Apophenia, the Donner Party and Me




I may suffer from apophenia – the illusion of meaningfulness in unrelated things - but on April 14, 1846, the Donner Party set out for California.  Exactly 150 years later, to the day, I left a loft in lower Manhattan bound for the tranquility of the SF Bay Area.  My Conestoga wagon was a 24ft Hertz rental truck.  Like the Donner Party, I waited for spring to avoid bad weather.  Yet I managed to hit snow in every state from New York to California.  Like the Donner Party, I followed the California trail & my trip likewise stalled in the Sierra Nevada.  As I sat on the side of the road out of gas, in the middle of nowhere, I imagined that the gap-toothed people eyeing me were descendants of the Donner Party.  I have travelled to many of the worst places in the world & was familiar with stares that made me feel privileged or endangered.  These were the first stares that made me feel delicious.  Eventually I prevailed and staked my claim in the Oakland Hills.

There are challenges migrating from NYC to the Bay Area.  as a definitive New Yorker I missed the attitude, the crowds, the nightlife, the textures & tones & the swagger unique to NY.  Life on the edge heightens your senses – there’s a sense that the atom is being split on a daily basis as thousands of people navigate sidewalks briskly, brusquely w/o collisions.

Anyway I was married with two young sons.  We moved from a loft in Tribeca to the trumanshow-like town of Montclair – in the Oakland Hills.  Land of title companies & restaurants that close at 9:00pm.  I felt like Kevin McCarthy in a hip version of the 1950’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers; surrounded by beings mostly white; mostly unemotional, pretending to be happy; and no one cares about sex.  My emotional stability was in upheaval because I had no opportunity to emote – even I realize that it’s inappropriate to be angry with someone who suggests you move ahead of them in line because you have fewer groceries. 

For the first year I feel like I’m on vacation and thus able to maintain my integrity.  I pick my spots.  There were so many signs in Montclair about missing dogs that I started a rumor blaming Al Queda.
As time passed I found it refreshing when backing into a metered parking space on the main drag of Montclair & someone attempts to steal my parking spot.  There are certain tenets of civilization at stake.  First I check to make sure the parking space stealer wasn’t a 350 Sumo wrestler nor a multiply handicapped paraplegic so this way neither my mortality nor my sense of fair play is at risk  – then I calmly ask the stealer of my parking spot “Exactly how far are you willing to take this?”  (While I embrace Gandhi’s non-violent approach to social injustice, Genghis Khan is a more effectual philosophy for personal squabbles.)

Gradually under a constant barrage of kick-back living, I begin to (wait for it) – MELLOW.  I relish being able to play tennis one day and ski the next.  I appreciate the incredible food scene; though miss being able to get West Pakistani food at 2:00am if I want it.  While I still don’t hug strangers in line at the Berkeley Bowl, I am generally nice to people and honk my horn much less.  I would say I have become a “selective nicest”, as opposed to a “general nicest” – that is, I am really nice to the people I care about, and kind of nice to everyone else.  (better to be a “selective cannibal versus a “general cannibal.”

Another example of my mellowness:  last week I was parked perpendicular to the curb in Montclair and sitting intentionally not looking at my phone in any way (an experiment) – dare I say meditating about what I was up to.  I watched a woman walking a beautifully coiffed standard poodle as she talked on her cell phone.  As she talked, her beigely beribboned poodle began to pee on my front fender – and continued and continued to do so.  My car is so low to the ground, a Miata, so the dog’s actually peeing on my hood, and, as my top was down, I was in danger of a golden rinse, so, – I stood up and yelled “Yo – your dog’s pissing on my car!”  She took a beat and replied “Sorry but I was talking to my therapist.”  I don’t know if I was dumbstruck by the New York-ness of the response, but I did not make her clean up the mess.  I...let...it...go.

From the dept of redundancy dept from there I went into the Montclair Post Office where the post woman informed me in a monotone robotic voice that they were out of stamps.  The second time this has happened.  I thought “Isn’t this why you exist?”  But I...LET….IT….GO…..

