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My old roommate, and still a good friend of mine, was walking down an alley last weekend, on his way home. He was hit in the back of the head. When he came to, he was being dragged down the street, a good distance from where he was. He looked up to see some Koreans trying to drag him into an open garage in a place we call second market. He started to struggle so they started kicking and beating him again. A Korean he recognized, a man that works at a local cyber cafe near the base, runs across the street and says something to the men in Hangul. My friend gets up and runs into the street. As he's escaping he notices a video camera pointed directly at the scene.

He spent the night in the hospital. Criminal investigations said there was nothing on the video tape. I carry a butterfly knife.

some random
Los Gatos Stories

It was a beautiful day. After a brief morning fog, the sky cleared and the insect-free air warmed to seventy-two degrees. It had been this way yesterday, and would be this way tomorrow.

I stood at the foot of my driveway picking up my newspapers. The Wall Street Journal has started a Weekend Edition. The San Jose Mercury delivers its Sunday comics on Saturday. Plus, the Merc's Saturday edition was there. So I had three papers. I grabbed these and as I stood I stared into the driver's side window of a car that stopped abrupty in front of me.

"Can you tell me how to get to Blossom Hill Road?" the driver asked. I told him he was one block away. If he'd only had the courage to go another block without stopping, he'd have been there already. The woman in the passenger's seat swatted him and said she'd told him so.

"We're from Chicago," he said to me, as if I needed to know. "Visiting relatives."

"Good for you."

He paused and looked at his steering wheel without moving the car.

"Weather always like this, here? Every time we visit, it's the same. No matter what time of year."

"Pretty much," I replied. "Rains some in the winter. That's it."

He looked at his wife, and she told him to get moving. He didn't.

I held up the front page of the Merc. House values are always front page news in Silicon Valley.

"Median price -- $714,000," I showed him. "We pay good money for this weather."

"Another perfect day in paradise," he said, emphasizing the P's in his words so he spit on the dash of the rental car.

Then he started to cry as he drove off.

He never heard me say, "You bet."

My wife teaches fourth grade. I remember being in fourth grade. Mrs. Kellman was my teacher. For lunch I ate bologna and mustard sandwiches my mother made for me. She alternated them with peanut butter and grape jelly. We got small containers of milk directly from the school for which I had to bring weekly milk money. On Friday, McDonalds delivered hamburgers. I got a cheeseburger.

Things are very different in fourth grade today. There are zero tolerance policies in paradise.

Last May my wife had to exercise the zero tolerance policy on a boy. The "Shock and Awe" program was enacted. The Los Gatos police department came directly to the fourth grade and took him away to the stunned silence of his classmates. Counselors were brought in to deal with the post-tramautic stress. Children were having nightmares weeks later.

The boy had thrown his PB&J at a girl who had a peanut allergy.

My wife carries an epi pen during class. This so she can inject children who go into shock from being exposed to various allergens, peanuts being the most common.

When I was in fourth grade the police came to school to teach us about not talking to strangers and to always walk on the sidewalk.

I never met a kid who was allergic to peanuts. The police didn't arrest grammar school children for any reason except to catch runaways and return them to their families. There were no epi pens. There were steel rulers to hit us with when we got out of line.

If a kid went into shock in school by being exposed to peanuts, it would have made headline news on the networks.

"Did you ever hear of a peanut allergy when we were kids? Did you ever hear of having to have the police arrest a 9-year old for tossing a sandwich? When I was a kid, the principal would just slap you silly and send you back to class. What's happening to the world?" I asked my wife.

She doesn't know. It's different than it used to be. Every so many years, it's different. Like a law of nature, things change so that every generation can say to everyone, "What the hell happened to everything?"

Nobody knows how it got this way. Some people think it's better.

Today is Sunday. I poured myself a mug of coffee and found out the hard way that we were out of milk. Two white drops merged with the dark brown in my cup. Swallowed them. They became nothing.

I love coffee but I don't like it black.

"You'll have to go get some," my wife said, as if I thought we had a milk spigot on one of the walls I'd missed these past nine years living here.

I put on my shoes. Took five bucks off the kitchen counter and went to the local food store. I decided to stay away from the upscale "Whole Foods" where everything was organic and enriching and priced for people who understand the grip of the alternative minimum tax. For reasons that confound modern science, it costs more to eat food to which less has been done. All we know is it has something to do with spoilage and marketing.

Five bucks seemed like it would cover a gallon of 2% milk purchased at the local non-organic barely-health-conscious downscale grocery store.

Turns out the correct price was $6.29. I was nonplussed.

"Does anybody remember that this stuff comes from cows?" I said, realizing I only had the fin in my wallet.

The cashier stared at me a second. She said simply, "Debit or credit?"

"Gasoline is cheaper," I said, swiping my debit card through the reader on the counter.

"Tastes bad on your Captain Crunch, though," she said. She had me there.

I had coffee in my mind, then, and figured I'd treat myself to coffee made by professionals. Instead of going to the car, I took a right and went into Peet's Coffee. Peet's is a Starbuck's competitor. Their value-added is in the fact it takes about 3.7 times longer to get a coffee than at Starbucks. This is chic, in the same way that a $50 3lb organically raised ranch hen that's mostly bones and you have to cook yourself is classier than a $10 bucket of Colonel Sanders' extra crispy.

