Monday, March 30, 2009

The Birth of a School

The fall in Tuscaloosa seemed an odd amalgam of earthly effects: the leaves burned with color and curled to crackling on the ground. The late afternoons felt like New England with a refreshing breeze, while the sun in its mid-day arc leaned down on the dry, baked ground so that you thought that summer with its humid swelter might go on forever.

We gathered in Morgan Hall for orientation into the graduate writing program, sizing each other up as we sat in neat rows of student desks, tuning our ear to the spoken tongues from New York and Chicago and the small towns of Dixie, wondering what our peers would sound like on paper.

The poets were an odd lot, easily given to maudlin sentiment, while fiction writers fell by turn to the mimicry of suburban prose, the K-Mart fiction of drunks, hypochondriacs, used-car salesmen, and adulterous wives that populated the fictional worlds of Ray Carver, Anne Tyler, Bobbie Ann Mason, or John Updike. I had read too much of it all, with its facile repetitions of brand names and parking-lot angst. And the poets, with their gnashing and wailing about poor dead John Berryman (a suicide) or the sad Montana taverns of Richard Hugo just seemed a bit over the top for me. I trusted neither.

That year, too, the writing world was reveling in what later came to be called "Sudden Fiction", works several paragraphs in length that mapped the immediate launch of a skyrocket without the fuel and oxygen sufficient to sustain your interest. They once might have been called "tone poems", but to me they were examples of Fiction Lite. It was like leaving town under the cover of darkness after selling snake oil to the locals.

That fall -- and perhaps always -- our writing faculty believed in the shorthand of drinking and adultery, and they led by example. In my first semester, I knew of at least four professors who were walking a sloppy line. One writer was sleeping with a current student and another wooed a married departmental secretary. A literature professor had a casting couch in his office and students delighted in speculating who was attending his darkened seminars.

That fall as we crowded into the seminar rooms of the writers' workshop, our fiction teachers championed two themes regarding our stories: the avarice of puerile prose and the requisite pearl of literary verisimilitude.

Let's examine each, shall we?

French or Latin; French puéril, from Latin puerilis, from puer boy, child; akin to Sanskrit putra son, child and perhaps to Greek pais boy, child; 1 : juvenile 2 : childish , silly

Don Hendrie, or Red Don as we called him, could make you cry in front of the workshop. He had a crimson beard and spatulate thumbs. He would do anything for you as a writer. But his face flushed raw and you could see him building up to an outburst when he found a line you wrote that was objectionable; he jabbed at it with his finger, then slammed his palm on the table and stammered. He called your writing "puerile".

Hendrie was sleeping with one of his students--a dark foreigner who would goad him during workshop and once remarked quite proudly that while he trashed her prose in the small classroom with the large table, he'd call out her name in religious fervor in their bedroom later that night.

from Latin verisimilis; 1 : having the appearance of truth : probable 2 : depicting realism

Meanwhile, our other fiction professor, A--, was all about the baroque possibilities of language, was soft-spoken, and insisted that while the prose might reflect the complicated observations of the emotionally charged mind, it should bear verisimilitude on the page. He was wooing a fabulously stunning English Department secretary (whom he later married). But her divorce wasn't quite final and so A-- fearing that the ex was stalking him -- brought a loaded pistol to workshop in the briefcase which bore our stories for discussion. He asked the men in the fiction workshop to surround him with our bodies as we escorted him to his car in the parking lot. Got verisimilitude?

On one afternoon, after school let out, I was privileged to see both workshop expressions brought to bear at once in a convincing way. Hendrie asked me if I could help out in a delicate matter. As I was brand new to the school and invested in presenting a helpful, eager facade, I agreed.

I climbed into A--'s pickup truck and we drove out in the fall light to the secretary's former residence where A-- was to help her remove some possessions before her ex returned. Hendrie held a loaded shotgun as he guarded the driveway against demons. And when we had spirited the marital artifacts into the pickup, Hendrie put the shotgun into his Honda, and I climbed in for a drive to the tavern. A-- went his own way, having squired the last of Helen's finery to his personal Troy.

It was nauseating and delicious at the same time, for that night a fresh genre--Sudden Nonfiction--was born pink and screaming into the deep heart of Dixie.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

In the Mirror Maze

Most of my childhood friends loved Disneyland. I did, too. But I preferred Pacific Ocean Park, a 26-acre playland built on a pier that stretched out into the cobalt sea. You bought your ticket --scarcely a few dollars compared to Disney's whopping entry fees--at the booth beneath a statuary of serpents and crusted seahorses, then entered through Neptune's Kingdom and took an elevator down into the depths of the tank that held giant octopi and sharks. You could descend in a leaky diving bell--thrust down into the sea by a piston engine--where you viewed a kelp forest and frolicking seals.

Sinbad's Flying Carpet soared on tracks through mysterious Baghdad with palaces encrusted in jewels, and an aerial skyway took you out over the ocean some 75 feet over the waves where you could gaze breathlessly across the expanse of coastline from Venice to Santa Monica, or you could ride the back of the Sea Serpent coaster, spinning dangerously close to the edge of the pier. It all had a grittiness, wrought with imperfectly functioning thrill rides that struggled against rust in the salty air. Add the aroma of saltwater taffy and spun sugar--the grains of sand that blew every way you turned--and it suited me fine compared with the perfect, goyishe sterility of Disney. And when you were done with all the rides and shows, you could head for the changing room and race down to the beach in your suit.

There were live shows in a tank, where dolphins arched wildly into the air in a blast of white spray. Or you could beat yourself senseless on the Sea Ram bumper cars. Matt loved the Whirl Pool, a wooden centrifuge that spun madly as the floor dropped out and the g-forces pinned your body to the wall. It only made me seasick for the entire day.

I loved Davy Jones Locker, a fun house with shifting walls, sudden slides, a moving sidewalk, and mirrors that made you look 15 feet tall or 10 feet wide. But my favorite attraction was the Mirror Maze, a convoluted house of glass that, once you entered, you could spend as much as a half an hour trying to thread your way back out to the world. You walked into small cubes, framed on three sides with mirrors, with only a single door leading out. To hold your hand in front of you was to cheat. Instead, you took your best guess and walked forward, often smacking yourself senseless against the glass.

There were times where I was frustrated to tears--and a bloody nose-- giving up and threading my way to freedom with my hands outstretched to prevent further injury. Since those days, I have seen halls of mirrors in traveling carnivals, but none were as large and complicated as P.O.P.'s. None had the distracting, dizzying lights that lent a sense of spaciousness and multiplied like a field of supernovas against the glass. Once inside, you banged endlessly against your likenesses, trapped in a world of a thousand yous!

Alas, in 1966 the park began to lose money and the rides fell into greater disrepair. By the following fall, it was closed forever. And today, the pier itself has broken up and descended in pieces beneath the sea. Davy Jones' Locker, the Flying Carpet, Neptune's Kingdom--gone the way of Atlantis.

However, I still have unlimited access to the Mirror Maze if I court despair. For many years I was trapped, banging into the image of myself wherever I turned, too proud to put out my hand for help, groping for the distant light that leads out to the salt-sea air, the sand between my toes, all that candy for the asking.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Simple as Pie

Suzanne Birrell (I called her "Sudsy Barrel) lived six blocks away on Haskell Avenue. Our mothers took turns driving us everywhere--to school, to junior high band practice, to friends' homes--so often that we were considered siblings. We had the absurdly easy friendship common among young musicians who belonged to our tribe of gifted kids with delight and runaway dreams.

My best pal Matt and I would orchestrate shenanigans that took Suzanne and Maryanne Hoobs by storm: we kidnapped them in their pajamas before dawn and spirited them to breakfast at the pancake house. We flocked the trees and eaves of their homes with rolls of toilet paper.

Matt and I gleaned most of our ideas from Mack Sennett comedies. Our favorite character actor, James Finlayson, appeared in more than 200 films--including the Laurel and Hardy features--as the master of the double-take and glare. He'd wink and yell "Doh", an expression later stolen for Homer in the cartoon series The Simpsons.

Matt and I would catch each others eye across the band room and shout "Doh", grimacing as if we'd been smacked with a plank. And we'd lug paper plates and shaving cream in a grocery bag when driving around to our friends' homes, ringing the front doorbell and slapping a pie into Suzanne's face or Russ' jolly mug, and then make a run for the safety of the road. By the time we were in high school, Matt owned a Falcon wagon, our corporate office for mischief, and we drove around the San Fernando Valley, slapping pies on people.

