“Happy is a homebody
until the open road calls—
tearing out roots and all.”
“I’m just saying at least he’ll be safer here…”
“Safer? With the uni-bomb scare over on Northwestern’s campus?”
“Tsk, that bomb package had ties to a Circle Campus parking lot, of all places. Does make you wonder what is going on these days. Like, then there’s the neo-Nazi insanity down in your backyard, marching their hate-fest up here to Skokie, no less.”
Stepped in it, stepped on it but fast. I had taken Nathan up on Roscoe’s Volvo, stripping my squareback of Blaupunkt, toolbox and Colorado plates. I scraped the soot and bird shit off his rusty green 122s along Mowhawk street, cold cranking the sedan’s four banger, priming its dual carbs, tuning points and plugs so Nate could jumpstart the junker with his red workhorse Chevy Blazer.
I’d cleared the beer cans, menthol butts and syringes off of the green vinyl seats, rigged the radio and test headed up Edens Expressway to jailbreak my dog, or at least assess the prospect of taking him along on the ride west. With Melissa doing job interviews and her father business tripping, Seamus was digging around their tiny chainlink-fenced yard. We broke free like Rusty and Rin-Tin-Tin, wheeling through Skokie proper to a nearby Niles open space park.
“Was my backyard, Moon. Why do you think I’m getting the hell out of there again?!” I sputtered, loading the trunk, slamming the lid on my way into the car, uneasy that she’d finally caught on to that cankerous scene on the South Side.
“None to soon, if Seamus’s near-death experience here is any indication,”she walked me and some more of my effects from her dad’s garage to the leaky Volvo in her driveway.
“It just happened. He’s a maniac—you know how he will get into anything,” I pleaded, prudently holding fire. “I mean, you’re saying I can’t take care of my dog?”
“Track record, Kenny, track record…”
A good run along the Chicago River’s North Branch, and we were teaming up like old Boulder times, working up a powerful hunger at that. My tastes ran to an Italian Beef shop on Golf Road, Seamus’s to some scraps about its garbage cans. But residual rat poison soon sent the Setter wretching and convulsing across the Volvo’s back seat. Only emergency stomach pumping at the nearest vet clinic could save him.
Which it did, no worry—no worry, no charge, smiled a young, yarmelkahed Dr. Thileman—partial as he was to Irish Setters with such full feathering and high pointed crowns, sabbath and a North Shore tee-time soon upon him. I carted Seamus and his gastric medicine to Melissa’s yard in custodial shock, sweating out her return, if not her immediate reaction.
“That’s hitting way below the belt, Moon.” I could have brained her right then and there, nevertheless realizing that once again, she probably was right.
“It’s why you’d be better off staying up North,” Melissa sighed, latching the yard’s chainlink gate behind us. She held her nose and kissed me, seemingly resigned to my road trip.“So go get the Boulder stuff together, say hi for me and hurry on back. We’ve plenty to work on right here.”
“Don’t I know it…”
Topping the list was penning thank-you notes, then prying my father loose from his mournful Francisco Avenue flat. With mom buried in a Herbert family plot outside Prairie Crossing, he had taken sad stock of his place and time, deciding that his remaining days would be best spent as near to her as possible.
One night, after we had the awkward ‘sorry I haven’t been much of a father to you’ reckoning and hopeless gen-gap reconciliation, I commiserated by saying I hadn’t been much of a son, for that matter. Feeling his pain, frightfully so, I suggested the move, seeing as how he was so utterly lost and lonesome here without her.
Soon enough, he took early retirement, and mom’s token life insurance payout back to Prairie Crossing. With no small measure of relief, I helped him relocate to Uncle Dellis’s place. A small back-house addition afforded him some privacy and brotherly company, even if Dellis was still a feedlot wild and crazy guy.With it came a garage space for his old Merc, all but a mile or so from the cemetery.
Thereupon we left the Francisco flat behind, Frankie Fuhrery’s cadres still goose-stepping lively in Marquette Park for a Skokie blitzkrieg—their Chicago Lawn otherwise fading to black. Dad had hit his golden years in inconsolable mourning, also bemoaning as how Chitown was so great before ‘the coloreds barged in’. Me, I just hit the road, vowing never to feel that damn abandoned my own self.
