Tennessee Valley

Marin beachBecause we lived inside the gates we knew the combination to the locks. The fog could make the metal cattle guards across the road slippery, but the big gates would always swing easily on their federal hinges. Lock it again behind you. From here in only you and the rangers get to drive. Everyone else has to walk to the ocean. Who knows what the Miwok Indians may have variously named the place. Its first English name was Elk Valley after what could be killed there in the 1850s as market hunters vied to feed the hordes of non-self-sustainable strangers flooding San Francisco ten miles south. Of course it had been all climax coastal redwood forest then, grizzly bears and cougars. All gone inside a decade after the gold-rush locusts arrived.

The low ranch house that we lived in had once been Dean Witter’s place before the National Park Service took over this land as part of the national seashore and he moved, renting it out until ten years down the line when its grandfather-clause extension would expire and it would be demolished. Except for a ranger’s frame house further in it was the only private residence still inside the park. Mr. Witter had cut himself some sort of deal when he sold out.

Sausalito was the nearest town, just a few miles drive before the gate, but the ocean end of that now treeless, chaparral-cloaked valley could have been a hundred miles away from anywhere with streetlights. It wasn’t wilderness, just mesmerizing emptiness, a landscape that had suffered the denudement of clear cutting and then thoughtless overgrazing, before the land, exhausted, had retreated into economic and ecosystemic meaninglessness, stripped down to its ancient bare-rock, steep-ridged skeleton, blanketed with fog. A landscape like the shaved head of an Auschwitz survivor, stopped only by the sheer schist cliffs and the battering combers of the North Pacific.

Did I mention the fog? Fog-bound was the default state of the ocean end of the valley. Sausalito might be awash with sunlight, but inside the gate grayness ruled. It was the fog that had given the valley and its ocean cove its modern name. In 1853 the S.S. Tennessee, hauling eager Forty-niners up from Panama, in dense fog mistook the cliff-edged cove for the Golden Gate farther south and plowed itself straight up onto the beach so well that everyone aboard walked safely ashore and the ship was stripped bare of goods before the sea buried it into the berm. The disaster renamed the place Tennessee Valley. I was happy there.

Marin fog and Golden GateNow there’s a statement for you, a judgment lacking all objective indices, a panel of ghost judges holding up score cards—8.6, 8.8, 8.5, 9.0—and one memory contestant moment gets to smile and step—oh so temporarily—onto the highest little box: a happy time. Compared to what? Measured by what? Can it be replicated? What does the fog have to do with it? I think it was Clive James who identified happiness as “a by-product of absorption,” and the root of happiness is perchance. I just happened to be happily absorbed into that landscape, that place, those misty headlands that I had by chance been brought to. There never has been a plan, and in those years the very idea of a plan, of an external compass, of a predetermined destination seemed a sort of heresy. No. There were maps of a sort, of the shifting sort you see in ganglia black against the pink of your eyelids when you close your eyes in sunlight, maps that resembled a cluster of neurons in the neocortex, make that the future cortex. But those maps had nothing to do with geography. They were charts without names, portolas so secret not even their owner knew their meaning. Tennessee Valley just arrived.

I never actually lived there in that low moldy ranch house that the sun seldom shined on. I mean I never paid rent or met the landlord. I had an address elsewhere, but at the time it seemed like I only visited my place in Berkeley and the valley was my home. C lived there with her young daughter. They shared the big house with two other single mothers, each of whom had a daughter of about the same age, and, of course, the mothers’ lovers, as transient as I. This was the heart of my non-attachment years, still practicing my vows. It suited C as well, who had her own secret internal maps.

That household consumed an amazing amount of toilet paper. One night, stoned, the other two guys and I got together and pooled our tp purchases and figured out how few months it would take for the tp used there to stretch to L.A. That conversation began with a discussion of whose turn it was to pay for a septic tank pump out. I was happy there, a house that belonged to the women folk in which us men were allowed solely as a convenience. But it wasn’t the house. It was the valley it sat in, the hills that loomed over it, the birds that lived and visited there.

