My Hero, My Fireplug

Joe Gallagher photo by Michael McAllisterSo the Manly Fireplug and I bought a house.

I should say he bought the house, since the sale of his last one gave us the down payment for this one. But my name’s written next to his name on several thousand pieces of paper by now, I’ll be paying half the mortgage, and I must have earned at least a tiny amount of credit by simply enduring escrow.

Weird how fast life changes. Two months ago we were planning our honeymoon (now postponed.) Back then I had no idea what “4 percent and no points” meant. I still don’t. But I know it makes some people jealous.

Due to recent events at the barbershop, I’m reluctant to post photos or give too many details of the house. Most of my anger at the arsonist has faded, as I figured it would, and I feel fairly confident, or as confident as one can feel about this kind of thing, that it was just some random pyro.

But I can’t be rational about the welfare of our dogs.

So I’ll say this much. It’s in a far-flung corner of the city, with nice big rooms, hardwood floors that are getting refinished right this moment, two skylights, and a great backyard for the dogs. From back there you can see a slice of the bay and the glimmering lights of Oakland. Every time I stand out there my head gets quiet and I feel like life is gonna be ok.

Thanks to our realtor Matt Fuller, who every day for the past two months went above and beyond. He was one of maybe two grown-ups we encountered during this whole process. I started referring to one mortage lady as “Trainwreck Pennie,” but that was weeks ago – she was nothing compared to the bumbling, inept, and juvenile band of incompetents who barely avoided derailing our “dream.” (I’m looking at you, Prominent Escrow Company.)  Reading Matt’s emails to them – as their series of mistakes delayed our closing from one day to seven – was a personal highlight. He steered us safely to the other side, always with a sense of humor. Thanks, dude.

The real hero of this story though is my husband. Seriously, I’m biased, but he managed to get through the sale of his last house, applications with two separate mortgage companies, an arson at his business, fire insurance paperwork, finding a temporary chair during shop repairs, tax season, multiple contractor appointments, and the Escrow Week from Hell with the sort of fortitude I hope to one day emulate.

Now, who wants to help us pack?

Letter to an Arsonist

It’s been nine days since you set fire to my husband’s barbershop. And yeah, I’ve spent a good chunk of that time wondering who you are.

Let me cut to the chase and answer your most urgent question: we don’t know who you are, and I doubt we ever will.

But we’ve wondered. And we’ve boiled it down to two theories.

  • Theory #1: You picked Joe’s shop for a personal reason. Maybe my husband, who’s got a big and sometimes rough-edged personality, raised his voice to you one day. It happens. Maybe you hate gay people. Or flat tops. Maybe you’re the dude who sent me a bunch of software-anonymized emails last summer, full of venom and veiled threats, demanding that I cancel my upcoming wedding. Which – maybe you noticed – I didn’t do.
  • Or Theory #2: You’re just a random pyro. As Alfred put it to Batman (sorry for the pop culture reference, but I’m a man of the times): Some men just want to watch the world burn.

The pyro theory seems more likely, if only because I distrust the drama factor raised by theory #1. Targeted. So dramatic. Like Batman.

But if this were a movie you’d get unmasked. We’d discover your motive. We wouldn’t be left with this dumb open wound, peering into the faces of the good people around us and wondering, “Could it be you?” Cause in real life, bad guys don’t wear clown paint.

Of course if you’re a random pyro you’re not reading this letter. Us writerly types would call this a literary device. It’s contrived and a little pretentious. But it’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to a face-to-face, so just humor me. Or, if you’d rather, just tell me who you are. I’d really, really enjoy that.

This week I ran into a friend who, several years ago, got beaten to the edge of death by a bunch of kids. They pulled him apart on a dark city street and left him there. And they never got caught.

My friend left that city and moved to a remote town, on a river, and spent the next couple of years putting himself back together. He had time to wonder about those kids. Who they were. Why they’d done it. Time to consider another crazy-making motive – that they’d been hired.

I asked him how he’d dealt with the not-knowing. “I lost a year of my life,” he told me, “Asking myself the question ‘why?’”

There’s this saying that’s been floating around the rooms of the 12-step meetings where I still spend time: “Why is not a spiritual question,” usually spoken with this smug, I-read-The-Power-of-Now-and-have-attained-enlightenment tone that invariably makes a lot of other people in the room nod in sage agreement.

