Oakland is no harmonious melting pot, not currently at least. For many years, hip-hop, punk, biker and hippie subcultures had managed to live there together without incident (aside from, you know, some rioting). But today, the success of Silicon Valley has encroached on the East Bay. As San Francisco has priced out young techies, they’ve infiltrated Oakland in search of cheaper real estate. Cue the tension. The new Oaklanders want to make the city in their image, as when Manhattanites crossed the East River to create the Brooklyn we know today. While locals might benefit from the influx of tech money, the gentrification has left longtime residents jealously guarding their neighborhoods, parties and bars from the tech crowd. Today, the fight for Oakland’s soul has grown even more intense—wealthy newcomers on one side, rough-and-tumble old schoolers on the other. The divide, however, can be navigated—at least if you’re just visiting—with both factions providing plenty of reasons not to pick a side.
I grew up in a small mountain town where everyone knew each other. My teachers had gone to school with my parents, a new friend’s mother would end up being the older sister of my Dad’s old high school girlfriend, every person who worked in every store you went into knew who you were and who you belonged to. It was a town where all you had to do was tell someone your last name, and they knew more about you than you did. Families grew up together, for generations. There was more than one family that had siblings in the same age groups as mine, and so as each sibling got old enough to be in school, they would inevidably end up friends with the younger counterparts. This happened with the Bastians, the Wessingers, the Normans, and many others on slightly less exact timelines. The uniqueness of these ties ensured that in some way or another, many of us would remain in each other’s lives always, no matter how far we scattered. Our town was a place that as children was a safe coccoon, and as young adults became stifling, boring, and without opportunity. We have been brought back together over and over throughout the years in the tragedy of car accidents containing a member of more than one family, and the joy of weddings, where babies played together on the floor watched over by mothers who did the same decades earlier.
When I was 10 or 11, my best friend Ruby lived half a mile away from me. There were no other children on my own street, but it seemed that all of the families with kids my age lived in Ruby’s neighborhood, so I spent as much time there as I possibly could, bargaining for days on end with my parents to allow me to have as many consecutive sleepovers as I could possibly get away with. The Depews lived across the street. The eldest would be my first kiss a year later, up in a tree across from my house where none of the other kids would see us. The Thompsons and the Wessingers lived a few blocks away, and between these houses and the nearby elementary school, their collective neighborhood was the perfect playground. Then there were kids from the outer neighborhoods like myself, who flocked to the center to attend the Thompson’s amazing Halloween parties, Hang on the monkey bars in Ruby’s mother’s built in home daycare, and help the Depew boys destroy their mothers backyard with elaborate trenches and toy soldier death camps.
One of the children who spent as much time as possible on this street was Jason Matus. Younger than me by a year, he was a frequent visitor of the Depew house, directly across the street from Ruby’s. Jason was high strung, and prone to over-emotional reactions, and Ruby and I teased him mercilessly. As pre-teen girls practicing both our flirting skills and sharpening our claws to prepare for the melee that was 13-15, Jason was the perfect subject-So eager to please and be liked, yet so easily riled into frustration. We pretended to forget his name and called him “Jimmy”, all the while insisting that Jimmy was a girl’s name. I can still remember him howling for the 50th time, “My NAME is NOT JIMMY!” Frustrated that we were too stupid to get his name right, almost as if he didn’t realize we were doing it on purpose. He allowed us to dress him up in ridiculous costumes from the daycare, complaining loudly the whole time, but holding still as we affixed bonnets to his head or craftily built him shirts made of stapled together diapers. A few times we upset him terribly, more than once made him cry. We felt horrible when that would happen, and we would ply him with attention and cookies and hugs until he forgave us, which he always did.We always thought he would develop the thick skin we had developed taking abuse from Ruby’s several sisters, but he never did. Teasing him lost it’s appeal after we realized he wasn’t going to lose his sensitivity, and instead we became protective. I see that same sensitivity in my own son at times, now only a year or two older than Jason when I met him, and I feel a pang of regret for harassing him the way I did. I know I also cared for him, then and later in life, and that at times I made up for it, but I still regret being cruel at all, especially to him. It just reminds me once again that we are who we are, and all we can do is try to be better.
Despite our rocky beginnings, over the the years in school Jason and I developed a less lopsided friendship. His understandable mistrust of me was coupled with a loyalty that was just as fierce, and while I felt he never took one eye off of me, never sure when I would turn on him, he also would also defend and protect me from any danger or slight, real or imagined. His mannerisms never changed-Always just a little too loud or frighteningly quiet, always intense and brightly burning, whether he was raging and fighting against whatever monsters he envisioned in others or himself, or telling an animated story with the loudest laugh and the wild gestures that made him captivating, if not overwhelming. His excitement was contagious, and his voice carried. Sometimes he would literally shake from emotion, good or bad. He loved so hard, and he hated just as hard. In the rare moments when he was quiet and still, he was fragile and tender, and it was those times that I loved him the most. Those were the times that kept him in my heart and mind for years to come.
