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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Nacht in San Jose

By Eric A. Carlson

"So gaunt against the gibbous moon,
Piercing the silence velvet-piled,
A lone wolf howls his ancient rune--
The fell arch-spirit of the wild."   --Robert Service

PLUMB TUCKERED, I sought to regain my spirits at Rushcybercafe, quickly downing a double Halo-Halo, and then another. The place is touted as an Internet cafe, on a block of First Street, comprised of some of San Jose's last remaining relic buildings--primordial granite structures with carved pediments and polychromatic voussoirs. Gotham City. I sat on a tall, round chair at a tall, round Plexiglas table; my thoughts turned to Ed Nacht.

Earlier, on my way to purchase an inflatable Grinch at the Christmas in the Park Celebration, a bearded man in a wheelchair entered my peripheral vision. Ed Nacht had staked out a spot of sunshine in front of St. Joseph Cathedral, and was quietly seeking token coin of the realm from sidewalk strollers such as myself. Rather than scurrying away, wallet intact, as I normally do, I asked Ed if I could take his photo and ask nosy questions. He agreed, as long as it wasn't for some kind of "sociological thing." I assured him my motives were pure--I was in it for the money. And he shared some words.

Once hale and hearty, Ed had dreams of becoming a Green Beret. He joined the Army and was starting along that path when the reality of parachute school confirmed a suspicion long held in abeyance--an extreme distaste for heights. Ed opted out, and remained in the regular Army. In 1980, his mother died. "When my mom died, the whole family just scattered," Ed recalled, interspersing his words with swats at a small radio that was going in and out of reception. He related that he once spent six months in tuberculosis quarantine, wincing at the recollection. Not because of the physical pain, he confided, but because of the loss of personal freedom. "It was like jail."

An Asian couple was getting married at St. Joseph Cathedral, and I had to rearrange myself up against a wrought-iron fence to allow elegantly attired celebrants to pass. The low winter sun was horizontal and in our eyes. Ed hand-rolled a cigarette as he described his past and present housing arrangements. Not too long ago he had his own room, with a cat and a cable TV. It was a sweetheart deal costing only $250 dollars a month. Landlords changed and rent escalated. Like any other renter in The Valley, Ed's quality of life has deteriorated. He now pays $600 a month to share a room in a boarding house on Sunnycrest Circle. Social Security brings in $706, which leaves $106 for Sharks games, dinners at A.P. Stump's and investments in startup companies. Living arrangements are less than ideal. "I live in a house with schizophrenics; I really don't know what personalities I'm going home to each day." Ed attributes the demise of quality of life to computers, and people spending too much time in front of them. Indeed, for every rich computer weenie with house and tennis court in the hills of Los Altos, there is an Ed Nacht, digitally divided and squeezed into a smaller room.

Somehow we got on the subject of Michael Landon and the television show Little House on the Prairie. Ed enjoyed Landon's work in that vehicle enough to bring up the subject. I did not care for the show, but believe the Laura Ingalls Wilder books are possibly the best first-person accounts ever written about folks settling in America--pure magic from a child's perspective.

Ed encouraged me to wander up to Fifth and San Fernando to talk to the Saratoga Federated Church people--they have a downtown ministry there on Saturday mornings. Ed spoke with warm feelings about this church, and I suspect it is a worthwhile organization to support--if you have more than $106 left over after rent.

Final note: I retreated to Rushcybercafe to drown my Weltschmerz in a $1.75 cup of coffee, leaving Ed at his station, in front of the white columns of St. Joseph Cathedral.

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From the December 29, 2000-January 3, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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