“She came by, ordered it up. What can I say?”
“No notice, nothing?”
“No dice—she said anything goes…”
Beelining down I-55, I had blown off Chicagoland at about Romeoville, feeling the morning buzz of RC Colas and a rush of freewheeling relief, picking up a stale AM set of Paul Simon’s ‘Gone At Last’, cross-fading into Boz man’s ‘Lido Shuffle’. I saluted Honest Abe past Springfield, yet nearly turned back at St. Louis before crossing blind faithfully past the Arch. Such was the realization that the road ahead could be a cranially divided highway, mile upon mile.
Steer onto I-70 and let the Volvo roll due west with abandon: so much time to think, too much time to think. Yeah, manifest imperative and all that—but what the hell was I doing out here in another beat-out junker? How could I have stiffed FBC and those Michigan Avenue spreads for another sack of White Castle sliders to go? What was so goddamn bad about Chicago, anyway? Coulda taken that Eugenie place, even with Mrs. Tovello’s plastic flowers and Jesus calendars, for crissake—cognitive dissonance no end…
And look how my last-minute flee fall had upended Moon. Or had it, did she really push hard enough to keep me there? And if not, what the hell else was going on with her these days? Is it an east-west thing, or a north-south…thing? Why is she moving things along so fast if she sees us pulling that North Side scenario…together? Aww, cool it, she’s like money—Lester notwithstanding, Mendel family or no. So eyes dead ahead, right on target, two hands on the jiggety wheel, fore not aft—stay in the present, look to the future, get the hell out of the past. The way this Goteborg heap was rolling across the straight plains, Kansas would be history before sundown, Rockies on the horizon before dawn.
More precisely, the Front Range shone rhubarb fresh from the turnpike overlook, Boulder Valley yawning and stretching to greet the day, sky clear and cloudless to the Continental Divide. I coasted down US 36 toward Pearl Street and Dot’s Diner for some breakfast and drip, the town and campus looking more peak-to-peak postcard than ever.
Caffeine juiced, I placed a few friendly phone calls, but everybody kept asking about Melissa as their voices trailed off. Even Corman Bennaker had left a door note on his old place that he was off to Steamboat Springs to mine those hills. I wandered around CU’s quad, but couldn’t muster the gumption to revisit the Sociology Department, so simply milled about Packer, then University Hill a bit, to get reacquainted with the Flatirons tableau.
Yet in this short time, traffic hadn’t gotten any lighter, the vehicles themselves any less showy and sporty, legacy homes weren’t any less gentrified. Cowboy Boulder was further disappearing in a cloud of poured concrete and trail dust as new developments spread like wildfire across the valley. One-time hippie outposts were being renovated into brickish banking or blue-chip brokerage branches all the more—so many trust funds, wire transfers, buyouts and inheritances to be corralled.
More young moguls in; quaint counter-cult utopians out. Out-state schoolies and bicoastal coolies in; back country groovies and grubbies out. Champagne powder here, fringy frontier gone: unbridled valley fever at a high granite pitch. Who could keep up with it all now, sociologically or otherwise?
Against that polished rocky backdrop, I rumbled up to the foothill cabin, silently hoping it would look smaller and trashier than I’d remembered. Instead, the place was homier and more welcoming, seemingly larger than our earlier life—got me to wondering if it would have been so storybook had we stayed. I parked out front, expecting to either pack up or unpack here for good—the latter prospect quickly dampened by the open-door emptiness of that backyard shed under clear, warming skies.
“Nothing left, landlady just spread it all out through the weekend,” said Kathy, after having asked where Moon was and what she’d been doing since so sadly leaving town. “All gone, just like that…people were doling out the bucks left and right…”
“I’ll bet,” I muttered, still trying to recompose a pretty picture of our move. My shoulders drooped like snowed-over pine branches—images of textbooks, stereo LPs, framed Euro photos, a 10-speed Motobecane, pup tent, camp stove, Army class-A’s, ice skates, fielder’s mitt, et al, dissolving before my eyes. But at least I still had my cameras.
“A real barn burner, all right…sorry about that, but I never heard from you, so…”
“More like a shed burner, if you ask me.”