Wednesday was cruise night on Van Nuys Boulevard and we'd drive from Victory all the way to Ventura Boulevard, hang a u-turn in the Lucky Market parking lot, and head north again among the spiffy jacked-up Fords and Chevys, watching girls as they strolled the sidewalks in their headbands, vinyl boots, and miniskirts, leaning on the horn and speeding between the red lights. If we had more than three of us, we'd screech to a stop at the light and conduct what we called a "Chinese Fire Drill". The idea was to exit from the closest door, run around the car like madmen until the light turned green, then race back into the car and lurch off for the next street along the way, Jim Morrison's voice belting out "People are strange...", or the stereo booming out the Vanilla Fudge version of "Ticket to Ride"... or Jagger's "Ruby Tuesday".

One time Matt, hobbled by a broken leg, lumbered around the Falcon with his leg in a cast, the cops just behind us on Reseda Boulevard. Good old Matt. He had a spare steering wheel, which he held up as he screamed hysterically from the driver's seat while one of us wrangled the car surreptitiously.

When we tired of the slapstick, we sat in Bob's Big Boy, spooning down thick chocolate milkshakes, or we took a carload of chums over to Farrell's Ice Cream on Reseda where the waiters threw your own gluttony parade with horns and bass drum if you powered down a two-person serving of sundae, appropriately known as "The Trough".

In 1969, we graduated high school and went into the diaspora of pie-tossing expats. Today, Matt works among the musical elite in the San Diego symphony scene and Suzanne still makes music, playing bass guitar professionally. I sit looking out at the pond, down into the San Joaquin Valley where the Sutter Buttes rise into the smokey air, and cannot find the thread inside that leads to the unbridled glee of those days. Have I failed to leave a trail of breadcrumbs? I am recovered from hopelessness and I'm reasonably happy. But what I'd give for a belly laugh so fierce I'd have to struggle to hold consciousness, bursting into a million motes of delight--like the spray from an Independence Day sparkler--fizzing, jangling down to the marrow at the idiocy, blind, brutal idiocy of taking myself so damn seriously.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Fabulous Flight

Let me tell you about Peter and Gus.

Peter loved the New York Yankees and he loved his father, a man who made miniatures in his workshop when not otherwise employed at the State Department. Peter P. Pepperell III, unlike his other friends, grew smaller day-by-day. By the time he was 10--which was exactly the age I was when I read A Fabulous Flight--Peter was consigned to sitting in small chairs crafted by his father, or sleeping in a tiny bed that his father carved in the woodshop.

Rather than bemoan his strange fate, Peter loved his new world. He rode safely on the back of a jackrabbit named Buck, seated comfortably in the saddle his father had made for him.

While sailing the Long Island Sound in a diminutive sailboat that his father had carved, Peter coasted alongside a bobbing seagull named Gus. For a moment, he thought he'd surely be eaten, but Gus was a profoundly chipper bird with an appetite for sardines---not small children. The two struck up an uncanny fellowship.

Mr. Pepperell creates a mobile home with a Plexiglas dome that he straps to Gus' back and, together, the seagull and Peter take off. Off they go, skywards, towering over New York, swooping down to Yankee Stadium, where Gus lands beside Joe DiMaggio; then across the Atlantic they fly, perching for a while on a gargoyle on the buttress of Notre Dame, off again along the Rhine, down to the crumbling Coliseum of Rome, Peter safe and warm in his little dome until they return to New York.

But all is not well. It's a dangerous world. From his State Department office, Mr. Pepperell learns of a dastardly plot in a small Eastern European nation to create an explosive far more powerful than a nuclear bomb, the size of a single grain of sand. He entrusts his news to Peter and charges him with the awful responsibility of saving the world. Gus flaps his wings, and off they go on their terrible errand...

But before I can finish the story, I come down with a terrible fever and throat infection, and the doctor is summoned to our house on Longridge Avenue to remove my tonsils and adenoids. The promise of unrestricted servings of ice cream is a false one: I cannot even swallow the chicken soup my mother brings to my bedside. The room spins...

And I put off my wanderlust for more than a decade, when finally I walk away from my desk at the Fremont Argus, my bags packed for Tokyo and, later, Athens and the Acropolis and the monolith on the Isle of Rhodes, the throngs of beggars in the airport at Islamabad, the broken pottery still in the surf at Caesaria on the Israeli coast, the honey swirled into the thick yogurt on Cypress, the small room that Anne Frank called home above the canal in Amsterdam, the glowing turquoise windows of Ste. Chappell by the Seine, the beggar with red dreadlocks by the seawall in Negril, the field where deer came to beg on bent knees for rice crackers outside the giant Buddha in Nara, the marbled ribs of the David that looked as if they breathed air in the Galleria dell'Accademia, in Harry's Bar in Venice where Hemingway drank down peach bellinis, on the Yukon River blood-red from bank to bank with teeming salmon, the little girl that sat on my lap at the cafe in the square in Merida spooning ice cream from my bowl, and the seat I paid way too much to borrow behind the plate in Yankee Stadium that summer's day, the clouds banked high in the blue above the Hudson, the seagulls wheeling across the sky, caterwauling in all that openness.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Now Showing

When temperatures climbed well over a hundred degrees for the third straight week, you could take refuge all afternoon in the Panorama for a buck and a half. It never mattered whether you walked into the luscious dark in the middle of the second act of The Guns of Navarone where Gregory Pack had to shoot the informer--it didn't even spoil the picture to know that she had been spying for the Nazis all along--since the second feature would wipe clean the action of the film you joined in medias res, and by the time the Guns of Navarone cycled back for a second showing three hours later, you were numb with candy and soda and air so cold you wore goosebumps.

I had long suffered my parents' long-winded recollections of going to the movies for five cents and spending those black-and-white afternoons of the Bronx and Brooklyn in a theater that not only offered two feature films, but a day's worth of newsreels, cartoons, short subjects, and boxes of raisinettes for three cents. When I was young, we went to Radio City and the music hall featured the line kicking, high-heeled legs of the Rockettes along with comics and side-show artists--and then you got the feature film, too.

But now I view my childhood days, golden and luminous, where Russ and Bruce and I would hop on our three-speed Schwinns and zip through the scorched avenues of Sepulvida, the asphalt already sticky by 11 am as we rode off to the Panorama and parked our bikes outside--without having to lock them against thieves--and ducked inside for at least five hours of shows.

They didn't care then how long you sat in the theater if you were reasonably behaved, and since the films rotated around the dial, you could cower at the brutality of mind control in The Invaders from Mars, then swoon at Haley Mills in The Parent Trap, and then slide back into a repeat nightmare of aliens drilling into the heads of suburbanites and planting mind-control chips in their brains.

No one yakked their brains out during the pictures; we sat rapt at the action on the screen; and no one had to sit in the blue glare of so many cell phones while kids wrote text messages or tossed popcorn at each other. We were in sacred space with tacky floors. At home, celluloid monsters stamped through Tokyo on tiny, black and white sets, but in the Panorama, green and red dinosaurs that lived in the center of the earth chowed down on wayward explorers across a 70-foot expanse of screen, their hideous screams blaring from overhead speakers!

I never had to explain, returning home, that I spent the entire day in a movie theater; my mother understood it was what you did during the heat of day. I desperately yearned to escape the bonds of suburbia with its tidy lawns and self-same thoroughfares to the salt-sea treehouse that the Robinson family built on their deserted island. I prayed for a loyal, cast-iron friend like Tobor the Great, a mechanical buddy assembled in a government lab by a nerd in a white coat (Tobor, by the way, is "robot" spelled backwards). The brilliant beaches of Zuma and Malibu lay just over the pass from our house in the Valley, but I was content to sit in the Panorama (a quarter of the way back, in the center) and imagine I was Moondoggie, buried in sand to my neck and kissed on the mouth by Annette Funicello while the gulls screeched insanely overhead.

You did more than escape the heat those afternoons in the Panorama. And afterwords, Bruce and Russ and I would race through the dirt lots, nosing each other off like Saberjet pilots, skidding around parked cars and screaming out Gregory Peck's lines all the way through Mission Hills, through the alleys and backstreets, blessed with good fortune and a belly full of popcorn as the evening sun ducked beyond the Santa Susana Mountains and we knew that dinner was on the table and it would soon be cool enough to sleep, to dream.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Officer Gardner

In the fall of that year came the very day for which I had held my breath so many years. I drove up Highway 101, leaving the San Fernando Valley in my spiffy ragtop Buick--the sweet ride that I bought for $500 to replace the dead Rambler--through the flat and baking subdivisions of southern California, up into the verdant hills of the coastal farms that lined the route with fruit stands and orange juice stalls, beyond the plains and misty fields of the Salinas Valley where migrant workers bent to rows of lettuce and artichokes and strawberries in the late afternoon sun, past Gilroy and Morgan Hill, suddenly into the last prune-tree orchards where new subdivisions burst through in the Santa Clara Valley to the campus of the college--once founded as the California Normal School--where I'd spend my freedom.