In my beat-up, old, taped-together, many-times soaked and many-times-dried, but still solidly in tact Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds there is still a yellow folded paper list of my bird species count from one Easter Sunday there—42 species in all, including sea and shore birds, and I had given up early to sit and watch the comings and goings of golden eagles from a condo-sized nest on a cliff above the ocean. It was a place of raptors—kestrel, red-tailed, rough-legged, goshawk, harrier, horned owls, burrowing owls, saw-whet, eagles, and vultures. They ruled the up-drafts and the sky.

Marin cliff and sea

In Tennessee Valley and nearby Richardson’s Bay I found, by unplanned and unanticipated happenstance, total absorption in birds, especially those who seemed to acknowledge no boundaries to their flight. On mushrooms once I visited the throngs of migratory sea birds resting in the low-tide mud flats of Richardson’s Bay and quizzed them about what it felt like to do what they existed to do. As long as I stayed motionless they tolerated me, but none could answer such a stupid question from a creature who existed in only three earthbound dimensions. I never asked them if they were happy or not. They were all invincibly alert and alive. Birds have ever since retained the gift of making me happy. They are me idealized, me with wings—flight, height, distance, movement, the freedom to fly above the fog.

Fungod, Berkeley, ‘77-78

TransamericaI was living in a garage in Berkeley at the time, after I came back from Hong Kong. I was what? Thirty-one, thirty-two. There was no heat in the garage, but there was an old electric space heater in the attached potting shed where I had my sleeping bag up off the dirt floor on a door on cement blocks. It never freezes in Berkeley. The garage doors had been replaced with mismatched many-paned French doors. If it wasn’t raining and the sun was out, the place was cozy for a couple of hours every day in the late afternoon. A big redwood tree grew next to it, sheltering the place from everything, including the sun. I had running water from an outside spigot, but no bathroom. My landlady, a working single mother who lived in the front house, let me use her downstairs bathroom, which was just inside the unlocked back door. We rarely met or talked. I don’t remember her at all.

I had a small refrigerator and a hot plate, a pot, a fry pan, a bowl, a plate, a mug, two glasses, flatware, and a hunting knife. There was a desk—another old door, this one up on milk crates—with my baby-blue portable Smith-Corona electric typewriter on top of it. The sole piece of furniture was a short rattan seat with three-inch legs at the desk. There were some pillows on the cement floor for guests, but I don’t remember any. I was content there. I tried to write fiction and failed succinctly. These were my psilocybin years, the years in which I learned to accept the fact that failure and I were like an old married Catholic couple who could never get a divorce.

I had a job—I’ve always worked—as an after-hours legal file clerk for Trans-America Insurance in the Pyramid across the Bay in San Francisco’s financial district. I had no car. I took the F bus over and back. Three to eleven, pulling and copying documents for a mammoth law suit. The most mindless job I’ve ever had, even more numbing than sweeping steel plant floors or picking artichokes. I did it all as a paid observer, fueled by magic mushrooms.

The mushrooms came prepared as a powder, the consistency of ashes from an ash tray, inside black film canisters. They came from an enclave of illegal Japanese dope-dealing growers up in Alpine County. Their gage was good, too, but their psilocybin could not be beat. Each canister contained the equivalent of two-to-three tabs of LSD, but as a powder you could control your intake. Before work every day I would spread a dose or two on my palm and lick it off, wash it down with a can of Rainer Ale. During my shift it was simple to augment the dose as imposing reality required—no smoke, no works, no nothing required, just a grey line on my palm to lick off and relaunch. I never shared it, and no one ever got to watch me lick my palm. It was a private high world.

An important injunction came with the mushroom dust, part of the ritual—not a religion, just an understanding—it was not to be sold for a profit. My connection passed it on to me at his cost, five bucks a canister. I never sold any. Who would buy it anyway?  It was so cheap it must be shit. Smart druggies paid top dollar. Besides, it was a mellow high not a rush—long and thorough, totally unthreatening. It was just a fungus after all.

