Center of the Universe (43)
Sometimes you hit a wormhole, one of those space/time tunnels that lets astronauts leap ahead weeks, months, light-years. I haven’t a clue if they’re real or sci-fi or just Einsteinian blue-sky. Astrophysics was something I walled off a long time ago — I mean, how do you stay motivated if you’re just a subatomic flyspeck blasted through infinity? These days I keep my universe within the town lines of Fairfax, Sorellas at the center. But even if wormholes don’t exist, I’m pretty sure I just went through one.
It starts with the new friend I made last week. She lives in Fairfax, too. And I used to pass her house when Roni and I would walk the kids to feed the horses, at those stables where Van Morrison posed for Tupelo Honey. And lately I’ve been passing by again as I hike out to the hills that are making me healthy. I know it’s her house because she lives with Charlie Cunningham, another of those Fairfax mountain bike pioneers who went on to become a custom bike maker and inventor. Through the half-open garage door, we used to see Charlie in his medievally dark, low-ceilinged workshop quietly transforming ordinary metals into what reviewers said were extraordinary bikes, one at a time. Ah, that’s Charlie’s house, I figured out one day. Which meant it was Jacquie’s, too.
Charlie was famous in certain circles, but Jacquie Phelan was famous. I would read about her all the time in the mountain biking magazines, back when I was avid about the sport. She was the first champion of women’s mountain bike racing — and the second and third, too — riding the first aluminum frame — a Charlie innovation she nicknamed Otto — ever used in competition, outfitted with the dropped handlebars of a road bike. In her most notorious early victory, she doffed her jersey, swirling it above her head like a captured flag, as she crossed the finish, top of the heap and topless (top that, Brandi Chastain). A local hero turned international star of the burgeoning mountain bike world, she remained the same echt-Fairfax character — comic, roguish, post-hippie, post-feminist, post-skinny-tire. Alice B. Toeclips, they called her.
Early one Thanksgiving, in the full grip of biking fever, I headed over to Pine Mountain with my blonde, curly-headed toddler in the bike seat behind, as part of the Appetite Run, a local turkey-day tradition open to all. The 20-mile distance doesn’t sound bad, if you leave out the 4,000 feet of climbing. Clearly not the biker of my overweening fantasy, I was grinding miserably skyward at barely a walking pace, Josey nodding against my back, when a rider whose helmet was adorned in plastic fruit overtook me. There was no one else on the trails in plastic fruit. And no one else on the trails — in those days — toting a baby (sometimes, when a track turned abruptly gnarly, my paternal recklessness alarmed even me). And the passing biker laughed, offering gleeful encouragement, before powering past, as if the 30-degree up-slope were Dominga Avenue in the Fairfax flats. She didn’t know I knew, but I did, and was eager to tell Roni when we got home. Because Jacquie Phelan, with her racing dominance and antic and relentless efforts to break women into another boys-club sport — particularly through the WOMBATS, the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society, she founded — was the undisputed queen of mountain biking.
If she faded from wider consciousness as her competitive hegemony waned and mountain biking surrendered its quirk, I’d never forgotten her. We even had a mutual friend, JoAnn from Detroit, who always used to say we should meet, what with bikes and Fairfax and all. I was enthusiastic. But JoAnn was living down the coast by then and didn’t spend much time in Marin and somehow it never happened. And then, 25 years later, Jacquie hove back into consciousness, my consciousness, because of what happened to Charlie.
When I started this series I’m calling, for the sake of convenience, a blog, I thought about Fairfaxites who not only personify our little Mayberry on Acid, but represent what’s best about it. By bringing ferocity and endurance — along with a heaping helping of the part some hippies leave out, humor — to her countercultural quixoticism, by turning whimsy into substance, riding around all day on your bike, like a kid, into spiritual practice, no one fits that profile better than Jacquie. Maybe I’d just go knock on the door on my way to or from the trails. Maybe I’d hit up JoAnn again — I owed her a shout anyway. For all my everyday bluster, I was surprisingly bashful. Still, I would find a way.
What happened to Charlie had everything to do, of course, with bikes. Specifically, two years ago, he was thrown by another one. A couple broken bones, nasty bruises. Hit his head, too. Not for the first time. So, off to the ER, no biggie. But Charlie wasn’t a kid anymore. And six weeks later, just when you’d expect the healing to be done, a gasket blew. A gusher in the head — a subdural hematoma, in ICU-speak — that had probably been leaking in there since the accident. Suddenly, Charlie, the deft, fearless mountain biking pioneer and genius inventor, couldn’t walk or talk or swallow. When some mutual Facebook friend posted a GoFundMe plea, I couldn’t help but pony up. And pony up again when they raised the goal, realizing that, though he was now walking again, he was a long way from independent. And that second donation — another hundred bucks, the least a gainfully employed local admirer could do — earned me a personal note of thanks from Jacquie. And then another personal note of: Why does your name sound so familiar?
