My amusing life, maybe

We got tickets to see Don Reed at the Berkeley Marsh. The name of the show is “East 14th,” and every Oakland citizen should know a little something about that street, which is an important highway through the part of Oakland where black lives matter less than they should. People grow up there; Don Reed, a hugely successful African-American writer and performer, grew up there.

His father was a pimp; his mother was an addict. And yet his show is filled with love and humor. He sees East 14th for what it is: Home.

Somewhere in Oakland

(East 14th is now officially called International Boulevard, one of those civic attempts to make flatlands streets seem more classy. I note that 6th Avenue in New York City officially became Avenue of the Americas in 1945, but that didn’t take either).

The show started at seven, and we were there in plenty of time. Left to my devices, I would (and occasionally have) showed up way early, even before the doors opened. Tracy hates that, but I have been known to pout if we leave late. Or “late,” as Tracy might say.

We got there at quarter of. The place was busier than usual for a Marsh Sunday show, which is a good thing. We had paid for our seats online. The person who was supposed to be at the ticket desk was somewhere else, but the Marsh often features one person doing the job of three, so I didn’t fret. We were paying customers; we were secure in our virtue.

It was festival seating, which is always such  a pain. I found some vacant seats and inched over the assembled knees to get to them. I sat down, and the woman next to me said, “those seats are taken.” She wasn’t particularly friendly; you might even say that her voice dripped with disdain. But I rise to these occasions. I thought, but did not say, that polite people use a sweater or a scarf to mark a  taken seat.

I stood up and looked around. “Trace, we could get those two seats.” I pointed. We scrunched our way back across the hazardous thighs. We entered the other row. “These seats are taken too,” said another woman. She was even less friendly than the first.

I rose to the occasion once again. I’m almost like a saint. “Oh,” I said cheerfully. I had a smile in my voice. I am not bothered by the trivial things in life. I am a spiritual being having a human experience. Unmarked chairs? I laugh at the rudeness of people.

“All the seats in this row are taken,” the less friendly woman said, although none of them were marked either. “You’ll have to go upstairs.” OK, fine. We found the stairs (behind a sign marked “Do Not Enter”) and went up. Every seat up there was taken —I mean, really taken, occupied by human bodies. Hey, I thought, we bought tickets; how can there not be seats for us? We walked around the balcony; no seats. I thought to myself: “Well, this blows.”

We were walking back down the stairs when a woman leaned over the rail. “You the people looking for seats?” We were. We went back up; she had found some folding chairs leaning against the wall. We took those and sat in the corner; the stage was an at extreme right angle to us. We were able to see a lot of Don Reed’s right ear.

We waited. We smiled to indicate that we did not mind being in the worst seats in the house even though we had bought tickets and gotten there early, dammit. Nothing was going to distract  us from our theatrical enjoyment. A voice came over the loudspeaker:

“Thank  you, and welcome back to the second act of East 14th!”

The second act? The second act? What?

Then it all clicked into place. We had gotten the time wrong. The ticket desk was unoccupied because it was the second act. The people downstairs had been unfriendly because we were apparently trying to move up and poach some worthy citizen’s seat. Maybe you can change seats halfway through a baseball game, but in a small, crowded theater, it’s just rude. And the woman who took pity on us was being extraordinarily kind despite our clear willful deviation from social norms.

I was grateful, however, that I had not given the unfriendly woman my lecture about the right way to save seats. I was even more grateful that I did not, at any time, say out loud: “Hey, we bought our damn tickets! A little respect here!”

I wanted to run downstairs and apologize to both unfriendly ladies, but the show had started. Don Reed was talking in an amusing manner. He was starting in the middle, it being the second act and all, but maybe we could pick it up. After a minute, I leaned over to Tracy and said:

“We’ve seen this.”


I showed Tracy a draft of the above. She read it, thought about it, and said, “you could include an amusing squabble.”  We did indeed have a squabble, less than amusing, in which I noted mildly that it was all her fault. She protested, so in the middle of all this (perceived) humiliation, we were hissing at each other all the way out of the theater.

That’s OK; we’re both single children raised by parents who believed that we were golden entities destined to achieve, well, something good — and decent and kind and earth-shattering. Two results of that: (1) We are used to getting our own way, and (2) we came to rely on our own judgment about what was smart or appropriate or important. So we bicker. People who know us understand. Out friend Rachel once said, “we just enjoy watching you guys.” So, right: Think of it as a comedy routine. Which, upon reflection, it often is.

But still: I was interested that she was mining our personal life for things that might sex up the story a little bit. Conflict! People like conflict! So let’s do some self-intrusion; let’s be our own paparazzi. Of course, that’s what I’ve been doing for 45 years, and I always thought it was a creepy way to make a living. I hadn’t realized that my wife had developed the same habit. We really are doing this blog together.

Adair Lara , another practitioner of my-life-is-fodder journalism, had a great take on this. She wrote about her father a lot, and she was often asked how he was doing. “That was fine; I appreciated the interest. But when they started talking about their fathers, I knew I’d done my job.”

Processing family data is universal; that’s why people write about it, because universal = good. On the other hand, I think maybe it’s gotten out of hand. I read the four new columnists currently rotating on the back page of the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle — my former space — and I think: Could you maybe sometimes talk about something other than your families?

But here I am, writing about making mistakes and feeling shame and, potentially, about a little personal (you’d think) marriage dynamics. There’s nothing like internal contradictions to sex up a blog.


