Center of the Universe (52)
It Was a Dark and Stormy Daniels Night
I had plans. One was to get drunk at the Fairfax Festival. The other was to sit down at table 10, across Bolinas Road from the main stage, and live-blog what happens next. It’s the one day of the year — since the ill-fated experiment of 2008 — that Sorellas is open for lunch, and I like to take advantage of it.
Anyway, Fairfax Festival is a big deal around here. Big enough that sometimes the kids come home and sometimes friends come up from the city, and in any case you run into everybody you ever knew in town and get to marvel, in the sun that always shines the second weekend of June on the west side of Marin, how old they look. The festival takes place annually, and this year is the 41st. It’s our 33rd, going back to chapter one, which finds us stuck in traffic behind the parade and, ultimately, falling in love with the small, strange town we didn’t mean to visit, had never heard of and could not believe.
The fest is part Norman Rockwell — there’s a parade at 10 am, and the schoolkids march or ride Big Wheels, and the kids from the dojo strut in white wraps and various colored belts and stop periodically to do group karate chops, and a county supervisor rolls by, waving from atop the back seat of a constituent’s vintage convertible, and the ladies with the bellies from the bellydancing class undulate past in finger-cymbals and full Scheherazade, and there are art cars and homemade floats — most notably by the residents of Bothin Road, who might put together a big plywood-and-cardboard galleon or castle or spaceship — and there are lots of people on stilts, some in drag and one on a giant old-fashioned bicycle, and the Nave Patrola, a “lost” unit of the WWI Italian Army, featuring eminent local Italian-Americans, sponsored by our favorite Italian-American-owned dive bar, performs a joke drill that culminates in a dozen guys, all in fake mustaches, soup-bowl helmets and fatigues, falling in a heap. And it’s part acid test — lots of bubbles and psychedelic facepaint and wigs and funny noses and grimacing guitar shredders on flatbeds and big, stoney gaps between groups, like the parade is over (but it never is) and old acidheads lining the route, many in the company of grandchildren (most named Cody), wishing they were tripping brains — but it’s contraindicated with Cialis.
After the parade, there is music all day, in descending decibels from big, better-known electric bands on the main stage (Bernal Beat, the irresistible Latin octet with Gail Muldrow and John Molloy, kicked it all off this year) to small, country-rock trios on the bandstand in the redwood grove (where Wendy and her other group, Todos Santos, did an exquisite “Bluebird” that, along with the detritus dropped by an especially insistent gust through the redwoods, brought mist to my eyes) to earnestly unamplified singer-songwriters up the hill outside the Pavilion. Inside that old barn-like building was EcoFest, which to me sounded a little re-education-campy to be fun. And on the ball field, presented by the Burning Man-affiliated Church of the Open Mind, an all-day silent disco, affording the rare opportunity to don over-ear headphones in the unmitigated 80-degrees of left field in summer and hippie-dance till you plotz.
In and around the music stages, there is food and beer and more beer — Native Sons of the Golden West draft beer booth, Ross Valley Fire Department draft beer booth, the souvlaki booth, barbecued oyster booth, sausage booth (serving beer in cans) — and then, back under the redwoods, by the creek, 40 craft booths and a flea market, offering batik dresses, tie-dyed t-shirts, musty records, rusty signs, dangly earrings, spiritual books and guru DVDs, wood flutes by Ancient Winds, “peace accessories” by Peace Chain Joe, handtooled belts and paintings of visions. And somewhere in the shade, near an al fresco gallery of such visions, my own vision failed. Couldn’t tell what the fuck had got into my shoe and decided my left arch had abruptly and painfully collapsed of its own accord — wages of longevity, alas.
When the kids were little, we’d sometimes buy them new tie-dyed t-shirts at the festival, and when we were hoarders, we’d sometimes buy a pile of records (even when we didn’t have a turntable) and more moldy books and maybe, for Roni, an old doorknob, a box of dollheads or a jumbo bag of swizzle sticks, but these days it’s strictly window-shopping in the woods. And what mostly happens at the Fairfax Festival happened to us again and again. We ran into our old across-the-street neighbors from Dominga, Wendy (different Wendy) and Noah and his little daughter Willow, who’s pushing 40 now and has two kids of her own (Codys), and Fred the Baker, who lived next door and has dropped a few pounds since giving up the bread biz (and didn’t recognize me either), and Steve (different Steve) and his wife Marcia, who’s town librarian and marched in the parade alongside the Bookmobile (I yelled out she was my favorite float) and Alex and Lisa, who live just down the hill on Scenic, but often pass by on Berry Trail, and their patient friend Anne, who I meet, and don’t remember, every year.