That year, Allen Hall (since demolished) was a long, brick dormitory with three floors, the first of which was reserved for coeds and the top held alternating rooms of men and women. It was the only mixed dorm of its kind in California for the era, and I played the idea of roommates and sex across my mind like tumbling cherries and bells of a slot machine as I drove the last few miles, wondering if I'd land in the paradise of the upper floor.

Apparently I had no such luck, but my hopes soared when I checked into Allen at the front desk and saw from a list that I had been teamed up with Lynn Gardner on the second floor. I had but a few bags to haul up the stairs, listing to the booming stereos rocket out songs I had never heard in my sheltered life in Granada Hills, brutally strident guitar leads mixed into the pre-semester air of Mexican reefer and delight seeping out the closed dormroom doors in the hallway as I made my way to my cell in the honey hive.

The room was narrow but bright, and overlooked a lawn to the one-way bustle of 10th Street and its convenience stores, laundromat, burrito place, a liquor shop, and used bookstores. Paradise!

Miss Gardner had yet to check in, so I captured the bed against the brightest wall, spread out the bright floral sheets--neon green by choice--and sat on the bed, leaning against the wall and drinking down the relief of having escaped the tyranny of family, weeks before the sudden realization of deep severance and loneliness would creep through, but for now, amazed at my fortune, listening to the blaring television through the brick wall that separated my space from the room shared by fellow journalism majors Benjamin Reed and Gary Rubin. They had their own TV!

I popped over to introduce myself, jumping back as from a frayed wire from the proffered joint that Rubin held out, still in my ardent opposition to all things immoral -- a posture that would weaken and collapse along with so many other unwritten oaths I had taken in as little as a month at Allen. But for now, I retreated to my room to wait for Miss Gardner.

It was after dark that I heard the key in the latch and the door opened to a lanky, tousle-haired lad from a bumpkin town in the California Gold County, a valise in each hand, moving into the light, a well-scrubbed, hugely gentile face, my roommate.

"Lynn Gardner," he announced, dropping his bags on the opposite bed and holding out his hand in easy friendship as my heart fell to my knees, through my ankles, down beyond the linoleum floor, past the coeds who were only a stairwell away in their beds on the first floor, through the rich loam of Santa Clara farm soil, falling like heavy obsidian, coursing through the fiery magma, all the way to the other side of the globe where small Chinese school children were pecking through a breakfast of rice and tea.

"Surprised?" he said, kicking off his shoes and flopping on his bed. "Yeah, I get that."

After a while we stopped talking and Gardner spread out his sheets and we turned out the light.

We whirled through the first semester in disparate orbits. I joined the tribes of the marching band and journalism students, Gardner his small and alien planet of criminal justice majors. I learned to roll fat joints and sip on soda-pop wine; he learned the use of the nightstick and the California Criminal Code. I loved my newfound anti-war march of Neil Young's Ohio; Gardner loved Creedence Clearwater's Out My Back Door, with its paean to small town life.

And yet, and yet, we were fast friends, yakking late into the night about the girls who stole through the halls at Allen with six packs of beer, hopping into bed with you like they were visiting old family. Even wannabe cops could handle free love.

Outside of Allen, away from Officer Garner--as my pals and I would refer to my roomie--we called cops "pigs", hated the tramp of jackboots and flailing nightsticks at the anti-war rallies, hated anything in a uniform. I guarded my tongue in friendly conversation with him, yet I truly never thought of Lynn as a pig. He liked fast cars; I liked fast guitars. We danced around topics like the war or religion with ease.

I took delight in Lynn's odd tic for sleepwalking. Once he climbed out of bed at three in the morning, went into the dorm bathroom to shave, shower, and comb his hair for class, then wandered casually back to the room, dressed in his shirt and slacks, and climbed back into bed and snored.

In our second year, we moved out of the dorms into a swank, swinger's apartment complex on the East Side, an expensive two-bedroom place in a lush setting with a creek, swimming pool, and workout gym safely tucked inside a locked gate, all made affordable when split among four students. Gardner and I took one room while Rubin and another man shared the other. By then, Gardner was donning a uniform and riding by night with sworn Santa Clara police officers. By then, Rubin and I would buy pot by the pound, divvying it up among our friends, thereby getting our own for free.

One afternoon we were cleaning out the stems and seeds on a screen we had taken down from one of the scenic windows that looked out over the creek and Japanese maples, waggling loose the detritus and putting the shake into baggies, when our uniformed Gardner burst in, furious! He had been riding with his pig pals on duty and nearly invited them in for a beer. How would that have helped his fledgling career?

He marched up to us, pulling out his can of mace and spraying the tear gas into his handkerchief.

"Here!" he said, holding the noxious stuff up to my nose. "Try some of my stash!"

And so ended the Gardner era, an era of tolerance and wildness and rides in his fast car up to Gold Country to drift down the American River in rubber inner tubes, or try the pie at one of the rustic diners off of Interstate 80.

Two lanes forked out from that afternoon. I took the path to the left, with attendant decades of pot and insanity. Officer Garner went east to the right, to a job with the Placer County Sheriff's Department, a long and prosperous career that he finished up with the Sacramento County force.

Oddly enough, I would eventually move, sober and relatively sane, thirty years later to Auburn and a home in the hills, growing up finally in the town where Lynn was raised. Out my door I saw mule deer and a pond and wild turkeys scurrying through the brush. But by then, Officer Gardner was but the stuff of folklore among my friends and among the officers in town who told me they once had known him.

He had married--I later learned--a woman named Lynn.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

No Labor-Saving Machine

"No labor-saving machine, nor discovery I have made, nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest to found a hospital or library, nor reminiscence of any deed of courage for America, nor literary success nor intellect, nor book for the bookshelf, but a few carols vibrating through the air I leave, for comrades and lovers." -- Whitman.

No greater ignominious remembrance of high school--save the can of deodorant that was left in my band locker to suggest I shower more often--mines the depths so deeply as the lack of my own car to park among the throng of Chevys, Fords, and Chryslers that idled in the dirt field beneath the eucalyptus trees outside Granada Hills High School. Instead, I walked a half mile every morning, marching to the cadence in my head of surf music, sweet soul, or skiffle to the blue-and-white irregular buses of the Los Angeles Transit District.

In my junior year I climbed in the back seat of a rumbling Bel Aire filled with clandestine cigarette smoke and the intimidating, anti-social rant of the Blue Cheer's Summertime Blues or Jagger's incandescent Under My Thumb, riding with neighborhood seniors in a carpool arranged between our mothers. At least now my commute ended in the dizzying tribal pulse of the dirt lot where guys revved their engines and girls finished up their make-up in so many rear-view mirrors.

To be a senior and not have a car in Los Angeles was to fall into the grimiest category of loser, yet my own parents, first-generation New Yorkers who lived a near lifetime on subways, buses, or on-foot along canyons of glass and concrete, saw us as obnoxious postwar babies with a never-ending belief in entitlement. And, my mother was quick to note, we listened not to the moonglow swoons of Vaughn Monroe nor the torch songs of Eydie Gorme, not to the dulcet pop sounds of Rosemary Clooney, not to the tasteful zariba of notes stacked up in the glissando of Artie Shaw--but in the screaming, distorted sex-calls of Jan and Dean, white boys from the beach who were the pre-British invasion harbingers of the Pat Boone sound wrapped around Gibson guitars. Sigh.

So in my senior year, I rode proudly around in the Dodge Coronet that belonged to the mother of my girlfriend Martha Louise. It was a dangerously fast car with a four-barrel carb and a radio with bristling muscle, and we drove up to the top of Tampa, where concrete slabs were laid out for the booming subdivisions that today look out over the twinkling lights of the San Fernando Valley, and we fogged up the windows with heavy breathing. We listened to Sam Cooke and Jacklie Wilson. Or the Ronettes. Ronnie Spector's voice conjured up the beehive hairdos of Chicanas at the school who--rumor had it--hid razor blades in their tight sprayed coronas in case it came to violence over their guy. Just thinking of it made me weak, not like the dizziness of the tilt-a-whirl, but a magical, sudden plunge in the lower belly that felt like falling in love with the wrong girl.

If there was a god, he lived in Marty Wynhoff's soul-rattling kisses, in the glowing Los Angeles sky where it bubbled up over the slumbering housewives and worker bees, blotting out the stars themselves, the light aglow on the dashboard radio dial, a tangible god in the Temptations', Just My Imagination, Running Away With Me.

In that year, Marty and I won tickets to appear on Ninth Street West, a dance show on Channel 9 in LA where teens would pack onto the narrow stage, wheeling around bulky cameras while the DJs spun the Top-40. We took the Coronet over Cahuenga Pass and drove the Hollywood Freeway across Sunset Boulevard to the studio, the radio pulsing out Paul Mauriat's Love is Blue, and I Wish It Would Rain, and Love Is All Around, and Reach Out Of The Darkness. The show theme was sleep-overs, and Marty and I put on red-felt sleep hats with white puff-balls at the peak, and we spun around the floor, stealing kisses under the hot stage lights.

