Wide Berth

I rent cars every few days, in lieu of admitting I need a car of my own, and a car payment of my very own to go with it. Up and down that corridor for 90 minutes, I’ve become one of the regulars, with all the priviledge it affords: a keen sense of where the humming pavement is, as opposed to the pockity pavement; a huge violence lying in wait for slowdowns, whereever they may occur; and a certainty that although the road has curves and switchbacks, I now can make the drive without ever registering that I’ve turned the wheel.

Yesterday I was followed by a woman gesticulating wildly. She was driving solo in a car with the trademark “e” on the license plate: we were in the presence of an employee of the State of California. Her car, whether she liked it or not, had been turned into a fishbowl, and we were all edgy cats studying the contents.

So I observed. Her gestures were not rhythmic, but just in case I scanned the radio dial for that song that might light her up in pure pop abandon. Nothing synched, but I did hear that barrel- voiced biblical scholar on three different points on the dial. He sounds altered to protect his identity, or slowed in speed to fill the available time slot. God is like that.

Then she smacked herself really hard in the face. Eyebrow raised, I made snap judgements about her diagnosis of Tourette’s, no, she just augered in on an exam, no, her evil twin inside, no, someone below her reaching up, nice, but implausible, and finally came to rest on the obvious:

A State Worker Is Falling Asleep On Highway 80 East.

Head shakes, rattling of limbs, swerving, facial exercises (I think that’s a charitable way of putting it), more self-abuse and pure shouting, which I will describe as wordless and incoherent. Not once did she pull over and buy a 44 ounce diet pepsi and eat a box of mounds bars. I pulled up parallel to see if I could signal to her that the jig was up and it was nighty-night time, but she was lost to me, us, that.

With a yawn, I accelerated diligently into her horizon.

I’m not sure I want to go Further

…with this analogy

Ken was demurring when he told the reporter that he may decide to take half a hit and sit on the couch (or was it a hill?) on Easter morning. I imagine he has enterprises to manage, and the sort of insights regular dosing would provide may not be productive to those goals. Or maybe he’s lying. My other idea was that such a personal thing, in addition to being illegal, was just not important to talk about anymore, unless you are, like Terrence was that night at the Great American, cultivating the rapt attention of people aged 13 to 22. These people don’t remember the Bus, or the horror we felt when the one pilgrimaging to the Smithsonian was casually introduced as a refurbished fake. I’m under the impression the real bus broke down somewhere and became a part of the landscape out in Veneta. My heart broke at the news that both the Merry Pranksters and the Smithsonian curatorial staff had settled for second best.

In my brother’s shop, he has a glowing duratrans of Ken pondering the future, which seems to lie somewhere to the upper left of the Bus he stands in front of. The same photographer caught production stills of playing the pale but still supple corpse of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Exhibited together in this way, I see a little story of America each time I enter through the lobby of the shop. If I can help it, I come in the back.

I’m too young for the Bus myself. During college, we toted and tended PA and AV for NORML, Ken-proofed lauvilier mics with duct tape, ripped bongs and dosed early and often, but we knew we were way too late, despite the refinements in the chemical intensity of our sixties legacy. Better, faster, deeper, more, we slipped through the eighties never mixing and never worrying, never doing what we were selling, never impounded, grounded or caught outside, little angels of set and setting.

So when we stood around, fully thirty-something, waiting for the Firesign Theater show to start, the obligatory rock concert doob made its rounds and I took a professional draw and baked it in my lungs for a very very long time. Its effect was instantaneous, but I was unaware of it all the same. Attempting to get the attention of the group, I was very excited to report that an Elvis impersonator had come to the show. How redemptive! I exclaimed. We no longer need to be ashamed to be supporting this obviously greedy and predatory assault on our nostalgia nerve by the washed-up Firesign Theater crew, who, after all, got to fade away and get bit work in car commercials. Someone has taken it to a new level, and is far fucking fat as hell with the late elvis belt buckle and karate pants! It’s all a big lie, muchachos! We’re all pretending!

Concerned hands moved me into the theater, their little president hurried away from the trouble in the street. I had mistaken a large policeman for an Elvis impersonator in the twilight, and he was visibly weighing whether to write me the show-stopping misdemeanor ticket that would end my political career, if it was ever to begin, or to let my big mouth go.

