Discover more from JD: ABCs
My Broken Cup
The cup came as a surprise in the mail, soon after my arrival in Dallas in August, 1986. The gift sent by a friend in the Bay Area who had been a roommate was spontaneous, not occasioned by a birthday or special event. For almost seven years we had shared a big, unheated warehouse space with a sequence of others. But I was touched by the unexpected gesture that connected us across what felt at the time like an insurmountable distance. The cup was expensive, issued by the Metropolitan Museum in a limited edition, a more extravagant utilitarian object than my limited resources would have allowed. I welcomed its feline imagery, that lovely Siamese cat watching a spider, that acknowledged another bond between us.
Dallas was hard. The city was suffering from the impact of a severe downturn in the economy. The 1970s boom cycle fueled by skyrocketing oil prices had crashed. Supply from a variety of sources had rapidly exceeded demand and I got to the city just as the crisis hit bottom. In massive loan defaults, the recently newly-rich became, as writer Larry McMurtry said, “the nouveau bankrupt.”
Thanks for reading JD: ABCs ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The city was a ghost town of half-finished aspirationally stylish architecture. Plastic sheets flapped in the empty openings of half-built high-rise buildings meant to have glass everywhere inside their marble and travertine frames. Post-modern style was the rage, or had been, and the decorative excesses and faux flourishes added to the sense of abandonment and dejection. The overreach of unfettered expenditure halted in mid-development gave the town a surreal quality–the past-tense of an unrealized future.
Overbuilt office complexes and outsized hotels were two of the conspicuous features of that world—along with under-employed top-tier chefs. Once, in the lobby of a finished but barely-occupied tower, I watched a woman cross a vast space in an indoor atrium the size of a small stadium. She was wearing a slim white dress that clung to her long body and she walked with the steady grace of a runway model. The center of the space was defined by a circle of pale columns behind which the real polished stone and trompe l’oeil marble of the walls sank into deep space. The scene was like a kitsch commercial for luxury goods, filled with clichés and stereotypes of wealth that swathed the woman in a bubble of perfection, ease, and security. But the lobby was empty. She walked alone, her small heels clicking on the smooth floor, echoing through the space undisturbed by other sounds or motions, a ghostly apparition.
In the mornings in the affluent neighborhood near my apartment, the women came into the coffee-shop in cashmere jogging suits, laden with jewelry and shining with paint. If I did not put on at least some amount of makeup, I could not get waited on in a store. Not because I wasn’t presenting myself properly, but because I was simply invisible. Without bling, shine, and applied color, I couldn’t be perceived, almost as though shop clerks were automated sensors scanning for cash value in surface accessories.
I had come to Texas for my first academic job at a somewhat bleak university campus in disconnected suburbs north of the city. The Dean of the school had a specific vision for an interdisciplinary degree in Arts and Performance. But the students questioned the study of Berthold Brecht and Antonin Artaud—why should we read a Communist sympathesizer and a crazy man? They wore hunks of ore on their fingers big enough for me to retire on should I care to relieve them of the burden in an after-school heist. Once, at the Dallas Flea Market, I listened to a woman tell an over-eager vendor that she “doubted he had any diamonds big enough” to interest her. These novelties broadened my experience but did not bond me with the culture.
Building a life out of loneliness was difficult, trying to piece scraps of social intersection into an adequate fabric of existence. I never succeeded in making a life in Dallas in spite of a few decent colleagues and an old friend. As far as I recollect, none of my Bay Area friends ever visited me there. Why would they? Texas was another country, far away, and lacked attractions for the Californians. I longed for the Bay Area, but knew that to make my way in the academic world I had to begin somewhere.
By contrast, the sociality of the warehouse space had been the context of my life for seven years. We’d moved into it when it was still a wide open four-thousand square foot loft, walls covered in a fine layer of cookie dough that had accumulated in the many years of service as an industrial bakery. We had the upper storey, with huge old metal frame casement windows, brick outer walls, and a filthy wooden floor which we restored by spending a weekend with a belt sander and an orbital, removing the grease and residues. The walls we washed with some horrible detergent, trying to avoid the drips and stench of chlorine and other toxic gases.