Finally, toward the end of my senior year, I inherited part-time privileges of my mother's Rambler American. It was not the '55 Chevy of my dreams with a wide profile and chrome trim, not the mad Buick with fins or woodie surf wagon, or modified, lowered Plymouth that throttled out its song through glass-pack exhaust, but a tinny, narrow, ugly straight-mobile that looked like you dropped your feet through the floor like some cartoon character and wore the car around you like a naked-man's barrel. But, temporarily, it was mine.

On Wednesday nights I parked it at a friend's house and we took his blue El Camino cruising along Van Nuys Boulevard, blasting out The Chambers Brothers and Clarence Carter and The Rascals. People Got to Be Free. And then came the turning point. Late one night we pulled into the parking lot behind the Muntz audio store and found a four-track tape player cast away into the dumpster.

Russ had a spare set of speakers, and plenty of stereo wire, and the four-track (apparently hidden in the dumpster by a Muntz employee who hoped to return for it later) went into the Rambler. After he neatly tucked the speakers into the rear deck, Russ flocked the firewall with white angel hair.

It was not the car I would proudly back into an open space in the dirt lot at the high school--I parked it in the paved lot where the students with sadly uncool cars hid themselves along with the rides of faculty members--but it had sounds of its own, and I could disappear into Ike and Tina Turner's cover of We Can Work It Out and, later, after Marty broke it off, I could slide into a deep veil of sadness to Carole King's It's Too Late, with all the attendant self-pity and adolescent gloom as the nation bellied deep into its fiery crash landing in Vietnam, not the chirpy hope of Surf City, but the dark torment of In My Room, not the portentous Sunshine of Your Love played out the windows of the Victorians in the Haight, but of the cloud-swept broken tenements across the bay in Oakland where the Temptations crooned, I Wish It Would Rain.

At the end of that shadowy year now clouded by decades, the head gasket went out on the Rambler and the oil pan filled with water, killing off the engine with a sudden flood.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shipping Out

In our garage on Gaviota Street you could find a fabulous miscellany of keepsakes to fuel the imagination. Of particular delight was the huge steamer trunk into which my mother had packed for safekeeping trinkets from her marriage. There were salt and pepper shakers from her honeymoon to Niagara Falls, and doilies and tablecloths from an era when she'd decorate the Passover table, photo albums of aunts, uncles, and cousins from a bygone life of comfort in Brooklyn: pictures of sun-kissed relatives frolicking on Brighton Beach or necking in Prospect Park.

I was always drawn to the quartered storage section of the steamer trunk that held my father's war memorabilia. There was an officer's samurai sword and seppuku blade he had collected in Tokyo, Japanese coins in odd shapes formed around a cut-out center, paper money from ports of call in Brazil and the Pacific Islands.

He had assembled a photobook of snapshots of Rio's Sugar Loaf, rising like a dream of happiness from Buenos Aires, pictures of himself--a chief petty officer in a white liberty uniform with jaunty sailor's hat--mugging with his buddies outside a bar on shore leave, a snapshot of him towering over a geisha in her kimono in a Tokyo street, the rubble of the bombed-out city behind them.

My father, to whom I owe my debt of gratitude for the wicked magic of puns and wisecracking humor, wrote a delicious line of parody beneath each photo. Today it's a wondrous keepsake of oxymoronical history told in a montage of wartime snaps tempered by an irony that life would one day in an imaginary future be filled with peace, prosperity, and funny-bones for all.

My favorite: a photo of my father in an outrageously over-sized helmet sitting behind the anti-aircraft guns on the USS Patoka, the tanker on which he served through both Atlantic and Pacific campaigns. He wears a steadfast grimace as he aims the "double barrels-of-trouble" skyward at imaginary formations of Mitsubishi Zeros and suicide planes.

His appended caption: "If the Japs had ever seen this picture, they never would have surrendered."

While I attribute my ever-sustaining love of music to my mother (who played the violin as a child and spun countless records of crooners on our turntable), it's my dad who infused a happy admixture of irony and wanderlust in my veins. The trinkets and lore in the steamer trunk fuelled my lifelong fascination with Japan, with world travel, and with the absolute necessity to carve a wicked pun in the face of mortal combat--real or imagined.

I grew up with my share of plastic machine guns and war toys, marched soldiers across parade grounds I had scraped in the mud outside our garage, played frogman in the Doughboy swimming pool that my folks had erected in the backyard.

By junior high school I had mixed feelings about it all. I hated the Vietnam war, collected my own scrapbook of photos torn from the pages of Newsweek, shots of helicopters ferrying out the wounded after a pointless battle in the Mekong Delta, writing my own wry and cynical remarks about the lies of the Johnson Administration--all remarkable for a 12-year-old. But I still loved military hardware, having been raised in the mid-1950s mythology of peace through might. I loved to pause during the day when then heavy pop and roar of the propellers of a vintage DC3 or Neptune submarine-chaser flew over the playground. I loved the B-36 bomber most of all, with its six rear-facing engines and obscenely long fuselage that accommodated hydrogen bombs.

But in my second year at Granada Hills High School, the U.S. Navy (doubtlessly faced with grim press in the middle of the War) had launched its own public relations campaign, enticing adolescents to join the ranks for a weekend as Navy journalists. The notice came to my high school journalism class and said I could come, armed with notebook, camera, and a best friend, down to the barracks in San Pedro for a weekend tour of duty. How could I refuse?

My chum Matt Garbutt and I took a Navy bus from the Valley to the Depot, racing each other to capture the top bunk in the barracks when we arrived that evening. In the morning, we woke at reveille, attended classes on Navy operations, ate a huge breakfast of eggs and potatoes, and then were shuttled out to the harbor where a mine sweeper waited to take us to sea. Navy photographers took photos of us posing in the open doors of Marine helicopters, walking across the gangplank to our ship, standing with the smiling crew in their blue utility uniforms.

It was a mistake. The sweeper had a wooden hull, to protect it from the magnetic detonation of harbor mines, and so bobbed like a cork on the mild Pacific waves outside San Pedro harbor. Worse, it ran on diesel fuel, belching out fumes that would make even the most hearty soul lean over the rail and puke. In less than a half hour out to sea, I was green and spinning, having chucked my eggs and potatoes overboard, and spent the balance of the "Day in the Navy" rolling in agony in the First Officer's bunk, trying to keep down the saltine crackers he fed me before abandoning me to hours of a steady pitch and roll.

A few weeks later, a manila envelope from the Navy came to my home. It contained a certificate attesting that I had completed my Day, along with a glossy 8x10 photo. Before we left the dock--I had neatly forgotten-- they had taken a picture of me where I sat behind the double barrels of an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the deck. I had pasted my father's ruthless determination across my mug.

At that moment the shutter had clicked, I had been too excited to recall the photos of flag-draped coffins stacked neatly on a pier from Newsweek, the infamous picture of young Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked through the streets outside Trang Bang, the clothes burned off her body by American napalm.

It was one hell of a photograph that the Navy sent in an effort to recruit me.

If the Commies had ever seen that picture, they never would have won the war.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Goodnight and Sleep Tight

"A man makes a beast of himself to free himself from the pain of being a man" -- Dr. Samuel Johnson

They say that a true friend deserves much more than a last chance. My true friend deserved as many as he could gather, bull-rushing drunkenly through my life like a tornado as I had doubtlessly torn through the peaceful affairs of others. We had met when we were young--both young beneath our years--immature, partying, trading international addresses as simply as people swapped baseball cards, manifesting all our sundry ills in new climes, with new faces, and the same old outcomes.

We had been chased by a bull in the Galilee, dodged the Federales that time in Mexico, evaded capture at the border for carrying hashish in our shirt pockets, and eluded self-appraisals by living in that expatriate fuzziness of local customs, insisting on proper food and service and taking the piss out of foreigners who doubtlessly granted passage in exchange for precious Yankee dollars.

On the kibbutz, where we met, he was a godsend, a native speaker of my language in a ghetto of foreigners, aeriodite, articulate, with a grin that outlasted long, brutally hot days in the sun and nights of fear trying to sleep in the bomb shelter while rockets fell on the Lebanon border. By days, we swapped stories of home in gallant one-upmanship at a time when American or British nationalism didn't quite cut it abroad, shameless, arguing the differences between cookies and biscuits, trucks and lorries, fries and crisps. We were Banana Buddies, harvesting hundreds of pounds of fruit by day, pints of beer by night.

For fun, we stuffed women's underwear or raw St. Peter's fish in the backpacks of departing fellows, sure to be sniffed out by airport security as they left the country. Or we crept about with buckets filled with bone-chilling ice from the Galilee fish-packing plant, splashing hot co-workers in the blistering 100-degree sun.

