The Avenue

03/10/2011 at 10:48 am (Exercises, Senses, Telegraph Ave.)

As I continue working on the novel, I’m attempting to add physical details that are true to Berkeley and the 1976 setting.  But I’m also concerned with other senses – not only the sights of the time and place, but the sounds, smells, tastes and the tactility of Steve’s surroundings.

This short exercise lists certain scents associated with Telegraph Avenue in the 1970s:

Suds and lemony detergent escaping the laundromat on the corner across from the 7-Eleven, which always smells like Slurpees and beef jerky;

b.o. so strong it makes anyone walking downwind of the aged black homeless man it belongs to gag involuntarily – the smell known notoriously as Bum Scum;

human feces in People’s Park;

poet Julia Vinograd’s musty chapbooks she shoves under the noses of every single passerby who happens to glance her way, only three dollars, plus she’ll sign it for you;

LaVal’s pepperoni pizza — covered with chili flakes — being consumed on the Northside by a study group of bleary-eyed undergrads during finals;

the aromatics of Caffé Med, where the Turkish coffees overpower the Ethiopian blends every time.



photo by Justin McFarr

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In Our Room

02/08/2011 at 10:07 am (Exercises, Senses)

I realize it’s been a very long time since I’ve posted anything on this site.  There are multiple reasons for this, but I’m back, hopefully adding new creative work more frequently, from this point forth.

This “welcome back” post is an exercise I did recently for my novel-writing class at USC.  The first part of the assignment was to take a character (in this case, Bear‘s protagonist, Stephen) and describe a room from his point-of-view.  Only details, no emotion, no commentary on the scene.  The second part built on the first part, describing his reaction to the room, how the character felt about this private space and his place in it.

In Our Room


The bedroom that I shared with my brother Demian when I was eleven and he was six will always look like summer to me.  I remember that whenever I entered the room from our door off the front hall, it always appeared to be drowning in light.  No shadows on the wall, no moody corners ever met my eye; the entire room was suffused by the sun, bursting inside through a window without drapes.  There were always finger smudges on the inside of the glass — and outside, occasional droplets from the morning dew that had swept across the San Francisco bay and accumulated on our window — but the insistence of the daylight obliterated those marks by mid-day.

The worn wooden headboards of our two twin beds grazed the bottom ledge of the white window frame, where Demian had positioned his action figures like a battalion of soldiers.  His plastic Spider-Man, which used to be mine, had its perch at the top of his bed, as if ready to spring down upon his bedspread, where Pinocchio and Bambi lay unaware that arachnid-danger loomed above them.  My bedspread lay crumpled on the floor, library copies of Jack London books and my personal collection of oversized Tintin paperbacks — with the adventures of a Belgian boy and his dog Snowy nestled inside — scattered across the yellowing sheet.  A half-empty glass of Pepsi and a ravaged box of Wheat Thins commanded the majority of space on the nightstand that separated our two beds.

On Demian’s side of the room, posters that had been thumb-tacked on the sun-burst walls struggled for space.  A Benji movie poster nuzzled up against an Incredible Hulk banner, which loomed above a March-of-Dimes walkathon announcement.  The blast of colors and shapes and material — from glossy to newspaper-print to the black velvet from a flea-market-bought mini-painting of the Fonz — stood in contrast to the walls on my side of the room, bare but for a small calendar of the Alaskan wilderness.

Strewn along the floor, miles from the bamboo hamper in front of the closet, were his clothes and my clothes, commingled in an almost perversely intimate way.  From under the bed poked more t-shirts and holey socks, in addition to half-broken toys and comic-books that had been abandoned for other pleasures.  This was our room, in 1976, and it looked and smelled like summer.


Even though entering the room I shared with Demian looked and smelled like a three-month break from school, it felt more somber than hopeful.  The blinding sun through the poorly-insulated window made me sweat whenever I tried to read a book on my bed in the middle of the day.  The mess of the clothes on the floor was my responsibility as well as my brother’s, but thinking about cleaning it up fostered resentment toward him, so it stayed in unclean piles until my mother finally caught the overwhelming odor of foot wafting into the hall and demanded that we toss it into the wash.

All the posters on Demian’s side of our room reminded me that he had more zest, more appreciation for life and its bright colors than I did.  At eleven, I saw those monthly photographs of frozen tundra as a place of physical escape, while experiencing my internal world in the same cold, bleak terms on a daily basis.   All my young-boy possessions served to ground me, to anchor me to my life, for a little while, and then the reality of the space outside that room would throw everything I thought I knew into disarray.  I felt suffocated and trapped in this bedroom filled with old memories that were becoming tainted by new truths.