Elsewhere in Oakland


Photography by Tracy Johnston

General usefulness by Michelle Mizera


22 thoughts on “My amusing life, maybe

  1. The four people alternating on the back page of the Chronicle are an embarrassment, with the exception of Nick Hoppe. He’s the only one who brings a soupçon of humor to the equation, and whose writing keeps you engaged instead of MEGO. (In confidence) As a longtime journalist and editor meself, I made a suggestion re the back page to David Wiegand, but it was not particularly well received…

    From: Jon Carroll Prose To: Sent: Thursday, July 7, 2016 1:48 PM Subject: [New post] My amusing life, maybe #yiv4190730411 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv4190730411 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv4190730411 a.yiv4190730411primaryactionlink:link, #yiv4190730411 a.yiv4190730411primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv4190730411 a.yiv4190730411primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv4190730411 a.yiv4190730411primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv4190730411 | joncarrollprose posted: “We got tickets to see Don Reed at the Berkeley Marsh. The name of the show is “East 14th,” and every Oakland citizen should know a little something about that street, which is an important highway through the part of Oakland where black lives matter less ” | |


  2. There are 2 attributes, in general, which relate to life and its many facets.

    In particular, springing from your (Jon) blog:

    a) What you say… and

    2) How you say it.

    Both are important and, I think, you (Jon) have a good handle on both.

    I do have one point on which I seek clarification in an Orange Roughy sort of way.

    “We’ve seen this.”

    Had you seen the play before but forgotten?

    There may be another blog entry there… one with which several of your readers may identify and may even cause them to start talking about Adair’s father…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul and I have tickets for Sunday. When you said the play started at 7:00, I had to go to my tickets to make sure that what I remembered as the starting time: 5:30 was correct. I like your column and Adair’s columns because you do talk about family and personal experiences. Those topics are universal. I also like when you write about ideas…universal, too, even if everyone doesn’t agree. It is at least food for thought.


  3. “Hey, we bought our damn tickets! A little respect here!” That was too good a line to throw away. :^ )


  4. I read your column and Adair Lara’s column for many years. For the most part, I’m not a fan of confessional writing, although I thought you did a better job of it than most. It takes experience and skill to consistently and artfully direct the personal from self-centered navel-gazing to something universally interesting, entertaining and occasionally profound.


  5. The group of young men congregating on that Oakland street corner appear to be standing in front of a street shrine. The SFChron back page substitutes: Hoppe can stay, but the others need to go back to their day jobs.


  6. . . . .the four columnists who took your space on the back page of the Datebook section? –– They should be ashamed, and just leave it blank.


  7. The only thing I now look forward to reading on the back page of the Chronicle is Leah Garchik’s “Public Eavesdropping” quote, which tells me more about life and people in California than all the other words on that page. All of Jon’s replacements are members of today’s “Selfie” generation, with about as much depth, wit and insight as you’d expect from navel gazers. Today’s quote about a woman giving her husband the burial at sea he wanted even is funnier than any of today’s comics a few pages earlier. Meanwhile, keep ’em coming, Jon. Maybe the Chronicle and other rags will see the wisdom of linking to your blog and others, in order to keep/gain/not lose relevancy for their readers.


  8. Oh hell yeah, we can all relate to this one, in a variety of ways.Here’s mine: I had a little epiphany one day that reading this blog brought to mind for some reason. Marriage is two people sharing one umbrella. Kind of fun and romantic, especially at first, though (no offense) less so after several years of getting half-soaked. It’s also, let’s face it, pretty inadequate in a serious storm, but at least you have company, and being even less than half-dry is still better than many other people’s fates. For better or worse, it reminds you that the two of you are in it together and that someone else is committed to your well-being, sometimes even at the diminution of his or her own. How cool is that? One day, one member of the partnership will have the entire umbrella to him-or-herself, and that will prove to be no damned good at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, OK, but I never heard of a show starting at 5:30. And I agree with your question about the four back-page columnists. Five, if you count the Saturday lady. I pretty much take the Chronicle for the puzzles these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Who’s in charge of editing your blog? Spelling mistakes in every one (“spelling was spelled speling until I looked back ;-})
    So far I’m not thrilled with your replacements in the Chron, and I miss Adair Lara too.


  11. Mercy goodness. I think Nick Hoppe is dreadful; I loved his dad’s work and I really want to like his column but I just can’t. So cliched. But I like both Vanessa Hua and Kevin Fisher-Paulsen.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I like them all, actually. And I like Caille Milner even more. I wasn’t at all talking about the quality of their work, but merely suggesting a little more variety. Writing a column is hard, and it requires a lot of mid-course corrections. Walk a mile in their shoes, &c.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Hi, Jon – I refer to the rotating new columnists on the back page of the Datebook as the current failed experiments (except for Beth Spotswood on good days).

    Loved this story. Thanks.


    Sent from my iPad



  14. Whenever I find myself on East 14th, whether it’s uptown, downtown, or Fruitvale, I get that song in my head. I may not be the only one who does (note Don Reed synchronicity):

    (And when I encounter your welcome & inspiring musings about your own personal married life, I can’t help thinking “In Aptos, Fruit Cocktail is King.”)

    I say put Scott Ostler back on the back! He’s au courant, funny, smart and rites good.


  15. “…the sweet security of the streets.” Who knew?
    Hey, Wadsworth would be a good name for a cat.


  16. Funny that it took 4 columnists to almost replace you. Truly, Kevin F-P and Vanessa H write too much about their families (I am reminded of your cat columns — that is, who cares?). Beth H. doesn’t; she’s the best of the lot. Better than all of them is Caille Millner.
    Kristin Anundsen


  17. I miss Adair Lara, and also Stephanie Salter. I know she was writing in the Midwest but I can’t seem to find her now. Any idea where she might be?


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