We were young. There were three of us in the first clean-up crew, and we had very little money, we only be rented the sanders for one grueling twenty-four hour period. The bathrooms in our loft didn’t work, water wasn’t connected, and we had minimal electricity. But the space was flooded with light and possibility. The north side windows were brushed with palms that lent their name to that area. I didn’t have a room, or money for construction, so I built an interior hut out of old palettes and doors that had been abandoned in the yard (along with a submarine engine we always planned to make into a planter). I hand-printed brown wrapping paper to cover the inside of my hut—which was just big enough to hold a single bed on casters bequeathed to me by some generous soul. Lathe strips served as tent poles to provide a little more privacy between the hut and the windows so I could dress and undress modestly. I put a folding chair along the outer wall with a crate for a table and called it a sidewalk café.
Our happiness in that space came from youth and exuberance, the sense of infinite possibility one can still feel in one’s twenties. I had been in Europe travelling, stretching out the tiny bit of savings I had had into a year and a half of adventures on the island of Santorini, a stint in Athens, travels through Italy, then a squatted house in Amsterdam. Returning to Oakland was a deliberate choice to rejoin to a community of peers, resituate my creative and intellectual life among people whose sensibilities had already formed and informed my own for almost a decade.
We three roommates got to know each other well, sticking together through other relationships, breakups, and attachments. Among ourselves, we slyly instituted a ritual we called the “breakfast test,” for those incidental over-night visitors who showed up on a regular—if passing—basis. Pretty boys, mainly, too attractive to resist but not necessarily good candidates for longer term relations. We gave them beer at night and coffee in the morning and sometimes they called back, but it was the social framework of the roommates that provided the emotional foundation for those years, no matter how profound the other connections came to be.
So, we existed, in our loose, informal sisterhood, aware of each other’s moods, challenges, needs, talents, and aspirations. The first year I worked at the Oakland Museum, a few blocks away, saved from making a living doing office work by a visionary and compassionate hiring official, a Ms. Wilkinson I believe. The position was part of the SETA—Special Education Training Act—designed to give disadvantaged youth a chance at developing job skills through employment. I had a degree from an art school, some accomplishments, but no money and no particular advantages. I was not the only college student she hired, but I was among the less privileged. I spent my days typing cards for the Registrar in the History Department who was cataloguing the Museum’s collections for the first time.
The cataloguing of cultural objects was still an emerging field, and I would have had no knowledge of anything remotely like metadata, descriptive systems, or information fields. The very terms would have been baffling nonsense to me had they been uttered in an interview. But I could type, and the work was interesting. The registrar was photographing the full array of indigenous artifacts, settler tools and objects, historical memorabilia and realia of all kinds. I clipped the contact sheets of black and white photos and attached the tiny images to the cards while the Registrar struggled to identify odd items—a well worn strap of leather attached to a very deliberately shaped bit of wood, clearly purpose specific. Without any context of use or experience, it was merely an unidentified tool. What did we know of 19th century agriculture?
The walk to the Museum was only a few blocks, but my agoraphobic tendencies made it a hellish agony. I felt exposed in the East Oakland neighborhood, which was mainly civic buildings, a few sweat shops, and some otherwise barely occupied spaces. The emptiness of the neighborhood, rather than anything else, made me anxious. A year later, when I could afford a bike and used it for transport, I felt protected by swiftness and speed, able to move through the streets with relative psychic impunity.
The warehouse had no heat, ever, and though California has a benevolent climate, the Bay Area winters are not balmy. The temperature would drop, into the 60s, the 50s, and finally, the 40s. I would sit in a sleeping bag at my desk, trying to stay warm with endless cups of tea, some yoga exercises, and sheer will power. But it was cold in the deep winter months. In my newly built room with enormous windows, I would stare into the night through the multiple panes, looking at the blue neon sign for the Mulkey’s Furniture Store as it echoed the light of the moon. We never paused to consider what might befall us if an earthquake shattered the glass and metal frames while we slept. No point. We were there, and living our young lives, progressing through career steps, jobs, and then school. My roommate went to Berkeley to study landscape architecture and I followed soon after to begin my academic career, also in the College of Environmental Design. We had wonderful slide nights, big parties in the open space, and came and went into and out of each other’s lives on a daily basis. After one design assignment failure in her classes, my roommate decorated our walls with measurements in feet and yards, needing to understand scale in a physical way. By agreement, we kept the large central space open, uncluttered and uncommitted, and each of us would use it for our own practices of meditation, dance, or just reflection.
