Writing is harder than I ever remember, even this account, days I went through myself, recently, or nine months ago, depending on the draft; or perhaps it’s hard because they’re my days and I’m trying to write sense into life. It’s not that dramatic. I went to my 50th college reunion. That’s where this starts. And crashed my car along the way.
It was a swell trip.
In the cliché parts of my life seem to be associated with the cars I drove. Not that the cars defined the parts but, like songs on the radio, happened at the same time. My first marriage was a 1965 red Mustang her father bought us. We drove it to Vancouver, testing escape, and to San Diego. She took it when she left. Later I had VWs. My first was a 1958 bug with a dented fender and a leaky piston which taught me to work on it. I remember dropping its engine in a parking lot of student housing at UCSD, but not where it was the last time I saw it. These were my grad student days, a soft life of study, beach walks, and subsistence. The year I spent at UCLA I bought two VWs, a 1963 bug with a splintered wooden front bumper which got me back and forth to campus and San Diego and, towards the end of the year, a 1960 van, which took me to Tennessee, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, El Paso, San Francisco, Mendocino County, and back to La Jolla before its second engine died. This was my vagabond time and my second marriage, a kind of vagabondage in place. For a while I ferried these two cars up and down the state, travelling by bus sometimes to pick up the one that wasn’t where I wanted it. I remember push-starting the bug on a street in Berkeley as my not yet second wife watched me leave on a trip to San Diego where we’d meet up later. They were a bit unreliable, these VWs, and so was the dented Datsun my second wife left me when she moved on. A little better was the old Volvo I drove back and forth to the hospital while she was dying. I owned that car just about that long (the friend I bought it from said I’d be surprised how many others I’d see on the road), traded it in on a Nissan Pulsar, my first new car since the Mustang, which broke two hundred thousand miles before giving out in the dark on the Del Dios Highway well into my third marriage and a few months before the “cute little house” we lived in burned with so many others in the Witch Creek fire. I replaced that car with another new Nissan, a green Sentra, that I drove to our new old turn of the century house in town, a block down the hill from an even older house owned by a Stanford classmate I didn’t know and close to the house where Steve Thurlow grew up. I managed to keep that car alive for almost a hundred thousand miles. Until this.
A reunion binds time. A fiftieth reunion binds a lot of time, careers, life-expectancy, expectation. It’s one of those milestone moments, an inflection point—like the first Kennedy assassination while my class was at Stanford—by which things are marked as before and after. Wrecking my car did not define the moment, not by itself.
I wasn’t expecting to see many friends: I’d entered with one class—the reunion class—but graduated, a year early, with another. Most of my Stanford friends—not that there were many—were in that class, were dead, or had indicated via the class book that they weren’t going. Dave, the only old friend I did see, was from my graduating class, attending for his Stanford-in-Germany group reunion and perhaps because he just likes these things. For a while I thought my granddaughter might be there, marching in the band for the opposing school in the football game that weekend. That wouldn’t happen, but I wanted to go anyway. I like these things too.
I heard from another old friend before I went, a classmate from my entering class I’d wondered about for years He emailed in response to my page in the class book, which I’d thought made me seem more interesting than I felt. We’d lost touch in the intervening half-century; he’d become famous, I hadn’t. I was curious how we’d greet each other, but that wouldn’t happen either.
The way things turned out—another story, not this—I went alone. And since I was going alone I’d make it short, one full day, two nights in the cheapest motel I could find online, attending the class party but skipping the football game, where my granddaughter wouldn’t be marching.
I drove. I don’t know if that was a mistake in principle, but it could have worked out better. I’d made the trip between San Diego County and the Bay Area many times, in many different vehicles, in two old Volkswagens, on a too small Suzuki motorcycle, in a few Nissans, and that Mustang. I don’t even use a map, except to decide where to cut over to 101 if I go up on 5.
So up in the morning, through LA (not fun), up 5, across on 152, up 101, through San Jose, then the Bayshore. I got a couple of phone calls along the way, one from someone claiming to be a cop who said someone had been arrested with my debit card number in his possession, and another, somewhat later, from Dave, who wanted to know if I wanted to meet him and his wife for dinner.
Here’s what happened. Right there, on the Bayshore, past the newish stadium for the Santa Clara 49ers, in hard traffic for the Seahawks game, just over the line into Palo Alto, a moment of inattention and into the back of another car. The crumple zone worked: only the front end of my car had damage but it was enough for the insurance company to total it, though I didn’t know that right away. My photograph of the other car shows a Lexus too new to have a license plate, with bumper damage I’d be tempted to ignore.
