I don’t usually go in for hearing old bands live, touring with their old material for whatever reason (Steely Dan? and I’ve resisted both chances to hear the B-52s this summer). But X is different: hearing X makes me happy, makes me want to move to Los Angeles, and I’ve lived in Los Angeles. It could be argued that X is an important band, despite being unknown to a surprisingly large percentage of my friends, influential beyond their popularity, a band’s band maybe, like Pere Ubu.
I first heard X about 35 years ago, give or take, at a small club out Clairemont Mesa, gone now. don’t remember the name, maybe the Bacchanal but maybe not. There were a few rows of seats facing the stage and that was about it. Some drugs in the bathroom, or maybe that’s a misremembered TV show. Last week I attended the second of two sold out X shows at the Belly Up, a bigger venue than that first one but still what one might call “intimate.” Two nights before it was X Day at Dodger Stadium. They’re on their 40th Anniversary Tour.
X is back the same as it ever was, all four original members–Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D. J. Bonebrake– forty years older. X is what we might have called in the late 60s a power trio with a chick singer, though I doubt I’d dare. They have power, straight-ahead punk sound, unrelenting even, coupled with the tight, unforgiving, shout singing vocal harmony between John Doe and Exene. (The only reason I hesitate to use the word “punk” is because they’re so good musically, unlike, say, the Dead Milkmen. And Billy Zoom, perhaps the straightest looking middle-aged musician I’ve seen in a long time, can flat play.) X is rarely subtle, musically, and the message of one of their best songs, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, suffers from it, misconstrued into its opposite so that they stopped playing it for a while (but not anymore). Some of the songs are newer (Billy played a sax of some size on a couple of them) but the sound is pretty much the same, and these guys are still alive. Exene in particular–and I know the term is overused–a force of nature.
The audience was a bit punky, pogoing and jerking side-to-side, at least in my neighborhood, people probably younger than the band, but okay, better for me than the screamers at the Lana Del Rey show at the House of Blues. At one point, sometime after eleven, someone in the audience requested a song. John Doe answered, “It’s coming,” and “You were here last night motherfucker, you know what’s going on.” A little later they launched a medley, mostly from their first album, without breaks, Los Angeles, Your Phone’s Off the Hook but You’re Not, Nausea, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, Motel Room in my Bed, and Soul Kitchen (a Doors song they do better), and an encore from a later album, The New World (my favorite) and Devil Dog. This is all according to Setlist, I was too busy listening to take notes.
The warm up band, LP3 and the Tragedy, was pretty good too, with a sound that at first made me wonder why X looked so different.
I haven’t been a big concert goer the past few decades. I’ve heard Pere Ubu, Billy Bob Thornton, Father John Misty, Kitty Plague, and I went to the three-day Monterey Pop 50 with my daughter (where we both heard Regina Spektor for the first time), but none of these was a match for the Lana Del Rey experience at the House of Blues in San Diego. The concert was announced four days in advance, with insider ticket sales the next day if you bought something from her site and logged on at 10am. So grandpa played the rules, bought her new album online, and made the will-call list, part of the experience.
On Monday I left work early but not early enough to avoid an hour-and-a-half wait in the will-call line that that went three-quarters of the way around the block, standing with strangers mostly my granddaughter’s age, managing not to need to pee or to faint from dehydration, then it was another line, half an hour and all the way around the block, lapping the will-call line still going strong, to get in the door, past the pat down, and over to the bar to wait for another hour before the singing started. So, will-call line at 5:30, ticket at 7:00, inside by 7:30, singing at 8:40 until 10:10, ending with an instrumental walk-off worthy of the introduction to a Cure song.
I haven’t heard everybody, but I’ve listened to singers my age-mates, and even my daughters age-mates, have never heard or even heard of. To me Lana Del Rey is one of the three most interesting singer-songwriters of her generation (I have tickets to the other two in October). I’ve listened to her songs, on headphones mostly, over and over. I’m ambivalent and enthusiastic, beautiful songs contain lyrics like “Heaven is a place on earth with you/Tell me all the things you wanna do/I heard that you like the bad girls/Honey, is that true?” (Video Games, her first “hit”), or “My old man is a bad man” etc. (Off to the Races, which she closed with), where she loves that he loves her. But then there’s I Sing the Body Electric, which she opened with: right now I’m all about the night I saw her, not the hours I’ve listened on my own.