The high was an entrance, a through-the-looking-glass sort of thing. It filtered out most of reality’s short waves, the frenetic ones, the immediate ones, the invented ones. This included most human inter-activity. All that stuff with others still went on, but as if on a flickering screen off in a corner that I could monitor and tune in and out. The world was much larger with all the social foreground filtered out, revealing a much deeper and more diverse sphere of sensation. When you learn to use all your senses as one, you-as-observer disappears, and conflict becomes impossible. I’m sure people thought I seemed disengaged, because I wasn’t engaged with them but with what encompassed them.

Of course, I was celibate and had no social life. When I got out of work at eleven p.m., I would hit a few North Beach bars before catching the F bus back across the Bay, but all that was always a solo event. I did a great deal of walking. That was my main entertainment. The mushrooms—the Fungod, I called them—preferred the outdoors and made me keep moving. I would walk for hours, for days when I could. On my days off I would dose myself up and head for the wilderness hills, either up behind Berkeley or over in Marin, and bird watch. I have never been in better shape.

It has been thirty-five years since my last visit with Fungod. At some point, social reality came kicking and bitching back into my life, and I let it. It is the human part of human nature that degrades us, that inhibits us from becoming what we might be. At least once, for a few brief years, I managed to escape and become part of not just us but of a vast non-personal macrocosm of infinite, intertwined detail. I had a glimpse of the homeostatic wholeness.

By the way, we are nothing.

Specs’ Saloon, North Beach, San Francisco


Specs himself outside his saloon, having a smoke and a laugh, 2004

Someone observed about the Buffalo I grew up in that there seemed to be a church on every block and two saloons at every intersection. They were all filled with good Christians. The typical neighborhood tavern carried the proprietor’s family name—Strinka’s, say, or Topolski’s or O’Connor’s—and had two entrances, one to the bar in front and another family entrance in the rear to the dining room. As most of the city was Catholic, these family entrances got most of their traffic on Fridays around dinner time, because the tavern’s cheap fish fry was a housewife’s welcome alternative to stinking up the house with the smell of cooking fish. And it was payday.

It was a blue-collar world. A shot of schnapps and a draft cost you fifty cents. For many the corner barroom was like another room on their house—a room free of family and kids. There were no TVs above the bar, no sports channels, and if there was a juke box it wasn’t tolerated during prime drinking hours, dusk to midnight, and for half the year dusk came early to Buffalo. Patrons either quietly conversed or sat alone inside the blessed freedom of their chosen cone of silence, studying their drinks and cigarettes, communing only with themselves and maybe their reflection in the back-bar mirror behind its picket fence of whiskey bottles. Normally everyone there would be a regular, and after a while bits of personal history would become absorbed as common knowledge and the men and women behind the bar became not just the dispensers of self-medication but also the reference librarians of local lore and current events.

“I haven’t seen Murphy in here in a week.”
“It’s his back again. You remember his accident.”
“Did the union ever get them assholes to settle?”
“I guess they’re paying for another operation.”
“How’s his wife doing?”
“She’s off the drink, too, I think. Hasn’t been in. Want another?”

If Murphy didn’t make it, there would be a collection for the widow and the kids.

I entered this world when I was seventeen, and for the next twenty years—until I moved to Samoa—neighborhood bars, no matter where they were, would be my wayside chapels of peace and familiarity. If during that time the Catholic Church ditched Latin as its unifying language, corner saloons still spoke the same lingo of escape and observed a consistent liturgy of nonjudgmental sanctuary, filled with your fellow faithful. Homes away from home, the other room to your ancestral house that you could always find if you walked the streets and could interpret the neon semiotics of barroom windows.

