FIRST PERSON | John Maccabee
I recently moved to the East Bay and had to leave behind an office I had rented for 20 years upstairs at 2001 Fillmore Street. Leaving the neighborhood was wrenching, although I joked that I was ready to go; I had wrung every cubit of creativity from my 200-square-foot studio. The space had a bay window that faced Pine Street. From where I sat, I could see the Boulangerie sign — not the entire sign, because trees overhung it in a way that revealed only the letters a n g e r. I tried not to take that personally, although my chosen field, writing and game design, does offer plenty of opportunities for anger.
But I was productive there. I wrote two novels, dozens of screenplays and treatments — a dozen sold into the LA film and television markets. And I began a game design practice, CityMystery, creating what is referred to as transmedia games for the Smithsonian, for parks, schools and brands. While that much productivity increases the odds of selling projects, it also comes with a fair share of rejections, which brings me back to a n g e r.
Rejections, although inevitable, are frequently fraught with rage or despair. And early in my tenancy, during a protracted raging, despairing span of bad luck, I was persuaded that the space itself was at fault. Someone close to me recommended that I have it cleared of bad spirits by two practitioners from Berkeley she knew who were experienced in Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement.
I called them and set a date. They appeared on a sunny early afternoon in fall. One was bald, moon-faced and smiling; the other was rumpled, dusty and gaunt. Without much in the way of explanation, they began chanting, punctuated by sprinkling a mixture of water and powdered arsenic as orange as Arizona dust to the four corners of the room. Each used his own particular chanting technique: The gaunt one mumbled while maintaining a mudra with his hands cupped like pinchers, while the other slashed the air in a version of something he may have seen in a Jackie Chan movie.
“Gate Gate. Para Gate. Para Sam Gate. Bodhi Svaha,” they repeated innumerable times.
Both performed with fervor. But it was hard to tell if they were the genuine curatives they purported to be or were only casing the joint to return later to lift the computer equipment. While they chanted, I wasn’t asked to do much more than step aside and observe, although now and then they did ask me to flick some of the arsenic mixture here and there. And then I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was: Would it bollix the whole ceremony if I left to wash my hands? But no questions were possible. The JewBu’s, which is what they called themselves, a shortening of Jewish Buddhists — in fact, one of them claimed to have coined the expression — were into it full-tilt, their chanting building to lengthy crescendos.
While their wish to project secret knowledge of how well life could work if only all its elements were properly aligned for success, happiness and good health was obviously very great, the two JewBu’s did not look particularly prosperous, clean or healthy themselves. So I suspected they might be complete frauds.
“Do you think?” one ventured, momentarily halting his chanting and prompting the other, without another word of explanation, to retort . . .
“Yes. I was thinking the exact same thing.”
“Should we do it now, or later?”
“Probably. Yes. You’re right.”
This was mysticism, right? No need to explain, it operates on a completely different level. But still and all, it was costing me 200 bucks.
“Are you discussing anything I should know about?” I asked.
“We’ve decided there is enough interference here — what I mean is, the spirits are active enough — for us to perform a ceremony we call ‘sealing the doors.’ ”
“I see,” I said. And in a way, I did. If there really were bad spirits around you would naturally want to seal any and all doors against them. As if he were reading my mind, the smiley one said, “Don’t worry. We’ll throw it in for the same $200.”
Both laughed, leaving me feeling stingy. But that apparently wasn’t enough to stop them; they were, once again, in elaborate chanting mode.
I kept wondering what their undoubtedly nice and elderly Jewish mothers must think of the paths their sons had taken. You can make a living doing what? Which prompted me to re-christen their Feng Shui process Feng Schwartz.
After the incantation and sealing of the doors I handed them, as commanded, 20 little red envelopes that I had chased up and down Clement Street to find, each containing a crisp $10 bill, the only way they would be paid. No checks, no credit cards.
Before they left, the JewBu’s thanked me and gave me a list of next steps:
• Hang floor-to-ceiling red string in each of the room’s four corners, tacked into place with red pushpins.
• Affix a shopkeeper’s bell to the top of the door, also with red pushpins.
• Hang two real plants, preferably green and thriving, 10 feet above the floor on top of the bay windows; and equidistant between the two living plants, also 10 feet up, hang nine fake red flowers bound with red ribbon. Had to be red, had to be nine, three times the magic number three.
• Finally, a crystal had to be hung opposite my desk and above my head, suspended on a red string — and we’re talking 12-foot ceilings. Plus I had to move my space heater out of the corner and put something to which I attached feelings of reverence in front of the bay windows — what they referred to as a “fire/warmth zone.”
I did as I was told and the JewBu’s never came back to steal the computer. Nor were they curative. Or if they were, it lasted maybe a week after my final chant, which I was told to perform alone in the room anytime between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., those being the most auspicious hours.
I gave it my all. I had received another rejection — so please bad spirits that could possibly be hindering my progress, please be gone! With all the string, arsenic, bells, real plants and fake flowers in place, I threw open the bay windows, striking my own mudra, with thumb and index finger joined and incanted, “Om Mani Padme Hum” countless times while making gestures to push and shove the bad spirits out the window. That night was foggy and chill. I hoped the bad spirits would not leave behind a killer flu on their way out.
They did not. And their presence or absence did not change my fate. Throughout my years above Fillmore Street I remained as successful and frustrated as any other creative person I have ever known.
Eventually I took down the live plants and fake flowers, the red strings and most especially the weighty crystal poised directly above my head. I kept the shopkeeper’s bell; I liked the sound of it, and left it for the next tenant. And in the corner of the room the JewBu’s designated as my reverence zone, I hung an etching of what is purported to be Leonardo da Vinci’s face and, beside it, a small Sonia Delaunay poster of colorful cake slice-like shapes assembled around the word Chocolat. Da Vinci and chocolate, now there’s a belief system I can live with.
I hope it brings much luck to all those who frequent Fillmore Street.