Cambrian Comic’s Friday Showcase: “It Couldn’t Have Been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning Public Schools” by Irving Rothstein

Today we begin another blog series that I find incredibly exciting.  Part of Cambrian Comic’s mission is to explore and share a wide variety of ideas, stories, and points of view.  Starting today, every Friday will be a time to share and explore something that someone else has made.  It could be a comic, a film, or in this case an excerpt from a book.  

For our inaugural post we are pleased to present an excerpt from 

It Couldn’t have been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning in Public Schools

a memoir by Irving Rothstein.  It’s a strange and funny little story about a professor teaching a science fiction writing class and learning about a strange local legend in the city of San Francisco.  The way I see it, this story is proof that the core of the science fiction genre isn’t rooted in grim and gritty visions of the future but rather a strange and almost playful fascination with the weird and impossible.  But enough from me, sit back, relax, and enjoy this excerpt from a wonderful book.

Anachronisms, Epiphanies and Aliens 

“Strange is only what you don’t understand.”

– Kenny Miller, Old Friend

In 1998 El Niño is kicking up a fuss in the Pacific and California is being inundated. The city approves an 80-foot Coca Cola bottle in the Giant’s new ballpark and state officials are investigating whether or not Kaiser Permanente’s refusal to cover the cost of Viagra violates a state law. The human genome project is in full gear and the kids are all walking around with cell phones. No one is ever out of touch.

To the English teachers at Lowell, Science Fiction and Fantasy—as I teach it—is a non-academic course, but it is a great take-off platform for connecting disciplines. Time machines allow us to travel back and forth in time to explore how the past influenced the present. We explore ecology and human values through stories about robots, androids, cloning and other forms of human engineering. We deal with value systems as we examine possible, probable and preferable worlds. We discuss and debate economic systems and above all the necessity to change as futuristic technology creates an ever-changing world both in fiction and in fact. The UFOs, space aliens and the various characters around San Francisco make it real.

It is May when a book by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in A Strange Land, prompts Anthony to kick off a story. Anthony is a slender Latino surfer dude. “Space aliens? I see one all the time. This dude

wrapped in aluminum foil is always hanging out on the beach where we surf.” Anthony pauses and hums the theme of Twilight Zone.

Tanya, a blonde Russian immigrant who makes her own clothes and looks like a model in Vogue, chimes in. “I see him near the end of California Street. He wears an aluminum suit and a weird aluminum helmet with an antenna.”

Their anecdotes make me curious. I ask, “Is there any relation between him and that house out there with aluminum foil on the windows? I pass that house on my way out here.”

Fong, a self-confessed video game nut perks right up. “I’ve never seen the house but I’ve seen that dingy dude. He’s tall and thin with a white beard and tanned face. He’s got those light blue eyes, kinda like those white Husky dogs. He looks like Gandalf the Gray, a wizard in an aluminum suit.”

Anthony says, “He’d scare the sh—uh, the stuff outa’ you if he didn’t have that smile.”

Tanya laughs and adds, “He’s really got a great smile and walks quickly for an old man. Do you really think he lives in that house?”

I’m really curious now. I say, “I really don’t know this guy you’re talking about. Fill me in some more.”

Anthony responds immediately. “We call him Aluminum Man, and he hangs down at the beach. One time he even came in to surf with us, but he never took off that aluminum helmet. He’s hella good on the board.”

“Did he tell you why he wears the helmet?” I ask.

Tanya laughs. “He’s an alien! The helmet shields him from space rays and messages that tell him what to do. Like that funny guy on Third Rock from the Sun.

Fong picks up on the description. Aluminum man tells people he was born here, the son of a space

alien father and an earth mother. He says his father went back to a planet on some distant galaxy, I forget the name he gives it, and left him here to soak up earth culture. He says his pop is trying to reach him and beam him up to his planet but he doesn’t want to go. The helmet protects him from the beam ray.

The discussion goes on and on. Is there intelligent life on other worlds? What would they be like? Are there people with ESP? Would creatures on alien worlds look human, and could they make babies with humans?

A cell phone rings and Tanya is apologetic. “I’m sorry you guys. I forgot to turn it off.” Her face is red as she fumbles for the phone and the buzzer.

Hamid, an East Indian born in Guatemala, riffs away. “Maybe he’s related to the same aliens that invented the cell phone and planted it on earth. They can monitor our conversations and learn all about us.”

Hamid stops and wiggles his little finger. “He’d be redundant, an anachronism. Who would need a human spy if you had technology? He’s probably afraid they’ll terminate him.”

