This is the fifth installment in the “From the Archives – Bits & Bobs” series. Volume I is here, Volume II is here, Volume III is here, and Volume IV is here. I got the idea for this series from all the published writers who, when they run out of new material, basically print their own money by publishing old letters or diaries that had just been gathering dust. Surely they edit and polish the stuff though, and choose only the best bits, which is what I’ve also done with the following passages, from letters I wrote to my friends or brothers. I’ve provided, for each snippet, the locale I was writing from. Enjoy please enjoy.
(Below is a fairly representative photo from those days. You can tell from my grin that I either had no idea how foolish I looked, or just didn’t care.)
July 17, 1991 - Berkeley
Remember all the hoopla surrounding the solar eclipse? Well that was barely noticeable here in the Bay Area. We’ve had a dark sky for weeks: nothing but cloud cover. I have had the blahs for days, real bad. I can’t seem to focus on anything but the negative. I try to count my blessings, but when the sky is this grey for this long, nothing seems to satisfy. It’s like the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2) and “The eye is not satisfied with seeing,/ Nor the ear filled with hearing” (1:8). Of course, that narrator had it easy, because he was talking about all things “under the sun” and there is no sun to be had here. I just get so glum, I end up with songs like Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” in my head:
So have a good drown
As you go down
Dragged down by the stone
That was my feeling this morning when I looked outside and found another dreary day facing me. Even rain would be a nice change, but the sky outside is one of thick formless cloud cover, far too high up to break the monotony with rainfall. A day should ideally begin with a lovely dawn, breaking into a sunny yet cool morning, followed by a hot sun burning directly overhead at noon. This accomplished, the heat should taper off into a lazy sunny afternoon, ideally broken up by a short thundershower to set the scene for a slightly cooler evening and finally dusk. But for the last few days, nothing like this has transpired. Ten in the morning has been identical to noon, to 2 p.m., and to the evening. It’s been bland nothingness.
But then I looked out our sliding glass doors and was struck by something out toward the horizon. Out of a background of stony grey, I saw the island of Alcatraz, framed perfectly by the only structure that wears fog well: the Golden Gate bridge. I have seen Alcatraz countless times before, and never with so much as a second thought. But now it was the only brightly lit thing I had seen in days. Somehow the sun had found a loophole in the cloud cover and aimed itself right at the former prison, lighting it brilliantly. The scene looked like something out of The Wizard of Oz, with its emerald buildings shining as if lit from within. I grabbed the binoculars Dad gave me last Christmas and got the best look of Alcatraz I’ve ever had, as if the bridge and island were right in my backyard. That was the whole morning—only a few minutes long, and only out there on that island—but we had a morning nonetheless, and while it lasted “Dogs” evaporated and was replaced in my head with another Pink Floyd song, “A Pillow of Winds”:
A cold rain is falling
In a golden dawn
And I rise like a bird
In the haze
When the first rays
Touch the sky
And the night winds die
The appearance of this oddly localized shaft of sun was so brief, I thought I might sink all the way back down into my earlier despondency, but I didn’t. Somehow, that little taste of sunshine seems like enough to sustain me for a while. After all, this is California. The sun is bound to come out soon. Right?
August 17, 1992 - Berkeley
School starts in about a week. The realization that this is my final semester is slowly sinking in. Last night I had a dream I went to interview for a job with a former employer. I wore this light blue cotton suit with white vertical stripes that was totally inappropriate, and in fact looked pretty ridiculous. Some receptionist kept trying to turn me away because of my suit, and due to my lack of ability with the new word processing software, and the fact that I didn’t even have an appointment. I kept trying to convince her that I could learn the new software quickly, but she wouldn’t believe me. Finally the office manager recognized me from when I’d worked there, and told me someone would talk to me in a few minutes.
While I was waiting in the lobby, I realized my suit was stretched really tightly over my body. Unbuttoning the jacket (which had buttons all the way to the collar, making it even less appropriate for the business world), I was horrified to find I was wearing another suit jacket underneath it. Unbuttoning this jacket, I found not one but two dress shirts, one beneath the other. I even had two pairs of shoes: some giant white Nike Air Super Solo Magnum Team Force Court Flight basketball shoes, and underneath those, some more conservative black Reebok tennis shoes. I began to strip off all my clothing and sort it by appropriateness so that I could end up with one decent outfit. Just as I was down to my underwear behind the two piles, the president of the company walked out to meet me. Glancing at my watch, I realized I was ten minutes late for my first class, and since this was the first day of the semester, I would be disenrolled from college if I didn’t get my ass over there. I fled from the building, leaving behind all the clothes.