We were near an exit, San Antonio Road I think, and my car could still move, so we pulled off the freeway and exchanged information. After the other driver left, off the freeway, next to some convenient shrubbery, I pissed and made phone calls. To Wawanesa, to my wife. I returned Dave’s call, saying I couldn’t make it to dinner. Bless him, he offered to come get me. As dark descended a tow truck came to take my car to the East Bay overnight before it went to a body shop in Sunnyvale. I unloaded my car, partially—I tend to take too much on a car trip, because it’s easy, until something happens—and as the tow truck left, stood by the side of the road with my suitcase and backpack, waiting for Dave to pick me up to take me to my motel.
The drive to Redwood City, over streets and roads familiar but strange, was perhaps the most social time of the weekend; wish I’d made more of it, but I just wanted to get to the motel and get settled. Passing through Palo Alto I thought of places I’d lived, movies I’d seen in town (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 8-1/2, From Russia with Love). We passed the tall tree by San Francisquito Creek, across from the Stanford Shopping Center, on the border of Menlo Park, that gave Palo Alto its name, though not everybody knows that. I lived a block away from that tree for a while. I was checking things off in my head. Baskin Robbins, Bill Smith, Joan Radius, St. Michael’s Alley. All mostly gone, I wouldn’t see any of them.
The motel, pretty low end but, I assumed if I thought of it, clean enough, was run by a young Gujarati, surprised I knew the difference. The motel was the kind of place where the satellite tv was flaky and the inmates propped their doors open with waste baskets. I had a bed, and power for my devices, happy enough. David and Hilda left me there, and offered to come back in the morning to take me to campus to register and have breakfast at the alumni center before my walkabout.
After another phone call home, settled, but restless and a little hungry, I went out in the night to walk a few blocks of El Camino Real, glad to be in the cool night air, on the Peninsula, and alone. Somewhere on a side street is the movie theater where some friends and I saw one or two Beatles movies, Help and/or A Hard Day’s Night. More checking off. This night it was furniture stores, bars, wafting Norteno music, and a Taco Bell I left before finishing my lukewarm burrito.
The next morning Dave and Hilda picked me up and took me to campus. While they ate I went to reunion registration, while I ate they went off to their first lecture of the day. I was more interested in place than voice, in space than time, in nostalgia than continuing education. At least that day. My walk was like anyone’s walk in a place not seen for decades, full of changes and interruption, the old scabbed over with the new. I wanted to pick at those scabs. I walked what I like to think of as west, though it’s really mostly south, towards Stern Hall, Burbank House, my home dorm for two years. I have some memory of blue boxes at the pay phone, a Beniamino Bufano statue of a dolphin in the courtyard, someone pissing off the third floor landing late at night, Hearts and Liar’s Poker in the common room, paying Mike W. a can of beer a page to type my papers my first quarter, though I don’t know how I could have managed that at my age then, Bug, Pigpen, Joan Baez on a record player down the hall (her voice through walls didn’t work for me, but I got a free ticket to a concert at Palo Alto High School where I sat so close to the stage I looked straight at her bare feet. This was the first concert I went to, ever. I saw her again later in Berkeley, with Bob Dylan, some drama there, while I held a dorm mate’s Uher in my lap, maybe the same guy who played her records and gave me the free ticket, Pigpen’s friend, down the hall. It was a similar story with Jimi Hendrix not so many years later, Purple Haze a mess on AM Radio, then a three-band bill at Winterland, I went to hear someone else and never left). The building was still there, and the Bufano, but there were keypad locks on the doors, I couldn’t peek inside.
Around back, from the direction I came, was some graduate student housing, built because the cheap off-campus places we used to know are all gone in one way or another, Emerson, High Street, even East Palo Alto. I passed those buildings, not interesting because new, and passed some law school stuff where, at a loss for the familiar, I asked some women waiting for something which way to the bookstore. They pointed. I said is the student union still there? And the bowling alley? They said bowling alley? You’ll have to tell me about that sometime.
Then there was the Post Office, on my left, where I used to get a little mail, and the plaza beyond, with Mem Claw, dry from the drought, the place where I was when I heard JFK had been shot, coming from a lecture at the back of Quad on, I think, Nabokov. Folding time. A crowd gathering, listening to a loudspeaker, my first thought was about some children kidnapped in Berkeley that had been news earlier. I wrote a story for my writing class that weekend, “The Year There was No Thanksgiving.” The teacher, Scowcroft I think, had been my mother’s classmate at the University of Utah, though we didn’t know that. He wrote on my typescript “You recovered quickly” and I thought he meant something about my grade. I wish I still had that story, lost, probably, in the fire the year I bought the car I crashed on the Bayshore this trip. I don’t remember a thing about it other than the teacher’s note, the title, and the fact I got it in on time.
Just beyond was Tresidder, the student union building (I’ll skip the Old Union where memory mostly embarrasses me). I heard Alan Watts speak there once, in a small upstairs room, and John Hawkes (the writer, not the actor). I sang a song to a hootenanny audience upstairs there, badly, in the room where I’d heard Watts. Moving on.
