardboard boxes and file cabinets. My mind starts alternating between Full Metal Jacket, You will not laugh, you will not cry, and A-B-C, always be closing, from Glengarry Glen Ross. After Harold leaves, I meekly ask some of the other slugs what I’m supposed to do. This guy with Buddy Holly nerd glasses takes his headphones off and tries to explain the process of labeling documents, as I watch his pale face almost quiver. Why are you doing this? I finally ask. I’m applying to law school. If I do this for a year it will help me get in. It turns out everyone in the room is in the pipeline. I just sit there for an hour ruffling papers, contemplating the four windowless walls. I know I might go out one day, but I wasn’t going out like this, whimpering to myself, nursing my daily paper cuts. No, I have one of the great moments of clarity that we sometimes only appreciate after the fact, but I celebrate it right then and there. I get up and leave. I enter my uncle’s corner office on the 23rd floor. I’ve got some good news and some bad news. My uncle looks at me with the quizzical countenance of someone who is trying to act more serious than he actually feels; I think he knows what’s coming. The good news is that I’m getting dim sum for lunch. The bad news is that I’m not coming back. My uncle proceeds to say all the right things about me letting him down, and how I blew this opportunity, but days later I heard that he was bragging about me. All the law firm partners knew that I had escaped being a shield boy; Aaron’s nephew wasn’t going to take it up the butt.
Edward Smith may or may not be dead, but this is his obituary. People in Noe Valley, San Francisco knew his first name, as he sat on plastic crates outside of Walgreens on Castro Street. He attended Castlemont High School in Oakland, worked as a cook, was blinded during a robbery. Couldn’t stand anymore, his spinal column knocked out of place by a car while he was selling the Street Sheet. He may or may not have been married, but he lived with a woman near 6th street. Years ago when he first started to sit, ask for money, he’d sing, loved BB King. I met him later, when all he said was, anything, anything will help. Before he disappeared, Edward was in and out of the hospital, would get shivers, was always cold. Before he disappeared, I helped him get on the website HandUp, where he raised money for eyeglasses, a motorized wheelchair, and food vouchers. Before he disappeared, the good people of San Francisco clicked buttons, donated money, sent him messages, well wishes. After he disappeared, my kids asked me, is Edward dead? I said, I’m not sure, but maybe. The truth is I will never know, we will never know, we San Franciscans. We drive by them, walk by them, see them, blanket covered cadaver-like bodies on the sidewalks, in doorways, strewn out on the grass in front of City Hall. The named and nameless Edward Smiths of our city, the ones we ignore as we type into tiny screens, cradling our lattes. Edward Smith may or may not be dead, but he certainly lived, like so many still do, starving, struggling, alone.
To learn more about Edward, please visit: https://danielwpolk.org/2016/05/22/edward-and-handup/
1979, just a six-year old boy with big hair swinging the ball between my legs, granny style. It began there, in what they called extended day, the after school place for kids with working parents. The court wasn’t much, just a rim really, some loose asphalt, the Wilson ball and me. I took shot after shot; the repetitive motion was golf without the green grass, without the irons, without the country club. Three years later I’m wearing the YBA jersey, two hands shooting the ball for a team. Summer of ‘84 began the deep amor, the nights with Lorenzo and Horace, when they let me play in the counselor games after the other kids were asleep in their bunks. We played outside; the older guys would leave me open on the baseline, while the luna moths and mosquitoes swirled around the lights in rural Virginia. My dad put up a hoop in our driveway, the makeshift cracked court flanked by a rock wall on one side, a brick one on the other. I’d play one on one against Tim or Jack, we’d shoot from deep or get to the rack fast, otherwise the walls were immovable arm scraping defenders. Then there was Dematha’s basketball camp, where I met Danny Ferry, made an all-star team. Basketball moved into high school and much later to pick-up games with the students that I taught. What did it mean? What does it mean? Basketball was my ocean, the place where my body collided with the surf of other bodies, shaped by the angles of elbows, big butts boxing out, where a finger wag meant you had met someone’s swish, witnessed their hours of practice. I threw myself into the game like the mosh pit that it was, threw myself into the organized chaos of Latinos, Asians, African Americans, and White dudes rebounding, sweating, swearing. It was our game; it is still my game, playing PIG with my daughter, watching the Warriors. The global game, you and the basket, or you and the team, harmony, jazz, equality.