One day we all grew up and moved away. The Bastians and the Thompsons went to college, the Wessingers scattered around the world, Ruby ran off to Alaska with a boy who had been in my kindergarten class that now wore leather pants, drank red wine out of the bottle and wrote her name on his arm in blood. I was grieving and misplaced and felt like an alien in the only home I’d ever known, and I ran for the city with the eldest Depew boy. I already knew in my heart that our long, obsessive and dangerous relationship would soon implode, but I was too scared to go alone, and I had loved him for so long, I didn’t know any other way. Jason ended up becoming a combat medic in the army, something that did not surprise me. He strived for structure and chaos equally. He had become a nurturing man that was not afraid to risk himself for someone else, and still craved destruction on some level. He originally waned to be a mortician, but the army is known for promising you whatever you wish, and then twisting it into what they would prefer. I’m not sure how many tours Jason served or how many lives he saved, but I know he saved many, and I know he served in Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq. I know he was active for over a decade and held the title of Staff Sergeant. When I left that town, I tried never to look back, but Matus was always someone I tried to keep in touch with, and when I would lose him, I always searched for him until I knew where he was again. He was one of the few ties to that place that I wasn’t willing to let go of.
Once Sid and I stopped circling each other and settled down together, we would often talk about Jason. He was Sid’s roommate for a time, long after I left, so we both had tales of him from different stages in our lives. We looked for him, traded stories of him, and dug through our old address books trying out old numbers we had for him. We actually reached him once, in the middle of the night. He seemed annoyed, we were pleased. Getting a rise out of Matus was a joy we shared, and coaxing him back was something we were both very practiced in. Once social networking became the norm, we latched back on to him, and had no intention of losing track of him again. He went through some very difficult times. More than once we were tempted to fly to wherever he was and surprise him because we felt he was drowning and needed to see a friendly face, but that seemed drastic. Jason brought that out in us, drastic behavior. We never did surprise him, but we kept in touch, and offered our friendship and home if he ever needed it. He seemed to manage on his own, even though he never struck us as content or happy, he continued to serve, create art, and live on in his fiery manner.
Then he met Faye. Sid knew Faye from town, but I had never met her, which was strange when you live in a place so small. A light came into Jason that I had never seen before, and that calm that was fleeting seemed to be more and more apparent. We exchanged emails about the beauty and uniquenes of traveling through this big, scary, horrible world and eventually finding home in someone we grew up with, and how sweet and innocent it felt to be carrying home around with us in our partners, no matter where we ended up. Faye was equally as devoted, and they quicklly married, something that normally I would frown upon, but it seemed right-They seemed right, and Jason finally seemed happy, and Faye cared for him in a way that made me feel as if he was finally safe from his demons. It was apparent that she would fight them by his side, and could hold her own.
Jason and Faye had many trials, arguably the biggest being Jason’s injury, sustained while on duty. I don’t remember the exact details, but Jason broke his neck in a helicopter crash. It is my understanding that, knowing they were about to have a hard landing, he unstrapped himself to go make sure that his patient was secure, and was slammed against the roof of the aircraft. The army was supposed to fix it, and between waiting until the injury fused together and a botched the operation, he was left in horrible pain, and reliant on medication.
I went to Missouri last year to see them, it was my first time meeting Faye in person, and the first time I had seen Jason in over a decade. A mutual childhood friend named Mark Wolf had made sure that we had recently been in touch, and when his partner Noira needed help while going to Missouri to load a trailer I jumped at the opportunity to see some of middle America, and visit my old friend. We went to lunch and caught up, and Jason begrudgingly allowed me to adopt the snapping turtle he had been joyfully caring for, as he was moving to Portland and could no longer keep her. While teaching me how to feed her and relaying stories of her viciousness and his ability to deftly slip her food with a pair of chopsticks, I saw that manic happiness in his eyes that I always loved. As he told me about his injury, the pain he was in, and the betrayal he felt from the institution he’d given so much to, I saw the darkness he’d always carried, but it was different. He went there to help, he had saved lives and been covered in the blood of his friends. Like everything in his life, he had given them all that he had, and they had used him, broken him, and were now trying to sweep him under the rug. He told me very candidly about his PTSD and his depression. Being Matus, he held nothing back, and I felt nauseous with the reality of what war does to people, and what I could see it had done to my friend. He spoke of Faye’s suffering, and of her patience with him. Jason was always a handful, I could clearly see that Faye’s life was full of his nightmares and horrors, and I loved her for loving him regardless. I left feeling grateful we were still friends, angry with the army and it’s disregard for the men and women who sacrifice so much and are shit on in return, and sad and hopeful for Faye, that soon he would get the help he needed, and she could rest with the man she loved.