And oh God, how I want to rip them apart.

That maxim fills me with rage. It appears nowhere in the official 12-step literature. It’s just one of those fads that waft through our meetings and the culture at large. Like “living in the present moment.”  Or that whole inner-child crap from the early 90’s.

Screw those blinkers. Spiritual growth doesn’t come from not asking why. The point isn’t protecting yourself from the pain of uncertainty. It comes after you’ve asked why as many times as you can stand, knowing you won’t get an answer.

At least that’s my guess. I don’t know. I’m just saying that nine days after the fire I’m still asking why, and fuck anyone’s advice, I’m entitled to that question.

And on the slim chance that you’re not some random pyro, and that you targeted Joe for a reason, it’s probably what you want. The nervous, corrosive wondering. The bunker-building. The doubting of good people’s intentions. The thoughts of cutting our losses and moving to the damn desert.

But it’s hard to stay in a bunker when a few hundred people come pull you out. They offered Joe help and money and more than a few kind words. Someone made us corned beef and cabbage. Dear arsonist, when the shit hits your fan, who’s going to make you corned beef and cabbage?

Joe’s ready to stop asking why. But he’s a tougher cookie than me, and it’s one of the many reasons I stick with him. Watching him, I learn how to face things like critics and arsonists and mortgage lenders. He’s already building what you tried to burn down.

Was your act evil? On my more generous days I believe that we’re all capable of any crime. I’ve acted selfishly. I’ve failed people. I’ve hurt them too, more recently than I’d care to admit. And so asking why, of myself, seems like a crucial question. Why did I act that way? And how will I act better next time?

I’ll probably never get the answer to why you lit that match. But at least I can turn the question on myself. If I’m capable of burning something down – and I am – why have I never done it?

I think about you breaking into the shop, 3 a.m., and skulking down to the basement in shadows. Fueled by compulsion or bitterness. Slipping out in the dark, the smoke and the flames rising behind you. Hurrying down the street towards cover. Like that dude last summer with his venemous emails, cowering behind software, unable to show his face. Maybe you hid nearby to watch your work.

And when you got back to the metaphorical mother’s basement of your life, maybe you showered and scrubbed your hands. But you’re carrying something now that you don’t get to put down.

And that’s why I haven’t done what you’ve done. I wouldn’t want to carry that thing around. I wouldn’t want your life.

Those In Need

Pick Me Up or I WILL DIEMany people have offered their help after the fire that closed Joe’s shop. You could help rescue my dog from the Purgatory of a Lap-less World, but that would involve giving you keys to my house, and since I’m not feeling particularly trusting this week (more on that in a minute), Fin is going to have to settle for the laps of only two daddies (and his favorite sitter, Paul).

Let’s move on to Option B. All of the barbers will be looking for temporary chairs to rent while Joe deals with the insurance. If you know of any chairs in San Francisco, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email (address in the sidebar). Some of the barbers, including Joe, have already found temporary chairs, and we’ll be updating his site with their locations and hours. Basil, who spent a sleepless night and day helping us board up the shop, is on there. Please bring them your shaggy tresses. They are a skilled crew, so you’ll be in good hands. They’ll get to pay rent, and you’ll look good. Cheaper than therapy and more reliable, in my experience.

Option C. Consider donating to an emergency fund set up by friends of the barbershop that will help these guys pay their bills. This was a case of arson. No, we don’t know who did it. And the barbers’ only crime was standing on their feet for eight hours a day making other people look good. I’d love to see them breathing a little easier. Thanks to everyone who’s already chipped in – you’ve reminded me that there is good in the world, too.

Update on Joe’s Barbershop

“So it looks as though the shop will be closed for a couple of months while we rebuild. We want to thank the community for the outpouring of support. Many of you have asked what you can do to help. Insurance will take care of the shop, but we also want to take care of our barbers.

They will most likely need to find temporary chairs in other shops, and they could use your patronage during this difficult time. Stay tuned: once we work out those details you can help us spread the word.

Looking forward to opening our doors to you again.”

