“My life belongs to the world, I will do what I can.”
James Dickey “The Strength of Fields”
I’d been having panic attacks – shaking with tears, a feeling of imminent explosion. I had one on the plane from New York to San Francisco. I was wearing my wig, I was reading a book and all my favorite characters kept dying in surprising ways. When I closed my eyes I kept seeing all the problems I was trying to leave behind. “GO BLANK” I kept chanting but it did not work.
I was downing penicillin, waiting for a root canal in Brooklyn. I was downing valium, my new kitten, Nunya, was shitting and pissing on everything in my apartment. My roommate and I hadn’t been getting along in six months. A girl I loved had dumped me and didn’t seem to care at all.
And all the people on the plane – old ladies with way too much make-up, perfume and jangly jewelry; big strapping dudes, people who take management courses; they all want to talk to me. That’s why I wear the wig, people leave me alone. A friend of mine who did window displays for a porn store had given it to me from her decoration stash. A brown afro and I always pulled some real hair out so I looked real crazy. The wig worked until the San Francisco Airport. A guy talked to me and I gave him the look that conveyed “Why are you talking to me, I’m wearing my wig.”
I had never been to California before. I go to the Mission. San Francisco seemed like a city without residents: all the people had just been dropped here or washed up on shore and started asking for change. I was aimless and everyone else here seemed to be too.
I walked around for hours, all the way to Nob Hill and back. I knew no one here but had ten phone numbers of friends of friends. I call them all, no one is home, it was getting dark.
I go to the Tip-Top Inn, I’ve been seeing a flyer for a show there.
I ended up staying the whole time in San Francisco with the first person I had a conversation with. Her name was Tracy. I saw her, tall and beautiful, the first person openly smoking in a bar here. I was supposed to meet up with a girl named Tristy. I thought I heard someone call her that. “Did she just call you Tristy?”
“No, I’m Tracy.” She shook my hand and it was gravy from there. She introduced me to all her friend and bandmates. I told her my situation. “Don’t worry, I’ll find you a place to crash. You could stay with me but I have a four year old at home”.
The show was great. All different bands, all female drummers. After the first band, Saint Andre, we go get stoned in the back of Tracy’s friend’s truck. They’re talking about their ages (29-35) and bands and I’m about to throw up my Nicaraguan food. Our feet are huddled together in the middle of the bed of the truck and I’m about to puke all over them. I keep barking up pre-puke gas but no one seems to notice. Someone hands me the pipe. I’m scared to open my mouth but I figure if pot is ever going to have anti-nausea effects it’s going to be here in San Francisco. I’m right and am free to join in the discussion of whales and sharks fighting and maternal instinct.
Back inside the Deep Throats are rocking on the floor with snotty punk eyeglares, dressed as nurses adjusting skirts. It all ends with everybody in the room splayed on the floor covered in beer and smiling. The drummer throws her panties in the crowd. This is what I’ve been missing by living in New York in 1998, the drunken punk that ABCNORIO can’t provide.
Tracy was in the last band, Zmrzlina, Czech for ice cream. She played violin, guitar and sang. They played covers of the Fall, Devo and Jad Fair. Heather sang a song about Japanese school girls.
After the bands, in the other room, I see a cute girl bending over pounding on a piano and screaming. She’d with a guy who looks like Paul Bowles. I sit at the bar. She comes over and stands right next to me. Her eyes lock on mine, her breasts hug my arm. She smiles, she points out her friend, he’s drinking faster than I’ve ever seen anyone drink before, ten second gin tonics. Her other friends come over and suddenly we’re all petting each other’s hair. Paul Bowles comes over and starts petting my hair. He grabs the girl’s hair and pulls her by it towards him as he backs up. She pushes him away and he grabs a drink. She goes and slaps the drink out of his hand, shattering glass against the wall. He tries to punch her. Guys close in on him, he springs again and they get him out of the bar. She comes up to me and smiles. “Oh fuck”, she says, “what did you think of that?”
She’s freaking out. I try to calm her down by telling her that kind of shit happens all the time in Brooklyn. Her friends are waiting outside but she doesn’t want to deal with them. “Where do you live?” she asks.
