It’s all Springsteen’s fault

It’s all Springsteen’s fault

The terrible shootings in Florida have taken a toll on many of us these last couple of weeks, and I haven’t been able to figure out what to do with the heartache. June 23 was Julie’s and my 8th (official) wedding anniversary and, more importantly, in a few weeks we’ll commemorate 20 years together. It should be a time of celebration, but I just can’t shake the news about Orlando (not to mention Sandy Hook, and San Bernardino, and Charleston). So I’ve decided to display my defiance by simply telling my story. And along the way, I want to explain how Bruce Springsteen made me gay.

***

I first heard the ferocious wall-of-sound chords of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” through my FM converter as I was driving to San Jose State on a scorching day in 1975. I actually pulled the car over and stopped on the side of the road, breathless. The song was a revelation. It was the anthemic answer to the insipid music dominating radio during that time. There was a lot of disco and very, very little rock and roll. That year spawned an anemic swarm of hits that represented the nadir of once-great artists. Glen Campbell sold out with “Rhinestone Cowboy.” The underrated folk-rock singer Johnny Rivers covered “Help Me, Rhonda.” Cat Stevens recorded the forgettable “Two Fine People.” Paul McCartney released – gag me – “Listen to What the Man Said.”

The songs on the Born to Run album pulverized the mold. None of them followed the standard verse-verse-chorus of pop music. They were, instead, long poetic stories about what it was like to be young in the seventies, populated with characters right off of the Jersey shore. The band was full and resonant, with guitars and piano and organ and a lyrical, echoing sax that always sounded like the mysteries of a city at midnight. The songs were about nights on the beach, wheels on the highway, the rush of the city, and the languorous days of summer, with “barefoot girls sittin’ on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” Bruce was the poet Everyman for teenagers like me who didn’t do drugs and didn’t mess up our lives but still lived slightly recklessly because we had no responsibilities and everything was magic. It didn’t hurt, either, that Springsteen’s voice was growly, howling, and provocative. It was almost choked with desire.

I know it’s heresy to some people, but I really prefer men’s voices in rock and roll. My vision of hell is being trapped in a room where I am forced to eat nothing but couscous and listen to piped-in Joni Mitchell music.

***

It took nearly three years for me to see Springsteen in person. In late June of 1978 I went with my brother to see his concert at a half-empty San Jose Civic Auditorium. We practically frothed with anticipation. We had heard rumors, after all, that his shows were nearly four hours long, and it all proved to be true. Even in front of a fairly small audience, that man and his band spent every last ounce of their energy on that stage. The songs became epics; the youthful Bruce leaped onto his amps, onto the piano, and into the crowd; and we all were held fast by what Springsteen calls “the power, the magic, the mystery, and the ministry of rock and roll.” The show is among the very few for which there is no fully recorded bootleg and no complete setlist. I remember, though, that after the last of the drenching encores, I knew that I had just seen the greatest live American rock and roll band in history.

***

In those days, I thought I wanted to be a police officer. But when I graduated from San Jose State with my law enforcement degree, I was still too young to apply to the force. So I decided to move up to San Francisco, a city I dearly loved, and get a second degree in English. That was a fortuitous decision. I would have made a terrible police officer, for two reasons:

  1. I am not brave; and
  2. I can’t make a quick decision to save my life.

***

So in the fall of 1978 I moved into the SF State dorms, and on a Sunday morning in November I was reading the Chronicle’s pink section when an ad sent me rocketing out of my chair. Springsteen was coming to Winterland the next month and the tickets were going on sale at 10 a.m. that very morning. My diary actually says that the ad “shot me into the realm of ecstasy.” (I was a bit dramatic in those days.)  I hurriedly picked up the phone and called BASS (the local ticket supplier) multiple times but never got through. Panic set in. Certain that tickets would be sold out within minutes, I grabbed my credit card and screeched off in my Corolla to the closest ticket outlet, which was inside Bullock’s department store in the Stonestown Shopping Center. There was a fair-sized line, and when I got to the counter, the woman casually told me that it was cash-only. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Two tickets would cost me $15. I didn’t have that kind of dough!! I had only five bucks and some change to my name. I noticed a phone hanging on the wall and I shakily dialed my roommate for help, but she said she had only two dollars. Then the phone ate all my change. What a nightmare!

