Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Not The Post You're Expecting

As I've said before, one of the "benefits," if you will, of my current job is that I meet a lot of people. The meetings are superficial, but frequent enough that I can now walk through downtown Portland and recognize a respectable percentage of the people around me. Sometimes I even know their names, where they work, what kind of stuff they're into, whether they have kids, that sort of thing. Occasionally one will even recognize me outside of work, though they tend to be confused when they do, unable to place exactly where or how they know me. Point is, I have a passing acquaintance with hundreds of Portlanders. And most of 'em are nothing very interesting. Don't get me wrong -- they're fine people, I'm sure possessing many admirable qualities and virtues, and I'm sure if I took the time to really get to know them, I'd find something interesting in most of them. Not many people are really that boring. But for all the would-be personalities in this town, there aren't all that many real characters.

I have become fascinated, however, with one family in particular. There are three of them, as far as I can tell, of whom I've met two in person, and one only over the phone. The one I see most frequently is a stooped, hunchbacked, one-eyed crone we'll call Eunice Mandelbrot, which is similar to her real name, but isn't. She can usually be found begging for spare change up and down the bus mall and in other high-traffic areas downtown, around Pioneer Courthouse Square and along Burnside. She walks like one of the UrRu from the Dark Crystal, hanging her warped frame over a walking stick, looking up at everyone from a thirty-degree angle through her one good eye.

(this is not Eunice Mandelbrot)

Half of downtown seems to know her; she's a standard figure on the streets out here. She has a surprisingly genteel manner, asking politely for any spare change you might have in your pockets. She seems to dress in rags, but I expect any clothes you draped over her would look ragged. Her hair is long and grey and stringy, but she never smells bad.

I've also met her son, George -- I've never heard his real first name, but he seems sort of George-ish to me. I see him much less frequently than Eunice, but when I do it's memorable: the guy is, to be blunt, fucked-up. It's hard to gauge whether he's intrinsically fucked-up through disability or mental illness, or whether he has somehow had his fucked-up-ness foisted upon him by vice or circumstance. His speech is barely coherent, and his voice is low and strained. He's tall, thin in that way that still carries a pot belly, he has his mother's long, stringy hair, and a full beard and mustache which I always notice because he invariably has a long strand of snot hanging in it. I mean a big, nasty gob of yellow snot, hanging out of his nose and pooling in his mustache. It's hard to miss, especially the second and third time. He tends to lurch around, unable to keep his physical coordination together, and his snot-string will often swing perilously away from his nose as he sways, which keeps the eye riveted on it in case it launches and one has to duck.

I saw George a couple of months ago, and he looked a lot better for a change. His hair had been cut short and his bear trimmed, with no visible snot string therein, and instead of his usual black jeans and stained black t-shirt, he was in chinos, dress shirt and corduroy sport jacket -- they weren't in the best repair, but it was still a big step up from his normal state. He still swayed when vertical, and he was still uncommunicative, but I was unexpectedly heartened by his improvement.

Obviously everyone in the store who's been there for longer than a few months knows about the Mandelbrots. We tend to give each other a heads-up when one of them comes in; they have a bad reputation among the management in spite of never having really caused much trouble as far as I know. Eunice is a bit of a coupon-scrounger, but that's true of the elderly in general. Apparently a few years back the Portland Mercury wrote a story on them, something about their being evicted from their home because they couldn't pay rent, and Eunice out begging on the street, and something or other along those lines. I've looked for the article in their online archives, but so far I haven't found it. And if this was all I knew about them, I'd probably just write them off as a pair of tragic figures, two more of the lost causes that cluster inside our store when the weather gets colder and wetter. But there's one other thing.

They have fucking impeccable taste in film.

The only thing they ever buy from us is DVDs. And it's never run-of-the-mill crap, it's never the newly-released shit that makes up 95% of our inventory. It's always the most sublime, avant-garde, artful foreign films, usually Criterion Collection sets that cost $40 or more, films to make a former film student weep. Mizoguchi. Bresson. Eisenstein. Rossellini. These people are not fucking around when it comes to movies.

