For Steve | Dec. 1945 – July 2012 Seated, second from the left.
While riding on a train goin’ west,
I fell asleep for to take my rest.
I dreamed a dream that made me sad,
Concerning myself and the first few friends I had.*
Cruising in the bright August morning down Highway 5. California’s great central valley, north of Sacramento, where the farm towns roll by, their blunt names like an old catechism of your life, “Willows,” “Williams,” “Orland,” “Nord.”
Rice fields shimmer in fives shades of green. Enough rice to feed the Orient with a bunch left over for the States. Old and new orchards in whirring diagonal rows. Roadside attractions promising 20 different varieties of olives. White egrets pacing in the irrigation canals. Yellow crop dusters banking and coming in low over the highway.
Heading south towards San Francisco; towards an appointment with an old friend trapped too early in a brain where all the furniture is fading, dissolving, melting into a blurred now and a bright twenty years ago.
The old story. You wonder about a friend you haven’t been in touch with for a decade. You meet someone who knows someone who knows him. Or you run an Internet search and find an email of a person who once knew him. And you ask. Most of the time things are fine, but then there’s that time when the news is not good. Not good at all.
How many a year has passed and gone,
And many a gamble has been lost and won,
And many a road taken by many a friend,
And each one I’ve never seen again. *
You get a phone number for his brother and you call. His brother fills you in on the details.
Several strokes stemming from a traffic accident twenty years gone and an operation on the brain five years later. First wife saw what was coming and cleared out, dumping the marriage to become a poet. Right.
He married again and, by all accounts, married well. Had some good years. Was back to his music and his songs. But then the strokes came, and came again, and his mind began to liquefy. The second wife couldn’t handle all the care — could you? — and placed him, at last, in a home in San Francisco.
One daughter sees him often, the other daughter seldom, the second wife some times, the brother every six weeks, the first wife never.
And so, because of what was, and because you have to be, at the least, a witness to this part of his life and yours, you arrange a visit.
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung,
Our words were told, our songs were sung,
Where we longed for nothin’ and were quite satisfied
Talkin’ and a-jokin’ about the world outside.*
The hours and the miles roll by and the roads slowly meld together until you’re just another metal insect skittering past dry brindle hills, aging oil refineries, the sluggish green waters of the upper bay, then shuttling up on the Bay Bridge, across and then down into the wedged traffic creeping towards Civic Center and Hayes. Park the rental car just short of Laguna and Hayes.
You used to live around here in the early 70s. Or was it ten blocks over towards the bay? In Pacific Heights, North Beach or the Haight? You’re not sure.
Lock up, look around. These residential neighborhoods in San Francisco don’t change much over the years. Victorian apartments over new shops. Bay windows. Wood frame structures with once bright colors fading under the assault from sunshine and salt-laden fog. Walk San Francisco’s broken and poorly patched sidewalks, stepping around this block’s official homeless person sorting her things in her grocery cart. Look across the street.
He’s there by his brother. Warmed by the sun he sits, trapped now forever, in his wheelchair.
His hands once played the piano, boogie-woogie to rock to classical. Your call.
Played the guitar too. Folk, rock, classical. Your call.
He’s written dozens of songs. He’s organized a rock orchestra of 24 people. They played gigs and recorded his songs too, even though few ever heard them.
In 1971 he founded a School of Rock decades before the movie was even a pitch across the lunch plate of some useless Hollywood studio skinsuit. In San Francisco. In the Seventies. It’s still there teaching the now time-honored techniques of rock and roll to whoever applies.
Which of us would have thought then that someday rock and roll would be taught like “classical” music? He did, back then, when rock and roll was still “experimental” music. It could be taught and it would be taught. He was there then.
We were all there then.
With haunted hearts through the heat and cold,
We never thought we could ever get old.
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one.*
The old joke goes, “If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.” Funny, but a lie. I was there in the Sixties. My curse is that I remember everything — even the things I would like to forget. Especially those. But if forgetting the shameful memories means removing the wonderful memories too, I’ll take the whole library.