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

The Smoldering PileThe sun was coming up and the man had been circling the charred pile of belongings outside my husband’s barbershop when I started pounding my fist on the car’s horn. He gave me a curious glance, then went back to circling. I climbed out of the car and closed the distance between us.

“Move on,” I said.

“What’s your problem?”

“Just move on.”

“What do you care?” he said. “This stuff’s just laying in the street.”

“I don’t fucking care. It’s not yours, so move the fuck on.”

He looked closely at my face. “You should have paid your fire insurance.”

“Get the fuck out of here.”

“You don’t have to be such an asshole, man.”

My voice dropped. “Move on,” I said, then climbed back in my car. He stood there for a minute, still talking to me in words I could no longer hear. Blood thrummed in my ears. He turned and made his way up the street.

I’d been sitting in the car outside the Manly Fireplug’s shop for about an hour, since just before dawn. We’d left his house four hours ago, right after I’d stumbled groggily into the bathroom and heard both the ringer and the text alert going off on his phone in the office down the hall. It was late. Or early, depending on your perspective.

I peered at the phone in the dark to see the words, “Accident at the shop.” I called the friend who’d left the text. “Get down here,” he said. “There’s a fire.”

I drove us down the hill at a speed just shy of reckless, both of us still half-asleep. It was 3 a.m. Or maybe 4 a.m. An hour made vague by daylight savings time, and we drove down in equal ambiguity, holding our breath, wondering if what awaited us would come as a shock or a relief. I wanted to erase all of it, take it away from the man sitting next to me. Erase the seconds I stood in the stark light of the bedroom, looking down at my husband with the phone still in my hand, telling him once, twice, then three times, “Joe, wake up.”

We turned the last corner. Four firetrucks. “Shit,” he said.

And now I sat, hours later, in the car again, watching the man I’d yelled at shuffle up the street. He wasn’t the first man I’d scared from the smoldering pile that morning. I dug out my phone and when the Fireplug answered I said, “Do you want me to protect your friend’s pile of burned-up stuff from the crazy homeless people?”

He sighed. “You don’t have to protect the burned up stuff from crazy homeless people.”

“Good. Cause I’m getting in fights with them. And they’re winning.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” I sipped from a cup of cold coffee that had been sitting in my car since the day before. My hand smelled of smoke. “Are you guys going to be much longer?”

“Just a few minutes,” he said. I could hear the buzz of a saw over the line. He’d gone to the hardware store with Basil, one of the barbers, and Basil’s boyfriend, Ron, to get plywood to cover the broken windows and the two back doors that had been kicked in by the firefighters. This was after the emergency window repair service told us they’d charge $2000 to board everything up. I’d stayed behind to guard the open shop, and as it turned out, fight with crazy homeless guys over the charred pile that had been dumped in the gutter to cool.

“Crazy” and “homeless” were just words I’d used to distance myself from the men I’d scared off. Truth was, the last guy’s wounded tone had gotten to me. Maybe I didn’t need to be such an asshole. Not about burned-up crap.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. The single hour of sleep now well behind me. The holes in the floor and the wall of my husband’s shop that the firefighters had opened with their axes, holes you could peer through to see the still-smoldering pile of belongings that the Fireplug had let a friend store in the basement. The row of folding chairs I’d bought from IKEA for the literary readings that had begun to melt together. The water and the soot and the smell of smoke. The arson investigator who’d questioned first the Fireplug, then me, of our whereabouts before the fire, to whom I’d said, “Look, I know you’re just doing your job, but we are a few days away from closing on a house, and he needs a steady income more than an insurance check.”

The smoldering belongings were not mine, but I felt strangely protective of them. And exposed, as if someone had dragged our own private lives and dumped them in the gutter for the world to pick through. And so I felt relief when the Fireplug and the others returned with the plywood, and I could think about something else.

