Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
4735 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Nineteen Eighty-One and Eighty-Two

by Peter Najarian

From the S.F. Chronicle, 27 August 2005:

Margaret Ellen “Nini” McCabe, a newspaper heiress who loved life in San Francisco’s North Beach, died Wednesday in Fairfield, Conn., after a long illness. Ms. McCabe, who was 53, was the daughter of the late Chronicle columnist Charles McCabe.

She was born in 1951 in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and was the great-granddaughter of E.W. Scripps, who founded the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and the United Press wire service. She attended private schools in New England and Great Britain and was a graduate of Bennington College in Vermont, where she received the Mark Van Doren Prize for Poetry.

She came with her father to San Francisco in the 1970s and fell in love with the city’s North Beach neighborhood. “She loved everything about it,” said Gail McCabe, her sister-in-law, “the food, the views, the people.” She bought a small house on a picturesque North Beach alley and was a regular in the neighborhood scene.

“She was a sweetheart of a kid, bright and lovely,” said Seamus Coyle, a North Beach bartender who knew her well. “She was one of the brightest and most observant women we knew in the last 30 years,” said Ed Moose, who owned the old Washington Square Bar & Grill and still owns Moose’s, both North Beach classic places.

Ms. McCabe had a rare quality, Moose said: “She always saw the funny and ironic side of life. Everybody liked to be in her company.” A 1993 item by Chronicle columnist Herb Caen captured her quick wit: “... Glenn Dorenbush caught this snatch of dialogue at Gino & Carlo’s—guy to Nini McCabe, who was wearing ultra-tight jeans: ‘How do you get into those?’ Nini: ‘Play your cards right.’”

Ms. McCabe worked for publisher Al Goldstein in New York and for the Grabhorn-Hoyim Press in San Francisco and also was a freelance writer. About 15 years ago, Ms. McCabe began to develop multiple sclerosis, and more recently, the disease made her life more and more difficult. “It was a slow slide,” Gail McCabe said.

Ms. McCabe is survived by three brothers, Charles K. McCabe of San Francisco, Peter McCabe of Portland, Ore., and Robert Buzzelli of Sarasota, Fla., and by two sisters, Mary Pierce and Elizabeth Logan, both of Sarasota. A celebration of her life will be held at 5 p.m. Oct. 29 at Gino & Carlo’s bar, 548 Green St., in North Beach. The date would have been her 54th birthday.

Contributions in her memory may be sent to the Connecticut Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, 1 Selleck St., Suite 500, Norwalk, CT 06855; the Delta Society National Service Dog Center, 875 124th Ave. N.E., Suite 101, Bellevue, WA 98005; the Nature Conservancy, 4245 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 100, Arlington, VA 22203; or the Mechanics’ Institute Library, 57 Post St., San Francisco, CA 94104.


She was, yes, what the obituary said, but it left out her alcoholism and how it was rooted to her father, whose column I used to read and whom she talked about when we slept together in a hotel or motel on what my journal says were Friday and Saturday nights, April 10 and 11, 1981, though I remember them only as one night, why I don’t know.

She told me to call her when I returned to Berkeley in the summer, but she never showed up after telling me to meet her in the Washington Bar, and I never saw her again until twenty-four years later when I cut her photo out of the Chronicle and pinned it on my board.

I didn’t record why she came to Scripps that weekend, but I seem to remember it was about her great-grandfather’s money starting the college, since my journal mentions her talking about him.

My new friend, Dick Barnes, who taught at Pomona, introduced us at what may have been a party, and the hotel or motel was sometime later, and even without my journal I remember her being grateful for my trying to help her stop drinking.

I liked her a lot and she liked me too, but I didn’t try to see her again after her no show, since I was too consumed by my own kind of addiction. Her drinking was tied to her need for her father’s love, and I had my own father trip and feeling like crap.

Addiction of course goes all the way back to the beginning of time when beer and bread were discovered together, and at the very time I was to meet her in the Washington Bar it was going to kill my friend Bill Belli, who lived just a few blocks away, and I gave him three hundred dollars to dry out in a funny farm, for which he would thank me for the rest of his life, and who knows, maybe Nini recovered as well before she died. In fact she and Belli would die in the same year.

I loved my friend Bill, and I could’ve loved her too. We could’ve married and had a child and found some happiness, but all I have left of her is a news photo and a journal like Krapp’s last tapes in which I wanted to be an alcoholic myself so I could recover like Bill and start my life anew.