To her credit, Kathy invited me to catch up on events further over reheated potluck, compensatory, mile-high hospitality not easily kissed off after fuel stop upon rest stop of snack-packaged pumice. She cooked up a chicken-rice dish that was tandori tasty, but no Steak and Kidney Pie. We washed the crockful down with Texas milkshakes, then hashed over things pottery lab before and since Melissa and I left.
Kathy let out her bibs some and explained how Moon had been so dedicated to the smooth running of the kiln and all, and how she was really missed over at the wheels. Busy, busy, busy: that was how Moon came across to her, so tuned into the Hill, that she was such an enviro-natural here. How busy, I asked, gazing around the kitchen nook as if the current hostess was either our guest or a Melissa stand-in. You know, she smiled thinly, busy, busy…bee.
The entire situation was somewhat out-of-body, as if we had never handed the cabin over to this kicked-back earthenware pothead. Yet here I was, doing a guest shot with bedroom eyelids, snooze alarms and busy signals going off in my head like civil defense sirens. Not that much had changed in the place, basic furniture-wise, and I remembered how comfortable naps could be on that sagging front room davenport.
So there I crash landed, bidding Kathy an early good evening as she fleered her way into the bedroom—couching a loyal, good-scout night for myself, being a guest with much less. But not before asking if I could make a strategic collect call on our old yellow rotary phone…
“Seven pounds, nine ounces…”
“Wow, congrats…all are healthy, huh?”
“Yeah, guess I got a halfback on my hands.”
“Bear down Chicago Bears, Nate,” I said, mind flitting back and forth, between the Front Range darkness and that fireplace spot where ‘Waif and Grain’ used to be. “How’re your folks with it?”
“Not so great, Heeb, not exactly into the scene. Let’s just say I don’t think I’m totally out of the will.”
“Then again, blood’s thicker, right?”
“Who the fuck knows, I only hope it’s color blind,” Nathan groaned. “And this blows up a few days after I find out Spelsky crashed my ’Vette against a power pole on Plainfield Road. Cops found Chivas bottles all over the site.”
“Totalled?” Sounded like something death-wish Curt would do, reason enough why we were never that tight a’ buds.
“I’ll say, killed him. And Gary Rallimore was ridin’ shotgun. He’s in intensive care, hanging by a thread.” He paused audibly to sip and toke. “So you comin’ back with a full load, or…”
“Holy shit, Rallimore too,” I gasped, then muttered on the down low, impulses gyro slap-shooting through my head, loss leader variety. “Uh, you know what, Nate? My stuff was all gone—sold out from under my ass. Really, I’ve got nothing here in Boulder anymore. So if it’s cool with you, I think I’m gonna ride the wild Volvo to the coast, work off some crosswinds first.” Did I just actually say that?!
“Man, they’ll eat you alive out there,” Nate sucked in some more hemp. “But if you’re set on makin’ tracks, check this out. Remember how Gary’s ol’ man blew town on him and his mom years ago? Well, he’s a big shot lawyer out in the Bay Area somewhere. If you happen to run across that asshole, hip him to the fact that his kid’s in really bad shape right now. Oh, and look up Tony Panescus, remember him at the Twelve Bar? Think he works at the Hilton downtown there, clue him in on Curt and Gary while you’re at it.”
“Will do, Nate, time permitting, least I could do,” I stammered, pulling Syd’s invite out of my canvas pack. “Let me give you an address where you can mail me for the time being if need be, okay? And give my best to Gary and your folks.”
“That’s cool, keep in touch,” Nathan coughed. “Frisco, huh? Don’t get any on ya…”
Early next morning brought a damask sunrise refracting off the Flatiron faces, directly into the cabin’s front room windows, a wake-up call that couldn’t have come soon enough. Road weariness and numbing Chicagoland news shocks did little in the way of fostering a good night’s sleep. There were just too many disjointed, warm and fuzzy apparitions in the place.
I tossed and turned under an Indian quilted comforter, cushions shifting, bobbing like river rapids’ inner tubes: seeing, hearing Moon baking, me studying, Seamus racing window to window, barking at yard squirrels, Pags rolled up in a snoozy ball on the sunny side sills. I could smell the sandalwood, taste her cookies, hear the Setter howling as I played cassette tape-loopy Dusty & the Dusters and Fogelberg on the cinderblock and barnboard-shelved stereo, encored by John Denver crooning his ‘…Colorado rocky mountain high—I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky’.