And so, after visiting him in England and meeting his mum, I went sadly to Heathrow for my flight, stopping with him in the airport bar for a few goodbye pints and a stop in the bogs--as he called it--for a last toilet stop, whereupon he stepped nimbly behind me at the urinal and pissed up and down my legs, sending me off to my transatlantic flight with the steaming odor of a bar accident. All good fun for him. And so I vowed that was the end of it.

But a year or so later, he petitioned for a visit to Santa Cruz, where he showed up full of high alcoholic octane and vinegar, camping on the floor of our beach house, flirting with Maki and telling her how horribly possessive I was. All pardonable, I suppose, since I eventually drove her off with my overprotective, fearful obsessions; and so I chose to give him yet another chance and we drove to Mexico where we lit a joint on a sand dune a million miles from anywhere, but only a binocular's view away from black-uniformed Federales with automatic rifles.

We could "pay the ticket immediately" a Federale told me in Spanish, or go to the local hoosegow. I opted for the former and brokered a student price while my friend stood chagrined with his gap-toothed leer. All in good fun.

The next time I gave him a last chance was the year after I went into recovery in Washington State. I told him he could stay in my cabin, but there were rules against drink. He agreed to comply. We took the ferryboat to sightseeing in Seattle, where he insisted we enter a local pub for lunch. I said sure, but nothing for me, thanks. He ordered a platter onto which were arranged small glasses of beer representing each of the eight or ten varieties featured at the pub. He ordered a pint for me to "hold in your hand, mate" for the purposes of a reunion photo.

When I declined, he got stroppy, chugging down his own portions and mine as well. Then, fully steamed up for the tour, he insisted we charter a float plane for a ride over the Seattle skyline. The pilot took one look at him and shrugged his shoulders, but I talked him into going. My friend reeked of it and made horrific commentaries en-route to an abbreviated landing splash landing. So when we deplaned safely in Lake Union, I told him it was time for him to go, to find another place to roost.

He went off angrily and, weeks later, left a furious message on my answering machine, citing all my shortcomings and failures as a true friend. I chose to leave it alone.

A few years ago, he noticed my collection of short fiction for sale and sent an email to my publisher: did she know how to get hold of me? He had lost track, our being separated for reasons that eluded him.

I had heard once that drinkers bind together in a whirlwind, holding each other in orbit as links in a dangling mobile. When one link comes off the artifice, the mobile spins wickedly off balance in kinetic disarray. Drinkers will search with undying devotion to bring their wayward sober friend back into the gin.

Not at any price.

I love you dearly, old Banana Buddy. But goodnight, godspeed, and off I go. This is my stop.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Second Chances

I have a recurring dream in which I am dawdling at my desk in the newsroom, having been idle for more than a week, showing up stoned and doodling between 8 and noon, then taking two hour lunches, sitting in the park at Lake Elizabeth, then dropping back into the office to show my face before quitting time, a poseur of a genuine fourth-estate worker bee, wondering when my editor would stroll over and fire me.

The dream bears an odd resemblance to dreams others have reported in which they have a final exam or term paper to deliver for a class they have missed for the duration, spending valuable undergraduate time at the beach or trolling the off-campus bars. And I often had a spin-off nightmare in which I was standing before my undergraduates, lecturing on an author whose work I had truly read for the first time the night before, only to be corrected for my obvious shortcomings as a professor by a sorority girl who sat dutifully in the front row with a stack of Cliff's Notes.

Today, after years of recovery work and counseling, I am delighted to report that my self esteem has officially been raised to the level of "low". I don't believe I could have survived my furtive newshound years without the help of Second Chance.

Today, the recovery agency has five locations in the East Bay, but when I was covering Newark for The Argus they had but a tiny house located near city hall on Thornton Avenue. My beat, as assigned by editor Linn Brown, included the entire city of Newark, a small industrial suburb surrounded on three sides by the sprawling bedroom community of Fremont and on its fourth edge by the San Francisco Bay. Fremont residents called Newark the "hole in the doughnut", while Newark officials preferred the notion that their little town was the "pearl in the oyster".

Such was the folklore of the day. When Brown assigned me to cover the Newark Chamber of Commerce, I complained that little happened there that might be newsworthy. He said I was to go and "fly the flag" for The Argus, that I just might pick up scuttlebutt for a story. The Newark Chamber was headed that year by an orthodontist with plenty of jokes to offend women and minorities, and if you didn't laugh when he uttered one, you were asked to drop a dollar in the "joke jar", the proceeds of which financed one of the municipal charities.

Most days, I drove by City Hall and sniffed around the city manager's office for stories. I relied on the manager, a straight-forward albeit heavily self-promotional figure that actually ran the city while elected councilmen and women relied on him to explain what was really happening and how to vote. On Monday nights, I covered the Planning Commission, an appointed board of members who were closely allied with elected council members and were awaiting their turn to ascend to the council when terms ran out for their pals.

Wednesdays I covered the council meetings. I also had the beat to the design review and public safety commissions, where much of the legwork was done to smooth over relations with developers who were broadening the hole-in-the-doughnut's industrial base. Brown told me to produce at least a story a week from each agency, along with feature and human interest pieces I could drum up from the town's mostly blue-collar populace; for instance, a piece on a woman who had collected and rolled the largest ball of rubber bands in the Western Hemisphere, or the barber who built a homemade airplane using a bathtub as the fuselage.

At the western terminus of town lie the Dumbarton Bridge (made famous in the film Harold and Maude). I l1ved across the bridge in Palo Alto, in a house filled with several Stanford brainiacs in their senior years, a massage therapist with a cat named Sat-Nam (Sanskrit for God Almighty), an airline hostess, and the daughter of a family that ran a Chinese restaurant made famous in Sunset Magazine and later busted by the health department after dog carcasses were found in their dumpster.

Hence, I led a double life. By day I toiled (by varying degrees) for The Argus, wearing slacks and buttoned collars and dress shoes, by night I wore my hippie-apocalypse attire of blue-bib coveralls and nothing else. Editor Brown once suggested that we wear ties in the office, so I wrapped one around my forehead. I did keep a loud tie with a pink hula girl on it in my car in case I had to cover a meeting.

By day, I drove from meeting to meeting, chased after police and fire emergencies we heard over the scanner, and drove by the mortuary to round up obituaries. The funeral home owner, a respectable queen who obviously dressed professionally at other times, answered the office door one night in a gold lame jump-suit with the zipper open to his navel.

By night, I drove through the toll plaza to the Dumbarton, paid my fare, and immediately opened the glove box to a stash that changed my amplitude on the way home as I tossed the tie in the back seat, cranked up the radio, and spaced out on the waves and salt bubbles on the bay.

That kind of schizophrenia cannot hold. There was no center. At night I'd play with my housemates, strolling the forested lanes of Palo Alto, buzzing through samurai triple-features at the Varsity Theatre, gobbling up books and records at the shops, finishing up the munchies with a cone of mocha-orange-chip ice cream from Swensens.

On Fridays, we dressed casually at The Argus, unless we had a meeting to cover, and the staff would drive out to Lake Elizabeth for a picnic lunch. Brown would bring a bottle of Cribari, an inexpensive wine known for the photo of its owner--an Italian who held the record for the world's largest nose--on the label. We'd drink hearty, often so heartily that Keith Jones would sit behind his IBM Selectric and laugh away the afternoon, regaling us with stories about Lancaster and the Pennsylvania Dutch. One Friday afternoon, he vomited into the keyboard.

I can't remember how I ended up with the recovery institution beat. But one day, apparently, Brown added it to my responsibilities that had grown to include a regional transit district (BART), the local community college, and the area's congressional seat. But I do remember driving over to the small, rustic house in Newark with its friendly facade and cheery front porch with chairs and empty coffee cans for cigarette butts.

I was greeted by a chipper woman in casual dress who eschewed make-up and a bra in what I had determined was the mid-1970s feminist uniform. But Diane was kind to me despite my judgment, and we sat in the cozy living room of the house, surrounded by oh-so-many posters with cornball recovery jargon on them: Keep It Simple, Let Go and Let God, One Day at a Time. I had no idea about recovery programs and was baffled with their 12 steps or commandments written on what appeared to be window shades that you rolled down from where they were mounted on the walls.

We had a pleasant talk and I learned the ground rules: I could write about anyone there, but could not refer to them by last names, I could not take any photographs, and I could drop in most any time of the day for coffee and conversation. I took them up on it, and I always wrote good things about Second Chance. They, like other social service agencies, were in constant struggle for limited funding, but I became their champion--not so much for their cause, but among all my beats, the women in the agency always treated me with goodwill.

Wherever you went as a journalist, the moment you told anyone that you worked as a reporter, they'd clam up. You'd see an instant shift in their comfort level as they receded into guarded behavior. But at Second Chance, they were delighted when I came over, even if just to camp out for an hour on their couch, hiding out from Brown and the newsroom. It seemed that they knew all about me. If the simple act of hiding out and writing kind things in exchange reflected a gross neglect of journalistic ethics, I was having it.

