Aug 2007

First Prize Zucchini

ferry boat

“Who does your tattoos?”

“My cousin, Nicky.”

“She does good work.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

The pink-haired cashier reached over the scarred, wormy bar and handed change to the man in front of me. She adjusted the ring in her nose with her tattooed hand and smiled at me from behind the 100 year old cash register. While the symbols on her arms were a mystery to me, it was indeed nice work. I paid for lunch and looked over at Luciano. He also was drinking in the atmosphere of the Athenian Restaurant, one of the oldest eating establishments at Pike Place Market in Seattle where we were visiting my brother Dorsey. The two of them stood, arms folded, admiring the bar where Tom Hanks sat while filming the movie “Sleepless in Seattle”. There is a little plaque there to be sure one does not forget.

Seattle is theoretically surrounded by some of the most breathtaking wilderness in North America, yet I have never seen so much cement in one town. The inhabitants like to describe their town as “gritty, blue-collar, grungy…and it is. Not once did the fog lift enough to see beyond the Puget Sound and the bustling ferries, so I think the wilderness is there. I have seen pictures.

“Where did you get your M-16 ammo belt?”



“Yeah, thanks.”

I was admiring the wool blankets in an Army surplus store when I overheard this conversation and decided that it was time to get out of town. So we headed north to do this and to get on a ferry which would carry us to a mysterious island on the horizon. Dorsey, having lived here only a few months, was still in the dark on what lay beyond his daily commute. So we decided to explore together. Remarkably, that morning the sun was out, brilliant and warm, like a rarely seen bird flying across the yard and we celebrated by driving to the water.

I like riding the ferries in the Puget Sound. The white boats with the crisp green trim are a life-line in this true water world. In an era of super-fast transport of people and ideas, it is refreshing to have to wait until a boat ties up before one can move forward. These cheerful ferries scurry great distances, back and forth across choppy frigid water, amazingly keeping to a schedule that would daunt a city bus.

As we were arriving at the mysterious island (which turned out to be Whidbey Island, at 45 miles stem to stern, the longest island in North America.) I got separated from the boys in a last minute trip to the bathroom. When I got below, the walk-on passengers had already disembarked and the cars were driving off. I caught the eye of a parking attendant who was standing nearby as I started to walk off. Getting no reaction from him, I continued a little further.

“Hey! What do you think you are doing?” Another attendant waved at me. “Get back here!”

Embarrassed, I shot the first man a dirty look and returned to the stairwell.

“You need to stay right there until I tell you it is ok to move. Otherwise the Coast Guard agents will take you down!”

Having seen the burly-armed men in bullet proof vests strolling the decks earlier, I had no doubts that they would not hesitate to “take me down”. I glanced up at the decks above where they were leaning on the railing, grinning, just waiting for the word. I remained motionless in the stairwell until I got a high sign from my guy and then with a great deal of dignity, sauntered off the gently rocking ferry. Luciano and Dorsey were waiting with some news.

“Look Serena, there is a county fair here on the island and a free shuttle will come and take us there!” Dorsey was excited. Luciano, not really a county fair kind of guy, smiled good-naturedly. After five years of my dragging him to Italian county fairs, he knew it was inevitable.


The shuttle driver, with a grey ponytail and grizzled chin, told us that he gets queasy whenever he leaves the island, but had done it everyday for thirty years while he worked at an omnipresent Boeing plant. Now he runs a taxi service, one of the few on the island, and it seems like a good fit for a man who talks freely and feels less nauseous while firmly on Whidbey. He dropped us at the front gate of the Island County Fair though which we passed…right into another century. A cowboy twanged out a love song on stage, the air was thick with smoke and the smell of cotton candy (the real kind, swirled around that flimsy paper cone in a pink cloud of spun sugar) and disgruntled pigs. There was straw underfoot.