Such dreams turned from sweet to sour by 4 a.m. sharp. I was spooked enough to pace between the parlor and my old study room like I used to before final exams. Visions, voices, everyday vignettes in the dark, neither here nor then and there. Parched prospects, torrents of mistreatment, rivers of regret, painful images of crack, black and blue, as if Moon beams still had a hold on our house. It was all I could do to bundle up and sneak my way out of the foothill cabin altogether, leaving behind nothing but a simply scribbled thank-you note to Kathy on the fireplace mantle, shivering at the thought that I would likely never pass through this door and porchway again.
Still, catching my eye as I squeezed into the Volvo were the futuristic houses shining further up the range front, those spacey, geometric aeries that Sydney had said reminded her so much of coastal cliffside California, futures unbound. Made me wanted to make the jump like caped local, Evil Cheesey stunt biking over Arapahoe Avenue cars.
Down Uni Hill, Boulder was just too clearly beautiful this morning to miss a Dot’s Diner breakfast redux and picture window view of the Flatiron formation. But I devoured the fried eggs and homefries like I was late for the Denver shuttle, grabbing a coffee refill for the road. Tooling back down Broadway, I newly regarded the brick-faced Pearl Street Mall, this cowpoke town now dolled up for the cotillion corral. How those mountains so majestically embraced the entire valley, wondering what would have happened had I never been sidetracked, had we never left, was there any way I could stay here on my own? No dice…
Yet a quick spin past CU made me feel more distanced from the sosh department than ever, only leaving an apologetic note for missing their Ph.D. acceptance letter deadline und Dean Cross’s slightly open office door. I was resigned to taking what I’d learned there and better applying it beyond theory, setting aside any further study until the real world stopped spinning as furiously as it was about now.
So I cut over toward Columbia Cemetery, then down 9th Street through Boulder’s even pricier Lower Chautauqua neighborhood, currently being bid up with outside money by all manner of sport and status climbers, bringing along their costly, rhinestone baggage from parts unknown. Same stimuli, similar response—and then there were the winter-long snow jobs. One last, lingering look at crisply sunny Chautauqua Park from Baseline Road, and there I left Boulder Valley, picking up some orange juice and a big bag of maple nut from the Green Mountain Granary, turning up the FM radio as I headed south toward the Denver Turnpike, Johnny Nash coming on with an oddly ironic ‘I Can See Clearly Now’.
Trouble was, I saw myself far from grasping the bigger picture, which came no clearer at this Arvada Gas ’n’ Grub, where I’d stopped to refuel and ablut. Yet here I was at another pay phone, reversing the charges, if not any homegrown progress made back Chicago way.
“Tsk, you there, me here—I can’t believe you, Kenny. Now, taking off again, to California again, I smell nothing but trouble.”
“Just some unfinished business, Moon. Hang in there with me a bit longer…this is something I have to do, clear me some clashes, and it’ll be done…”
“It’s that Saturn thing, I just know,” she hissed into the phone. “And you’re really stretching the rubber band, Kenny, when you already know deep down I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to you. I’m the only one who can save yourself from yourself. I’m serious, there aren’t many women who would put up with you like I do. This is where you belong, but so be it, stay in close touch.”
“Will do, like a glove, an Indy 500 driving glove.”
“Uh-huh, going around in circles, ’bout to drive me crazy…” Click.
“Studs Terkel…you know, the writer…”
“No I don’t—whattabout him?”
“He pointed you out to me—in a newsclipping…”
“Did, huh—why me?”
There was no stopping me out of Denver. Chances, choices: what was done was done. The losses were evident; now where were the gains? I coaxed the Volvo through I-70’s westbound tunnels and range climbs, its Solex carbs balking at the altitude and thinning air. Munching glorified gorp, downing nuts and raisins with swigs of bottled OJ concentrate, I began finding plenty more think time beyond Georgetown, about the CU doctoral misconnect, trading rarified research for the bottom-feeding field, whether I liked it or not. So, yah, why not try me some actual journalizing…
Then again, what would have been the Boulder back-up? Slaving over property or soaring with more potential? Roofing more canyon houses, underachieving through a workaday gig on some 28th Street loading dock, mindless roaming the Front Range, brain-dead moping around the Pearl Street Mall—seething, sweating out another sosh Ph.D. application; much as I loved the place, what was going to come of that?