I asked for a grande latte, making the classic newbie coffee gaffe of asking for my beverage in Starbucks-ese instead of the Peet's way. The girl behind the counter was a friend of one of my daughters. She went easy on me.

"It's called a 'medium', here, Mr. Owl."

"Is it called a 'latte' here, too?" I asked.

"Of course it is, Mr. Owl. What else would we call it?"

I shrugged. Handed over $5 for 12 ounces of coffee and milk. At that moment, it occurred to me there was a mug of black coffee cooling to juice box temperatures on my kitchen table. But it was too late to go back now.

I took an empty seat at the store window, settling into my 10-minute high quality wait. In front of me a Lamborghini Murcielago pulled in between a Lexus SUV and a Porsche 911 Turbo 4. The driver seemed to be in his middle 30's. He got out wearing lycra mountain biking shorts and a poly pro top. He came into Peets and stood in line, and he ordered his large mocha-sans-whipped cream in correct Peet's language

He sat down next to me, alternately staring out the window at his car and then scanning the room, presumably to see if anyone else had noticed his car. He missed the soccer mom herding three kids into the SUV beside his car. I smiled to myself when the door of the Lexus touched the Lamborghini, figuring the kid would just ram it harder into the expensive Italian paint job. But the mom caught the kid's transgression and immediately grabbed the door. Then she got in quickly and drove off before her insurance company would have to get involved to settle what would inevitably become a multi-thousand dollar suit.

The Lexus was replaced by a jet-black Ferarri 360 spyder driven by a silver-haired man wearing sunglasses. The top was down. The radio was loud. He was listening to Beethoven. His personalized symphony stopped abruptly when he shut the engine. He came in and ordered his medium latte in Peet's form, and settled in next to the Lamborghini guy and joined him in eyeing his car from inside.

Now, in front of me on the other side of the glass were three vehicles each the value of a college education. I knew the pricetag on each of these cars because last time I was downtown at Southern Kitchen treating a guest to chicken-fried steak, country biscuits, and gravy, I made a point of stopping at the Ferrari dealership, and then the Lamborghini dealership which were both on the street where I had parked my minivan. Cars on those lots were each the price of homes.

"What makes you buy a $270,000 car?" he asked me. I didn't know, as that's a financial condition in which I have never awakened to discover myself. As much as I adore cars, I'd rather look at a Lamborghini than have to worry about keeping one running. The registration alone on a car that expensive is nearly $5,000 a year. And I presumed to my friend that people who live in a world where these sums are feasible may think differently about life than I do. They would have to.

And at that very moment, we were surrounded by them.

I usually don't start conversations with strangers, but here we were at the coffee shop within a five minute walk from my house. I had driven, of course. But it was my hood. If anything, these were my homies. Besides, the bastard was staring at me.

"Heading up the hill?" I asked the mountain biker.

"Just coming back," he said.

"Cool car."

"Thanks. Sucks gas like a mother, though."

"And with gas nearly $4 a gallon..." I said, trying to sympathize, but he just looked at me as if I had suddenly steered the conversation to an analysis of the economic system of ancient Athens. His body tensed. He set his jaw.

I said, "I mean, gas is almost as expensive as milk."

Once we crossed into the realm of jokedom, all was well. He relaxed and smiled. The Ferrari guy piped in he'd seen something in the newspaper, some political wag complaining that a gallon of gas still wasn't as expensive as a gallon of latte.

"Once that happens, we're in trouble, eh?" I said, smiling. But both Ferrari and Lamborghini guys just looked at me, puzzled.

By then the hand crafting of my latte was complete and my name was called. I picked up my cup and gave my regards to the Italian car drivers. "Gas is cheaper, but doesn't taste as good," I said.

They laughed.

I went outside. Got into my Jeep. Gravity seemed to be working, still. The sky was still blue. The sun appeared to be in the correct spot in the sky and the wrens hadn't yet begun building an elaborate system of tunnels under the city.

I drove the 500 yards to my home. Dumped the Peet's latte in the grass because it made me feel human to do it.

Inside I poured a bit of milk into the lukewarm coffee on the kitchen table. On the main road a car blasted past toward the mountains, drowned in the scream of a high-rev formula-one race car. It was loud enough for me to hear in the kitchen, filling the air with the aura of Monte Carlo in the spring.

But it could have been on TV.

Have you ever been sitting in a crowded hair cattery, salon, nail studio, or doctor's office, and had them announce that someone wasn’t there that day, then pick out a substitute from the crowd? Our culture would never accept such a thing, we need certification to be permitted to cut or style hair, do someone’s nails, or give them a massage. In many cases we need to be certified to fix other people’s cars, plumbing, or electric wiring. These (with the exception of electric wiring and doctors) are not generally life threatening tasks, although they can embarrass someone if they are done wrong.

Why then, do we allow people with no training or certification to substitute teach classes? Parents and students trust the substitutes to be knowledgeable in the case of an emergency, to know how to handle personal problems within the student body, and to teach the correct facts.

Even worse than substitutes drawn from a crowd, are “emergency teachers.” When a certain area has a deficit in teachers, they may hire someone who has a degree in the subject area, but not teaching, to teach the students. They may be very knowledgeable in the subject, but that doesn’t mean that they will be able to find a way to get the students to understand the subject, or manage the classroom well.

What makes our society value the certification of somebody who cuts our hair more than somebody who watches our children and teaches them right from wrong?

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