“’Ko paraga?” said the ferryman to Nirvana in my copy of Heinrich Zimmer’s Philosophies of India, “Who is going to the other shore?” “Not me, not me,” I said to my journal, “I’m only forty and I still want to write a book that will get me a tenure teaching job so I can find a wife and be happy.”

My friend Gregory’s daughter was born in September and my friend Henry’s son was born in December and my friend Dobby’s daughter would be born in May and then my friend Ron’s daughter and my friend Nagourney’s son, and my new colleague, Cheryl Walker, just had a baby a few blocks away, each one crowning and bursting forth in a joy I would never know.

Cheryl had actually been a student of Pinsky in Wellesley when he had offered me a class and I had declined because I was trying to have a baby with Jewel.

Pinsky’s book of essays, The Situation of Poetry, made him a full professor at U.C. Berkeley in the beginning of the Eighties, and our mutual friend Hass would soon win a MacArthur Award, and my friends Henry and Gerry and Gatz were selling screenplays for megabucks, and my friend Ron was making as much in real estate, and almost everyone else I knew was making it, and I too needed to make it, as if it could win me what I envied in their lives.

In the meantime in El Salvador the bellies of the vultures were so full of the dead from the civil war they perched on the branches too heavy to fly away.

And in Florida the bodies of the Haitians escaping by boat were washed up a private beach where they had to be bulldozed away.

And escaping Vietnam in a boat without food or water, a Vietnamese mother had to slice her own flesh to save her baby.

And I could barely read a handwritten thank you note from my beloved old professor, Francis Fergusson, whose Dante’s Drama of the Mind had moved me to praise him, his hand shaking from Parkinson’s from which he would die a few years later.

And so the days passed with my journal and my feeling like crap, each feeding the other like what Eric Neuman called the uroboros in his Origins and History of Consciousness, and I used the tail-eating snake to begin my new book that would become Daughters of Memory.

I would work on it every morning after reading The Los Angeles Times as if it were Hegel’s mirror of the world spirit. “Spirit,” said J.N. Findlay in his book on Hegel, “is the only reality, but it must confront itself with something seemingly alien, in order to see through its own self-deception, to become aware that it is the only reality.”

But what was spirit, what was the “supreme reality?” my new guru, Nisargadatta, kept referring to in his talks that were recorded and translated by a Polish Jew, Maurice Friedman, in a little attic in Bombay where Nisargadatta had died in that very year I was in Bombay myself and didn’t even know he existed.

I would never know him or his Supreme Reality as long as I was I, and so I went back to my typewriter that was now an Adler International after my crippled Underwood went kaput.

Then I would walk to campus for the lucky job that had come by chance when the MLA conference was held in San Francisco, where the chair of Scripps’ English Department, Richard Fadem, was my age and liked my enthusiasm.

Look! I would say to the young beauties staring up at my waving arms, look how beautiful my monuments of Emily Dickenson’s I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died and Rimbaud’s Aube and Yeats’ Ledaand the Swan and Pound’s River Merchant’s Wife!

For two years I would be surrounded by them, who I had to turn into daughters and my lust to love, while I searched for prostitutes in the classified ads of The Free Press, the loneliness so painful I would drive fifty miles to be with my friends Henry Bean or Bob Maniquis in Venice or Malibu.

I tried also of course to find a girlfriend, and I drove to Silverlake for Marly and Laguna Beach for Barbara and Westwood for Isabel, rejecting in the meantime Phyllis and Susan and what was her name in my same old story over and over again.

Three Sculptures; Painting by Peter Najarian “Three Sculptures”
Oil on board, by Peter Najarian

One afternoon I bumped into young Jennifer in the local grocery. “Hello, Professor,” she said, as if I really were one, and she chatted about how upset she was by her own version that was just beginning.

“Sometimes, Jennifer,” I said, as if I knew what I was talking about, “negative experiences are important.”

“I know,” she said, “I’m going to write about this one, it’s going to be my final work for your class, but I don’t know how to make it into a story.”

“Don’t worry about making it a story,” I said, really to myself. “Just get it out, whatever it is.”

And as she said goodbye, she stopped to add:

“Did you see My Brilliant Career?” “No, I didn’t.” “Oh, please, please go see it; it’s so good. It’s playing at the auditorium tonight. Please go see it.” “All right, I will.”