But this -- these people, these films -- it makes no sense. Eunice doesn't know a thing about them; she's generally the one to come buy them, but she only pays, she doesn't choose. They're often special orders or reserves, and she just buys whatever's on the hold shelf under her name. Does that mean George is the cineaste? I mean, maybe -- but George doesn't even seem to know where he is most of the time. So for months now, I've been sitting at the special order desk watching these beautiful editions of high-brow titles come in, trying to riddle out how the two people I've met relate to the films that they're buying. And nobody else buys them -- almost all of our best stuff is bought by the Mandelbrots.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that I got the third piece of the puzzle. A man called while I was working in the multimedia department. He was soft-spoken and articulate, and he asked about several similar titles -- I don't recall exactly what, but they were all foreign films, and all films that would appeal to an unusually sophisticated cinematic palate. I ended up putting a Criterion disc on hold for him, and when I asked him his name, he said "Mandelbrot." So this is the guy!

I took the DVD up to the registers and asked the girl working there to make note of what sort of person came in to pick it up. The voice on the phone didn't sound much like George, but if he'd really improved lately it might be possible... and if it was him, I wanted to know. It was Eunice who eventually showed up to make the purchase, so I was left intrigued but unsatisfied. Who was this new Mandelbrot, the one apparently actually buying the films?

I still don't know, but tonight I got a bit more information. The new Mandelbrot -- let's call him Charles -- has taken to calling on nights when I'm there, so I've talked to him a few times now. Each time I stifle the urge to say, "you know, I can't help but notice that you have amazing taste in film," just to see if I can squeeze a little more information out. He had a bunch of titles he wanted to check on tonight, The Last Chrysanthimum, The Red Balloon, Battleship Potemkin, a couple of others. I had some, not others, and I suggested that if we're not carrying them, he might try Facets, since they carry a lot of hard-to-find stuff. At the end, he said, "I'm sorry, and I don't mean to disparage the other people on staff there, but I just wanted to tell you that you're the only person I've spoken to there who's helped me in a professional manner. You're the only one who seems to know anything about film." And I laughed and thanked him and said, "yeah, well, that's what two degrees in film is good for, I guess." And suddenly he got very interested. "Really? I'd love to know; I used to work in the European film industry years and years ago... I worked with Antonioni and lots of others..."

Two things at this point: one, I've got another call waiting on another line; and two, whoever this guy is, his family is seriously messed up, and I don't know if I want this guy to know too much about me. So I sort of wave the question away and say, "oh, it's a long story. If you come in sometime, maybe. Can I help with anything else?" And he let it go, thanked me, and said he'd ask for me specifically the next time he needed help with a film. I dealt with the other call, and got back to work. An hour or so later, Eunice Mandelbrot comes in to pick up the films Charles had on hold. Except one was missing, one I'd put up for him days ago, and it was nowhere to be found. So she asked, "may I call my husband?"

Her husband! Charles is her husband. Except there's no way, unless she's much older than him or much younger than she appears. Eunice isn't a day if she's not 75, and Charles is doubtful much more than 60 from the sound of his voice. I mean, it's possible, but it still leaves me confused. Who the hell is Charles, then, with his rag-picker of a wife begging on the streets and his son performing aerial acrobatics with his excess mucus, while he stays home and watches post-war Ozu?

Having this new information only makes my curiosity burn hotter. Whatever is going on in this family, it's capital-fucking-I Interesting. It's Tennessee Williams interesting, it's Grey Gardens interesting. My co-workers tease me about my fascination with the Mandelbrots, but I feel both repelled by them and protective of them. I want to ingratiate myself, go to their house, find out what the fuck is going on, interview them all extensively. I want to know how they got where they are. I want to cut them down until I have a perfect faceted jewel of a story. I want to keep looking at them until I can really see them.

But I also worry that if I did, I'd want to show others. And if I showed others, they might laugh, and I don't want anyone to laugh at the Mandelbrots.

PS: this is the most heartbreaking, tragic, bittersweet thing I've ever, ever heard.
2:56 AM ::
Amy :: permalink