I had a similar arrangement with the owners of a Szechuan restaurant for which I had penned a glowing review. The family had escaped the Communists and fled to sanctuary in Peru, then moved to the East Bay. It was a colorful tale, told by a slacker, who enjoyed a sumptuous meal every time thereafter when I visited the place.

Toward the end, I was not writing very much for The Argus, borne out if exaggerated a little by my recurring nightmare. I would stockpile feature stories--timeless personality profiles--in the top drawer of my locked desk, and magically produce them whenever Brown suspected I had been a slacker. And I stockpiled my paychecks, too, planning for an escape to teach English in Japan.

A few years ago, having found my own recovery, I sought out Diane and the others at the sprawling new Second Chance offices located in the pearl of the oyster. I told them my news and how grateful I had been for their tush-eating, second-hand couches and coffee.

The argus (argos) in Greek mythology was a monster with multiple sets of eyes who could see everything in its vicinity. Later, in gratitude for the monster's visionary help, the goddess of love Hera put the eyes of the argus into the colorful tail of the peacock.

I was an unreliable source as a journalist in those days. But now I see.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Highway 17

"Have you thrown your senses to the war, or did you lose them in the flood?" -- Springsteen

Originally a track used by natives and stage coach companies, the 26 mile route between San Jose and Santa Cruz rises to 1,800 feet at the summit of Patchen Pass before descending into the coastal fog. The first time I rode through the wicked twists and narrow lanes between the trees of the Santa Cruz mountains, I was a passenger in a carload of partying students heading from the state college over to the beach.

The road had several popular nicknames at the time: Suicide Alley, the Valley Surprise, Glenwood Slaughterhouse. Separated at first by the force of wind generated by logging trucks passing in opposite directions along the lanes shadowed by the trees, Highway 17 wore a thin median fence and the occasional concrete barrier by the time I had moved to Northern California. You usually knew you were close to the center line by the chips of glass or broken fenders lying in the way.

That never stopped us from tearing along, passing bottles of Mickey's Big Mouth or a waterpipe between our cars, ten or fifteen of us en-route from the smoggy Santa Clara valley to the cool and salty beaches. Mark the Wop usually tore along in his modified blue Ford, driving like the erstwhile race driver he insisted he had been, the rest of us letting him get a few cars ahead so we knew where he was.

Cresting the summit, we wended between sputtering VW vans and terrified senior citizens in their camper trucks, letting it fly down the western rim through Santa's Village and Scott's Valley, finally planing out near the Branciforte where you could see the steeple of the Holy Cross Church in the salt-spray air. Safely--strange as that could be--on the coastside, we turned north on Highway 1 toward the beaches of Davenport, stopping only for fresh beer and sandwiches.

I liked the Red, White and Blue beach, marked only by its tri-color mailbox, where you descended again through a twisting dirt road to the sandy parking strip, and stumbled down the rocks to the nude beach, toting your cooler, towels, and radios. So long as you were going to be cold, your body prickled from the wind, you might as well wear nothing. We'd wake from hours of beer-snoozing, painfully sunburned all over. I used to joke that even the insides of our mouths, open to snores in the late afternoon sun, had been burnt.

Once, Ron and I climbed into Roger Andrino's Volkswagen and the three of us drove over Highway 17 to the flat beach between Davenport and Wilder Ranch. The tide was out, so Roger putted along the hardpack so we could picnic close to the waves. Later, the sea came in and flooded the car where it stuck in the sand and we had to wait until the tide went out again. We had long days and nights of bota bags and reefer and anger at the war, grave relief at having scored our draft deferments. The sun was setting into the anvil of fog, but across the waves on the other side of the world, it was rising over the jungles and hamlets where our friends and family members were dying or going subtly insane.

* * *

In my state college days I hadn't the slightest notion that I would someday live on the coast side of Highway 17. But when I went back to school to study literature, Maki-san and I drove her overloaded green VW over the pass and took a little beach house by Twin Lakes. I so hated Highway 17 then, for it no longer represented a road to freedom from the heat and choked thoroughfares of the Santa Clara Valley to the languid beach-side roads, but instead was a highway of inevitability going the other direction, toward the San Francisco airport where Maki would depart homeward.

On what I thought would be the last drive, a year after Maki had departed from my life forever, I was in the green VW she'd left me, packed now for graduate school in Alabama, a place as far removed from the laid-back surfer lanes of Santa Cruz as Albania, or Antarctica. I would not be back in California to live for more than fifteen years.

In 1999, having taken a job with a dot-com startup in Silicon Valley, I drove out Highway 17 to the coast. I rented a tiny apartment near the San Jose airport and found myself in a stranglehold commute, taking 45 minutes to travel less than five miles to work each day. One Saturday morning, I rose early and sped westward on the section of Highway 17 that had been renamed Interstate 880, hitting the pass before most people had woken up for coffee, descending from the summit in darkness, speedling along the patch from Scott's Valley toward Santa Cruz, the rising sun glancing off the whited steeple in the pastel pinks and grays of daybreak.

I had been sober for more than a decade and sought out other ways to smooth out the edges of life, but the sea had turned an inconsiderate shoulder, the Santa Cruz morning streets were walked by strangers or, worse, shadows and echos, and the buildings themselves wore new names.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Greetings from Hell

A big, burly samurai comes to a Zen master and says, “Tell me the nature of heaven and hell.”

The Zen master looks him in the face and says, “Why should I tell a scruffy, disgusting, miserable slob like you? A worm like you, do you think I should tell you anything?”

Consumed by rage, the samurai draws his sword and raises it to cut off the master’s head.

The Zen master says, “That’s hell.”

When a trust-fund baby moved to Port Townsend to open a small treatment center for wayward, inner-city youth, I was hired to drive their van. It was the perfect job; I could live in wooded splendor of the Olympic Peninsula, sleep late, and report in the afternoon to the pastoral haven the wealthy man created where junkies from America's violent urban enclaves could walk in landscaped zen-gardens or hike trails of wild salal and overgrown ferns through a rain forest that towered above the white caps on Discovery Bay.

It was a mindless job--though certainly not thoughtless--and I was paid to toss around a football, share my experience in recovery with a half-dozen young men, driving them into town for job interviews or haircuts or recovery meetings where they'd stay late and whack around the ping pong ball for hours. I was--my employers said--to "model" good behavior and talk up the benefits of living in the great wide open of the straight and narrow.

My mentor, a retired Marine Corps sergeant with more than 20 years of sober living, ran a more traditional counseling center across town. It was spartan compared to the bucolic one in which I worked, nested in a drab suite of offices behind the bank. He reminded me that working for a recovery farm was not the same thing as tending my own spiritual garden. If anything, he said, I would need to redouble my efforts at quieting my mind and my especially caustic, hair-trigger temper. I did not wear my heart on my sleeve, it seemed, I wore an entire body suit embroidered with stripped electrical wires.

Nonetheless, it all was going perfectly. I was paid to throw a frisbee with the treatment center hound, paid to eat sumptuous meals prepared by the gourmet chef, paid to sit before a roaring fire and read zen poetry while the boys washed the supper dishes, paid to watch movies with them in the plush conference room--all going wondrously until a thug from Seattle, newly arrived, found special delight in breaking my balls. And the harder I worked to turn a diffident cheek, the harder he labored to find a crease down to my open nerves.

The sergeant asked if I could hold my tongue. "You like this job, don't you?" I had to admit that I loved it to my core.

But one night, while I worked alone in the large manor house writing progress reports on the boys' behaviors, the thug locked himself in the bathroom with a boom box and cranked the sucker up until the speakers blared a scratchy, distorted rant of punk terror.

I marked up the stairs, pounded on the door and demanded that he surrender the stereo. It was prohibited by house rules. He yelled out that he couldn't hear me.

I could hear just fine. I heard the other boys, camped in their dorm beds, burning with ecstatic twitter.

So I pounded away, and again, and continued pounding until he opened the door a crack to grin at me, and I forced my way in, yanked the cord from the wall socket and threw the bastard toy down the stairs, where it ricocheted and spun madly in broken pieces on the parquet floor. The kid charged down after it and stood waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.

I hurried past him, dodging a blow, and locked myself in the office, where I telephoned the sheriff, then called my supervisors.

The night passed without further incident and in the morning I was fired. I had compromised the well-being of my charges by leaving them in the lodge while I cowered in the office and, worse, I had created bad publicity for the facility by phoning in the sheriff, generating a public report picked up by the newspaper. Townspeople were already worried about having so many junkies nearby. Some were even locking their doors, something they had never done on the peninsula.

The following Monday I sat, crestfallen, in the student section of an anger management class conducted by my mentor in his office building. We talked about triggers, and how to count to ten, and diagrammed how our expectations of how we were to be treated only fueled our passive-aggressive responses to people who by nature would always let us down.