Before I got to Tresidder I stopped in the bookstore, in the same place as it used to be, but a bit different inside. The books had been moved out of the way, replaced by caps, sweatshirts, and coffee mugs, all of which I bought before I left the Peninsula, including two red “Nerd Nation” mugs (I thought the slogan was cool) and, after some scouting, a book to take home to Sarai.
Tresidder’s downstairs dining area was changed too, commercialized, outsourced. I worked in the kitchen for a while, shelling eggs and passing food through a little window, still there, if it’s the same window. This was the year I returned after graduation, a Peace Corps training washout; I saw my Peace Corps girlfriend through that window once, though I think she didn’t see me.
Just beyond Tresidder was the spot I’ve since thought of as where I lost my religion, walking past the Firehouse with a copy of Practical Mysticism at least metaphorically in my pocket, staring at the beyond of the trees in the middle distance, thinking do I go with the stories I’ve been told, or do I leave them aside. Clearly, I thought, no other religion would do, it’s all or nothing. I chose nothing, and haven’t looked back. That’s my story, as told to myself. But despite the personal importance of that moment I didn’t walk that way this day, didn’t even think of it.
Now I was in a hurry. I needed to call Sarai at 9am to assure she woke in time for her day (she called me first, at one minute till), and I wanted to do that from the “shore” of Lake Lagunita, so I passed Flo Mo (Florence Moore Residential Hall) quickly. I’d spent a lot of time there, hashing, ate meals there, listened to boxing matches on the radio by the cafeteria line after hours. It didn’t look at all familiar, though it may not have changed. I didn’t walk around the side on the path I used to take to work where I remember seeing—well, I won’t describe that, it does nobody any good, a woman who looked like a young girl, my age at the time, dead now, but innocent then, more so even than I, being romanced in a car by a guy who was looking for a draft exemption, got it by marrying her, and, when that exemption was removed, after we’d moved, separately, to San Francisco, wanted me to hitchhike to New York with him. I said no, and that story ended.
It was also at Flo Mo I remember my friend and fellow hasher, Mike W., son of a Calgary rabbi, saying, one evening, to a slice of Canadian bacon, “I don’t believe that stuff, I’m eating this!” Another time, around by the kitchen entrance, I gave a ride on my scooter to a study partner, not quite girlfriend, who slipped off the back: no harm no foul, but she was pregnant at the time by her boyfriend back home, and wouldn’t get back on.
Lake Lag was dry. I stood on the shore, made my call, looked across. I remember water, and a sour smell. Bonfires before Big Game, before bonfires were banned. I read the Alexandria Quartet here in a cheap paperback edition, not many years after it was first published. There was water then. This time I didn’t circumnavigate, but turned back, towards Quad, via Tresidder and the Old Union courtyard, where I once studied under a pomegranate tree with yet another failed love interest, who now lives in France.
I stopped in the underground men’s room on the corner of Quad, a curious feature, missed a call from my insurance company which I returned sitting on Quad with a view along the columns in front of Mem Chu. Postcard Stanford. After that call (more pleasant than I expected) I walked over to Mem Aud to catch some of my friend’s friend President Hennessy’s presentation. This is the place where my strongest memory is Roadrunner cartoons from the balcony at the Friday Night Flicks, and listening to James Baldwin speak, though I did that from the KZSU studios downstairs. I listened to Hennessy and a panel of experts for a while, high in the balcony, and then went out, made a phone call for a rental car to be picked up later, then went to see if KZSU was still there. It was, though the walls had been rearranged and the 5-cent coke machine was gone. I put a lot of nickels in that machine when I “worked” at the station, reading pieces off the teletype, playing folk albums and, later, running a live folk music show with a friend whose father produced tv shows I knew before I knew her. (I met him once, and some of his actors, shook a few hands, remained calm.) A couple of albums with “Stolen from KZSU” in big letters on the front burned in the Witch Creek fire. I had a chat with a woman who seemed glad to see someone who worked there 50+ years earlier, and failed to find out that my elusive friend was to be interviewed there in the afternoon.
And that was the end of my walkabout, though not the end of my day. I walked over to the class tent for lunch, and wandered through, like everyone else, staring at name tags in hopes of recognizing someone. The only one I recognized was Joe Belfiore, not even in my class and not from his nametag, which I didn’t see, but familiar from Microsoft presentations. Perhaps it wasn’t him. He was walking by with his kids, on the way to his own reunion events.
