Like the storied path to Canterbury, Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, is a street of dreams. They all come here, alone or in company, on foot, in a car, on the bus, or pedaling a bike. In the end, it is a street everyone travels, whether the workers from Kaiser Permanente’s MacArthur/ Broadway facility, the bankers, shopkeepers, lawyers and dentists, acupuncturists and chiropractors who work on the street, or the musicians, writers, and artists who spring forth whole from California College of the Arts. With its wide vistas, deep grass, and old-growth trees, Mountain View Cemetery, at the end of the Avenue, is our park of choice for walking the dog, portrait photography, or a simple Sunday morning stroll. The Cemetery was designed 140 years ago by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park.
Like Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury, they each have their own errands, dropping their kids off at St. Leo’s and Piedmont Elementary, stopping at Peet’s for coffee or a burrito at La Baja Taqueria, hitting the ATMs at Wells Fargo or Citibank, getting their hair cut or their toes painted, or just enjoying a quiet lunch at Bay Wolf, Cesars or Ninna’s. Walking, talking, enjoying the sun until they resume the chores of their days.
One such pilgrim was my neighbor Earl, a retired Navy guy and actor who was the only person I ever knew who actually ran away with the circus. He was an “advance man” for a mudshow, so he disappeared on us for the summer each and every year, to travel from small town to town, meeting the Rotary and Masons, Eastern Star and scout masters across the Midwest and South. He would rent the field, arrange the licenses and permits, oversee the printed posters and advertising; he was also in charge of the folks who sold tickets from phone banks. In the fall, he’d come back, full of stories as a ripe cob is crowded with kernels of corn.
One story Earl told which still haunts me is about the day in a small town in Alabama when the lion got out of his cage into a fairground full of people enjoying the sun along the midway.
I’ll always see him in my mind’s eye, leaning back in his chair at the dinner table, soaking in our eager attention, pausing and grinning to build suspense, a natural actor and storyteller.
“In the mess tent, when word came,” he said, “they left their forks hanging in mid-air. Every man, woman, and child of any age knew it was their duty to put their bodies between the animals and the paying customers.”
He looked at each of us, the drama of the moment sinking in. “They ran to their quarters and grabbed sheets, table cloths, towels, blankets, capes, any large piece of fabric.” We leaned forward, food and drink forgotten, scarcely breathing.
“The lion tamer grabbed a fork, and took the biggest raw steak he could find out of the ice box. They all ran across the fair grounds, from all directions, until they finally caught up with the errant cat. Then, the tamer began walking backward, the steak extended on the fork. The troop aligned themselves on both sides, in a row, forming two walls of fabric.”
He wet his throat and rinsed his teeth with his wine. His lady Shirley chimed in, “Cats can’t tell the difference between cloth and a solid wall.”
He studied her face before going on, in that way that people have who’ve been together for a very long time. “Oh, did you want to tell the story?" She didn’t respond.
”As the tamer and the lion passed, they would run to the head of the line, holding up their fabric, and so on and so on, a moving wall of cloth, shielding the public from the cat, the cat from the public, until, finally, they reached the lion’s cage, where the tamer tossed the steak inside. The cat lumbered up the steps, and they locked the door behind him.”
Shared silence. Hairs on the arms beginning to lie down again. Second coffees and the lovely banana cream pie Shirley had baked were handed round.
Good people around the table, great stories of brick-and-mortar life, a home-baked pie, the cat on the window sill taking it all in, while we pondered how it would be to live in a community where we knew our duty so absolutely that we would leave our forks hanging in the air when called to fill it.
©2008 by Mugsy Peabody. All world rights reserved.