Hell, look at Natorious in Chicago, boozed up, Zig-Zag papered over in desperate, unspoken discontent, burying it deeper, dose by dose, into a bummer domestic trip. Still, maybe he’ll really take to his newborn son, clean up his act and dig the whole ol’ man trip, especially if his folks buy in. But who was I to say anything about return on parental investment—just ask the Prairie Crossing brothers about that…
Dizzying, head throbbing stuff to carry over the Continental Divide, all right; yet I had put most of that in my rearview mirror beyond the Moab exit. Just look straight ahead, focus on the future, eyes on the prize. I could see nothing but open road up to I-80 and big, blue skies all the way across Utah’s Salt Lake Basin, warmly recalling Syd’s stone wisdom at desert’s end, to the clear-channel radio tune of ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ and ‘One Of These Nights’.
A dead-of-night stayover in an Oasis, Nevada motel: dark thoughts of her Lovelock power grab still had me by the jewels. But come morning, I was off into a brand new day’s breeze through the Silver State—this Volvo being markedly clippier, not to say roomier, than the VW squareback left behind.
Forget about the Midwest nightmare, home in on the sunny California Dream—take new-age San Francisco harmony over age-old Chicago discord any day. Never mind about that Wells squareback breakdown, I could feel the promise and energy coming just beyond the Black Rock horizon.
Got so granola and coffee psyched up that I pulled off I-80 in Reno, wheeling past Virginia City’s Bucket of Blood Saloon, headed down 395 toward Carson City and beyond, intent on following up Studs Terkel’s lead on Nevada’s champion of BLM cases and causes. Turned out I wasn’t the first to seek out Mustang Maggie, however, and she was neither flattered nor amused.
“Because you are such a brave voice for free range horses, that’s why,” I smiled, digging into my camera bag at the Ponderosa pine-logged gate of her small refuge/ranch. “I thought it would be great to take some nice photos in your honor…”
“You did, did you,” she snapped, dressed in her leathery, pearl-buttoned cow gal finery, tying a slipknot into some old lariat line.“Who you with? Got you a big-time credential?”
“Uh, no actually, but I’m heading to San Francisco, and I’ll bet I can get you in the papers there. You know, put your story out more, further help your efforts along with all the horses roaming Nevada…”
“That’s what you all say. Get a legit credential and pony up some, maybe we can talk. I’m not no Annie Oakley statue posing for tourists out here…”
“R-R-Right, ma’am…I’ll do just that,” I stammered and shook her gnarled, turquoise-ringed hand. “Meantime, keep saving those wild stallions, okay?”
“Easy for you to say, studs. But what you got against the mares?”
Brought up short, though undeterred, I filed that story idea in the remainder bin, then low geared for the golden glow of California. Sierra-Tahoe was every bit as beautiful and bountiful as I’d recalled from our first trip in—the blue lake’s algae pollution or no—and this ’66 Volvo proved slightly better at keeping up with the freeway flow. Here was Sydney pointing out the snowy caps, crystalline streams, the teeming rivers and wildly treacherous rockslides outside Truckee as though I had never turned tail out of the state—and perhaps I never had in my hemispheres.
But the long, unwashed road and re-entry head trip had taken their toll by Auburn and Volcanoville. So the steep mountain descent dropped me into a ‘$10/per’ pink motel on a frontage strip outside Citrus Heights, which ended up being relatively reasonable due to its strategic location as surreptitious hooker Hilton for Folsom Prison and a nearby Air Force base. No Lovelock, yet little peace, even less quiet all through the night: however a sink and cold shower did enable me to freshen up for the final, climactic push.
Sacramento and the Central Valley were bathed in the early morning sun, a little half & half, double sugar this side of Davis carried me to Vacaville’s 50s-era Coffee Tree—navigating Nut Tree’s toy trains, planes, playland animals and candy stands. By all rights, some whipped creamed apple-raisin-walnut pancakes should have jacked me but good for the triumphant return to San Francisco, especially with a couple of SacTown AM countrified banjo moldies like ‘Sweet City Woman’ and ‘Afternoon Delight’.