I tell her I’m homeless. She tries to figure out how to get me to her place but after a while it she seems too crazy for this to be worth it. I get up and go to Tracy.
I saw the girl at an American Analog Set show two nights later. It turns out she went to the University of Kansas too, she used to live on the same block as me, she knows my best friend Sara and the guy who tried to punch her is the ex-boyfriend of the lesbian who gave Sara and I matching tattoos.
Tracy says I can stay with her. I feel imposing but it fades as we talk into the morning. I’m smiling as I fall asleep in her out of town roommate’s bed. When I wake up she tells me I can stay with her as long as I’m in town.
Her kid, Eli, comes home from his Dad’s. He’s rad, smart and cute. In the hours Tracy and I had him we wandered the city at a child’s pace. His eyes caught everything – exotic bugs straining to limestone, diamonds everywhere, hidden in the broken glass, paper pictures and clues. The city was a series of interlocking, magical trails we could follow to a blessed surprise if we could pay attention to one trail long enough. I bought him his first whoopee-cushion and disposable camera.
Then it would be only Tracy and I, inspiring and complimenting each other. She took me to see Nights of Cabiria at the Castro Theater. She showed me the city. Her pace almost met mine. Sidetrips, a tour of her day to day life.
And then I would leave. Liberated by my own pace in the strange town. It was a menopausal city: hot, cold, hot, cold. The shade shifts from one side of the street to the other had me scrambling back and forth.
I drank too much, dollar beers in dive bars switching my wallet from back pocket to front. Not knowing anyone I felt myself a mark. In parties that I infiltrated I would make quick friends and establish how we should have known each other a long time ago. Rich conversations into the night that I couldn’t quite remember as I stumbled back to Tracy’s.
Tuesday I took a bus to Napa then hitchhiked to Petaluma. I went from bar to bar and took my penicillin. I finished Lonesome Dove at Gale’s. A guy called me Bill Gates and demanded I buy him a pitcher.
The next bar, The Hideaway, a guy tells me I look like a “devlin – something that acts without thinking about it consequences. Like a cat that just runs across the road when it sees the mouse. Doesn’t see the cars, doesn’t see anything but that mouse.” I laugh. He grunts as he drinks bitters and water out of a pint glass.
He takes a long drink and lights a cigarette. “I got a letter from my ex-wife.” He pats his breast pocket and pulls the letter out. “Everytime red ink, everyone always already knows but me.”, he yells.
He makes me play pool with him. I resist, I suck, I haven’t played in a year. He sets up and explains 9-ball, a game I’ve never played. Within five minutes I hit ten lucky shots. I walk out of the bar triumphantly as he pleads for a rematch.
There’s all these teenagers hanging out on the streets. I ask if they know if it’s cool to crash in a field around here. They say I can sleep with them under the bridge. I buy us some beer and we drink it on a pier on the river. They’re talking young and stupid. Eventually we end up sleeping on mattresses under the bridge. I fall asleep even though their words and pee echo loudly.
The next morning I wake up early and head straight for the laundrymat, visions of scabies burrowing in my head. Why didn’t I just find a goddamn field to sleep in? Why did I hang out with those dumb kids? I guess they weren’t any worse than the adults.
It’s all my friend Abe’s fault. He made a movie, Max, 13, around here about a bunch of teenagers. I was paying homage or something. As I walked out of Petaluma, in the chalky green hills, Abe’s soundtrack (Erik Satie) tinkled in my mind.
But no one would pick me up. I counted the cars as they passed me. At 130 cars a lady stopped. In a van with her kids, smoked and bitter. She told me everyone is California is an asshole. She’s going to move to Montana. “Yeah, I’m sure everyone’s real nice there” I say. She drops me off and makes the turn to Tomales.
Two minutes later an old man, smack lips and long glare, picks me up. He’s going to play golf in the fog by Bodega Bay. As we enter the fog he tells me to stick my arm out the window. “Feel that? The temperature just dropped ten degrees. That’s the Northern California air-conditioner.”