Dawn gave way to late morning. Friends showed up to help (thanks guys). We swept the broken glass from the sidewalk, and pumped the standing water from the basement. Neighbors loaned us a step ladder and an extension cord. They dropped off a box of croissants. Word spread on Facebook and every few seconds someone called or texted the Fireplug. Still bleary from lack of sleep, I kept thinking about the time I had to explain to him lyrics from a Ke$ha song:

Boys blowing up our phones…

By noon the shop had been boarded up. Later the Fireplug would call the insurance company and there’d be more inspections and paperwork, but for now we’d done all that we could do. Basil and I leaned against his pick-up truck out front and every few minutes broke the news to another shaggy-haired client. I told Basil that he and Ron were the heroes of the day. Privately I wished for not the first time in my life that I was good with my hands. I wanted to offer my husband something tangible, as they had done. All I could do, when he’d told me he was scared, was tell him that we’d get through this, no matter what.

Disheveled men and women, some of them muttering to themselves, continued to circle the pile in the gutter. I figured they were merely looking for something they could sell, something that might buy one more meal, or one more day.

But then a woman pushing a shopping cart, her threadbare slippers scraping along the sidewalk, slowed next to the pile, and I saw then, side by side, her belongings and our friend’s belongings, exposed, dragged out into the light. She looked at the pile, at the boarded-up shop, and then at us, as though measuring our change in fortune. I looked away from her.

Our friend showed up and stood stoically at the side of the pile, looking down at his charred belongings, holding the soot-smeared portrait of his parents that the Fireplug had pulled from the basement.

Another woman, her face marked by everything life had thrown her way, came over and stood near our friend, gazing down at the pile, whispering words in her own language. Then she made a noise of alarm, bent, and pulled a few burned photos from the pile. The blackened, smiling faces seemed to move her to tears, and she made low, keening noises of anguish. She held the photos out to our friend, who nodded at her, turned, and walked back to his car. The woman came over to us, grieving in her private tongue, and we looked down at our feet as she tried to show us the photos in her hands.

The Dude That Cries

Joe's Barbershop Butchie T-shirt Model Photo by DogpoetButchie is a judo target and t-shirt model for the Manly Fireplug’s barbershop, though he’s been guarding its basement now for several months. Just so we’re clear: he’s in the basement. I know he’s in the basement. Yet every time I go down to the basement he scares the crap out of me.

Butchie stoically presided over last night’s frenzied literary reading preparations, as I dusted off the folding chairs, iced the drinks, and searched for that damn corkscrew. An hour later, after the folding-chair-up-the-basement-steps bucket brigade (thank you volunteers and Fireplug!) I ducked outside to try and air out my damp shirt. I sweat a lot before every barbershop reading.

So I expect the sweat. But I didn’t expect the tears. Last night at the podium, in front of the capacity crowd, I got choked up reading a chapter about my father from the end of my book. Last year, at the Queer Arts Festival reading, I got choked up reading a chapter about my mom’s first girlfriend.

Both times took me by surprise, and embarrassed me. I find myself aspiring to a particular writerly image, the dude who reads, say, at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and sells just enough books to stay – with the help of the requisite side jobs – just above poverty.

That dude writes literature, which requires emotional distance from the subject matter. His work isn’t a barely-digested therapy session thrown on the page.

An emotional distance I thought I’d acquired. By now I’ve written nineteen drafts of my book, and have read through each draft at least ten, but more often twenty or thirty times, tweaking the stray word. I must have read the chapter on my mother’s first girlfriend, and the chapter on my father, at least fifty times each.

So the tears felt like the mark of an amateur, or worse, some kind of performance trick I was pulling on the audience. A schtick.

I used to be the kind of kid that others called sensitive. Code word for homo, maybe, but I’ll admit that I was ruled by my feelings.

In recent years I’ve tried to lean a little more often on my thoughts, if only to reach for a bit of balance, and to become a better writer. And in some cases my lack of emotion began to surprise me.

During those dreary few months when the Fireplug and I split up, for example, I seemed to only feel cold disappointment. I never cried.

But then one day I’m driving to work, listening to a Death Cab for Cutie album I’ve just downloaded, and the sad opening piano chords of their song, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed” throws a hook into the depths of me, and reels up tears. Tons of them. I spend the next few weeks driving around the city with that song on repeat, endangering countless San Franciscans with my blurred-vision driving.

Last week, as the Fireplug and I drove down to Palm Springs, listening to my iPod, up pops that song, and up come the tears. Again. Tons of them.

“Oh G-god,” I said. “I’m sorry, I f…forgot it was on this p…playlist!”

After we’d got back together I’d told him all about the song, so he knew what I meant.