And I’m too young for Firesign Theater, too. In my labile state, their deft use of Joyce in a coda to a sketch had a thundering effect on me. I began to believe people in the sixties were smarter, more engaged, better read and closer to the authentic expression of self. I forgave them all their changes, their sell-outs, their failed experiments, their bad clothing, and their spawn. I yearned, from my seat in the P row, for a chance to think, on a regular basis, as quickly as these people on stage had once, when they composed the original sketch.

You are so funny, I would say.

You are so stoned, they would say.

We had samples, don’t ask us how, of John Perry Barlow skewering David Gans on the radio with a public reading of Pacifica Radio’s rules of allowable speech: the Senstive Language Request/Report form. As Barlow made his way through the foyer of 1015, he passed under the deep sound of us collaging this rant with the low subharmonics of Sound Traffic Control, the twitch of Bob Ostertag, and the ominous chorus of live electronica. Welcome to the Digital Be-In, sad monster child of Leary’s shining circus of intentional community that convened in January 1967. Eyes closed and aching with inadequacy, I layered and layered and layered and layered sound, trying to beat down the thought, now quite deafening in my head, that I was only five years old when this whole thing started. Thinking in a compound fashion, making connections between disparate elements, leaping and inverting imagery, sound, ideas and motion: being, I felt quite clearly, free and yet, quite clearly, not.

Passing the test and failing. On the bus and off. Sliding into the wake of big, beautiful, pioneering craft. In here, it’s wholly different water than the kind they’re encountering up front.

Signage

Leaving was particularly difficult, totally by surprise. The best caregiver of the tribe arrived, scrubbed. I wore 50 minutes of stage 4 sleep on the front of my shirt, the stain of a precipitous slumber after staying up all night staring at the fischer price intercom as it faithfully redlighted every cough on the inside and every auto on the outside.

The caregiver looked at me, caregivingly, and asked directly: how are you? I listed all the super-readiness of meals, laundry, utensils, detritus, stopping midway to hear her question for the first time during my shipshape litany.

Oh I’m terrible, thanks, but I believe you’ll finally have enough spoons for one day.

Spoons are important. Running out can be a real drag. She had made her point, though, and I took my coffee in and sat on the bed to have it with Ma.

She demonstrated emotional lability, which invariably includes some dead-on unfiltered true thing about The World In Which We Live, so I listen, quite on the edge of my seat. This is kind of like, at least I like to think, climbing out on the bow of the boat in case something beautiful is contained in the tempestuous spray you are bound to find there.

Her sadness is profound. It stems from gratitude. She cannot be consoled.

I think your hand is connected to your heart, I say, smoothing out the withering limb, it curls when you do.

Slipped into the traffic standing still outside her house and edged toward the critical intersection of the great migration downtown. I was leaving town entirely and just didn’t belong. With no makeup, cellphone, laptop or child to tend, I saw the sign far in advance of my five lane pod brethren:

A man walking around the conflux of 24 lanes of traffic at rush hour. A painter, spattered down to his shoes. His sign was about three by four feet, coming out of the will-work-for tradition of calligraphy:

Bob Cook Wrote Me A Bad Check.

I felt satisfied I had encountered the truth as I had hoped I would. Armed with the right knowledge at long last, I brought the radio to life, lifted the coffee and took the healthy gulp, checked the side mirror, and took off for home.

Le Rouge et Le Noir

Did I tell you this already?

Margaret C. Watson and I made our parents furrow their collective brow in consternation one year when we insisted on using the economical train to go back to school after the winter break. Leaves at midnight. From a hut in Davis. This was during the slump in popularity of train travel, not only among parents, but among anyone wishing to arrive safely and on time at their destination.

Like we were in a hurry.

But you know, yes, we were but not the kind you can own up to: In a hurry to leave our parents’ homes because, while we were away, we had drunk the bottles that said drink me and eaten the cakes that said eat me and really just didn’t fit inside those homes anymore: a problem of scale. In a hurry to avoid our destination by taking Old Unreliable, eating meat that could be spoiled due to its storage near the railcar radiator that scalded all window passengers while freezing the unfortunate aisle ones, fingering the teeny envelope of blotter we shouldn’t really, not at this hour, not with this obvious containment we’re experiencing, prisoners really, unable to leave the train whenever we feel like it without falling into the pure and simple blackness that accompanied this train wherever it went: a problem of dread.

So I turned to the Bad Thing: my paperback copy of Stendahl’s Red and The Black, which I was supposed to have read before now and written a paper commenting on. Sadly, no matter where I attached my mouth to it, I–

Well–

Just. . .