But the plan was to get drunk at Sorellas and see what ensued and, after Bernal Beat, that’s where we went. Soy installed us at table 10, and I ordered a Peroni from Heather, pulled my laptop from my backpack and waited for the magic — the story that writes itself. John Molloy sat down and asked what I was doing. When I explained I was doing the blog, live, he offered this lede: “It was a dark and Stormy Daniels night.” He was with his friend Eddie, who plays in the drumline with him (they were in the parade), and they conferred excitedly about the drummer in McCoy Tyner’s band. More subdued than usual — at the crack of noon — Gary drifted in. And, at John’s invitation, we were joined by the Bernal Beat trombone player — a tangle-haired, gray-bearded mountain man, the other Anglo in the band, who was eager to confess he came from Omaha, repeating it to Wendy and Steve when they arrived. If I imagined table 10 might be the hippie equivalent of the Algonquin Round Table, with a Dorothy Parker-in-batik dispensing certified-organic wit, I may have been off the mark.
“It was a dark and Stormy Daniels night.”
The other thing is that getting drunk in the day — when you’re coming back to drink more at night, when you’ve got so much left to do on the damn book, and the hangover after Maria’s birthday last Sunday set you back two days, and the round table is turning out not to be the Round Table — never seems as appealing close-up. The best story I heard that afternoon was from Mr. Omaha, who after he told Wendy and Steve where he was from told them how he drove a long-haul truck for seven years and that he used to practice clarinet as he went — well, not on curves or when there were cops around, he clarified. The other other thing about this year’s Fairfax Festival was that the parade was shorter, shallower and, frankly, drabber than any I can remember. No Bothin float (Barb at the hair salon, a former Bothin resident, told Roni they’re all getting too old). No Nave Patrola. No bellydancers. And no giant old-fashioned bicycle. Seemed like this year the town of Fairfax might’ve smoked too much. Or not enough.
After a couple beers and a meatball hero (just one of the exciting special items on the menu for festival day), we worked our way back through the redwoods and ran into Katie. Katie was a parent of a kid in our son’s class and a cohort of my wife when she was the big cheese at PTA, and right there and then Katie invited us to dinner. We said we were already scheduled for Sorellas with our friend — whereupon I introduced her to Gary — and she said maybe she’d join us, maybe they’d all join us, her husband Nick and their four friends.
And I told Gary and Roni I really had to get home, take a break before the evening festivities — my foot was killing me — and started my limp up Wreden.
When I warned her on the phone that our party had gone from three to nine — plus her parents — Soy said she’d make it work. And when we arrived she’d pretty much cordoned off half the back room by jamming together a bunch of little tables, blockading all but one narrow path — so narrow that when Soy first tried to pass with a full load of dishes, I had to stand up and step aside. But she made it work. We all did.
Turns out, I knew Katie’s and Nick’s friends, too — or all but one. Natasha had been a big school activist when I was on the school board. And in the early aughts, Bill was awarded Fairfax Volunteer of the Year (which is how I still salute him), in addition to being a noted local restaurateur, while his wife Carol helped run the family seafood joints — one in SF, one in San Anselmo. Jack, the stranger, was Natasha’s date, down from the Sierra foothills, who had lived in Fairfax back in the day — the glory day, he confirmed, when Jerry was still noodling at the Sleeping Lady (still on Bolinas Road) and Van Morrison was up the hill thrashing out Tupelo Honey in the Jacuzzi. I introduced Soy to everyone — even Jack — before I realized that Soy already knew everyone — except Jack — before I remembered where I was.
I ended up sitting next to Nick, who I hadn’t seen in years and never knew that well to begin with, but under the influence of festival bonhomie and a splash of Sicilian red, the stories flowed. Nick is a self-described townie from Redding, who after graduating high school worked at the supermarket and brought all the beer to all the townie parties. Having shunned college and its automatic four-year draft deferment — seeing as how he already had a sweet job — he paid no attention to the Selective Service notices that ordered him to report. Some time after notice three, the FBI woke him early one morning at his parents’ house. With a rare combination of cluelessness and gall, he asked the G-men: How am I supposed to go to the draft board when I gotta be at work?
