Wednesday, April 14, 2004

California Dreaming

And Why I've Never Been Back

Years ago I hitchhiked to California from Austin and stayed with friends of friends along the way. In San Francisco, I stayed with a group of people, only one of whom I’d met before. Once I got there in the midst of Raoul’s hippie family, I realized our acquaintance had been very brief before that and I felt that he and his friends were a little more odd, a little more Out There, than I considered myself to be. I became somewhat uncomfortable staying with them. Raoul had a girlfriend who was very airy-fairy and full of new religion and she had taken up painting out of the blue, without any art schooling or experience. Because she was Born Again, she painted nothing but religious subjects. In any case, my karma, whether bad or just doing poorly, caught up with me while I was there with these born-again sweeties. That is to say, I fell off a borrowed bicycle going downhill while headed for Golden Gate Park not too far away. I never got there, then or later.

OOF! When I lifted my head from the concrete curb I’d just struck with it (after I hit it first with the bicycle tire), I had the presence of mind to feel a little guilty about bending up the bicycle. Then the blood began to drip down my forehead and I had a little more presence of mind; I stripped off my corduroy jacket before I ruined it. But that was about it for my clear thinking. How I managed to retain the jacket after that, I must owe to other parties. I remember a ride on the most uncomfortable and ill-conceived emergency vehicle I’ve ever heard of. It was from some medical clinic, clearly, but whether city-sponsored or a Free Clinic, I couldn’t tell you. I suspect the latter. What it most reminded me of was a large bread truck, though it had two hard straight narrow wooden benches that ran the length of the vehicle.

I guess it might have been a “paddy wagon” in some former California incarnation. I don’t suppose anybody worries about the comfort of prostitutes, drunks, gamblers, and such. It was hard for me to see where it had ever been designed or the least bit altered to transport injured persons. I had a bandage to hold against my head to stop the bleeding and I was beginning to become horribly aware of pulled muscles, aches I’d never imagined, all across my shoulders and down my back. I never knew I had those places in my back, much less known them to hurt so. I tried to find a comfortable position, but there was none. You couldn’t sit on the benches or recline on them. You couldn’t stand up. I tried the floorboard, but that was no better—it was only closer to the bumps that were not being mitigated much by worn-out springs and shock absorbers.

The van went Way Up and Way Down and took more right and left turns than I could imagine existed in the whole city, and I swayed and almost fell over at every one of them. Remember Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe struggling not to be pitched off the raft in “The River of No Return”? They had done a better job than I did! Finally, we got to the clinic. I vaguely remember being helped out of the van and feeling as if I was being rescued from Hell. I was back on Earth again. Someone at the clinic sewed my head up. I can’t say I felt better, but it was the end of the bleeding. They gave me some instructions about getting the stitches taken out again later and booted me out the door. Meanwhile Raoul had somehow caught up with me and was there to guide me down the street to his car and drive me back. I was suddenly very fond of him, for I didn’t know where in San Francisco I was and my head wasn’t very clear.

I laid down that night to what I thought would be a glorious relief of mindless unconsciousness, but that’s when I found out just which injury was worst. My head was nothing. Nothing. My pulled muscles were everything. Everything agonizing and destructive of comfort. I was lucky to get 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night from then on for about 6 or 8 weeks. Gradually, I could recline a little longer before discomfort forced me upright. But those first weeks were incredible; what can a person even DO when you’re awake most of the day and you’re crippled up too? I could move, I could go, I could stand and sit up straight. But I couldn’t lie down for very long and I could NEVER get comfortable. My dream of California was turning into a nightmare; in fact, it was turning into crap.

Not many days passed before I realized that my money was dwindling. These were kind people I was with, but they were the wrong ones to be with in the state I was in. I needed to be among people I knew much better and in a town where I knew the ins and outs. I was going to have to go back home to Austin and I was going to have to hitchhike. I started out with Rick, a new friend I’d stayed with in Berkeley and we just didn’t have much luck or get very far. We split up after being stuck in Blythe, California for about half a day in the burning sun. As far as I could tell, it was just a dot on the map with a Denny’s restaurant and a bunch of gas stations. Maybe it’s different now. Cars passed through. No one stayed except to refuel or eat. No one was very blithe about anything. We split up and he got a ride right away. I was glad for him, but felt very lonesome out there. I caught a ride with a big rig after that and he drove me into a world of trouble and aggravation. But I’ll skip past that.

By the time I caught up with Rick in Austin, he’d been there a day and a half already. He’d gotten the good rides, and I’d obviously gotten the others. (I’ll tell you about the bad ones some day when there’s more time.) I didn’t particularly mind dragging in late; I was still in a sort of daze and thought anything less than being hurled against a concrete curb was a lesser evil and not of much consequence. My friends were glad to see me. My former roommates invited me back in. Life was good, as much as it could be. I walked the streets of a town where I wasn’t lost, where I wasn’t a stranger, and I breathed more easily, despite being stiff as a board and poor as a church mouse.

All these years later, I have two souvenirs of that stay in San Francisco. One is the scar on my head—it disappeared for years under my thick head of hair, but a receding hairline has begun bringing it back to me. Hello, scar… The other is the poem below, written about Raoul's born-again girlfriend who thought she could paint. I have revised it over the years. I’ve never considered it one of my best poems, but I’ve always considered it interesting. Every time I find it again, I still like it.


I watched a crazy Christian once
(a hippie girl in Haight)
complete a small oil painting
of her savior, Jesus Christ—

the kind of picture modern poets loathe,
filled with overt symbols,
all halo and bleeding heart!
Her art was primitive, her skill was small,

but I watched her build her picture,
layer on layer, stroke by patient stroke;
I saw how when she reached the point
where she could or should have stopped,

she kept right on amending,
adding careful strokes,
till the image she'd concocted
was thicker than opium smoke.

There'd been a stage—quite early—
when the painting looked just fine;
a sweet impressionistic
of her savior, Jesus Christ.

But now her Christ looked foolish,
labored, dull, cartoonish.
His eyes that once held light
were heavy now and dark.


4th version: 01/23/03

Coming Attraction, Sooner Or Later: WHY BAD DRIVERS ACT THAT WAY

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: "The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on. It is never of any use to oneself." -- Oscar Wilde