I saw not a single tattoo, no M-16 ammunition belt. There was a booth decorated with the banner “Whidbey Island Democrats” set up amiably right across from the booth touting the Whidbey Island Republicans. The Democrats were selling hamburgers while the GOP hawked ice cream. In an affable junk food competition, I think the Republicans were coming out ahead. I witnessed a Kids’ Tractor Pull competition (in which the contestants, being four years old, could not always reach the pedals) a log-roll contest and a display on the “life cycle of a mussel”. Dorsey got a lecture on the correct way to enter a dahlia blossom in competition (it must have two leaves still attached!)- A child from Pompano Beach, Florida had entered a basket of blackberries in the home grown fruit competition, but a rabbit had been sent home, stressed out by it all.

stressed rabbit

A zucchini the size of my car won a blue ribbon, but my favorites were the simple plums on a plate.


As the sun faded on our shoulders, we ate pulled-pork barbeque sandwiches at a plastic bench while listening to Elvis sing on stage. “He is better than the original”, Luciano commented. We could not have been further away from the grey streets of Seattle or Venice, Italy for that matter. The Pacific Northwest is indeed grey and gritty, but they are damn proud of it, and when the sun shines, it is magical. The kind lady who served me my café latte said, quite solemnly, “You know, that drink was invented in Seattle.” I smiled, looking over at Luciano who, always the gentleman, said nothing.


The Veneto is a long way away right now. Here in California, where we are spending the summer, I am surrounded by all the comforts of “home”, Peets Coffee, 24 hour grocery shopping, the Cooking Channel, friends, family, outlet stores….yet, I miss Mareno very much. Strangely enough, here I am always absolutely stuck when I try to sit down and write. Stories are scattered, fragmented…without focus. Could that be a California inclination or am I too easily distracted by all the English programming on television?

Luciano quietly kicks my butt, but it is rough going and excuses are easy to come by. But the concern that perhaps someone out there is checking this space for an update is the most compelling and therefore I must make an effort.

Augusta still has doubts on whether she executed the right hen, but honestly there is no concrete update on that matter and it is time to shift to Berkeley and the matters here at hand.


free freezer

My vacuum cleaner died. Well, it did not truly die. It just became weaker and sort of gaspy, doing its best to complete its purpose, but not with the same kind of passion it had when I found it on the street 18 years ago. It was sitting on the sidewalk on Josephine Street in Berkeley with its coyly coiled hose and a little “Free” sign taped to its putty colored side. I was walking home from work at dusk when I almost tripped over it. So I took it home and it began a new life with me. Now it had become “stuff”, a large object taking much space in a closet with little reason to keep it there besides loyalty. But now what do I do with it?

Here in North Berkeley every house is different. Each one has a unique roof, façade, shape, size and color. The gardens explode with quirky personality from silvery drought-resistance native plants to thirsty fat, buxom roses. And each house has a garage with a car parked in the driveway.

“Why are the cars always in the driveway and not in the garage?” Luciano asked. It is now Luciano who makes the observations on the shenanigans of the local inhabitants.

“Because the garages are full, of course.” I answered.

“Full of what?”



“Yes, the kinds of things I have been trying to get rid of for years. The stuff people pay a great deal of money to store for years when they do not have a garage. The stuff that many are reduced to leaving on the sidewalk with a friendly “free” sign stuck to it. The stuff in the storage compartment downstairs which we are cleaning out next week, by the way.”

“Oh. Right”

This pack-rat-propensity of Americans indeed a strange phenomenon, and not an easy one to get out from under. We keep things. For years and for no purpose beyond the possibility that maybe one day in the future we will need it. Or sell it. Or give it as a gift. Or finish it. Meanwhile the garage fills up and the car is relegated to the driveway.

The storage space of our small apartment building had gotten way out of control so I organized a work party to clean it out with the two other inhabitants who now occupy it. Bruce stores not only stuff for his catering business, but also furniture, clothes and odds and ends for his flea market business. Alisa, stores boxes of stuff for school and the winter, and dozens of empty boxes. Me, I have rollerblades I will probably never put on again, a record collection but no turntable, a box of t-shirts I will never wear….