January 10, 1994 – San Francisco
I almost got shot. E— and I had driven all the way to Ventura to visit friends and arrived at like 2 a.m. Our friend D— lives on a little street called Bath which is in a fairly nice area, near the beach. Bath Street isn’t all that wide—parking along it is illegal—so it’s kind of like a little alley. We were parked temporarily while unloading and I was taking the bikes off the back of the car when a car drove by us really slow. D—, being new to the neighborhood, thought it was either a neighbor or somebody looking for directions, but the guy didn’t stop. He just drove on, down the dead-end street, and D— said, “Wow, that guy looked at me really funny.” I hadn’t actually looked; I was busy unhooking bungee cords (if you aren’t paying attention and one snaps you, it’s quite painful, you know). Well, after turning around the car drove by again, really slowly, and again I didn’t look. D— was curious, though, and looked in at the guy. A short distance later, the guy stopped and got out of the car.
I didn’t want any trouble, and have adopted a big-city policy of minding my own business, so I just continued with the bikes, unlocking them and juggling the Straight-Jacket and Bad Bones (which sound like handy ghetto weapons but are actually U-lock accessories). I could hear the guy saying to D—, “What’s a mattah, man, you ain’t useta seein’ dudes like me ‘round heah?” D— said no, and the guy came back, “Man, you lookin’ at me funny, man, like ya got a problem wit me or sumpin.’” At this point D— came back with a response which he will never live down: “I think you’re paranoid.”
I glared at D— at this point, but I still didn’t look at the stranger (perhaps out of fear of his thinking that I, too, was looking at him funny). Had I looked, I would have seen him pull a handgun out from his jacket as he yelled, “Paranoid? I’ll show you paranoid!” At this point, E—, who clearly possessed the most presence of mind of us all, rabbited. D— quickly backed up towards the garage door, and I continued to mess with the lock. Not having seen the gun, I simply locked the lock and tested its weight in my hand, evaluating its effectiveness in bashing in a human skull. I mean, hell, I’d never scrapped with a gun-toting lunatic before so it never occurred to me the guy was armed. I figured we had a minor altercation on our hands and we had him outnumbered. I was puzzled by D—’s obvious terror as he smeared himself up against the garage door with his arms up, saying, “No problem, man, no problem!”
I looked over, finally, at this point, and the man was bending over. Not having seen the gun, I thought he was picking up something off the ground to throw at us. I was just standing there, like a great big dopy-looking target, trying to remember if I’d packed my mace in my bag. (It’s actually this new jalapeno pepper spray, which has now been made illegal in the state of California. Ironic, isn’t it, that handguns and automatic weapons are legal here, but harmless self-defense sprays are not?) Anyway, I finally realized what was going on: the guy was bending over to get a clip out of his sock. He loaded his gun and pointed it right at D—, and by this time there was nowhere for me to go. You don’t want to move too quickly, you know, when a lunatic is pointing a loaded gun.
Oddly enough, in the moment I didn’t feel that scared. I was thinking to myself that if the guy really wanted to go out and shoot someone, he’d have loaded his gun before leaving the house. Keeping the clip in his sock and reaching down to get it seemed kind of theatrical. Of course this was probably pure rationalization—my brain’s desperate effort to keep panic at bay by pretending the situation wasn’t that dire. Meanwhile D— just kept saying, “No problem, man, no problem!” until finally the guy got back in his car, where his woman had been waiting (I now noticed), and they drove off.
At that moment, I realized the gravity of the situation, and my teeth began chattering uncontrollably. We ran into the house, where E— had scared the daylights out of D—’s wife and her friend who hadn’t recognized her and wondered why this strange woman had suddenly burst through the door. E— had looked for a phone but failed to find once since the only one in sight was a crazy transparent terminator-style phone that look like a science project. It was at least five minutes before we were able to actually think straight, fetch the phone, and dial 911. An officer arrived within minutes, and we gave him a description of the man. (Interestingly, I had somehow remembered the car as a white ‘70s boxy thing, whereas D— was saying it was a dark, modern one—but I kept my mouth shut. I mean, the man had had a gun and I didn’t even realize it: I was clearly not star witness material.)
The cop said, “You’ll be interested to know that a man of the same description robbed a Motel 6 a few blocks away from here about two minutes before you called. We had four officers in the area but nobody got him.” I guess if we’d called earlier, they might have caught him in the act. On the other hand, people might have been shot.