by michael chabon
Nat Jaffe, co-owner of Brokeland Records on Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue, has called a neighborhood meeting to drum up opposition to the impending arrival of Dogpile, a music megastore from L.A. that threatens his livelihood. A cross-section of East Bay community activists shows up.
Solemn, smiling, mildly puzzled, or with a beneficent swish of Glinda the Good, each Concerned Person put down his or her alphanumerics, then passed along the clipboard and the souvenir pen from Children’s Fairyland that was tricked out with pink and purple tinsel as a magic wand: Shoshana Zucker, who used to be the director of Julie’s nursery school, a chemotherapy shmatte on her head; Claude Rapf the urban planner, who lived on a hill above the Caldecott Tunnel in a house shaped like a flying saucer, where he once threw a party to mark the unwrapping of a pristine original pressing of In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969), which he then catalyzed on a fifty-thousand-dollar analog system; a skinny, lank-haired, Fu Manchued dude later revealed with a flourish to be Professor Presto Digitation, the magician from Julie’s fifth birthday party; two of the aging Juddhists who had recently opened a meditation center called Neshama, a block down from the old Golden State, the male Juddhist slurping with a vehement mindfulness from the rubber teat of a water bottle while
the female rummaged with melancholy chopsticks through the strips of flesh-gray tofu skin interleaved in her bento box as if ruing the slaughter of innocent soy plants that her appetite had ordained; Moby; that freaky Emmet Kelly-as Gloria Swanson-impersonator lady from the apartment over the Self-Laundry, holding her Skye terrier; Amre White, godson of Jim Jones, now the pastor of a rescue mission adjacent to the Golden State site, his ears, nostrils, and the ridges of his eyebrows cratered with the ghosts of renounced piercings; a city of Berkeley arborist named Marge whom Aviva once shepherded through a grievously late-term abortion; that Stephen Hawking guy who was not Stephen Hawking; the lady who owned the new-wave knitting store, teasing into life from the primal chaos of her yarn bag what appeared to be a doll-sized pair of cock-socked Eldridge Cleaver pants but also might have been a pullover sweater for her pet wyvern; weirdly, the accountant who got caught embezzling minor sums from a number of her clients, among them Brokeland Records, and was obliged (as a result of a bee that flew into a previous bonnet of Nat’s) to settle in small claims court; a noted UC Berkeley scholar of Altaic languages who specialized in collecting independent-label seven-inch soul releases of the mid-to-late sixties, carrying on his right shoulder without acknowledgment and for unspoken reasons a ripe banana, onto the nub end of which he (or someone) had drawn in black felt pen a smiling cartoon face; one of the eleven shrinks Nat had seen over the past ten years, a Dr. Milne, who spent the whole time casting a restless diagnostic eye across the framed album covers on the walls, the inoperative iron fuchsia of the fan whose down rod receded into the time-furred webs and shadows of the high tin ceil-ing, Julie’s painted bead curtain looking more like Sammy than Miles Davis, the battalion of miniature plastic Shriners in their miniature tuxes and fezzes massed along the plate rail of the wainscot at the back of the store, architectural relic of some pre-Spencerian establishment rumored but not confirmed to have been for a time the Oakland head-quarters of the Black Hand; Sandy the dog trainer, who had been lobbying the city for nearly a decade to convert the Golden State site to a dog park and who had taught the Jaffes’ beagle-schnauzer mix, Jasper, later slain by cancer, to play dead; and S. S. Mirchandani, there only because he was always around that time of day, the wandering star of his mysterious system of motels, nephews, and liquor stores. Last to sign his name, grunting and shifting and looking like he would have preferred to consult beforehand with his attorney, the King of Bling on his usual stool, minimally fulfilling the racial requirement imposed on Nat by an anonymous aide to Councilman Rod P. Abreu; though Airbus, unrecorded by wand, was also present, way at the back, to sew a second patch of verisimilitude onto the motley cloak of diverse community support behind which Abreu, in his ongoing struggle with Chan the Man for control of the Oakland City Council, might plausibly clothe his presence and his intentions.
“Let me start by telling you folks,” Abreu said, “why, I think, we are not here.”
Rod Abreu was a weary-shouldered, pudding-cheeked lawyer, at one time the attorney for the electrical workers’ union, younger and sharper than he looked, better educated than he sounded, scented with bay rum and endowed advantageously with large, moist mournful eyes the color of watery coffee that were set into his face in a pair of bruised hollows, prints inked by the malefactor thumbs of life. Yet in spite of his hangdog stoop and sorrowful countenance, his manner leaned aggressively toward an irrepressible and uniform pep, pep sprayed in snaky jets all over everything he said like concrete onto rebar.
“We probably should not be here today at this time,” he put it to them, “thinking we’re going to try to stop or turn back the clock on the Dogpile proposal. All right?”