As we pulled out wave after wave of junk…truly junk, Bruce pointed out the history or value of each precious item.

“Oh right, this is mine. Look, see the workmanship on this coat? This is good quality stuff. I am going to sell this…someday.”

“Check this out. The receipt book for rent from 1963. Rent was $75.00 a month! Holy crap.”

“Ok, get this box of old shoes out of here. Gross! Oh! Those are yours Alisa? Sorry.”

At the end of the day we ended up with a pile on the sidewalk consisting of an unnaturally heavy banged-up dresser, two stained futon mattresses, two printers, a computer circa nineteen-eighty-something, a bed fame and boxes of the kind of little stuff that makes me itch…Christmas tree lights, old bread pans, a half-sewn dress with bits of pattern still clinging to the pieces. All things that did not fit in the dumpster, did not even belong to us, but we had been unknowingly storing for years.

And of course, my putty colored vacuum cleaner. Luciano gently insisted that its purpose had been served and it no longer needed to stick around. Clearly he did not have the sentimental connection. I wanted to put it back on the sidewalk on Josephine Street where I found it to have closure and to give the previous owner pause to wonder where it had been for the last 18 years. But I just couldn’t bring myself to, essentially, litter.

So we loaded it all into Bruce’s truck and our car and headed out to the Goodwill where they took the small boxes of itchy stuff, but refused the mattresses and everything else. We then moved on to the competition: The Salvation Army. Somewhere along the way we lost Bruce, but at the store an elegant man with a gentle voice smiled at me and took a bag of loose computer bits and the vacuum. I walked away feeling lighter, cleaner, at peace. The vacuum is beginning a new life. I only wished I had changed the bag…

Back at the house, my serenity was shattered at the sight of Bruce angrily unloading his truck onto the sidewalk.

“I called the Salvation Army to pick this shit up. They are coming tomorrow. I have to go.”

That night it rained. Big fat, noisy drops fell onto our embarrassing pile of junk. Onto the mattresses, the dresser, the once state of the art computer. The ink ran on our “FREE” sign and the pile remained untouched. In the morning, mercifully, the sun came out and dried the surface of the mattresses. Luciano replaced the “FREE” sign with an apology note to the neighbors, something I am sure he had never, ever, in his life felt the need to do. We waited for the Salvation Army whose truck arrived on time, slowed down for a moment and then sped up, disappearing around the corner. They did not want it either.

This pile of stuff had taken on a life of its own. It glared up at us from the sidewalk. Pedestrians gave it a wide berth. The apology sign flapped a little in the breeze.

“Bruce, we have to go to the dump.”

“But we have to pay there…” For we were now in a position to pay to rid ourselves of items that were once so important to someone that they kept it all for years…before abandoning it all and moving away.

“No way around it. We will split it.”

With a fury we reloaded the truck with this loathsome pile and drove to South Berkeley which is peppered with businesses poised to assist people in getting rid of stuff. A paper shredding company sits next to the computer recycling business. I handed the computer to a kind man wearing rubber gloves who took it without cringing and for free. Bruce and Luciano drove the truck into the dump where the worker eyeballed the two men, the truck and the contents and instead of weighing everything, he announced a price. We had to pay extra to dispose of the mattresses. No wonder we see so many abandoned on the sidewalks. Standing in the fetid yard breathing the thick air, Luciano and Bruce took those sodden pads by the corners, counted “one-two-three!” and tossed them into the yawning morass of utter refuse. For in a town where no one throws anything away, this dump is truly a dump.

Yet Bruce paused long enough to examine a table leg sticking out from the forlorn heap.

“Look, see the workmanship on this table? This is good quality stuff.”
We drove away liberated…and went right over to Target to add more “stuff” back into our lives. And now in my closet lurks a new sleek, black powerful vacuum cleaner who will inhale small animals if I do not keep an eye on it.

Perhaps I will return this one to the house on Josephine Street, 18 years from now.

ski boots