Mark called me yesterday morning, and it was the call that part of me expected, and that I hoped I’d never recieve. Jason Matus was dead, by his own hand, in his own home. That call came a little over 24 hours ago, and I have not left my bed since. I have slept, had nightmares of the moment that is easy to envision when you’ve known someone for 25 years-His face, his voice, and the anguish played out in my head. A deep sickness for Faye, who took on the impossible task of saving him, and was repaid by watching the love of her life die in front of her. So much anger-Toward the army that broke him, the war that fanned the war inside of him, the ghosts that haunted him, the people that ignored him when he literally screamed for help. Anger at him, so much of it, for doing this to his friends and family, all of us who loved him but most of all the woman who never left his side. Sadness that after being a hero, a healer, and an angel of mercy to men and women scared and in pain, his legacy is one of destruction, of loss, and the giant mess of us all that he left behind. It conflicts with the empathy I had for him, knowing I could never know the depth of his anguish, his nightmares or the the physical pain he endured.
This is the history of Jason Matus and I. This is all there is, there will be no more, I write it here so that I could remember past the last 24 hours which seem to have clouded every single other thing in my life. To write down that Jason was a loyal friend, a talented artist, a gifted entertainer, and a sensitive man that would do anything to get a laugh out of someone sad, do anything at his own peril to fix someone else, and would empathize so much that you thought his heart could burst for you. The little boy who let me dress him up in silly clothes, and burst into tears when I had pushed him too hard. The little boy that I would be so sorry for hurting that I would hug and feed him treats and tell him how much I wanted to be his friend until he believed it and smiled that goofy smile again. The young man that I cared enough to look for when I didn’t care about much of anything. Not this tragic story. Not this casualty of war. Not another example of a broken system and a tortured soul.
Jason Matus, you were loved. You were a hero to me. You are an asshole. I’m sorry life was so cruel to you, and I’m happy you had Faye, but I don’t feel forgiving you for what you’ve done will come easy. That was my first thought when I awoke this morning. “Look what you’ve done”. It feels directed at him, then the army, then the system, then the rest of us, then back at him. I try to choose a flower for him, to add him to my memento mori garden tattoo, and I just can’t yet. I had to get this out. Write this. Check. Next step, leave my bedroom. The rest will be baby steps, and this fragile feeling will fade. This isn’t my first time, I know the routine. It’s just that, the night that Jason died I was at the wake of another friend, who had succumbed to a long illness. A younger friend who had experienced much less loss than myself asked me if it ever got any easier, and I said yes. I thought for a second and reconsidered-I told him in general it did, that you become stoic and the rip from your gut fades in strength, but there’s always certain people or situations that can bring it back, that unbearable feeling of loss. Was that the moment he left us? While I was reconsidering my answer? Because that’s what it feels like today. Like he had to prove to me that I could still feel loss like it was the first time. Goodbye my friend, I will always remember you.
I always thought that the key to being a good writer was to be honest, which is ridiculous. Writing has nothing to do with honesty, not with the reader, and not with yourself. The key is, and always has been, being brave. Being brave won’t make you a good writer, but a good writer will never be heard without the courage to be bare and vulnerable, a bold faced liar and an ultimate truth teller. To talk and talk, and be willing to have most of what they say be complete garbage just to have a small fraction of it be worthy of sharing with others. If the undeniable driving force is to leave some sort of mark on the world to insure that once we die and turn to dust a piece of us remains, it takes a giant set of balls to take that piece and shove it against the wall of humanity until it sticks. All this time I was waiting to pursue writing until I could be honest, when really I was just waiting to grow some balls.
So easy, so delicious, and so perfect for winter weather.
1 lb. salt pork, cubed
5-7 russet potatoes, scrubbed and cubed
Minced garlic (to taste)
1 white onion
1 can of corn
1 can evaporated milk
Spices-Dill, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, Old Bay, white pepper
I never tell people how to measure spices, that’s all you. I do suggest forgoing salt until serving, and then letting people season their own with kosher salt. If you put it in ahead of time, it tends to get soaked up by the starches.
Preparation is pretty common sense. Brown pork, sauté garlic and onions, add potatoes and about 4 cups of water, all in a large pot. Add all spices except salt and bring to a boil, then simmer for about 30-45 minutes. Add corn and milk, simmer for about 10 more. You’re done!
This soup is creamy, a little spicy, and of course, has bacon in it, so there you have it. The true magic of this soup is how ridiculously cheap it is to make, especially for how much it makes. You can always jazz it up with fresh carrots, green beans, fresh dill, and sprinkled with chopped scallions upon serving.