Hated it. The characters were pathetic and opaque to their own role in their unhappiness. They seemed unaware of what good advice I could give them. The professor who assigned the text had his homunculi rousted and assigned to my hallucination in anticipation of my, erm, reluctance. There that fucker was: pint-sized patriarch perched on the edge of the book ready to turn a page for me at any moment, my chaperone, murmuring little things and checking my body language to see if I had freed myself from the one sentence I kept reading over and over and over and over again, was I ready? Ready to turn? Ready to finish and write the paper? I slammed the paperback shut, which is in league with throwing a potato chip, and each time I did so the imp leapt out of the way with a whisping sound I wouldn’t hear again until passing by a nephew’s bedroom door and hearing the sound effects of his nintendo 64. I went ashen and steadied myself in the hallway until this whole story I’m telling you played out at about 200 miles an hour: just me and David Lynch driving a Dodge Dart with one headlight through my memory.

Toss. Turn. Pace the rail cars and create Homeric epithets for them based on their smell. Discover the frozen strawberries my mother had packed to keep my meat from spoiling and overdose on their more than thawed super glucose. Love ma and miss her terribly in ways I can never describe to her. Pick up the book. Read one sentence 60 or 70 times. Slam (oh nice going) the book shut. Wonder if the train was damned and day would never come. Admit that suited me fine. Weep. Sleep, but only for 2 minutes with eyes wide open. Ask Margaret C. Watson again if it was actually true that we were doing what we were doing at this very moment and if we had entered into it of our own free will. Pick up the book. Pick up the book. Pick up the book, the only one in my life that had nothing whatsoever to say to me.

Twenty hours later we arrive in PDX and cannot unkink ourselves from the positions we took as a last resort to reading Stendahl. Our gear was everywhere, had fucked and multiplied since we got on the train, and we grabbed a train-issue garbage bag and stuffed it all in like it was the now breathless party-goer no one knew. Fell off the high steps into Stumptown rain. As we walked the million miles home, dragging our garbage bag behind us, I vowed to take a hot bath with Stendahl, dispatch him by morning, manifest my thesis and meet my deadline handsomely.

Around 4 that afternoon I tried to make good and did: reading sentences sequentially and, once or twice, underlining or turning a page corner down for future reference. Little by little the story of the story began to matter to me, and towards the final 100 pages I eagerly turned to see what was about to happen next, hermeneutics aside. It was here I noticed a rubbed spot on the upper right hand corner: a little scalloped portion. On the following folio it was a little larger, say, by a hair. With each folio the rubbed area grew down, first obscuring the last letter of the last word of the text, in a few pages the last word, further on a couple words of the first two lines, on and on so that I eventually could no longer imagine, through some kinda bad ass gestalt, what the hell Stendahl was trying to say to me. Unlike big bright shiny modern books that have truth sprinkled throughout them, or sometimes exclusively on the title page, this French upheaval thing was saving up the truth for the final pages, the ones that were now half debreded by, and it dawned on me:

dragging the garbage bag through Portland. The book was, of course, the first to be thrown away as we repacked on the rail car and had been the first thing to erode when the bag gave way at the points of contact with the sidewalk.

I had no idea. I was too busy vowing to read the book I was destroying with every step.

By the end of the book more than three quarters of the page was missing, eroded like a treasure map, sticking out from the spine in a shred. Cropped. Useless. I stared at it with rage. I could make out one sentence, which I read over and over and over to try and unlock the context around it. I began rereading the book to see how the first page might structurally intimate the last page. I scoured the house for additional copies, howling at the lack of resources a house of college students afforded. Rode down the hill to the locked and darkened library and collapsed in the special exhaustion reserved for people who etch their own fates.

When it came time to light something on fire and throw it as hard as I could out the window, I had my sacrifice ready and waiting.

It was a sight, for the second time in its life.

I Will Not Die At Washington Street

There’s a billboard at the junction of 680 and 780 that sez Welcome to Benicia-a-a-ahhh!

They are dead wrong, unless you pronounce a-a-ahhh! like someone who just noticed her scarf had caught in the propeller.

Generally, the billboard is blocking your view of the source of the flame shooting into the sky. It becomes clearer as you advance, and you spend the time flipping flipping flipping the synapses like 3 by 5 cards saying this:

OK. Flame in sky. Excess of byproduct. System not meant to produce flame. If flame, excess. If excess, fine. If fine, superfund revenues. If revenues, high speed train. Train, yes, no car. Train yes, no flame. Unless flame is harmless. Parents said flame was harmless. Flame pretty. Flame in rear view mirror. OK.