But there was a incident that affirmed that the pod had not replaced me - the City of Oakland, and particularly in Montclair, as result of the fiscal crisis, began to paint curbs red to increase the city’s revenue from parking tickets.  I realize the importance of red zones around fire hydrants or other safety issues.  Where I live my garage driveway curb has about 10 foot space before the next driveway, perfect for parking a small car.  If it was open, I could park there and leave my driveway open for a visiting friend.  Or someone else could use the space.

One day, shockingly, my parking world changed as that perfect little space was painted a bright red for no apparent reason.  It annoyed me.  I did the due diligence, looking up Oakland’s Dept of Public Works guidelines specifying which spots could be painted red – no official ordinance explained why my piece of paradise was purloined. 

I do not suffer fools.  I am a product of the 60’s.  In my summer camp we didn’t water ski or braid leather lanyards.  We visited migrant farmers work camps, sang Woody Guthrie songs and kumbayaed way before anyone else.  Social injustice allowed me to channel my New York persona.  I formed an anonymous protest group:   “The Hills Non-Violent Can’t Curb My Enthusiasm Red Curb Liberation Coordinating Committee.”  “FREE THE CURBS!”  “STOP THE RED MENACE!” (Twas hard to rouse up the good people of Montclair so I decided to take action on my own.)

I decided to liberate this wrongly painted red curb by simply repainting it the appropriate gray cement color it had been.  It took minimum effort, minimum risk, minimum cost – one $4.95 can of spray paint, 3 minutes of spraying at midnight, and voila – a liberated parking space. 

Life was good for about 3 weeks.  Then, one day as I pulled into my driveway, I noticed that the curb was bright, new-paint red.  Of course I knew the remedy, and that night, after midnight, I returned the curb to its natural native state.  Five days later, the entire scenario was repeated.  Action and reaction continued for several months.  Finally the curb was re-painted one day after I had painted it.  Now I don’t know if the Oakland Dept of Public Works is the most efficient infrastructure dept on the planet – cause they certainly don’t fix potholes with equal enthusiasm.  Maybe I had a nemesis as committed to red curbing as I was to red curb liberation.

Around this time a lawyer friend told me “Scott, if you get caught there are serious consequences.”  Then the City of Oakland posted notices very close to my house – “It is illegal to deface red zones.  If you would like to have this issue resolved “legally” call transportation services and we will process your request.”  I know a trap when I see one.  Yeah, I’m gonna call.

So I backed off for several months.  I laid low.  I pondered.  I deliberated.  Then I decided to rise up – I’ve always wanted to be a Super Hero and or Merry Prankster.  I enlisted an artist friend who will remain unnamed.  We decided to liberate multiple curbs in Montclair and raise the stakes.  It was like the Tet Offensive.  We made stencils and bought 3 colors of spray paint – green, blue, and orange – and in a coordinated guerrilla action we liberated multiple red curbs – painting them a most joyously exuberant polka dot pattern.

We did this at 4am – I don’t know if my nemesis at the Dept of Public Works lives in Montclair and prowls the streets at all hours or if he is Lex Luther to my Superman, but all of our polka dot painted curbs were repainted that oh so wrong bright red by noon that same day!  I’m surprised there wasn’t an “Amber Highway Alert” to find this unable to Curb His Enthusiasm most wanted felon.

Alas, as of now, the liberated curbs are no longer free and the good people of Montclair remain in a state of unwitting oppression.  The anonymous terrorist / freedom fighter is laying low.  And for plausible deniability concerns, I gotta say I emphatically state that this is a work of fiction.  (but I do have photos) I hope that a political solution is possible as I am attempting to LET...IT...GO.   I do not know who my fanatical hell-bent obsessed nemesis is but I don’t want to go all Donner Party on him or her......you know, what they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em!...................  There are certain tenets of civilization at stake.