The problem, if you can call it a problem, is that she has fans. She has fans like no one else I’ve seen in a very long time. My 49 year-old daughter rushed the stage at Monterey when Phil Lesh came on, and that was something, but Lana’s fans were something else, much younger (than my daughter, and of course me) for the most part, majority female. They know the songs, and sang along, some. Lana encouraged it, pointed her microphone at audience for the refrain “probably a million years” in Summertime Sadness. She has a new album, Lust for Life, not the first album or song with that name (Iggy Pop, collaborating with David Bowie, not to mention the reference to Vincent Van Gogh), so the title could be seen as a statement about her position vis-a-vis these others. Reviewers, and Lana Del Rey herself, think this album, which debuted at #1, is her best, and a new departure; I’m not so sure, to me it seems more like her Nashville Skyline moment (to reference one of her avowed influences), but it didn’t matter last Monday night. Only two of the sixteen songs she sang–Change and Love–were from the new album. The concert, with the fans singing along, holding their phones aloft as a previous generation held cigaret lighters, screaming in recognition as each song started and intermittently throughout, so that the acoustics were better in the men’s room–this concert, this experience, was about the past, not the future or even the present.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved being there, standing in the back by the bar, peering over the heads of the fans who, if not her target audience (she says she’s a songwriter first and a singer second) have at least taken that role; I know the songs too, and teared up during Born to Die, and I’d go see her again (even with the will-call line), but the true experience of her music is alone in headphone space listening closely to the lyrics.
When I was in high school some friends and I sometimes went to a racetrack about halfway between Shaker Heights and Akron. We weren’t old enough to bet, but one of us–Dudgie we called him, though how we spelled it in our minds is uncertain–looked old enough, so we picked horses whose names we liked. I will never forget Happyfellow Bob.
I went to the Casbah a few months ago, my first time out alone after my life changed last October, to hear, as I’ve put it, God, Dave Thomas as Pere Ubu, about which not too much could be said. Tonight (actually, three nights ago now) I went just to hear music, three bands, two with interesting names, and a third whose name I couldn’t remember talking about it beforehand. The interesting names were Kitty Plague and The Digital Lizards of Doom. That latter name in particular was my reason for driving down from Escondido to this dive bar near the San Diego airport.
This is not a music review, nothing like that, just a few impressions from an old guy who heard Hendrix, Cream, Butterfield, and Janis live back in the day. So I’m not complaining about volume. Kitty Plague, a power trio like Blue Cheer, made me think of the Ramones and the Dead Milkmen, and produced a wall of sound more powerful than Phil Spector could have pulled off. I liked them, painful as it was to listen, or want to have liked them, a third my age probably but who’s counting. I was told some of their songs were humorous. I tried not to leave the room. And, to tell the truth, I would go hear them again, particularly if I could get a t-shirt with their name on it. (I saw one tonight, but someone was already wearing it, and it would have been too small for me.)
From three we went to nine on stage, Unsteady, a band I hadn’t heard of but reportedly with a long history in San Diego. But I haven’t been our much the past few decades. They were billed as a ska band–a genre I don’t quite get, something like working class white reggae, but maybe something else–but didn’t sound so ska to me. A trumpet, a trombone (!), and two saxophones in the front row, a keyboard player with a hat the reminded me this was the night of the last day of Comic Con (a Wonder Woman showed up, and a guy in a costume I didn’t understand but clearly a costume). They were loud too, but it was easier to stay in the room, and hear the lyrics. The trombone player looked about my granddaughter’s age, and I pictured her up there, a different kind of life.
I remember the first time I saw Jimi Hendrix–sort of by accident, I’d gone to Winterland to hear James Cotton or Albert King, who can remember for sure. I was quickly in awe, and amazed that he could make all that sound without a rhythm guitarist. But he didn’t do it without a bass player and a drummer, to keep him grounded, or at least to remind him where to land. The Digital Lizards of Doom was a single guitarist up on stage with some equipment not clear to me. Even if he hadn’t started with a bad joke he would have had trouble. He didn’t fly like Hendrix. He did fill the room with sound, and I tried to appreciate it, but I thought Kitty Plague did it better. I didn’t stay for his whole set, so maybe I missed something, but driving home I remembered that Happyfellow Bob didn’t make us any money.