I spent several years visiting, photographing, and researching the scattered remaining historic saloons of the California Gold Rush and Nevada Mother Lode country for a book I never wrote. I used to pride myself if plopped down in a new town—at a Greyhound Bus Station say—of being able to find on instinct the nearest convivial watering hole. I wonder how many thousands of such places I’ve walked into, just a stranger coming in the door and taking a stool at the bar and ordering a drink. Just do it right and nobody will ever question you. It is like entering a church and dipping your right hand into the holy water font and blessing yourself and genuflecting properly before the altar. In twenty years no one ever challenged me or tried to pick a quarrel. From Hong Kong to Belfast, in twenty different countries and every state of the union the sacrament was the same.

And so it was in North Beach where I found Specs’. I never lived in that part of San Francisco, but Specs’ became my neighborhood bar. I am a tad superstitious about talking about Specs’, because the place, which absorbed me forty years ago, is still there, just off Columbus Avenue on old Adler (now Saroyan) Alley, unchanged, ungentrified, and I am afeared to jinx its existence by writing about it as history. (Is this aging, when you begin to feel some responsibility for the past, some complicity with its integrity and survival?) I moved often in those years, both around and away from the Bay Area, but Specs’ Museum and Saloon remained a sort of borrowed nexus, the place where people could find me if I was in town or leave messages for me if I wasn’t. A place to find connections for work or the next apartment to rent or a new lover. But mainly it was a place to talk, a bohemian wayback machine. Again there was no TV set in the place nor a juke box. The bartenders were Irish maestros of gab. I made some good friends there, folks always ready to pick up the talk no matter where it had left off, folks who just wanted cohorts and a space to enjoy the end of their day.

A number of years ago I stopped in Specs’ on my way through San Francisco to somewhere else. It had been three or four years since my last in transit visit. I hung out at City Lights Books across the avenue until Specs’ opened after four. I took my old seat at the end of the bar between the front window and the reading lamp and opened a book I’d just bought. The bartender, a younger man whom I’d never seen before, was busy setting up the bar for business. I didn’t bother him with an order. All the memorabilia of the bar—the flags and shark jaws, old union posters and ironic signs, scrimshaw and Inuit art, framed newspaper headlines and eclectic photos—were all still in there proper places, all sepia stained like Civil War prints by decades of cigarette smoke. Then a green sixteen-ounce can of Rainer Ale appeared on a coaster in front of me. Green Death we used to call it, the strongest, most assertive brew you could buy there, the usual opening drink of the old sundown regulars thirty-five years before.

“What’s this?” I said to the unknown barkeep.
“You’re Enright, aren’t ya?” he answered, straight out of Dublin. “And that’s your usual, ain’t it? Where ya bin?”

I came back late that night, before closing. A different crowd, all younger, only a few of the old, hobbled and roseola-nosed regulars left. I came back to see the eponymous proprietor Richard “Specs” Simmons himself, who, dapper still in his 70s, would stop by to judge the closing crowd. We were glad to meet. We sat at a table near the front and talked the present about the past, as men will, catching up on people and their personal events—Deborah’s kids, Marilyn’s last known success, Kent’s funeral. Since my previous visit San Francisco had passed a law against tobacco smoking in all public places, including saloons, and now the dead-end pedestrian alleyway in front of Specs’ often held the best conversations, as smokers followed one another outside, placing coasters on top of their drinks on the bar. But when Specs lit a cigarette without moving from his table, I did too.

“It’s my place, after all,” he said. “If anyone wants to file a complaint, then fuck ‘em. They’re eighty-sixed forever and may they remain eternally childless.” He took a drag. “And I’ll gladly pay the fucking fine.”

Usual Group at the Window Table

How in Westerns the wheels of the wagons
always spin backwards the faster they go,
how ice and flame at first touch feel the same.
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

If all my sins were confessed in Islam
my body would have no extremities.
What do you call what you want to forget?
Take a pint and a seat by the window.

There are faults in the sky that insult me,
slick birds with no wings that call themselves souls.
Without your lost beauty no one knows you.
Take a pint and a seat by the window