But the kid was smarter than he seemed. And with his mother running a bookstore, he was better-read than most of the kids who did opt for deferment. The Army noticed. In return for a five-year commitment, a senior officer offered to send him to West Point prep school and then put him to work stateside in intelligence. With a rare combination of cluelessness and gall, the 18-year-old told the officer he knew the difference between two and five years and his answer was simple: Fuck you.
“I actually said, ‘Fuck you,’” Nick said.
They made him a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam, where for 14 months he got a whole different kind of smart.
He looks you in the eye and talks with a surging intensity — a rare combination of passion and cynicism, geniality and indignation — as he hunches his six-three bean-pole self over the table. After Nam, he went on to get a masters, which led to a job even better than the Redding supermarket (though with less free beer) working on Bay Area environmental issues. And today with his little round Harold Lloyd specs and curly moptop, far from the rough-and-ready townie, he looks like a professor — but one who’s approachable and with-it.
“Have you ever thought of writing your story?” I said.
I already knew one chapter went horribly dark. Everyone among their old PTA friends and small-town neighbors knew. A year-and-half ago the kid who was in the class with my kid, a lovely sweet girl, who’d gone on to be a lovely sweet accomplished woman, not yet 30, was lost in an icy car accident in the boonies, where she was working on environmental issues. The unthinkable, if not the unendurable. (Just a month after our daughter’s friend Chelsea.) Roni, who was closer with Katie, had commiserated months before. But I wasn’t around, wasn’t close, and, well, it certainly didn’t seem right to bring it up at a Fairfax Festival dinner. After all, you have to make sure the wounded get a chance to rejoin stupid everyday life, don’t you?
“After we lost our daughter,” he went on, “I was convinced to go to a writing class run by a vet. And when I wanted to work on children’s stories — these Brown Bear stories I’d told the kids when they were little. The guy said, I don’t wanna hear Brown Bear stories, I wanna hear about Vietnam.”
Mostly, we talked around the dark parts, here in the frothy post-festival back room, where Wendy and Steve were trying loudly to get a tune in edgewise. I held forth on the therapeutic effects of writing — not just the unburdening, the forcing light into recesses — and told him about the unexpected genesis of my novel in the suicide of a stranger. Not the same kind of trauma, I averred, but trauma nonetheless. Even the genesis of this blog in the trauma of tending to our desperately afflicted friend Sandy. You have to write it down, I said. And after a beat that suggested he wasn’t entirely sure, he gave a single nod and said the vet who runs the program says the writing’s going well.
Then with a rare combination of nerve and astonishment, he told me that four weeks after his daughter’s accident he’d been diagnosed with cancer.
“Oh, my god, I had no idea,” I said. And I hadn’t and couldn’t.
“Cancer of the tongue, way back there,” he explained, pointing. “Had to pull my tongue all the way out. When I woke up after the operation, I wondered why my jaw hurt so much.” He actually laughed.
“They got it,” he added. “No chemo or radiation. But for six months it was hard to eat and drink, hard to swallow. And it seemed to delay my grieving, so a lot of that I’m only working through now.”
I had plans for the day. But, as always, the day had plans for me. And the next morning stupid everyday life was back in all its variegated glory.
I got up early to check on the overnight results of my weeks-long, Wiley-Coyote war with the raccoons, then viciously upturning our lawn. Threw on a shirt and shorts, slid into my shoes and quickly realized the fallen-arch issue had not been cured by a night’s rest. Limped out to the yard, replacing divots and re-stretching the anti-critter netting, limped back in and, with a pained exclamation that was more pathetic plea for sympathy, kicked off the shoes.
“Have you looked inside those shoes?” Roni responded. “Let me see those things.”
“Leave me alone,” I protested, “I’m eating breakfast.”
Undeterred, she retrieved the dusty Merrell slip-ons and fished around inside.
“Do you know,” she exclaimed, brandishing corroded metal, “there’s a nail in here — all the way through!”
I had plans, but, after finishing my scrambled free-range eggs with cheese, checked the puncture hole in my left foot, slipped on my Kiss sneakers and headed out for a tetanus shot.