It was, according to my diary, the coldest November 12 in San Francisco history. But I flew so fast getting back to my car, and then from my car to the dorm, that I was pouring sweat. I bolted down the hallway, pounding on doors and begging for money, but no one had cash to spare. Then, as I sped past the glass-enclosed study room on our floor, I glanced inside and saw a young woman I had not seen before, studying peacefully. I skidded to a halt, threw open the doors like a SWAT officer, and bellowed, “I know you don’t know me, but in the name of God, do you have $10 I can borrow?” She didn’t say a word. She got up quietly, said “follow me,” and led me to her room, where she slowly opened up a little wooden box that she had brought with her to school. Inside one of those “secret” compartments was her emergency savings: a $10 bill. What I didn’t know at the time was that she had grown up with very little money, was the first in her family to go to college, and was dependent on that money. I snatched the bill out of her hand, threw an “I promise to pay you back!” over my shoulder, and raced back down the hall. I ended up with two tickets. And that Winterland show is now universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have ever done.

As life goes, that encounter was my destiny. It was not the concert. It was Cynthia.  It was the beautiful 19-year-old girl with the $10 bill.

***

I had dated a few men – well, boys, really – but it had never been quite right. It’s not that I didn’t find them to be attractive, but the way I explain it is that there always felt like there was a wall between us. Like a clear Plexiglas wall that I couldn’t break through. I couldn’t feel the euphoria of young love that others felt. It was being withheld from me.

When Cynthia’s dogged pursuit ultimately wore down my resistance, the wall cracked and then disappeared. We had no money, yet we lived an exuberant life in the City and drove around the country in her VW bus between jobs. I was as happy as it was possible to be while living in secret. I hid my entire life away – from family, friends, co-workers, everyone. I know it became a burden for her, and I lost her, with much heartbreak, after five years. In retrospect I see now that it was primarily because I was crouched with fright in the closet.

And it took me forever to realize what a burden it was for me, too. I mean, when she left, I spent the weekend at my parents’ house in Clearlake wearing nothing but a trenchcoat.

And no one had any idea what on earth had gotten into me.

***

Decades later, I now firmly believe that I owe it to myself, my family, my friends, and the community at large to be honest about my life. But it can be a terrifying step to take, and for some people, the consequences can be disastrous. So I understand the need for people to be revelatory at their own pace.

I had it fairly easy. When I finally told my family, they were terrific. My father, I believe, already knew. “Is there something you would like to tell me?” he had asked when I was parading around in the trenchcoat.

My mother needed more time and didn’t speak to me for a few months, but the thaw happened fairly quickly. The younger folks, like my friends and siblings, didn’t seem to give a gnat’s ass. And my sister tells me that she and a friend were riding in her car one day, speaking about me in hushed tones, when my 9-year-old niece piped up from the back seat, “Oh, for goodness’ sakes, Mom, I’ve known about Auntie Paula for years!”

But whether it was because I was old-fashioned, religious, ashamed, or just plain scared, I really wasn’t able to speak openly about myself to everyone until this millennium. I learned from watching a good friend of mine at work speak naturally and easily about his partner. He never really “came out.” But when someone would ask what he had done over the weekend, he didn’t circumnavigate the question, the way I often did. “Oh, you know Paul; he made me chauffeur him all around town,” he would say and roll his eyes. Everyone loved him and would laugh. It was as easy as that. A name and a pronoun.

***

Julie and I got married on June 23, 2008, one of the happiest days of my life. Just a few weeks earlier, Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the California Supreme Court had authored the state high court’s opinion that granted gay people the right to marry in California. I don’t think I have ever been able to adequately describe what that decision meant to me. It was more than just the sudden, exhilarating right to get married. It was, for me, a sense that I could enter the mainstream that I always wanted to enter. I was being accorded respect and dignity – not by a politician or an activist or a celebrity, but by an authority figure with solid integrity and conservative credentials.

“In light of the fundamental nature of the substantive rights embodied in the right to marry — and their central importance to an individual’s opportunity to live a happy, meaningful, and satisfying life as a full member of society — the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all individuals and couples,” the Chief Justice wrote.

My sister had come down to my workplace the day that the decision was announced. She and I and some colleagues gathered in my director’s office to await the news. When the decision was read, most of us erupted in cheers. I was tearfully weak with amazement and emotional fatigue. But I do remember that a colleague from a different group had a stricken look on her face and turned away in disgust. It hurts me to this day. It’s too bad that that’s something I’ll always remember.

But I called Julie, demanding that she leave work and meet me at the county clerk’s office, and we were the first in line to get our marriage licenses. Our picture was in the New York Times.