I’ve probably embroidered those memories over the decades, but so slowly and carefully that the added stitches are now indistinguishable from the rest of the tapestry. Baroque though they may be, the memories, for me, are just that. I don’t try and live in them nor have them dictate my life now.
Be. Here. Now. Remember that one?
He’s here but not here now. It’s two decades, two wives, two daughters, and many more than two strokes later. He’s here now in this residence hotel for the aged and the infirm in a San Francisco neighborhood that doesn’t change with the years. He’s waiting for me in his wheelchair, in the sun, his brother by his side.
He might still want to play the piano, but his hands won’t answer him anymore. They can’t. They’ll never do it again. The hands no longer answer when he calls them. He’s learned not to call.
Now his hands can barely lift a spoon or maneuver a cup to his lips. His speech is slurred and slow. You can see the end of the sentence fade from his mind before he gets to the middle.
Still, in fits and starts, in moments and sparks of expression, you can see him emerge from inside his prison and then sink back in. You find yourself looking for those lucid moments. You let the others slide.
We meet and we go for a walk and a roll with his brother in the San Francisco afternoon. We come back and take a table in the Indian restaurant under the series of rooms that are now his last home. We work our way through the lunch buffet. And we talk, mostly about the past since the past is where he’s most at ease.
There was the fence we built on his ranch/commune up in Northern California by the Lost Coast.
There was the day the two dogs we owned from the same litter killed the chickens he’d just bought to stock his ranch.
There was the stoned, comic film we were going to make with large vats of spaghetti in the first scene.
There were the wives we had and girls we knew. The old songs. The handsome collection of pot plants on the deck that was taken away by the local police. The concerts. The marches. All the old moments, more than we could say in the few hours we had.
As easy it was to tell black from white,
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right.
And our choices were few and the thought never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter and split.*
After a couple of hours, his youngest daughter came in. Lovely and warm and smart. Quiet and calm with him. She lit his face up with a glow I hadn’t seen. But she had things to do in the way that the young always have things to do, and had to rush off to meet her boyfriend. As she left, he asked her in his painfully slow way, “Do you… have… a good… man?”
“Yes,” she assured him, “he’s a very good man.”
“I’m… happy then.”
She left and we went out of the restaurant and up to the home on the floor above so his clothing could be changed. His brother and I waited for his nurse to bring him back to the small terrace outside. The very old pushed their walkers about. The mentally deficient mumbled in the corners. The sun was still warm in the late afternoon. His brother told me that the prognosis was, in short, a long decline to a dead end. He would never be better tomorrow than he was today.
He was rolled back out and we spent some more time talking, but he was obviously tiring and the early supper popular in these homes was approaching. So it was time to go. As I got up to leave, he reached up and took my arm pulling me close. He paused for a moment and I could see him gather his energy. Then he said, quite clearly, “I just want to say one thing.”
“I deeply regret… that everyday there are people… out there trying… trying with all their might to… hijack your brain.”
So we left it like that and I drove to the airport and took the next flight out. I had no reservation, paid with a debit card, was flying one way to a California town with a New York Drivers License. I got my own special bag search right down to the seams of my suitcase, and an extended question and answer session with airport security — just in case I was going to try with all my might to hijack the plane. It’s how we live now.
At John Wayne Airport, I waited in the warm evening until my wife at the time picked me up.
“Do you want to go somewhere for dinner?” she asked.
“No. I just want to go home.”
We drove to the coast and turned south along the Pacific towards Laguna Beach. On the left, the lights were on in all the multi-million dollar homes that gaze out over the Pacific. On the right, you could see the flickering lines of white as the waves coming in from Asia broke at last against the rocks and the sand. Beyond them, there was the dark sheen of water moving off until it all faded into the night and merged into a spray of stars.
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon,
Where we together weathered many a storm,
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn.
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain,
That we could sit simply in that room again.
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat,
I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.*
*Bob Dylan’s Dream
Republished from September, 2004