Froggers

The froggers would arrive in the mornings, having driven in from their night hunt in Central Valley wetlands, bullfrog country. They'd carry burlap bags, wet and heavy, into the front building, talk for a while, take their money and disappear. There was always a bit of mystery about that. My boss, Harold Dahl, supplier of biological materials, enjoyed telling me some of the stories he'd heard, but I was never really clear about the legalities of the frog business, and had few chances to talk to froggers, because Harold didn't like people poking around in the back premises where I worked, which was understandable. It was important to keep from prying eyes the insides of the big steel building that housed storage units and my lab reeking of formaldehyde, methanol and other unmentionables, and a special room reserved for frogs only. Live frogs went from holding pens into that room and came out as skinned carcasses neatly packaged in waxed paper-lined cardboard boxes, bound for gourmet places in San Francisco across the bay. We were always scrupulously clean-handed when processing restaurant frogs, but, well, best to guard against a lot of stories going around.

Nor did Harold welcome casual visits to the back yard where I might be mixing a batch of embalming fluid in a fifty five gallon drum. For the record, our embalming fluid consisted of water, formaldehyde, methanol and a secret ingredient, topped off with one tablespoon of concentrated rose petal oil (powerful stuff).

That steel building where I put in long days housed a rich treasure of things organic, such as embalmed cats stacked like cordwood. I took a sort of woodcutter's pride in that big stack of cats. Every one of them had been processed by me, it's veins injected with blue latex and its arteries with red. And some of them were “triples,” red, blue and yellow (hepatic portal vein).

Usually I was ahead of orders on rats preserved in formaldehyde, some of them “plain,” and some single-injected (red arteries). Leopard frogs were shipped out as fast as I could prepare them: red latex needled into the ventral artery. And we had sharks in plastic bags or 55 gallon drums of formaldehyde. We had Necturus (large salamanders), beautiful preparations in red and yellow injection. We had foetal pigs, singles or doubles. We had drums of preserved starfish, and jars of crayfish. Another building housed live critters, Amoebas and Paramecia. In the front building were shelves of microscope slides (chick embryo developmental sequence, etc.) and the smaller or drier items, including skeletal materials. Just about anything biological could be obtained at Dahl's. The embalming fluid was for the trade that's “slow, but steady.”

One day a group of froggers , three men and a woman, arrived while Harold had other business in hand. The froggers waited, drifted back to my lab. I was very glad to see them, probably came across as very like a prospector who's been talking to nobody but himself all winter. Believe me, it was lonesome work back there.

They asked a few questions about what I was doing, but only a few, because it was all there to be seen, my hands, what they did with syringe, needle, cutting board, scalpel, liquid latex, water and the deadly poison in a vial that cleared the needles of congealed latex. The froggers watched with genuine curiosity, but they were also taking inventory: the walls and the equipment, the crocks and bottles and lack of windows, the work table and the doorway that opened on the cat storage room. They were casing the joint. Didn't take them long, and then they began to talk, about themselves, bragging a bit, artfully; that is to say, in story-telling fashion, the kind of telling that knows itself to be a worthwhile pause.

They got around to a recent visit to San Francisco where they had walked into a grand music instrument store and let on that they were interested in buying a piano. Three of my visitors took turns with the telling, a seemingly simple story, but requiring embellishments. You've already guessed the theme: a testing of the wares. The star of the tale was the short, happy frogger standing nearest me, complacently allowing the compliments to flow, his playing the pianos by ear, getting that music store hopping, everybody including presumably legit customers having a ball. And I was as happy as you can be while your hands stay busy with flesh and needles. We were all happy. Music was important to the froggers, that was clear, and now they were celebrating the man who had purloined a good time for all.

Marginal characters, those froggers, but with an eye for the main chance. If upward mobility came along, I guessed, most of them would grab hold. Harold had mentioned that a frogger he was especially well acquainted with had invented an improved doorlatch for vehicles. One of the big three auto corporations wanted to buy the rights. The frogger, however, was holding back, wondering if he couldn't form a company and market it himself. He had dreams of sending his son to medical school.

Meanwhile, though, he and his colleagues were seekers and holders of temp jobs, on the lookout, noticing how things worked and what might be done. It was only natural that, later, reading Steinbeck's “Cannery Row” I looked back to that day the froggers made for me, to wonder what they might have in common with Mack and his four companions, the “Cannery Row” frog hunters.

The most striking disjuncture was the woman. There are no women in Steinbeck's fictional frog hunt. More important, I can't fit her into any section of the “Cannery Row” cast. Most of the women there are amiable prostitutes, or a drag on their men's independence, or mentioned in passing, or un-named actors in Doc's saga of refined loneliness. In contrast, the woman at my workplace that day was vividly present in her own right, and the calculating curiosity so obvious in her three companions was hers too, and she cut easily into the conversation from time to time, with pleasure.

But the three froggers with her could have walked into that fictional frog hunt with no trouble at all, because the story was about survival, and enjoyment, at the fringes of society, the skills needed there.

Remember Mack, master of discourse? How he negotiated a complicated deal with Lee Chong: twenty five frogs to the dollar and the dollars to be spent in Lee's own store? And the way he soft-soaped the land owner on whose land they had trespassed? And Gay, the master mechanic, scrounger of auto parts, self-taught? And Eddie, who worked as a temp in a bar and didn't allow any customer's neglected drink go to waste? And Hazel who loved to listen to talk, the flow of it, using various subterfuges to keep it going? I am not trying to pin abstractions ... thief, trespasser ... on the froggers I met. Not at all. I'm saying that where they lived it was necessary to pay attention to the nuances of transgression, and to act.

Now, these remembrances bring up a question I've sometimes asked myself. Who would I choose to be with in a really tight spot? Doc, the scientist, charming boozer, owner of Western Biological? Or Mack and his comrades who, in Steinbeck's words, “approached contentment casually, quietly and absorbed it gradually”? Or my boss, hardworking, decisive, tied to a one-man business? Or those froggers from the Central Valley who, unlike Mack and the boys, did have the American Dream in their makeup?

I hope you don't expect me to take a stab at that. It's a Hemingway kind of question, ego-bound and impossible to answer. Because life enters in, all the time.

By the way, my boss came close to teaming up with the actually existing “Doc” (Ed Ricketts), down there in Monterey, to merge their two incubuses, the businesses, to build a better life. I don't know which one of them first backed off. Harold, laughing as he told me about it ... he had a great all-out laugh ... said that he and Doc were too different. Later, reading “Cannery Row,” I wondered how either of them could have even begun to think of partnering with the other. But then again, maybe Steinbeck pictured Doc a little off true? That's possible. After all, in “The Sea of Cortez” he totally blanked out the presence on board of Carol, his wife. That book is all male. Just goes to show, writing and reading is apt to be a chancy affair too. On the margins, testing transgressions.

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