***

Paula, Julie, and Mom (with copyright)As strange as it is for me to recall now, I was hesitant to tell my mother that I was getting married, even though she loved Julie with every fiber of her being. She was a devoted Catholic, and I was afraid of putting her in an awkward position. But I finally called her, and it turns out that she was full of joy and couldn’t wait to be a part of the festivities. She later told me that she “talked” about it with God for a few days and that after those conversations, she felt that He kept asking her, “Why not, Beverly? Why not?”

***

I know that I have a handful of dear friends and family members, including some of my blog readers, who have heartfelt religious convictions preventing them from supporting gay marriage. (Oh, yes, I know who you are!) I’m deeply happy that you continue to share your friendship with me anyway. And I firmly believe that some of you, at some point, will come to ask yourselves, “Why not?”

***

I have read the entire Bible, cover to cover, word for word – including the “begats.” When I finished the last page, I was thoroughly intoxicated with the rhythm and beauty of the writing and the power of the message. The Bible never gave me doubts. It is the interpreters who have bred the doubt.

I take comfort in knowing with absolute certainty that no one could ever condemn my sweet Julie to eternal damnation. But what about me? What if I am a different story? I’m a religious person, I still say prayers every night, and to be 100 percent honest, I occasionally worry and obsess over whether I will end up rotting in hell with Joni Mitchell and all that couscous.

***

I met Julie Scearce 22 years ago – where else but on a softball field. Duh! It’s how we all meet! She was visiting from Kentucky and filling a temporary vacant spot on our team during a tournament in Tahoe. That girl could throw a baserunner out from far right field. Dreamy.

Julie denies it to this day, but she was actually repulsed by me when we first met. Lucky for me, I eventually won her over with my endless charm, and she moved out west and into my house 20 years ago. She left her family, her friends, her job, and her home to be with me. I think she knew it would kill me to leave my beloved San Francisco, so she made the sacrifice. Those who know Julie would not find that surprising. The woman never thinks about herself.

***

People say that marriage is hard work, but in my case it’s been very easy. I can remember only two major arguments between Julie and me. One happened when she didn’t like a piece of furniture that I had suggested buying, and in the middle of the Ikea aisle I loudly accused her of not loving me. (I believe some hormone issues may have come into play when I pulled that one.)

Our second major argument was on June 13, 2012. It was about baseball. I don’t want to point fingers, so let’s just say this: We were both watching the Giants on television. One of us fell asleep in the middle of the game. Matt Cain went on to pitch the first perfect game in Giants history. The awake one did not want to rouse the asleep one. The next morning, the asleep one found out what she had missed and went bananas. Absolutely bananas. I won’t say who was who, but the argument raged for days.

***

Without Julie, I would never be able to follow the plot of a movie. I just never know what is going on. Thank goodness we now have DVDs and streaming videos and I can pause every five minutes to ask Julie what the heck just happened. Why are they whispering? Is he a bad guy or a good guy? Is that Brian Dennehy or Charles Durning? Is the dark-haired guy Luke Wilson, or one of those innumerable Arquette siblings? What does “money laundering” mean? Why is that guy hiding in the shrubs? Is there a conspiracy I don’t know about? For crying out loud, what’s the connection????!!

(I think I have a hard time telling people apart. Back in the 1990s, when a lot of my friends followed Stanford women’s basketball, I went to one game and realized that I couldn’t distinguish one player from another. I just collectively called them “The Blond Ponytails.” They all looked alike. And to make matters worse, their names were all some version of “Kate”: Kate Starbird, Katy Steding . . . . Oh, and then for God’s sake, there was also Kaye Paye!!! I mean, COME ON!!!)

***

Without Julie, there would be no smoky smell of southern barbecue floating into my kitchen window on weekend nights. She lovingly tends to her marinated meats and veggies out on our center patio while I wait inside, drinking my glass of wine like the Queen of Sheba.

Without Julie, I would not understand what baseball’s “double switch” is. She patiently explains it to me over and over, every season.

Without Julie there would be no one in the house to install light switches, set up wireless networks, pound mollies into lathe-and-plaster walls.

Without Julie, I would not know the burnt-oak taste of a good bourbon.

Without Julie, no one in my house would joyfully drive over the speed limit.

Without Julie, no one would do “the Tom Jones dance” down our hallway.

Without Julie, I would not have the unqualified love of my second family in Louisville, and I would not know the natural beauty of Kentucky’s forests and lush green hills, the exhilarating crash of a cleansing thunderstorm, or the flash of fireflies on warm summer nights.