Awaiting objection in a way that seemed to promise a swift overruling, courtroom-tested, Abreu held up his chin. No objection was forthcoming, though the lady with the Skye terrier looked disappointed. Nat was disappointed himself but, supposing this might be some kind of Brutus-is-an-honorable-man rhetorical gambit, settled in to hear what came next. The chin was duly lowered.
“To say anything like that, all right, would not only be premature, it would also be unfair. Maybe even a mistake.” Talking to a jury, a labor board, people who believed themselves, no matter how scant the supporting evidence, not to be simpletons. “Yes, I have seen the initial proposal, my staff and I have had a chance to look it over, and I would say that the best word for it is ‘ambitious.’ It is an ambitious proposal, and Mr. Gibson Goode, a terrific athlete, a human highlight reel — I mean, seriously — is an ambitious dude, okay, who has made amazing use of his gifts and his competitive edge, those leadership skills. If you ever saw him play, you know he has the goods. He can do it all. Guy you want in the huddle, third and long, take the ball and run with it, I mean, pick your favorite football cliche, to be honest, I’m more of a baseball fan. Go A’s?”
This tentative sentiment was seconded with scattershot but genuine fervor, the Oaklands a game and half out of first that August and seriously contending, and then the hinges of the front door let out a contrarian jeer. Everyone turned to see, hesitating at the threshold, a large man dressed in a stained Captain EO sweatshirt, sleeves cropped and curling at the shoulder seams to expose two high-reaching power forward arms. A pair of official Team USA basketball shorts as worn by that summer’s inglorious Olympic squad. White-on-white Adidas kicks, scarred as warhorses and wrinkled as elephants. The man looked flummoxed, lost, and, to his business partner, crestfallen, as if a grim fate that he had always feared might befall their establishment — say, a massive influx of strange white people — was now come to pass. He was carrying a square black frame from Blick art supplies, the kind they used to display album covers. He didn’t say anything, just stood there sweaty and breathing carefully through his nose.
“My partner, folks, Archy Stallings,” Nat announced, aware of a change of pitch, a downshift, in the music he was hearing in his head.
For the first time since he had begun to craft the flyer that summoned COCHISE into being, it occurred to him, maybe a bit late, that he might have wanted to drop some hint of his intentions on his partner, folks, Archy Stallings. If for no other reason — again a bit late, he saw that there might be plenty of other reasons — than to prevent the calamitous breach of personal-style code that his oversight had obliged Archy to commit. Every so often, maybe, if he was running way behind, Archy might stop by the store on his way from the courts at Mosswood Park, before he went home to shower and change. He never did so except with reluctance, discomfort, and apologies to whoever was at the counter to see him looking so raggedy-ass.
“Sorry,” he told the room before settling on his partner as the likely source of his underdressed confusion with a frown and a furrowing of eyebrows. “I — uh. Whoa. Nat— “
“Archy, this is Councilman Abreu,” Nat said, trying for the sake of appearances to make it sound like he was reminding rather than informing. “He graciously found some time to stop by today and talk to us, give us his views on the Dogpile thing. And,” he added, seized by a happy if disingenuous inspiration, “to hear what we have to say. Our neighbor and good friend Mr. Singletary— “
Garnet Singletary pressed his fingers against his sternum as though feeling for the bullethole.
“We need to fight!” said the lady who lived over the Self-Laundry, goosing her dog on the word “fight” as though encouraging it to second the motion. The dog abstained.
“HELL, YES,” intoned the Stephen Hawking guy through his vocoder, rolling his Mars rover out of Archy’s way.
“Huh,” said Archy quietly. “Is that right? Fight, okay.”
Nat noted the passage across his friend’s wide, mild features of what appeared to be genuine distress. Eager to ascribe that painful sight to anything other than the fact that, in an access of hypomania, he had convened — without consulting anyone, in the middle of a “transitional” neighborhood in a city that was largely black and poor and hungry for the kind of pride-instilling economic gesture that the construction of a Dogpile Thang represented, however gestural and beneficial only to Our Beloved Corporate Overlords it might turn out to be — this motley gathering of freaky Caucasians united, to hazard a guess, only by a reflexive willingness if not a compulsion to oppose pretty much anything new that came along, especially if it promised to be big and bright and bangin; in the process, creating and abandoning an unholy mess in his own kitchen, a mess that, his rapidly cycling brain chemistry began to whisper to him, was probably a metaphor, a prophecy of how this whole thing was going to turn out; hoping to forestall this realization, Nat sought explanation for Archy’s evident dismay in the picture frame. Archy had used it to mount the sleeve of his cherished copy of Redbonin’, with its starkly lit, extreme close-up Pete Turner photograph of Cochise J ones looking lean and hale but far more menacing than he ever had in life, cheeks printed with a calamitous history of freckles.
“I just came by to hang this picture up,” Archy said.
Michael Chabon is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” along with other novels including “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” “The Final Solution” and “Wonder Boys,” as well as short story and essay collections. He lives in Berkeley with his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their children.
The above is an excerpt from “Telegraph Avenue” (465 pages, Harper, $27.99), on sale Sept. 11.