Nine months ago today, almost to the hour, my wife of 21 years, companion of 27, died in this house, upstairs from where I’m writing, after an afternoon binge-watching Inspector Morse next to each other in the bedroom, a pleasant day until it wasn’t. The suddenness was, not the way the word is used now by ignorant children, awesome. She was here and then she wasn’t, though her body lingered for a while until it became ashes in a box next to the chair she sat in every morning writing. Before and after: everything else was the same, but not the important thing.
Nine months in the house we lived in together, the home she made for us after the Witch Creek fire burned us out of Del Dios, in another October (2007), just less than nine years before she died. Another “tragedy,” people called it, which took most of our possessions but left us, and the cat, alive. I went back to the empty lot today where we lived then, cleared now of brush and dead trees for fire season, picked up a piece of tile from our old walk-in shower, and a shard of a vintage stoneware cereal bowl, all while thinking about these words, and our life there, and the time between.
In another context nine months is time for a new life, but not in this. Most of today I tried to find words, drank coffee and looked out the windows, walked around the house, touching this and that. Dust has settled everywhere I hadn’t looked, and many of the places I had, I can’t keep up, I don’t keep up. She said I wouldn’t keep up if she died first, in one of those hypothetical conversations we used to have before they became real. I said I’d get sixteen cats, but I haven’t. Nine months living with the things she left behind and, it should go without saying, not over it. I have no illusions, I believe I have no illusions, but in a way I’m still inside her life, a different possibly better person than I was 27 years ago, annealed in the fire of our relationship, both of us happy (my belief) just before the end.
It’s not that nothing has changed in nine months. The awesome suddenness imbued everything she’d touched, particularly on her last day, with a patina of sacredness (there may be a better way to put that). Just a couple of examples, the chair she sat in every morning has not been sat in by anyone else, though it’s the most comfortable chair in the house, and the towel from her last shower is still hanging in the bathroom, on the hook where she left it. It wouldn’t bother me anymore to put the towel back into the laundry cycle, I don’t feel, no longer feel, as Joan Didion wrote she felt about her husband’s shoes, that she’ll come back and need it. It’s still sad, but I no longer feel the need to protect it, no longer tragedy but part of life, one or the other of you if you’re lucky enough to have something like what we had. I guess that’s, however slightly, moving on, but truthfully it feels worse, like a traumatic injury where, when the shock wears off (and I’m not saying it has) the pain rises.
This is, as she would have predicted, all about me, all about me missing her, and not about her, the person she was, the life cut short like a bird shot out of the sky (but see www.saraiaustin.com for some of that flight).
Sarai Austin, poet and writer, mother, sister, and wife, died suddenly and unexpectedly four months ago, October 16, 2016. Besides friends and family members and all the detritus of a normal life she left behind a lot of writing, mostly poetry. There are a lot of poems.
We were a bit reclusive these past years: I went to work, and she did too, finishing, in the carpentry sense, decades of writing work. There was no urgency we thought, but she wanted to get it done, and given that writing is only finished when you stop, what we have is what she gave us.
Like Emily Dickinson, whom she mentions in her long poem Cowboys (“I have been asking for a cowboy hat all year / …every occasion, I ask for a cowboy hat/ and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, /but no one ever takes me seriously.”) she didn’t publish much, though not for lack of submitting manuscripts to magazines and little presses at fifty bucks a pop, a brutal and foolish business to someone not directly involved. Publishing has changed in the internet age, particularly poetry publishing, the door moved and the locks changed. She went back to the writing itself, and a few small chapbooks she laser-printed and folded and stapled in her studio down the path to the other side of the backyard of our 118-year-old house. She loved the house, she loved her studio, and she loved her work.
So, here’s a website, www.saraiaustin.com. She secured the domain and did some design, but I’ve taken it over. The layout is mine (I’m learning as I go), the words are all hers: I haven’t changed anything, not on purpose anyway, not even the spelling of Sassafrass, the title of her chapbook of blues poems, nor have I softened any of the moments in her poems that are no more flattering to me than I deserve. (She might say I’m making it all about me, but they’re not all about me.)