Without Julie, I would not know how to pronounce “Lou-ah-vul.”

Without Julie, there would be no humor in my home.

Without Julie, I might still be encased in Plexiglas.

Without Julie I would be a roiling cauldron of anxiety.

***

I have dragged Julie with me to many of the 15 Springsteen shows I’ve seen. This last time, in March, she had been up nearly 72 hours straight working on a critical project for her employer. Her exhaustion was almost beyond measure. And we had tickets for a Springsteen show in Oakland. I asked her repeatedly whether she should just stay home, but she said that she knew it meant a lot to me and that she would insist on attending. I have no idea how she stayed awake for those four hours and the BART ride home. And it turns out that the next day she came down with viral meningitis, a serious illness that would sideline her for a month. The doctor said it happened because the virus opportunistically raided her exhausted body. She should have been home sleeping that night. But she went out of love for me.

When it comes to our relationship, Julie definitely ended up with the short end of the stick. I can be moody, nervous, impractical, distant, hypersensitive, and juvenile. She, on the other hand, is steadfastly perfect. Always kind, always empathic, always mature. She is good-natured, even-keeled, strong, capable, and selfless. She encourages my passions for drums and train travel. She likes my blog. She calms my nerves. She steadies me.

Happy anniversary, Sweetie. I love you with all the madness in my soul.

 

 

 

 

Broken windows and empty hallways

Broken windows and empty hallways

Today’s post will be the first in a sporadic series of short anecdotes detailing some of the myriad clueless and/or humiliating things I’ve done over the years. If you are a family member or friend who goes back a long time with me, you’ve probably heard these stories ad nauseam, so just hit the delete key and go on with your life.

The incident in question happened on May 19, 1985. I know the exact date because I kept a diary every day of my life from 1970 to 1987. I filled every blank line in those diaries with two lines of printing so microscopic that only eagles can read it without a magnifying glass. So we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of words that I set down during that period. Anyone with questions about events that occurred during that time frame, or even about what they said to me during those years, should feel free to ask me for a full recounting.

I had just moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Lake Street in San Francisco. My housemate Keith and I had been essentially kicked out of our flat on Pine Street by unscrupulous new landlords who falsely claimed they were moving into the building (which enabled them to skirt the rent-control laws) and then immediately doubled our rent. We couldn’t afford the astronomical monthly increase, so we were forced to leave.

In retrospect, it was a great move. I had just spent the bleakest period of my life in a place that was as dark, cold, and dank as my emotional state. It was the bottom flat of a three-flat Victorian. At high noon, it was pitch black. On a sunny day, we could see our breath indoors. And it was so damp inside that we actually had – I kid you not – mushrooms growing out of our bathroom tiles.

2401 Lake Street, SFThe place I found on Lake Street looked like the absolute blight of the block from the outside. Amidst the beautiful houses that line that street, my building looked like an aging pinkish ill-proportioned flat-nosed trapezoid or rhombus or one of those odd shapes we all learned about in geometry class. I’ll include a picture and maybe someone can tell me what on earth it is and why anyone would ever have built the thing.

Inside, however, it was actually quite darling. The rooms were big, bright, and airy; the kitchen was both vintage-cute and functional; and it felt like a brand-new start. Indeed, that place represented the first light of day to me. I wish I could have told my younger self, and could impress upon every young person today, that things that threaten to rip you in pieces – that make you feel like you’re going to “walk down the street and fly apart,” as my friend Ellen used to say – will usually align your compass towards a better direction. The thing that binds you involuntarily will ultimately free you. It just might take awhile.

The only flaw in my delightful new apartment was that one of the living room windows was stuck open. The window was an old-fashioned crank-style, and although I struggled mightily to close it, it would not even begin to budge. And it was frigid in that apartment. People who have never lived in San Francisco may be unaware that a “warm San Francisco night” is a rarity. (I don’t know what Eric Burdon was ingesting when he wrote that song.) Summer days in SF can be foggy, drizzly, and even bone-chilling, and the nights can be worse. I was freezing in that place, and unfortunately the heating system did nothing to counteract the temperature. The apartment had baseboard radiator heaters that were controlled by building management on a timer. They came on for only a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening, and although that ordinarily was okay, the bitter wind coming in off the Bay and right through my open window almost killed me.