Yet each bend in the I-80 lanes from Suisun/Fairfield onward rather filled me with apprehension and not a little bit of anticipatory dread. Go figure, trepidation in paradise upon reaching Vallejo’s vista point, which should have been grounds for celebration. Instead, this vision of bridges came too fast and reached too far, beginning with the suspender over Carquinez Straits. On-shore ocean winds now chilled, dampened the warm California sun, and a marine layer hung over the coast, spreading eastward to the Berkeley Marina.
This wasn’t the brilliant Bay Area vista I remembered, when first crossing the Oakland-SF Bridge, emerging from the Goat Island tunnel. No, and it sure wasn’t the dazzling, dynamic downtown waterfront opening for the ‘Streets of San Francisco’.
Today, this gunmetal span was one creeping Friday afternoon traffic jam, Bay Bridge backed up through the maze, from the toll plaza to who knew how far south. Embarcadero piers fanned around the bayfront like oatmeal ladyfinger wafers about a tarnished tea tray, minus the glittery icing on top.
A thick, leaden fog layer hung over Everybody’s Favorite City, turning its white hot rolling hills into a grayscale drizzly pud of a place—a crock of bauxite/wet concrete rather than a pot of gold. The downtown skyline flickered beneath this hovering drop cloth of splotchy porridge like Xmas tree lights through crepe de Chine.
Usually beaming ivory and pastel buildings now wore a pasty patina, yellow street lamps casting a dull rain-slick glaze over The City’s narrow, hill-bound arteries. The Ferry Building appeared cut off at its clock tower; Transamerica’s Pyramid could barely be seen at all, let alone the Golden Gate Bridge.
Beyond San Francisco’s Financial District, Telegraph, Russian, Knob Hills and Twin Peaks were reduced to varying shades of thin, moody taupe. Angel Island and Sausalito barely registered around a wind-churned bay, empty, high-water outbound oil tankers crossing paths along the ships’ channels with low, laden cargo vessels slogging in, foghorns blaring, bridge to bridge.
I finally bucked and backfired around the 101 South bend on threadbare tires—inner lane-locked, grill to trunk lid, until the Central Freeway off ramp. Monitoring a sunken fuel gauge, I turned the Blaupunkt FM dial from LTD’s dancy ‘Back In Love Again‘ to Led Zeppelin’s plaintive, echo-demonic ‘Kashmir’. Its dire intrigues, Zep’s haunting brass and string loops, carried me with the traffic flow out past Fell Street’s carnival colorful Victorians against ashen grey—the Volvo blown aside, tailgated until I was disoriented, could handle the strung-out Haight and Panhandle no more.
From Stanyan, I cut over to what I recognized as Fulton Street, past groupie sacrifices at the black-gold Airplane house. Rather than getting lost any further amid Golden Gate Park’s white glass Conservatory—its fan palms, fuchsia gardens and Rhododendron Dells—I steered toward the finality and familiarity of Ocean Beach. Yep, just like Syd and I had months before; hmm, should I have let her know I was on my way back to town? Meanwhile, my feet were getting colder by the block.
Even from the distance of Park Presidio Boulevard, I could get my bearings with this straight-line shot to the sea, already visible from here. So it was balls out through the fog socked Richmond District. Just short of Denise’s place, I jumped at a Fulton green light, nearly coming to fender-to-fender blows with a deep purple Mercedes-Benz saloon wheeling right into my outbound lane.
I honked in alarm, as Robert Plant doomsday wailed, Jimmy Page power chorded his twin-neck guitar, John Bonham pounded away. A white-sleeved arm quickly menaced me out the sedan’s left front window, flipping me the bird while continuing to cut in ahead of me with all the authority of a Secret Service detail.
Yet a closer glimpse of the screaming driver revealed an even higher authority, bad mouthing me from under a khaki bushwhacker hat: Bill Graham, likely hustling up another mogul-rock Fillmore or Winterland gig, and here I was a newbie nobody, challenging his primacy, drawing his singular digital wrath.
Hell of a welcome wagon, or was it some homin’ omen? This, while Plant moaned, ‘OOOOOOOOHHH—let me take you there, let me take you theeerrrrr…’
Care for more?
Chapter 45. Springing on San Francisco,
making the scene at a show of force,
an unexpected cool-down awaits as
The City proper heats up all the more…