I loved her, I loved them all, but I can’t even remember her face now, and without my journal I wouldn’t remember her at all.

In the meantime the prostitutes would submit their own creative writing to The Free Press:

“Pretty coed, call me after class.” “Big Boobs, my pointed firm nipples are waiting for you to cum all over them, call Crystal.” “Oriental lady, if you can appreciate the finer things in life.” “Relax. Try something new. Deep throat expert.” “Don’t run around trashing your aura, call Juliet for discreet introduction of quality.” “Surfer girl.” “San Gabriel Valley nymphet.” “My name is Angel.” “Call Tiffany.” “Therese.”

Finally I found one whose phone number was local: “Hot Latin. Daytime fun massage in my home. Call for an erotic treat. 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. only. No evenings or weekends.”

“Fifty dollars for thirty minutes,” she said over the phone, her voice soft and gentle with an endearing Mexican accent. Then lo and behold she was practically a neighbor on the other side of Claremont, across the street from an elementary school, the kids in recess when I arrived.

She had kids herself somewhere, and who knows, maybe even a husband? “Will you sign here, please?” she said, pointing to a line in her register book like a hostess in a fancy restaurant. And the statement above the line said, “I am not a policeman,” and I had come for a massage, and whatever else I didn’t record in my journal.

Her home, clean and tidy, was like any other housewife’s in any other suburb, with the same wall-to-wall carpeting and generic furniture that were replacing the orchards and farms across the valleys where immigrants like her kept coming for the American dream, as if she were the girl in Istanbul who had escaped the bordello and was starting her life anew.

She had the same softness and loveliness, but she was the opposite in her sweet welcome, and she was even a little shy when I asked her name and she said, smiling demurely and trying to be funny while practicing her English:

“Mary, like Mary Contrary.”

She was wonderful and our sex was more than delicious and she enjoyed it too, and I came back for more and then more again, and I would have kept coming for the rest of the semester, but after the third time she said she had to move because a nosey neighbor had complained to who knows who about the different men always coming and going, and she never sent me her new address.

A few weeks later the ex-hooker, Margo St. James, lectured on campus about legalizing prostitution, and I not only supported her but fell in love with her too.

In the meantime I got a card from Jewel after Sol moved out:

“Dear Peter, thanks for remembering my birthday. Niko is fine and awaits your return for Christmas. Sorry to hear life is so hard down there. I am barely keeping up with it all here—getting ready for the school fair & xmas in general. I light candles, light fires, snuggle up with Sammy and Shane to ward off the darkness. Brr. I miss you, too, & you seem so far away—& I am sorry that it’s all so lonely for you at Scripps. My mother was here for Thanksgiving & we had a good visit. I actually enjoy her visits now so it is a new day! And I get so much in working for the school—that’s very fulfilling. Pros & cons. I love you. J.”

I actually stayed with her for a week during the Xmas break, since I had sublet my cottage. Wanting to turn her into a sister like I did with Sarah, I was quite close with her and her kids by now, and I was even good friends with Sol, who, despite moving out, was always around while he and Jewel worked out their marital problems.

Then back at Scripps my journal filled with love for my friends, Dick and Henry and Maniquis, whose homes and families were an enormous help to my loneliness.

And as if by synchronicity, the war in the Falklands was in the news while I was reading about The Disappeared in Argentina, and I got a letter from my young friend Nestor, who wrote about the rest of his travels after he left me in Athens, and though I had to get it translated by a Spanish prof, he did sign off in English:

“To my great brother, my inglish is advancing all the days.”

And as if I were prescient I recorded a news clip about a Vietnamese man killing himself in an internment camp after he had fled through the jungles of Cambodia to what he thought would be a haven in Thailand where he was held captive so long he couldn’t take it any longer.

And I read it here now, twenty-two years later, when my new friend and fellow artist, John Nguyen, was in that same camp after escaping through that same jungle, but instead of killing himself he made it to Australia and eventually here where he has brought his wife and kids.

We live the dream of Gods and they live ours, says my misquote of Heraclitus on May 22, 1982, and as I sit here now, the 28th of July, 2012, the sparrows are pecking at my feeder and my neighbors are chatting across the fence, and I struggle with how to segue into the explosion with Jewel, as if my journal were tied to the daily news so filled with war and suffering like a mirror of Hegel’s Weltgeist.