I made a couple of phone calls to the realty company handling my apartment, but those calls were not returned. My blood was starting to boil (as much as it could, in that refrigerator of an apartment), and on the evening of May 19 I was heading out the door, fleeing the apartment to have dinner at Ellen’s house. I was looking forward to being in a toasty home and eating a warm meal and just, for God’s sakes, warming up!

Well, as I descended the stairs I saw an open apartment door, with a man in the usually-deserted hallway collecting money from the tenant inside. And his accent exactly matched the indeterminate accent that I heard the building manager speak when I had initially rented the place. Oh, hallelujah, it was the landlord!

“Excuse me, are you the landlord?” I interrupted him.  He gave me a quizzical nod. “Well, my window won’t close, and I thought maybe you could come up and look at it. I’m Paula, the new tenant in #7. Please just come and look at the window, OK?” I don’t believe I sounded angry or threatening; I was just pleading plaintively, like a character in Les Misérables.

It worked. He dutifully followed me up to my apartment, and I showed him the window, recounting in strict detail my unreturned phone calls and the efforts I had made to close that (*&^%$! window. He tried his own hand at forcing it shut, but it would not yield. “It looks like the hinge is rusty and won’t bend,” he said. “I think that what you need to do is get a can of WD40 and see if that works to clean it.”

Well, that annoyed me. Typical landlord, I thought. Too miserly to call in a real repair person to do the job right or, heaven forbid, replace the hinge.

“All right, I’ll clean it,” I said, with some irritation, “but if it still doesn’t work, you’re going to hear from me again, be-lieve-you-me.” I made an internal vow to be assertive, for once in my life, and not let him get away with shirking his responsibility.

“OK,” he said. I glared at him.

“I’d like to help you, lady,” he continued, backing slowly out the door, “but I have three more pizzas to deliver.”

 

The wood is tired and the wood is old

The wood is tired and the wood is old

I have spent many exhausting and frustrating years recommending to my nieces and nephew, as they entered college, that they sign up for a course in Entomology. That’s right – bugs. I’ve emphasized strongly and repeatedly that the course would prove to be a transformative experience. For me, it actually provided confirmation of the existence of God. I am completely serious.

But no one ever listened to my advice, no one ever took the course, and to this day I continue to be appalled.

So I am now going to take up another cause in hopes that one person – just one! – among my legions of readers will adopt my counsel. Here it is: Watch the “CBS Sunday Morning” show.

This charming TV show was recommended to me by my friend Gigi, who shares with me the desire to shut out the disturbing elements in life and ferret out the poignant, the generous, the beautiful, the artful, and the heroic. The 90-minute program, hosted by the delightful Charles Osgood, features beautifully written and filmed vignettes about regular people, some of whom have done extraordinary things in very simple ways. The stories are folksy, sweet, emotional, informative, and always eminently respectful of their subjects, no matter how eccentric.

My all-time favorite piece on “CBS Sunday Morning” was about 10-year-old twin boys whose love of the game Battleship turned into a trip to the aircraft carrier Yorktown in South Carolina, which resulted in their learning about a still-living World War II sailor with whom they became instantly enamored. Even talking about the man made them burst out crying. “We want to hear what his voice sounded like, we want to touch him, we want to know him a lot more,” one of them said through his tears. The story is about how their surprise meeting with the 90-year-old sailor changed all of their lives. I blubbered through the whole thing.

[You can watch the story at the link below. If you can get through the short video without crying, please leave a “comment” to that effect and I will immediately declare you to be a hardhearted fussbudget.]

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/students-experience-living-history-on-retired-aircraft-carrier/

I was catching up on my “Sunday Morning” shows last week when I was particularly captivated by a story about fossilized wood that is pilfered every year from the Petrified Forest in Arizona’s stunning Painted Desert. This was a familiar subject to me because in 2001 I was conscripted to actually return a piece of petrified wood to that same area.

Winona with watermarkIn the fall of that year, I decided to drag Julie on a month-long road trip down nearly the entire length of Route 66. The whole thing came about because I had fallen obsessively in love with the new, retro-looking Thunderbirds that had just been released, and I was determined to get one. Frustrated with the prohibitively long waiting lists and outrageous dealer markups in California, I had the brilliant idea to call some dealers in Kentucky. Kentucky is Julie’s native state, and we were out there often to visit her family anyway. It turned out that at a dealership in Versailles (pronounced “Ver-SAILS” in Kentucky), lo and behold there was no markup and no waiting list. So we put in our order, and I came up with the plan to drive the car back home to California on Route 66. We would take our time, spending a few weeks cruising appreciatively down the historic road that had been the conduit for so many Americans searching for better lives.