Friends were scarce. I knew that before I came. I cared, but didn’t care. I remembered some people who were in the class book, and some who weren’t. I tried to contact the rabbi’s son from Calgary, who’d worked for HP, written books on gambling, and designed crossword puzzles for the NY Times. No luck there. My housemate from the class of ’64 was there, the one who, with his wife, rescued me the previous night, picked me up in the morning, and drove me to pick up my rental car that afternoon. At the class panel, for me the most interesting part of the day, I met my Escondido neighbor, from a block away up the hill, whose house is even older than ours. Not that we’ll socialize at home. And there was my elusive old friend, famous now, geek famous, the best way, we didn’t see each other but we exchanged emails in what turned out to be, in his words, a “virtual meetup.”
the rest of the day
Before and during the class panel I exchanged phone calls with the body shop, that didn’t have my car, then did have it, then said the insurance company would probably total it and I better come down and take what I wanted out of it or wait until Monday. I wanted to go home before Monday, so the time between the class panel and the class party was filled by finding Dave and Hilda, getting taken to the car rental place (in Redwood City, near my motel), driving to Sunnyvale to the body shop, taking a few salvageable and personal items out of my car, and driving back up El Camino to the Stanford campus for the party. Another look-at-nametags event. Don’t know what I was expecting, I knew no one I knew was there (though I vainly looked for my elusive friend again). The DJs music was from our high school years (All Shook Up, Little Darlin, Great Balls of Fire), good but wrong, a setlist for a different class, though who would know but us. The Stanford Band made a quick hit, probably going from party to party. I stood behind them, with a beer. The Band got the way they are after our class graduated; we got more traditional half-time shows; but the new incarnation is something to be proud of, except perhaps for those who still call the team the “Indians.” Finally, after quite a few circuits, I sat down alone at a high table, between one of the bars and the music, and let people stop to talk with me. That worked, actually. Among the people who stopped by was one of the presenters at the class panel who’d described a revelatory moment in the Haight-Ashbury about a block from where I was living at the time. I mentioned that in our chat, and envied him for living in Barcelona.
Afterwards, not quite drunk, I drove into Palo Alto to look for the site of the High Street house, a two-story Victorian warren many of us lived in for a while. There was a band in the attic and a beehive in the outer wall of the enclosed porch I slept in and couldn’t get out of without going through someone else’s room. There was a payphone off the kitchen that I used to call a not yet famous Bill Graham in my most successful moment as a band manager. It was a nice place to live, and cheap, helping to stretch out my Peace Corps severance, but it’s paved over now, a parking lot for some tech company; I wasn’t even sure I was looking at the right corner.
I drove back to Redwood City, emailed my friend, tried to watch tv, went to sleep, got up, packed up, and drove back to campus expecting breakfast again at the alumni center. I hadn’t read the schedule; they were setting up for brunch and a celebration of President Hennessy. I watched a man from a class earlier than mine complain, then took another walk, to the bookstore and through the Quad and back to my rental car to head out of town, stopping in East Palo Alto to try to find the house we used to live in, Dave, and I, and the son of the Calgary rabbi, and the guy I thought might have become the Grateful Dead’s manager but wasn’t, and some others too various to mention, Rick, Stanley, Bill, Dick. Poker games in the basement, Mogen David, heavenly blue morning glory seeds, the first time I heard Bob Dylan songs, sung on record by the Mamas and the Papas. I think that all happened there. A bottle of whiskey on top of a wardrobe, barely touched and left behind.
Then the drive home, past Facebook, across the Dumbarton, then back the way I came, past Casa de Fruta, down the Central Valley, through LA with jammed traffic and a dead GPS, taking longer than I wanted.
A few weeks later another Stanford friend emailed, my “best friend” for a while I guess, at least as I remember it. I’d known him and his recently late wife almost since the time they met, about the time he and I met in a Blair Fuller’s writing class. His wife and my first became close too, when we all lived in San Francisco, and even later. Warren lives in Oregon now, still works occasionally, and was going to be in Los Angeles and could we get together. I met him at his hotel, the Queen Mary in Long Beach, an interesting place I’d not been to before. Then we drove to West LA or thereabouts, near where I lived in my UCLA year, to see another old friend, one who’d lived in the East Palo Alto house and been a drummer in bands with us. Ed (we called him Rick back then) has motor-neuron disease, which makes him look goofy and prevents him from talking with his own voice, but doesn’t affect his memory or his mind, certainly not more than the years have for all of us. We spent a few hours, the three of us, talking about old days, names of other friends, things I didn’t know or didn’t remember and by now have forgotten again. He used an iPad to type and talk, though we started reading his typing before the digital voice kicked in. Finally, we had to leave. An LA day, lost in traffic on the way back to Long Beach, then my drive home, late and sorry, but a good day nonetheless, rivalling the trip to Palo Alto though without the scenery, or the crash.
You’re done when you stop. It was good to spend time again with these places and these people, dead and alive, named and unnamed in this account, but you’re done when you stop, and, for a while at least, this is better.