I didn’t feel safe in my room anymore, didn’t know who I could trust or how much to trust them.  Demian’s bed, his belongings, his vibrant personality inside this room made me feel alternately relaxed and anxious.  Relaxed that he was safe and unaffected by the small fissures I had begun to notice in the foundation of our family and the neighborhood around us, but anxious thinking of what I needed to do to keep him from discovering that our world was slowly becoming an unstable and hazardous place.

The sounds of the train whistle, far off and otherworldly in the middle of the night, filled me with visions of travel and escape.  I wanted to create my own unique trill, one that would signal the departure of my brother and me from a depot crowded with detachment and blindness.  Demian deserved to be protected, and while our room served that purpose for the moment, I knew that eventually the roof above us would collapse and it would be too late for me to do anything to save him.  Or myself.

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04/11/2010 at 8:55 pm (Senses, Telegraph Ave.)

One of those scents that hook directly into my memory circuits and take me straight back to my childhood in Berkeley: the potent herb.  Take a whiff alongside me:


The smell is unmistakable, no matter what location I find myself: indoors, outdoors, at a house party or walking down Telegraph Ave. late at night.  Skunkweed, marijuana on fire in a wrapped cigarette, its smoke sucked into some stoner or hippie’s throat, then exhaled into the air with most of its pollutants intact.  Into the air with the stench of the smoker toker, the remnants of their own human spray blended with homegrown pestilence and filth, the atmosphere chokes and wheezes, reels and expires.

The vapors that swirl and twirl on the end of the thin paper’s burning edge emit the impotentcy of its mother crop.  Harvested before its time, or past its prime, the crusty green flakes that may have once been leaves or even a tasty bud mix with dead seeds to fill a baggie of ineffectual purpose.  The smell, once enflamed in joint-form or stoked in bong water, is its immediate giveaway.  Bitter, acrid, full of weight and pressure, the smell consumes me, encircles and penetrates my nasal cavities.  If I plug my nose with the tips of my fingers, the traveling vapors parade into the corners of my mouth, and I taste ostrich dung mixed with pepper gum.  If I force my mouth closed, the invisible strands of skunk smoke spray my eyes, coat my retina with liquid sludge and hazardous waste.

There is no escape from this smell that assaults my clean body, my fortified fortress that has smoked the killer weed but has not embraced it as a companion.  The burn is excruciating, but that sensation is reserved to the actual partaking of it firsthand.  It is the second-hand smoke that is the worst: unexpected, utterly familiar, uninvited and unwelcome as guest or acquaintance.  Poisonous and insistent, the scent spreads out in all directions in order to attack and conquer.  My nostrils flare in aggravation, my eyes crinkle with identification and anticipation, and my mouth readies to retch as bile coats my throat and roils in my esophagus.



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Musty Paperbacks at Moe’s

03/15/2010 at 6:17 pm (Senses, Telegraph Ave.)

One of the things I’d like to do here on this blog is tap into some specific senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, sight) about Berkeley as I delve further into my drafts of the novel.  This is an exercise I did a few months back that revolved around scent, in an attempt to bring sense memory onto the page.

Musty Paperbacks / Moe’s Books

Downstairs, in the big little basement that is home to all of Moe’s new books and used paperbacks, was my home away from home.  Whenever I find myself at a rummage sale or library book buyout, inevitably I will press my nose to a mass-market paperback that has seen better days, and the scent of acid-decomposed paper and water-damaged bindings caress me.  It is familiar, not unpleasant, and full of happy memories of trolling the aisles at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for hours upon hours.  Sometimes, if I had my own used books to sell, I’d take a trade slip instead of cash, and my neck would tilt sideways as my eyes scanned the shelves – and metal carts of yet-to-be-shelved treasures – until a title or author caught my attention and the journey would be set on pause for a moment.

Could this be the book that would transport me to another time and place worth my eight to ten hours of nose-between-the-pages intense devotion?  Would the fact that another sci-fi fan had languored in a steamy bath or nestled into a worn-down, comfy base of a Sequoia, dissuade me from taking the Tor paperback out of the shelves for keeps?  Would the moistness of its pages and the battered shape of its jacket cover turn me off to the wonders and promises of secret wishes fulfilled that may lie encapsulated in the black-on-white words within?

Maybe yes and maybe no, depending on the intensity of the permeating odors of the little novel or the level of damage done to the small jewel.  But whatever the choice, the search for more adventure, intrigue, horror or otherworldly excitement would continue, my nostrils filled with foreign smells, ancient scents, and the ticket to more olfactory memories and subconscious future pleasures.

photo by Robert Eliason

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