Not all that many decades ago, Route 66 (or “The Mother Road”) was the main travel route for people crossing the country. It became official in 1926 when, with the automobile establishing itself in the minds of Americans as their ticket to freedom and prosperity, the U.S. government decided to create a comprehensive network of interstate highways. As Bobby Troup wrote in his famous song, it “winds from Chicago to L.A” and covers 2,451 miles, eight states, and three time zones. It begins in Illinois, drops down into the verdant state of Missouri, clips a corner of the Kansas plains, plows through the Oklahoma dust, then heads straight west out of Oklahoma City through the Texas panhandle, over the long stretches of desert through New Mexico and Arizona, and into California at around Barstow, where it snakes its way through the orange groves of southern California until it ends at the Santa Monica pier.

Route 66 was the great trail that brought people west. Black Americans fled the nightmarish Jim Crow south; poverty-stricken Dust Bowl families set out to find work on California’s farms; and after World War II young soldiers and their wives, bolstered by the GI Bill and national optimism, packed up their infant boomers and went looking for housing and employment. In the more prosperous years that followed, people with cars and leisure time and a decent income took family vacations to see more of what this country had to offer than they could find in their hometowns.

What a great time it was for travelers back then. They could start their day with a heap of flapjacks, eggs, bacon, and hash browns for about a buck, washed down with a piping hot mug of coffee brought to their table by a smiling diner waitress. Then they would spend the day on the road, stopping in each small town to buy local crafts or let their kids play on the kitschy amusements set up as lures in front of each store. Take your photo next to a giant Paul Bunyan statue! Ride on a big blue cement whale! See the inside of a totem pole! At the end of the day, hungry and tired, they would pull into a truck stop and fill their stomachs with flame-cooked burgers, fried chicken, and milkshakes or ice-cold Coca-Colas, followed by enormous slabs of berry pie heaped with fresh whipped cream. Another hour or two of driving straight west into some of the most glorious sunsets they’d ever been lucky enough to see, and it was time to stop for some very sound sleep at one of the ubiquitous, neon-lit drive-up motor courts that had popped up along the road.

Unfortunately, the quaint, friendly cross-country stretch that was Route 66 suffered a terrible blow in the 1960s and 1970s, when the 42,000-mile national interstate highway system was built. Interstates 55, 44, 40, and 15 would essentially parallel Route 66 but bypass all of the small towns that had grown up along the route. Slowly, those towns withered and died as the “big slab” (as many called the interstate) promised travelers the ability to traverse great distances in far less time. Chain motels, chain restaurants, and chain gas stations replaced the colorful lodging and eateries along the route. People lost their livelihoods and moved away from their homes. In 1984, the last bit of Route 66 was replaced near Williams, Arizona. An era had ended.

Fortunately, some individuals, organizations, and state legislatures have stepped up in recent years, restoring old buildings and maintaining sections of the old road. Nostalgia-seekers and people with time on their hands are heading back down Route 66. There are parts of the road that are long gone, forcing travelers to hop on the freeway for miles at a time, especially in New Mexico and Arizona. But stretches of the old road do remain, and there are refurbished diners, gas stations, motels, and roadside attractions – not to mention museums – to be enjoyed. I highly recommend it. It’s almost as much fun as entomology.

Before we headed out on our own Mother Road adventure, my guitarist friend and bandmate Dina M. – a transplanted New Yorker – told us that she had purloined a piece of petrified wood from the Petrified Forest at least a decade earlier when she had moved out to California. In the Petrified Forest, it is absolutely illegal to remove anything because of the numerous ongoing scientific experiments that are conducted on the fossils there. Wood becomes petrified when mineral matter seeps into buried trees and, over the course of millions of years, eventually replaces all the organic matter, turning the wood into a fossilized stone. That wood/stone can reveal an entire geologic record about the passage of time.

So, consumed with guilt, Dina asked us to do her the favor of bringing the wood back to its home so she could be relieved of the crime and the emotional burden once and for all. We agreed, and we brought that little rock (it couldn’t have been more than 6 inches in diameter; we called it “Little Dino”) with us from California all the way to Kentucky and then back west as we meandered along the length of Route 66. It was 50 miles off the route and out of our way to go into the Petrified Forest, but well worth the detour – for Dina’s sake, for Little Dino’s sake, and also for our own amusement, edification, and overall sense of self-congratulation.