I hope she would like this website if she could, like that some of her poems are out now, available to more than the small audience of small press literary judges and recipients of her small batch handmade chapbooks. There’s also a selection of photos. There will be more poems later, as I go through what she left.
In truth, the real reason I worked this website was so that I could have access to these photos and poems wherever I have an internet connection, but I doubt I’m their only audience. I’d be remiss if I weren’t partial, but the more I read and reread her work (she didn’t show me everything, and I’m finding new stuff as I go) the more I appreciate this aspect of the person I lived with for 27 years. I hope—I expect—some of you already or will love these poems too. It’s not language poetry, it’s not poetry I would or could write (though she told me if she died first I’d probably steal it), it’s not political except in the way that the personal is always political, but maybe it’s what poetry is supposed to be if it’s supposed to be anything: wrought from the lived experience of the poet, in this case of a woman born at home on a farm on the banks of the Mississippi, living the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first in America—Missouri, Arizona, Utah, California—married twice but a long-time single mother, a mentor and friend to other writers, and, of course, to me. I miss her, but I hope it’s not too foolish to say she’s still here, in these words and in these photos, in the memories of all who knew her, and of those who meet her here for the first time.
I remember when it showed up at my door, in La Jolla, on Fay, over a thousand dollars left inside the screen door when no one was home. It’s a slight exaggeration to say it was too heavy to steal.
I set it up in my workroom, later my daughter’s room for the two years she came to live with us, then with me, and learned Tiny Pascal on it. Built Knight’s Tour in that and other languages, including Z80 assembler, and even Basic. Put Forth on it, or tried to.
At a party once I’m told I promised it to a friend playing space invaders or something like that if she got a high enough score.
I remember a plane crash somewhere and a power surge that damaged the video memory. At one point I took it for repair to a place with a name that included “Fast Idiots.” Liked them.
Since it had extra graphic capabilities (compared to the TRS80) I did some fancy (for me, then) graphics stuff, putting randomly colored rectangles on the screen, overlaying each other in a loop.
Took it on “vacation” with me in the back of one of my VW bugs when I visited my ex-wife her husband and my daughter in her new house near Half Moon Bay, ran the graphics program and watched it from various locations around the two-story living room.
I moved the thing in a box to a garage in PB at some point, then to our house in Escondido, where it sat in a shed with the hot water heater for a bunch of years until today. Now it looks more like an American Pickers find than the start of my programming career. But plugged in, the light and fan come on, so it’s not completely dead.
Don’t know how to use it anymore, don’t have software for it, not sure about the connectors on the back, but loath to send it to the electronics recyclers, where it probably belongs.
I’ve been watching the Republican National Convention some this week, not intensely, but it’s a straight shot from my cubicle to the big tv in the breakroom where it’s been non-stop MSNBC, CNN, and occasionally, when the wrong person passes through, Fox. I’ve been watching, not so much for the speeches, which are for the most part horrifying, but for glimpses of Cleveland, the city where I grew up.
I remember the first convention I remember, the 1952 Republican convention in Chicago. I was 9. We were on vacation in California, in a motel that still exists near the San Francisco zoo. There was a small black-and-white TV. I liked Taft, because he was from Ohio, and it seemed a little like a sporting event. I remember it as a ballot fest, so I must have known about those, but I looked it up and it was apparently one ballot, some cigars, and a recount. Ike got the nomination and I never liked a Republican again. I should thank him for that. He was, as it turned out, not that bad by Republican standards, far better than any Republican president that came after him.
Later that year, still 9, I took the Shaker Rapid downtown to Public Square, which has been on TV a bit this week, to an appearance by the only presidential candidate I’ve ever seen in person, if you don’t count Eldridge Cleaver, another story. Maybe it was a weekend, maybe I played hooky. Anyway, I went by myself. A 9 year old could do that then. It was peaceful, a speech, some literature and campaign buttons I showed off in class the next day or so, and back home on the Rapid. All the way with Adlai. A smart guy, though Ike, I think, was no dummy. And now Cleveland has had to witness this.
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.