In my two years at Scripps I filled it with names whose faces I can’t even remember now, and yet I entered nothing about my zafu at four every morning when my kriyas would churn inside me until I belched and fumed like a volcano that would turn my past into dust.

I lived my daily life like a boat bobbing on a sea while the forces of the deep were churning behind my navel like giant squid and sperm whales in epic battles of another reality, and little did I know they would soon overwhelm me while I was typing my usual crap about my envy and my lust.

In the seven years since the kriyas evolved from my primal scream, I had been belching and blowing across the continents as if I were imitating the Buddha facing the forces of Mara under the Bo tree, unaware that I was actually rehearsing for a mass murder where I would destroy the universe in a final extinction as if I were the black hole itself.

I was always a volatile person who had to strap my anger like the arm wraps of an insane asylum, but it would leak out with a noisy neighbor or the insult of a friend or the deep breathing on a basketball court, and the deeper I breathed the crazier I grew, until I was so crazy after my retreat with Dhira I was locked in the Berkeley jailhouse until I could bail myself out.

In my second year at Scripps I had sublet my cottage to an effeminate homosexual named Benny who was a friend of Jewel’s whom she had recommended, and I had yelled at him during the Xmas break for his mess and his negligence and then yelled at him again during the Spring break.

Nevertheless I told him he could stay another month after I left Scripps at the end of May, when I went on two ten-day retreats with Dhira at a camp by Lake Vera near the Yuba River in the foothills of the Sierras. He would have to be out of the cottage when I returned, I said, and I called him twice from the camp to remind him.

The great outdoors were as wonderful as always, and suffering as always the powerful lust for the luscious beauties who swam naked in the lake, I kept belching like the bullfrogs while my kriyas wrestled with my knots like the Angel with Jacob, and my huffing and puffing was so intense I slept only four hours a night.

Nor had I slept at all the last night of the second retreat, and I drove the three hours to Berkeley with a strange energy that would later seem destined for the inferno ahead.

“Stay for the party,” Dhira had said, “why are you rushing back?” “I need to go home,” said my anxiety about Benny and the cottage, as if I had another appointment with a holocaust.

Then lo and behold it turned into the tohu-bohu of my darkest suspicion when I opened the door and found Benny’s junk still there and the rooms stinking of his garbage and his cheap perfume.

Control yourself, said my Jekyll to my Hyde, this is not the retreat where you can belch with the bullfrogs; you are back in civilization.

But the wild energy of my huffing and puffing was still at large, and I drove to Jewel’s with the old rage that could destroy the universe, and I found Jewel and Benny joking and drinking tea in her kitchen like the world going about its business before a sudden quake.

“Hi,” she said with her beautiful smile that I loved so deeply, “how was the retreat?”

Ignoring her, I confronted Benny with my breath reined tight, but he dismissed me by saying he would get his stuff out of the cottage in a few days. “You can stay here with Jewel,” he said.

“No,” I said, still reining myself back, “I’m not staying with Jewel, you’re going to get your stuff out right now.”

“I will,” he said, ignoring me again.

“No,” I said, the leash of my rage beginning to tear, “not you will, you are, right now.

“Hey!” he said, like an indignant movie star ignoring her director, “don’t you talk to me like that, I’ll go when I’m ready.”

Weeks later I would realize his mess and his negligence were from his own kind of sickness, yet all I could think of then were his lies over the phone and his not paying the rent or the utility bills, as if they were his revenge for my yelling at him.

“You’re really being uncool,” he said, and the patronizing tone of his reply suddenly unleashed my wolf, and I grabbed him by his collar and pulled him toward the door.

Were he a stronger man I may have just shouted, but when he slipped out of my grip I pulled him back toward the door and started hitting him, until suddenly there was Jewel trying to protect him and hitting me with a frying pan again. Why she would always use a frying pan, I never learned.

“Get out my house!” she shouted, her own rage erupting from her troubles with Sol, until all three of us were coiled in a common madness like Laocoon and his sons entwined by the serpents of the deep.

I will get out, I wanted to explain to her, only please don’t hit me with your frying pan again, don’t you know it’s your love I need?

And when I tried to push her away I pushed too hard and she fell back and hit her head on the bookcase and I lost my grip and Benny escaped while she was calling the police.