Petrified wood with watermarkThe petrified wood in this forest can be 225 million years old, and signs about the federal penalties attached to removing the wood were everywhere. Although we were bringing contraband into, not out of, the place, I remember sweating like a drug dealer when we passed through the entrance gate and had to undergo the ranger’s interrogation about what we had in the car. Then, once into the park, we could find only groups of large rocks that completely dwarfed Little Dino, and he was going to look supremely out of place. But we had no choice. Holding the contraband clandestinely in the inside of my jacket, I awkwardly tossed it a full 3 inches and it landed among its new boulder family, where I presume it lies to this day.

This whole caper is caught on film, thanks to Julie’s persistent cinematography. The link to the 4-minute clip is below:

https://youtu.be/oNa6kfUF6vc

For the “CBS Morning Show” story, the reporter met with a park ranger who displayed his collection of remorseful letters written by petrified wood thieves – many of them children. These people, like Dina, had carried guilt around with them for years, and their letters accompanied the pieces of wood they were finally returning. (You know, the postage on some of those boulders must have been astronomical!) As I watched, I began to get miffed. I thought that I should have been interviewed. After all, the show likes to feature people who do extraordinary things, but instead the story was showcasing the criminals who had taken petrified wood out of the park – not heroes like me who had gone out of their way, nearly 1,000 miles from home, just to bring back a 6-inch rock.

My attention was starting to drift when, at the end of the story, the reporter casually mentioned that the rocks that are sent back to the park are simply stored away because they cannot actually be put back. When I heard that, I snapped quickly to attention. The ranger explained that no rocks can be introduced back into the area because the scientists conducting their careful studies could inadvertently pick up something that had no reason to be there and the study results would all be totally botched.

Uh-oh. Oh, no. Now we’ve got to go baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

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This train carries saints

This train carries saints

In early 2014, I developed a plan to purchase what I considered to be a “train outfit.” I had decided to take a dream trip on Amtrak from San Francisco to the East Coast, where, as it happens, three of my good friends live within a few miles of each other in the state of Maryland. I would be on the train for four days, and although I was content to dress like my slovenly self for three of those days, for some reason I wanted to look feminine and sophisticated for at least a 24-hour period. And because “feminine” and “sophisticated” are not adjectives typically ascribed to me, this would be a bit of a stretch. To help myself out, I turned to the TravelSmith catalog, and I finally settled on a lovely turquoise microfiber “big shirt” to be accompanied by a white microfiber tank top and white pants. The trip would be in the spring, after all, and my understanding is that one is allowed to wear white pants after Memorial Day. I would accessorize the ensemble with matching aqua earrings that my sister had made for me. I could really see myself breezing through the cars in a supremely confident fashion.

Train outfit with copyright(I am posting a picture of the general outfit. Obviously, the young woman in the photo is not me, and she is wearing black pants which is clearly a mistake. She is, though, hanging off the side of some sort of transportation, so she clearly agrees with me that this is, for all intents and purposes, a “train outfit.”)

Originally I thought I would describe my entire, wonderful Amtrak journey in detail in this blog, but it occurred to me that droning on and on about it might give my legions of readers a good reason to drop their heads and snore. So, fast-forward to day two of the trip. (Day one was a fiasco involving a six-hour bus ride to Reno, but I can save those details for another post.)

I was in the observation car that day when I met a woman named Pearl. (That is not her real name, and I didn’t think I should post a photo of her. And she is not one of those two characters in this blog’s featured photo. They were just fellow denizens of the observation car.) Anyhoo, Pearl lives in San Francisco, and she was heading back to visit her relatives somewhere in the Midwest. One of the first things I asked her was how she’d found herself in SF, and she told me she had moved west when she realized that she was not going to survive financially where she was living and that California offered a lot more in the way of support.

Sigh. This is where my bias started to kick in. I started to make internal assumptions about Pearl, and I wondered if she was taking advantage of California’s legendary largesse.

To be perfectly honest, one of my shortcomings is that I can form a strong, stubborn opinion early on. But I’m also willing to listen and then completely change my mind. For example, when my former band Three Hour Tour decided to insert “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges into our setlist, I gnashed my teeth and whined like a baby: “Too vulgar, not our style, gross, loud, and just plain VILE!” Three months later, I declared it to be my favorite drum song of all time.