A fourth roommate came, built a loft above that space, and lived there briefly. She, too, gifted me with a cup. Hers was from Hong Kong, the colony where she had grown up since her father, an American, had been in the export business. That cup was green with pink hibiscus flowers on it, made for tea it had a cover which is long gone, though the cup, like the coffee cup, remained in my possession used regularly, but also, ritualistically. Each of these cups provoked the vivid presence of a friend, connecting me to the 1970s and early 1980s, when I knew them both very well.
Seven years is a biblical cycle, a long time in a young life, and the connections we forged were deep, precious, tender. As in all relationships, they were also sometimes fraught, but with the exception of one tragic incident, we weathered the vicissitudes. Later roommates who came across the years remained, for me at least, outside of that intimate connection forged in the initial washing of walls, the application of varnish to the floors from a huge can of polyurethane perched on a skateboard to ease it along as we worked. The grain of the wood came to life as we saturated the sanded surfaces and our incidental exchanges laid the foundation for strong bonds. Trust is made in common tasks.
In 1986, I asked my friend what to send her from that foreign state of Texas in return for the cup. In my horror at their constant presence I had described the cockroaches to her—and she asked me to send her some corpses. I obliged, collecting the repulsive things by flicking them into a small jewelry box with a blade of some kind. I kept the lid on until I amassed a sufficient number to feel I had done my duty, then prepared to ship the box to the West Coast. When I opened it before wrapping, I was caught off-guard by the overwhelming, unexpected stench. Still, I dutifully placed a wad of cotton padding into the box, surrounded it multiple times in protective bubble wrap and placed it in a larger box for safe shipping. I’m sure that I was violating any number of agricultural laws by sending the insect matter across state lines, but off went the package to its destination.
Hardly a fair exchange. For almost forty years I used this cup for my morning coffee whenever I was at home. I stored it in my dresser when I was away so that no house sitter could break it accidentally in some careless moment. With every day’s use, I recalled my friend who is still in Berkeley, though not in the warehouse any longer. I am certain the box of repulsive insect corpses is long gone, and wonder if she has any memory of them. Now, the cup, too, is gone, broken beyond repair, shattered in a clumsy instant. But in this era of online access, it has been replaced by an almost-replica, a surrogate that differs from the original only in slight details, just enough to remind me daily that it is not the cup that came to me from her, but another, an object close enough to invoke memory, but not the same. Something is broken in the loss of a connecting touch, the knowledge of a hand, eye, or mind having chosen that thing and sent it even if she had never had it out of the box. Her decision channeled the energy through the object. The replacement cup cannot connect to that circuit. Whatever charge was contained in the original, it does not translate to the surrogate. But also, the substitute is a reminder that nothing is ever the same—no thing, moment, or event.
From the warehouse, what stands out is an experience one late afternoon when my roommate arrived from Watsonville where she tended to the business of a family farm. She had a flat of strawberries with her, still warm from the sun, and as was our habit, we made a huge bowl of whipped cream and sat at the kitchen table together with whomever else was around. A litter of kittens had been born to our common cat, and from the far end of the warehouse, the biggest and boldest of them managed to escape from the cardboard box in which the attentive and protective mother kept them sequestered. He arrived so quickly in our midst that we hardly registered his presence before he climbed up next to us on the bench seat and then the to table where he plunged headfirst into the bowl of cream. As we fished him out, dripping with a thick dairy coating, we commented on how now he would go back and report to the other kittens, “OMG—they have SWIMMING POOLS of WHIPPED CREAM over there!”
Thanks for reading JD: ABCs ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.