Sylvia, who is from Mexico, loses no opportunity to tease her friend Tanya. “I hope they don’t monitor Tanya when she calls me. They’ll think that all we think about are clothes and guys.”

Everybody laughs, including Tanya, at the period buzzer. To be continued tomorrow.

For me this story doesn’t end at the bell.

It is about four o’clock after school as I drive along Great Highway at Ocean Beach. The day is beautiful. The wind is blowing and the sun makes reflecting beacons as it bounces off the waves.

I think about how my wife won’t be home until seven as my car climbs up Geary Boulevard. Suddenly I get the urge to pull into the parking lot just below Sutro Park. Don’t ask me why. It is one of

those impulses. It’s as if I’m supposed to do it.

I park and climb out of my old, dented Subaru and hike across the boulevard. Between the Cliff House and Louie’s Restaurant there’s a rutty asphalt path leading down a steep hill between some manzanita trees and baby pines to where the Sutro Baths used to be. I’m thinking about the day’s discussion, space aliens, UFOs and aluminum foil when suddenly a friendly voice slips into my reverie.

“Nice day isn’t it?”

I must be dreaming. The guy walking beside me has pale blue eyes and is covered from head to foot in shiny aluminum foil. He is tall, slender, tanned, with a white beard, about my age and wearing an aluminum foil jacket, pants and helmet. The helmet has two antennae coming out above his eyebrows. The kids described him and his rap to a T.

I flash him a friendly smile and he falls into stride with me as if we are old buddies. We talk about the weather, the water, the 49ers and the history of the Sutro Baths. He tells me how the aluminum keeps out the tractor rays from his space alien father who planted him in his earth mother’s womb.

In minutes we are sitting on the wall staring out at the Pacific and he’s confiding to me he’s going to stay right here on earth. He can do more good here than on his father’s planet because here he just feels more comfortable. It is about five now and the sun is hanging lower on the horizon. I see a freighter riding low in the water as it approaches the entrance to the bay and wonder where it’s been and what stuff it’s bringing.

“Besides,” he smiles, “I love to surf and there are no waves on my father’s planet.” Then, as if on cue, the wind picks up and whips the tops of the waves into white-capped riders that spin themselves up against the shore and explode into light spraying on the jagged rocks and over the both of us.

There is the sudden sound of laughter behind us and he and I spin around to see three kids chasing

after a rubber ball across the broken cement where in the 50s people still warmed themselves at the baths. Thirty or 40 yards behind them a man and woman come into view. They are two walking as one in a loving embrace. They stare tenderly into one another’s eyes and glide toward the wall where we are sitting. The woman is slender and tall, wearing jeans and a red sweatshirt. The man is a few inches taller than she is, his hair neatly combed and lacquered into place

Abruptly the man reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a cell phone. He flips it open and begins talking to an unseen somebody. The girl tenses in his arms. Her jaw tightens as she reaches up and yanks the phone from his hand and runs purposely to the wall and, like a quarterback in the last seconds of a close game, spirals the phone up and over the rocks. The phone hits the water and surfs to the break of a small wave and sinks.

Time stops. The man looks back at her in surprise and anger. I’m thinking, Better do the right thing buddy. Your whole romance is riding on this one.

He breaks into a laugh. He shouts against the wind, “I’m sorry.” He really looks contrite as he opens his arms and walks toward her. I think they’ve been through this one before. She meets him halfway and they hug and kiss. The scene is sweet and schmaltzy.

I turn to my left and the Aluminum Man is gone. I look around the whole area but he’s nowhere to be seen. As I hike back up the hill toward the street I keep looking back. Wow, that was strange, I think as I drive home past the house with aluminum foil on the windows.

The next day at school I tell the kids about my adventure. They don’t seem too surprised. Anthony tells me, “That’s just where he usually hangs out.”

Hamid laughs and goes theatrical. “I told you. It was the cell phone. He had an epiphany when he saw it in the air. He ripped off the suit thinking they don’t need him anymore and then they beamed him


The class breaks into laughter. We get a great deal of smileage out of the story as we discuss epiphanies, anachronisms and aliens, the space kind.

Irving Rothstein began his teaching career in 1963 and taught mainly in the San Francisco Public School District until he retired in 2002. This excerpt is from his memoir, It Couldn’t Have Been the Pay: A Life of Teaching and Learning in Public Schools, published by Rocín in 2015. His writing has appeared in Tai Chi Magazine and the anthology Why I Teach. He is a lifelong member of the California Federation of Teachers. He still teaches Tai Chi and is an active member in San Francisco’s Jewish Community.

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