“That’s okay,” he said, grabbing my hand.

“I don’t know why it still m-m-makes me cry. It’s st-st-stupid!”

“It’s not stupid,” he said. “We almost lost this.”

He was right, and really, the only stupid thing is to pretend like you’re someone you’re not. To jam yourself inside an image of a writer that doesn’t fit. We can’t all be Butchie.

So yeah, I cry, and maybe the only thing that’s changed since I was a kid is that I let my tears surprise me. I was embarrassed at first, last night, but then I got over it. Time’s wasting. I’ve got two last chapters to get right, and if I’m lucky, a slew of future readings at which I can freely bawl my eyes out.

Dogpoet Michael McAllister Reading at Joe's Barbershop Litquake Photo by Scott James

Gets Kinda Rough in the Back of Our Limousines

Michael McAllister Dogpoet in Palm Springs I spent seven heavenly days crashing at a friend’s house (thanks Fred!) in Palm Springs with the Manly Fireplug. Sort of a combination honeymoon/sabbatical where I worked on my book – writing six hours a day – took a dip in the pool, then an evening with the hubby. World Gym, dinner, then a cigar in the hot tub. In this case sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. At least at first. It was a honeymoon, after all.

And a very hard honeymoon to leave for the real world again. Since then I’ve been back to the three jobs, interviewing for others, and trying to get the last 3% of the book finished so that I can send it off to a few agents.

If you’re in San Francisco and free tomorrow night, I’ll be reading at the Fireplug’s shop as part of Litquake. Decided I’ll share the What-Happened-When-My-Dad-Found-My-Blog chapter (new material in case you’ve heard me read other sections). Hurt feelings, D.C. snipers, a Banana Republic sales boy with a lopsided mullet, and much more…

A Little Off the Top, and Over the Top
Tuesday, October 11th
Doors open at 8:30 pm; show starts at 9:00 pm
free; $5-$10 suggested donation
Joe’s Barbershop
2150 Market St (between Church and Sanchez)

A Writer Walks Into a Barbershop…

I know what you’ve been thinking.

“All I really want is to kick back in a barber’s chair with a free glass of wine and listen to a series of sexy writers read their work on a Tuesday night in October. That’s it. That’s all I want. Why is that so hard to find?”

I’m here to make your dreams come true.

Yes, the Barbershop Reading Series returns for a special event, co-hosted by LITQUAKE, San Francisco’s biggest, rowdiest, most awesome literary festival. Maybe you remember the Barbershop series. Maybe you even remember me as the host. Well this time, I’m one of the series of sexy writers reading from their work.

The series will also include Michael AlenyikovNick KriegerMalinda LoMonica Nolan, and Rob Rosen. I promise you’ll be entertained.

What’s more, you could meet, in the flesh, The Manly Fireplug. For a look at him, my dog, and the shop, you could always revisit that little video I made.

A Little Off the Top, and Over the Top
Tuesday, October 11th
Doors open at 8:30 pm; show starts at 9:00 pm
free; $5-$10 suggested donation
Joe’s Barbershop
2150 Market St (between Church and Sanchez)

Seven Years of Tight Cuts

Joe's Barbershop at Night, photo by Michael McAllister, San Francisco, Joe Gallagher, Dogpoet

Happy Birthday to Joe’s Barberhop!

I’m proud of you mister for making more than a business; you’ve built a neighborhood institution.

And thanks to all of the customers who’ve come through the doors in the last seven years. Because of you, we might someday get to buy a little real estate in San Francisco.

Hey, a guy can dream.

Vote for Joe

photo by Michael McAllisterThe Manly Fireplug, aka Joe Gallagher, is a finalist for About.com’s Best American Barbershop, so of course I am asking for your vote. He started out renting a chair at my old barber’s place back in 2002. When Pasha died of a heart attack, Joe saved up his money and eventually opened his first tiny four-chair shop in 2004. Two years ago he moved to his current location on Market Street, near Church Street, with eleven chairs. He really is the hardest working man I know, and he’s built more than a barbershop; he’s built a neighborhood institution.

The award is just plain bragging rights, and I love to see the Fireplug brag, so if you want to make two guys extremely happy, just click over and vote for the guy.