He dropped me off and there I was – the coast. I wish there was more to say. The seals sounded like they were laughing at me. They were the hidden soundtrack, I never saw them, only the vultures above waiting for me to die.
I took a shortcut through resort room patios to get to the shore. I walked in the marsh, in a field of cattails taller than me, till my shoes were soaked. I squatted there shaking with stimulus and indecision. The unseen ocean roared. I took a self-portrait with a disposable camera that I later lost.
I head back to the highway.
I’m at the bottom of a hill. I watch cars appear and disperse into the mist. I see a convertible come over the hill. I know it will stop for me.
“Santa Rosa” we both say. I hop in. Red Pontiac 1961. I’m in the song I heard Jonathon Richman sing the night I left New York.
The driver, Sean, drives off talking; grizzled and hungover, dressed like a cowboy. I give him Lonesome Dove, it had fallen with me into the East River.
He didn’t have anything to do. He said, fuck it, he’d take me on a tour of Sonoma County. Blasting Mariachi music, divining the border between fog and quarry dust. First stop Occidental. We ate on a restaurant porch. He brought out his violin from the car and fiddled me a song, well sung but many sour notes on his instrument.
After lunch a second beer. He talks about his wife and their upcoming divorce. I talk about my ex-girlfriend. We’re both about to cry. I would have loved to sit and cry on a porch in Occidental about lost women with someone but it wasn’t him, not yet. In lieu of tears we went to the Russian River for a swim. Perfect temperature, baby ducks swam around our heads.
He drives me around a bit more, then it’s back to his place. It’s nine acres of redwood land between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, a log house built around redwoods, four guest houses. A meadow on top of the hill. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen and I don’t mean fancy. They’d gotten it from a drug dealer on his way to prison. Nine hundred dollars a month for the guy’s two years in prison. Then the government appraised it low and they were able to buy it. He was losing it in the divorce, hence half the tears or so.
“Let me show you my office”, Sean says. I follow him for a long time into the woods. His office is a slab of wood laid over a creek with a bed on it. He fools with the bed and takes his clothes off. I begin apologizing to my butt.
But he just wants to clean off from the river. The creek is pristine, the source is on his land with nothing but organic wineries around. He leaves me there to relax. There’s a hanging chair and Sixties comics. It’s over a hundred degrees out but down here it’s like eighty. I get so relaxed, I guess I’m meditating.
Sean comes and gets me and we take the “smuggler’s road” to Calistoga. The old and sickly drive their carts through the heat in hope of hotspring salvation. Sean buys me beer and we drink it to Santa Rosa. “Have a nice life,” he says as I leave his car.
I hit a string of good bookstores-A Little Original Sin, State of Grace, The Maniac Responsible.
Met up with friend of friend Jason Kelly and local girls at a margarita joint. He had a brand new cowboy hat, big and white. We drank into the night and got to know each other. I slept in Jason’s neighbor’s bed. She was out of town and I hoped I wasn’t giving her scabies from the night before afterwards.
Next day we bummed around. I shaved Jason’s head in his backyard as his wolf/dog puppy jumped around eating locks of Jason’s hair as they flew off the clippers. His new hat didn’t fit as well.
We took a bus down to Oakland drinking two free bottles of wine from his parents’ house. Too drunk once there, we slept on Jason’s friend’s floor.
Next day wandered and I made it to Tracy’s while no one was home. Her band was supposed to play the French consulate that night. I made myself my West Coast King of France crown, cutting and gluing construction paper with visions of drunken, bossy belligerence to froggy diplomats.
Tracy and Eli come home. She tells me she missed me. The show at the consulate fell through so I give Eli the crown and let him boss me around.
The next night Zmrzlina play again. I drank till they ended and it was time to go. Tracy and I thanked each other. In the airport I ate three hot dogs in drunken haste, spilling everywhere.
Drunk in my wig, miles in the sky, I’m heading home, back to my troubles. I did not go blank, I will not stay blank. But I got some of my faith in myself, my luck, back. With this I could sleep and stupidly smile.