Then there I was looking at her as if I had taken acid and was hallucinating, Benny now across the street with the neighbors while she stared at me with her old anger, our putative friendship crumbling like the house of postcards I had built so delicately with my fantasy of being like brother and sister.

I wanted to leave but I was afraid it would seem I was fleeing from what might be called a crime, and so I stood on the porch in the tingling numbness that always followed such rage, my eyes straining not to cry and my nerves in short circuit.

Then I stood silent while Jewel and Benny told the two policemen their version of why she called. Was I her friend, asked the one writing in his notebook?

I used to be, she said. Did she want to press charges? he said, holding his pen. She thought a moment and then said no.

Benny did, however, but this was in question after his neglect was revealed, so the cop decided it was a domestic dispute and he told me to stay away from the cottage until Benny could retrieve his belongings.

Walking out with me, the cop said, “I can understand why you were angry, but you can’t go around hitting people.”

Unable to return to the cottage, I drove around the block and sat in my Datsun until I could cry, the crying once again like a vomiting, as if I had been poisoned.

It was dark when I returned to the cottage, but Benny’s garbage was still there, so I dumped it in the yard and went to sleep with the windows open to clear the stink of his cheap perfume, my home now a flophouse of the disgusting homosexuals in my dreams.

Why disgusting, as if I too would become one if I didn’t become a man, a disgusting half male-half female in garbage half alive and half dead?

Why did I recoil from them as if I had something in me that made them disgusting, or I too would want to fuck men instead of women and so end the human species?

Or was it tied to how uptight I was in touching men and how embarrassed I was when Garabed had held my arm in an Asian way that said it was normal. How fond of me he had been and how warm was his arm like a father’s when we strolled together in Istanbul, yet how embarrassed I was as if the world would see I was not really a man but a boy who loved men and needed to be loved by them.

I had no wish to suck a penis or be fucked by one, yet I had nightmares in which my kriyas would wrestle me in my sleep and a giant figure would break into my home as if to do me harm and I would fight it until one night it was too powerful and it suddenly hugged me like a father and it felt warm and full of love and I woke confused as if the nightmare had become a wish-fulfillment where I was my own father and I hugged myself with love.

Needing to restore my home, I loaded a friend’s pick-up with Benny’s stinking pillows and his putrid bags of garbage and I dumped them in front of Jewel’s house where he was now staying, and then I cleaned and painted the rooms of this cottage until I could once again sit with my Adler International, the Underwood long gone that she had once smashed when I had angered her.

Then one evening after I was writing all day, the same cops who had come to Jewel’s suddenly burst through the door with pointed guns, and the one who had said I couldn’t go around hitting people now slammed me against the wall as if I were a drug dealer.

“I thought you said you didn’t need to book me?” I said as he locked the handcuffs around my wrists, but unskilled in the art of being human he just shoved me in the back of their car, and on the way to the station he talked with his partner about the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.

I never did learn how they could not book me the first time and arrest me later, but there I was being charged with assault after Benny’s formal charge, and I was put in a cell in the Berkeley Police Station until I was allowed to bail myself out at three in the morning.

I was wearing only shorts and thongs and a thin T-shirt because the cottage had been warm when I was arrested, and as I walked home from the station I shivered in the cold fog that was even colder after I had eaten nothing but a slice of toast the morning before.

The Police station was on McKinley Street, a few blocks from where the commune had been, and on the walk back here on Stuart Street, I passed the garden fence that still had the section Jewel and I had built on that sunny day when I had loved her so deeply, but now in the cold and grisly fog I hated her with the hatred of the ages as if she had caused not only my night in jail but the misery of my entire life.

It had been ten years since she had kicked me out of her nest, and yet I was as full of her as ever, as if she were what Jung might call my anima.

My friend Bill Belli was an attorney, and he won me a suspended sentence after talking with the judge in her chambers. She was a sexy woman around our age, and after talking about the case, Bill, who had always been a Casanova, asked her what she wore under her robe.

“‘Sometimes I wear nothing,’ she said,” said Bill as we left the court.

“I’ll see you later,” he said to me. “I’m having lunch with her.”

—From the author’s memoir-in-manuscript, The Artist and His Models

SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Peter Najarian

is a painter, poet, and author of three novels, a story collection, and a memoir. His work appears in numerous anthologies, journals, and galleries.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury