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.


Anonymous said...

What a great recollection of the days gone by.....youth is not wasted on the young, it's the time for experimentation, allowing the ego and soul to search for new challenges, to meet and greet new and divergent folks who we never knew about from our sheltered days living at home. College was the gateway drug to life and all the wonders it holds. Thanks for putting some of those moments into beautiful words.....ronuit

It's Just Me said...

your last comment on tangobaby's blog (stem cell) was so funny I had to pop in and tell you!

Char said...

I love serendipitous happenings. My brother and room mate is a police sargent....and I love the protective love that he gives me.