It was tough to lose my cozy job in the woods; I would not find new employment and was forced to move to the city. But I left my anger management class that night armed with useful tools and new-found optimism and drove off into the foggy winter's night in peace, happy at the chance to reform my ways, driving along the waterfront toward town with wonder and burgeoning confidence until I paused at a four-way stop and a pick-up truck that arrived after me took my turn into the intersection, forcing me to slam on the brakes.

I leaned on the horn and gave him the finger.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

At Sundown

After I broke the mirror in my cabin and set out a 50-pound sack of birdseed for the Oregon juncos, I packed some clothes in my car, a copy of Rumi's spiritual poetry, a jar of vitamins, and I drove across the Olympic Peninsula to meet the 11:20 am ferry. Once aboard, I left the car unlocked--what was there to lose anymore?--and I walked down to the passenger deck where I let the cold winds of Puget Sound blow into my face, streaming the tears from my eyes as they came. On the other side of the passage, Mount Rainier ducked under the clouds and the rain-swept skyscrapers of Seattle rose into the dark sky where they seemed decapitated by the squall. I was on my way to treatment, the home for the bewildered, the good old tank, purgatory for those who drank just a little too much and ended up spun out of the path.

In two hours, the little car had labored up over the Cascades, where I had to put on chains in the snow, then caterwauled down the dry side of the mountains to the sprawling valley of apple orchards, fallow by winter, and the deep-etched canyons of the Yakima River. By the early afternoon I found the turnoff, where the canyon dipped down beneath bare hills scrubbed by the winds, past the turnoff to the hilltop bar that gave departing visitors their first drink if they chose to ignore all they had learned about themselves.

The lane to Sundown M Ranch threaded between groves of bare maples and a series of signs, arrayed in Burma-Shave fashion (for those who could remember), one word per narrow slat, the signs arranged so a sentence flowed as you passed: ""

Oh, dear god, if there was a god I wondered, how did I slump so low to wash up at a place like this? I felt like I had just joined the Good Sam Club and had to find a recreational vehicle and a blue-haired crochet queen to accompany me on trips to the Ozarks.

They were kind enough at the office, apparently astonished at how little visible baggage I had in-tow, compared with other recent arrivals who brought bags of golf clubs in misguided expectation that they were in for some kind of laid-back tour of the links, followed by a quick sermon on the ills of excess.

It was going swimmingly for me at the arrival hall, a large room furnished with antiques and soft lighting, but then came the strip search. I suppose they were taking no chances with me. And they confiscated my poetry books. I wouldn't have time to read them, said the gentleman who turned my bags inside out and shook them over the mattress. Besides, he added, I'd have more important things to focus on. Apparently satisfied that I had become fully compliant, he escorted me to the lounge, a brightly lit dining hall with scrubbed Formica tables and plastic chairs, and he left me there. Everyone else, he said before going, was in group therapy and would join me shortly.

Did they ever. At the turn of the hour, the hall suddenly churned with residents who thundered in to grab cups of coffee or fruit juice or thick slices of chocolate cake. And they all smoked, some sixty men and women, filling the once-quiet hall with excited yammer and a dense blue-white cloud of tobacco. I took refuge in the non-smoking section, a room separated by a Plexiglas wall, where I sat alone. I may have had a small drinking problem, a loving relationship with marijuana--but I'd be damned if I had checked into this so-called ranch to take up smoking cigarettes!

By the end of the second day, tired of protesting at the high cost of isolating myself in the little room, I joined my fellows in the hall of cancer.

I was put into a men's group led by Jim B., a short, stocky man who had lost a goodly number of teeth to a methamphetamine habit of yore, but insisted on smiling through the gaps. His joy was infuriating. We met at 8 am in his conference room, a dozen of us, fellows concerned about whether they'd be allowed to go home to their wives and girlfriends, preoccupied with fear of losing their jobs--except for those of us who had nothing like that to lose.

The room looked out its huge glass window on the bare, rolling hills and bright green lawns of the ranch. We'd talk about our problems for a few hours, break for lunch, gather for a lecture on habit forming chemicals and the physical damage they caused, took an exercise break in the late afternoons and, following dinner, met again for a film or lecture or a recovery meeting brought in to us from townsfolk.

Sunday mornings, we met in the lecture hall where a priest would talk about uncomfortable subjects like relaxation, peace, serenity, kindness, compassion, and love...all the while showing slides of his trips into the mountains, jolly fields of wildflowers, cascading waterfalls, quiet brooks, the rising walls of glaciers where chunks calved off from the face and plunged into rippling lakes.

One afternoon I made a point of letting Jim know that he had misspelled a word on the chalkboard where he encouraged us to make observations of each other--both "posative" and negative feedback. He took it in, then asked, "We'll, professor, how did a guy as bright as you end up in a place like this?"

After a week long "communication blackout", the men would return to group to dump out the sad revelations of their telephone contacts with women back home. "You'll find your belongings on the porch when you get out," one man reported what his wife had said. Another said his girlfriend had simply hung up on him without uttering a word. I was curious, only, if my juncos had enough food to eat. Jim told me I would have a girlfriend again someday. But he recommended first that I buy a houseplant and see if I could keep it alive. Then, he said, I should try and see if I could keep a pet for a while. Then, finally, I could move on to humans.

I took it all to heart. Perhaps a little too much so, and one morning Jim called me in alone to his office where he showed me photos of his wife and children, posing in their yard with the Cascade peaks behind the back fence. He had been arrested for jacking stereos and televisions to help support his meth habit. Then he had recovered. "All in good time," he told me, "you can end up in a photo just like this one. In god's time," he said.

I told him I was sore at the place for stealing my underwear. I had been there three weeks, and at the beginning of each week, I put my dirty clothes in the hamper outside the laundry room and not once had it been returned to my room. I no longer had any socks. If they were trying to break me, I told Jim, they surely were succeeding.

He howled and sat against his desk a moment before putting his hands on my shoulders and looking me in the eye. "Gabby," he said. "You're supposed to go to the laundry room and pick up your folded laundry off the shelf. We don't bring it to you. Did you think this was the Hilton?"

In addition to the many rules and regulations--to stay inside the confines of the white fence that ran around the ranch perimeter, to stay out of the rooms of women, to sit with the men from my group at dinner, to not smuggle in dope for myself or others--there was a laundry protocol which I had failed to grap in the fog of my own making.

In my last week, I spent an hour detailing my life's experiences to the priest. I had never really spoken with a priest, had more than my share of prejudice against whatever he was selling, and was sure he'd consider me among the tribe that killed his god. But at the end, he simply looked at me and said, "I think you made a decision early on in life to be miserable." We walked together across the grounds in silence and went our separate ways to dinner.

When my 24th day came, I was told I could leave four days early. I had a fix on the problem. The men from my group followed me out to the front lawn where I rang a large iron bell to announce my graduation. I was handed a small commemorative coin--which I could trade in for a cocktail at the bar on the hill overlooking the ranch if I chose--or I could put it in my pocket and keep driving.

I gathered up my poetry books from the front office, said my goodbyes, put my arms around Jim and told him I would let him know when my snapshot was taken. And then I started up the car, drove past the office and along the row of signs that had confirmed that I had the rest of my life ahead of me as I turned left on the river canyon road, out into the highway that finally was headed somewhere, home to my woods, and to dear friends whom I had yet to meet, this family old and renewed that had long expected me.

Monday, March 2, 2009


In the fall of that year Maki Yamada and I took a small house on Lakeview Drive, less than a minute's walk from the beach. At night the fog rolled in and you could smell the sea and the eucalyptus trees through the window. It was a tiny converted garage with a smelly carpet and leftover flea population from the previous tenant, but we cleaned it with love and made it a safe place to live at a time when Ronald Reagan was President and Mark David Chapman had shot John Lennon.

In the morning, I walked past the sprawling gardens where our dirt road turned to asphault, where chickens ran free across the path and an old mare grazed silently at the fencepost. We had no money, but the university included a bus pass and there was a stop at 26th Avenue for the 56 line that ran right up to Porter College and my morning class. The return bus dropped me off in front of Kong's Market, where I bought our egg rolls for dinner. It was the happiest time of my life.

I was a good decade older than the students in Paul Skenazy's modern novel course, and I had no idea how to read critically or talk about writing. I'd listen for an hour while students bantered about the structure of Gravity's Rainbow or Absalom, Absalom!--difficult novels for a first-year student who was just stepping into the river. And so I'd weep on the bus ride home for fear of failure and my inability to wrap my mind around the muscular narratives.

Maki had a car, a VW that seemed to blow out a part every month, sending me scrambling for the idiot book and the box of metric wrenches. I had never even changed the oil before in my various Buicks, Dodges, or Datsuns and now had to crawl under the back hood and see what I could do to keep the bug from separating into disparate parts under its labored idle.