That’s about the end of it. You could go on but you’ve mentioned your parents. You know where that leads: Greek Chorus. Greek Chorus leads to Alpha Waves. Alpha Waves lead to sleep. Sleep while driving. You try for a couple beats. Comfortable. Looking in the surrounding cars you smile quietly. I’m sleeping in my mother’s arms, say your smiling eyes. You can tell by my signal. It’s OK to drive the shoulder.

Underneath, the water is stained black. A train may cross below and to the left, not part of your structure. Further left, a creaking stand of horses with rheumy eyes and bad patches: liberty ships you can contrive to mount. I went out there with Slobodan, put on puffy orange vests and hard hats (mine cinched impossibly high on my head for a joke no one got), squished foam in our ears and road a completely safe cross between a bar of ivory soap and a frisbee out to the edge of the corral. We climbed the iron stair and received the instruction: Follow The Orange Arrows. For about an hour we followed them, subtle things, looking like the rust that was reclaiming them, and climbed over 20 liberty ships on our way to the last one, painted white and holding promise: The Golden Bear is The Artship now. In it’s cargo hold you can fall a hundred feet, or build a black box theater. You decide. On one side of the Artship is the tangle of its siblings, all fighting for the blanket that can’t possibly keep any of them warm. On the other side is a mustard sky and a grey water stretching to another shore. I think I see flames on it. Tell me. Is the shore on fire? More importantly, if we bring The Artship home and make our art on it, will it sink? My art is heavy. You can feel it in my chest.

Didn’t eat, because it brings sleep. Neither heat, nor sound. Just the road sections singing their parts sequentially. Sleep is coming. Sleep is coming anyway. Sleep will come and it will be all over. Everyone left to their own devices about what that big sleep meant, coming when it did. Being asleep, there is little that can be done to correct them. It is time to sing. The song goes like this:

Can’t die at the Washington Street exit even though it is the sight of a consuming yawn, a big giant cakehole yawn that precedes a coma. If I did everyone would think it was symbolic, and it clearly isn’t. The fact of the matter is that I have no affinity for this exit or its name, no association to soothe their confusion. I have a lot of explaining to do so I’m going to wake up and find a better spot to die.

Not a good idea to die at the 24 West-680 South split even though the design of it is conspiring to that end. If I did there would be no argument about the likelihood of that sort of thing happening to someone somewhere along the way, but there would be a few questions about why I, in particular, was not in concert with the physical space. That’s the only rule of driving, no? Two things may not occupy the same space at the same time. Forced to find me careless, all my loved ones, compelled to admit it. How galling, considering the source. This is not the place to die. Let them gloat like that, like they have it over me depth perception-wise? I don’t think so.

I may die at Fish Ranch Road, having quickly dismissed Moraga, and the nearly unmarked exit to the exclusive retirement community that Larkin lived in, yo-yo’d back to his mother’s well after a shunt had been installed and de-installed near her cerebral cortex to manage a complex process of aging. What the hell happened to them? Larkin? Kirby? Willis? His unlikely sisters? Their lovers? Children? Property? Sportscars? The coffee bar on Telegraph? Can you believe I knew them? Can you believe how I )don’t( know them now? How can you ever come to not know someone who taught you how to lawn bowl and likened you to the young Katherine Hepburn? God I’m Dumb. There will be no dying there, but in the time it has taken me to realize what I’ve lost, even though some of it I lost gladly, I’ve arrived at Fish Ranch Road.

A fairly good place to die, but completely without opportunity. Quite possibly the safest fucking exit so far. Blink. Gone. And the Caldecott tunnel in front, with its morbid incinerating histories. A newspaper printed a comment by a tunnel operator (like, what’s to operate?) saying the tunnel was a catacomb, a hive, a skein of passages. They’d never find you, continued the quote. Do you know the writer now? I think you do. The writer is spooked and wants to sleep in your bed so he fought to have that quote left in, just in case one of us would take him in and blow the dream of the bad tunnel operator away. No one can get you. You’re safe now. Speed up to only about 60 to be out of control in the tunnel. Do it with one hand so you can keep one curled around the writer until he’s completely, and soundly asleep. His respirations entrain with yours.

There’s a big inky galaxy on the other side. Gravity will guide you through it.

OK.

OK OK OK.

OK.