So, I decided to suppress my rush to judgment and ask Pearl about her story, even though I was continuing to assume that she was on the dole and sucking away the taxpayers’ money. Well, it turned out that she had three sons. Two of them were out on their own, including a military medic who had just gotten back from Iraq. But her youngest son, Benny, was 31 and autistic, and, although fairly high-functioning in some ways, he was totally unable to care for himself. After her husband left her, Pearl had gone to work as a paralegal, but the cost of home care for Benny ate up most of her earnings. In fact, she began to see herself heading for abject poverty. So she moved to San Francisco, where she could get enough assistance to enable her to support herself and her son. She did sell her car, which meant that she and Benny had to haul their Costco groceries on the bus back to their small apartment in a questionable part of town. But at least they were able to live on the money she earned through In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) for working as her son’s caregiver. I was starting to see that California’s largesse was, in some instances, a godsend for people who were struggling to manage the daunting challenges they had been handed.

I ended up spending a lot of time with Pearl, and one morning she asked me if I could do her a favor. She and Benny were in the coach section of the train, and Benny was pestering her because he wanted to know what a sleeper room looked like.

I had gotten a sleeper room because I really did not want to travel four days across the country sitting upright in a seat. I was very fortunate, of course, to be able to afford the luxury of a bed (loosely defined) and bathroom (even more loosely defined). Pearl and Benny had no such good fortune, and they would be together, never losing sight of the other, sitting upright in their seats for days. (I will say, though, that Pearl looked like a million bucks. She wore – and slept in – the same outfit every day: a neon orange suit, festooned with all kinds of fun costume jewelry. She felt that a respectable person should dress for the train.)

So Pearl asked me if I could show Benny my accommodations, and as soon as the word “sure” barely escaped my lips, she whirled around and scampered off to the café car to get a burger, which threw me into a sudden and severe state of panic.

First of all, I have the worst sense of direction known to humankind. We all know lots of people who claim to be similarly handicapped, including, I would guess, a good proportion of the people reading this blog. However, I firmly believe that my particular affliction is unparalleled. In fact, it is legendary. One time I was dining with a group of co-workers at the California Pizza Kitchen on Van Ness when I found myself (shudder!) having to get up to use the bathroom. When I emerged from the restroom, I could not for the life of me figure out how to get back to my table, and I found myself out of the restaurant entirely, in a back alley with a bunch of construction workers. When I got back to the office, I was recounting the story about the construction workers to my friend Kate H. and she said it sounded “like the plot of a porn film”!! That line will make me laugh until the day I die.

The thing is, Pearl had asked me not only to show Benny my accommodations but also to bring him back to the coach section to find her! Ordinary people would think nothing of this, but it was already a challenge for me to find my own way around on the train. To be honest, I was never really successful at it; I just went lurching from car to car until I found myself in, for example, a place with tables and silverware, which I would then cleverly deduce was the dining car. One evening I headed back to my sleeper and threw open the door to what I thought were my accommodations, only to find that it was the porter’s room. And he was in there. I stammered my mortifications and lurched away to find my own room.

My other source of anxiety was the fact that I was unsure of myself around an autistic person. At the time, Benny might have been the first autistic person I had ever met. Would I know how to behave? Would he like me? Would he express emotions in uncomfortable ways? Would he ask me math problems I wouldn’t know how to solve? Would he suddenly curse me out as had happened to me once when I worked with a writer with Tourette Syndrome? (“Your articles are very sweet and graceful,” the writer had told me. “F— you!”)

But I swallowed my anxieties and carefully led Benny back to my room. He absolutely loved it and took photos of just about everything. He did nothing unusual and didn’t curse at me. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all until I got him back to his coach section when I luckily spotted Pearl’s neon orange outfit. “Okay, Benny,” I said, relieved that we had found our way. “There’s your mom. You take care now.”

He hesitated. “I want to tell you something first,” he said. “I love the way your blue shirt matches your eyes. Did you know that there are many shades of blue? There’s periwinkle, cornflower, royal blue, midnight blue, turquoise, powder blue, sky blue, baby blue . . . .” Five minutes later, he finished with “. . . and cerulean.”

He actually said “cerulean.” I didn’t remember that one from my box of Crayolas.

“But yours are more like sapphire blue,” he said. He smiled and put both of his hands on my face. “And you are absolutely beautiful.”

****

Well, not really. But it didn’t matter. I floated back down the aisle in my glamorous train outfit. Meanwhile, Benny and his devoted mother continued on their journey, bound together forever. God bless and protect them both.