We had no money.

But Maki waitressed at night at a Japanese restaurant on the west side, and she'd come home with a plastic bag of sashimi and California rolls, and we ate like high members of the shogunate. On weekends we splurged and went over to Chef Tongs for a chicken stir-fry of charred peppers, vegetables, and peanuts. While she was away, I sat in the chair by the window and read novels, marking up the margins with arrows and multiple question marks that underscored my utter failure in understanding the arc of the plot, let alone the subtle literary allusions and call outs to Shakespeare. In the late afternoons, when the wind picked up, I'd pull on a hoodie and jog along the beach.

If we had a little extra cash, I'd ride my bike up Portola to the fruit and vegetable stand and buy dried apricots and dates, or eggplants and onions for our own stir-fries. Some nights, when Maki wasn't working, we took our books and rode down to Capitola Beach and had coffee at Mr. Toots, overlooking the harbor where pelicans curved down from the cliffs in tight formation, screeching down where the anchovies rolled in on the tide as easy prey.

I loved looking at our shadows fall before us when Maki and I walked in the sun. I was over six feet tall and she barely reached five, and we looked like a parent and child. Years later it occurred to me that she had relied upon me to teach her English, the odd customs of the Santa Cruz hippie lifestyle, and even how to drive the VW. And once the parent/student relationship had outgrown its utility, what would come to take its place?

Some nights the stray cats used the fat planters of rubber trees at Toots for a litter box and you had to run out of there squeezing your nose. Teen-aged tourists and gee-gawkers from the crowded peninsula drove out at dusk in their souped-up cars and drove the Capitola loop in search of sex or a proximate encounter in conversation.

But we'd end the evening together, cuddled under the comforter in our little house, listening to the waves out the window and feeling very happy.

Skenazy saved my life in mid-semester after flunking me over a poor paper. I had no idea how to write a paper; I'd been trained as a journalist, and while my powers of observation were sharp, you didn't pen a critical essay in the inverted pyramid format of a news story. I was nearly washed out. I sat ashen in his office at Cowell College as he explained that I had to learn the literary form and aeriodite lingo of the trade.

The door to his office was open and you could hear the great American classicist Norman O. Brown chewing out an undergrad: "You don't have the courage to drop out of school!"

Well, neither had I. Nor did I have a source of income save my scant student loans and scholarship. But I was willing to follow Skenazy's directions and spent long hours in the undergraduate library trying to make sense of my suffering. One afternoon I was nearly laughed out of the seminar room by my utterance of a wicked malapropism: "architypical".

Across town, Maki was making quick work of building a wide network of Japanese students who had enrolled at the nearby community college where she was taking undergraduate classes of her own. Unlike me, she had a social life, and I was insanely jealous. The platters of late night sushi went away. And so had she.

I'd come home to our empty house by the beach and mope. I'd try to chase her down by telephone, ringing up her friends to see if she were there, stammering in Japanese when I couldn't find her. I had enrolled in a Japanese language class, prospering wonderfully, learning the hiragana and katagana and speaking with uncanny mastery--like a woman! I had picked up Maki's inflections and feminine nuances with sufficient acumen that my professor bristled. "You talk like a girl," she said.

And in the spring semester, Maki was spending more and more time away from the beach-house while I brooded in the library over biblical references in Faulkner. We had two languages between us now and so little to say. And Maki had begun to drop references to a man in her pottery class.

One night I sat alone in the dark, listening to the waves, and phoned her at the number she had for the classmate in her address book. Yes, she admitted when he put her on the line, she was there. And she wasn't coming home.

In the morning I had my valise packed, waiting outside the door to the beach-house. I wanted to be anywhere but inside my own crawling flesh. But she had been unfaithful, so why was I to leave? We agreed to find separate homes and when I left the solitude of Lakeview Drive, I moved into a bustling, dysfunctional community on East Cliff Drive, a house and cabins on a giant lot where 14 people lived and ate together. (Today, Lakeview is paved and the little house has made way for a choked row of overpriced condos.)

In the summer of that year, Maki flew home to Japan and I sat in my basement room of the noisy coed house speaking to the twenty books of my oral exam list where they were stacked on my desk, reciting to each literary character what I knew about them, how their world was structured, from which biblical or literary work did their titles spring anew, and how the landscape suited the thematic considerations of the form.

And out the window the afternoon light faded and the gulls screeched as the fog swept in.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Waysider

We were told we had to eat there. It was the cheese grits, the kitten-shaped pancakes for children, the fluffy biscuits, the red-eye gravy and center-cut ham steaks crowding out the dish of poached eggs, the bottomless cups of strong coffee and tall, beaded glasses of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

In the fall of that year, I wasn't so sure that waiting on line for nearly an hour just to enter the Waysider for its locally famous breakfast was worth the hooey. We stood outside as the brutal morning sun, already yanking the thermometer on the side of the bank building into the hundreds, beat down on us.

The place was on Greensboro Avenue, a family-run diner opened in 1951 in a converted Victorian house butting against the busy rails of the Southern railroad line, where the Crescent took Yankees through Tuscaloosa, over the rolling countryside to Memphis on the river, down to the city of New Orleans. You could drive past the Waysider any number of times without seeing the small Alabama-crimson-and-white sign or the sudden turn to the driveway where hackberries jut into narrow parking lanes. (At the end of your breakfast, there would be leaves and bird droppings all over your car).

Word is that coach Bear Bryant himself was once a frequent diner, helping himself to the endless refils of coffee and plate after plate of hot, feather-light biscuits. Certainly the walls surrounding the two dining areas that held the 15 tables were covered with Bamabilia, photos of the football team, of white Southern families of local note, pictures of Tuscaloosa when cotton wagons and horse buggies rolled along the dusty streets.

And so you stood for upwards of two hours on some Sunday mornings to take one of the 15 tables, browsing through The New York Times or The Tuscaloosa News, depending on your cultural bandwidth, mopping up the sweat that trickled down your neck, wondering if the wait was worth the worry. Southerners lined up in their Sunday best, just arriving from services, men in light-colored summer suits and women with flowers in their bonnets, bibles in hand, and their youngsters squirming in the heat.

Once inside, you sighed in the sudden chill and the heady swirl of fresh coffee and bacon in air. You could take your newspaper with you, but it made the tiny space on your table even more challenging, with the immediate arrivals of iced water, orange juice, and coffee, and the first round platter of biscuits. When a writer like Margaret Atwood or Tobias Wolff came to town, you took them to the Waysider during the week, when the wait was brief. But the food somehow tasted better on Sunday morning, with reverent people chattering at the tables and dabbing napkins into the glass of ice water to pat away morsels of biscuits or grits from their lips.

The biscuits had no specific density and went down like buttery puffs of joy, until you realized you had eaten too many of them. Still, the waitress, frenzied between the packed tables, came back with a bright smile, a pot of coffee, and a fresh plate of biscuits seconds from the oven. You could dip them in your red eye gravy, in your coffee, or smear them with fresh strawberry preserves, put one up your nose, another under an armpit, and a half dozen in your purse or backpack for later. You had sex with them at the table, toasting your triumph with another cup of coffee before rolling into them again.

And on such a Sunday in the fall, days before Ronald Reagan was to make his only campaign visit to an American college campus--choosing Tuscaloosa for its ardent reborn conservatism and Saturday church of football--we were talking about him. I blamed him for all the resurgent woes of neanderthal behavior: the burning of a cross on campus to protest a Black sorority, the dangling of the Stars and Bars from a house on Bryant Drive, the huge American flags flown from masts erected in the beds of passing pickup trucks--all responsible somehow for the moronic utterances by the students in my Introduction to American Literature class.

My girlfriend Diana was giving me The Look. Self-justified, I rolled right through the red light; on I went, egged ever into my glory by too much coffee, pent-up vitriol from centuries of pogroms and disenfranchisement, and in the midst of my tirade I had said something along the lines of "That Fuckdog Reagan" with the delight and amperage that a Bama cheerleader might have uttered, "We're gonna beat the hell out of you!"

The waitress stopped filling my bottomless cup and went on to more deserving tables. My sweetheart looked down at the grits hardening in her plate. All about us the room fell silent as the congregation eyed the brute Yankee at his bloody hate pulpit, spewing negativity in what had moments ago been a sanctuary of gentility and well-intentioned words measured out in spoonfulls from a sugar bowl.

"Guess breakfast's over," I said.

"Guess so," said Diana.

It was not the first time I had diminished her by my outbursts, but it was nearing the last. I could see that now she had moved into new territory where she had unalterably decided on something that did not include my company. We left the Waysider, giving room to people who had waited as long as we had for the opportunity to come in out of the sun, and then, driving home in the ruthless, animal heat of the afternoon, I had become a Yankee writer who had temporarily run out of bright things to say.