And that was my opening.
I wrote back. Told her my name might be familiar from the dead San Francisco poet, if she was a literature fan. Told her that, as a onetime mountain biker, I was a longtime Phelan fan. Told her about Thanksgiving day with Josey on the mountain. And about our mutual friend JoAnn. Even told her about another friend Sandy, a genius of heavier metals, who’d had a cerebral hemorrhage. And, in keeping with her wildly enthusiastic persona, Jacquie said let’s get together — soon. What about tomorrow? And so it was that, not twelve hours after the random email exchange, the queen of mountain biking, shouting out mine and the poet’s name as she pushed her dropbar mountain bike through the front door, became my brand new pal.
There was no fruit on her helmet. “That was a long time ago,” she said, crinkling eyes through oversized red and white specs. “The Eighties?”
She asked what I was doing. Which was this, as it usually is, weeks I’m working on the blog. And I told her about my plans for three books. And told her how much I admired her GoFundMe posts about Charlie and hoped she’d turn them into a book. In fact, I said, the posts, which blend details of Charlie’s current condition and the couple’s outdoorsy healing regimen with observations of nature and reminiscences from mountain bike and Fairfax history, are already chapters, just waiting for someone to bind. We drank tea — San Rafael’s own Mighty Leaf brand. And, between her over-enthusiasm and mine, we talked on the deck below Berry Trail for almost two hours. Deep stuff about writing. Poetry (Kay Ryan, the two-time US poet laureate lives in Fairfax and is Jacquie’s friend). Politics. Airplanes (Charlie’s father was a fighter pilot). Friends. Fairfax. The fate of the Earth. Family — Charlie’s, hers, mine. Jacquie wanted to know it all and tell it all, and, though I initially reacted with some of the shyness I was born with, along with some of the detachment I’d acquired after too many years of corporate chit-chat, it was exactly the kind of conversation I crave. I like nothing more than hearing people’s stories, the raggedy, real ones. And then the mountain queen saddled up for the nine-block ride home, because Charlie’s nap would be over shortly. But she wanted to know when we’d get together again.
“Do you ever go to Sorellas?” I asked her.
“No,” she said, as if it was a foreign concept.
“You know, Sorellas,” I said. “The Italian place downtown?”
“No, never been,” said Jacquie, who’s lived in Fairfax at least as long as I have. “Charlie and I don’t go to restaurants,” she clarified. “Can’t afford it. We get our food from the trees in the yard and the dumpsters behind Good Earth. ‘Guaranteed sanitary,’” she added with a grin, quoting the dumpster’s sign.
Her mien was never less than cheery, and, much as she calls their funky homestead Offhand Manor, she now offered a wry, Jacquie-esque name for her dumpster-dived ingredients, but I didn’t catch it because I was spiraling through a wormhole.
When I landed, it was on a whole new point of view.
Here I am writing a blog about a restaurant — OK, it’s not really about a restaurant — ostensibly about a restaurant, about seeing the world through the lens of a restaurant, and there are people — not in Mississippi or India — for whom a restaurant, even the center of the universe, is not a part of their universe. And suddenly I find myself looking back from the other end of a space/time tunnel, disoriented and then ashamed. Ashamed of my assumptions. Ashamed of my abundance. Ashamed even at my shame — there are people who dive dumpsters for environmental and philosophical and political reasons, and maybe I’m just a bourgeois square. Then again, she had said “can’t afford it.” Not “it’s what we believe in.” But here I am writing a blog about a restaurant I consider inexpensive, and there are people — in Fairfax, in Marin, in the booming tech-bubble Bay — for whom it’s not remotely inexpensive enough.
Some of those people are the kids at Skyline our friend coaches, who can’t apply themselves in practice because they didn’t get breakfast, after maybe not getting dinner, and who he has to feed before he can coach. And some of those people are the ones under the blue tarps on Division Street — or everywhere — the homeless, hurt and understandably confused. And one of those people is the mentally ill lady who used to wander in to Sorellas and whom Soy and Sonia, without a moment’s fuss, would serve heartily. Another was Sandy, who in his last years had a job that wasn’t enough and always accepted the leftovers and extra portions we pressed into his hands at the end of a Sorellas meal. But don’t kid yourself, he was multitude, one of millions, tens of millions, kids and grownups alike. And some are loud, naked, hard to miss. Some are secret, like spies or ghosts. And some are local heroes. And the one thing they have in common is they all deserve better.
But that’s not a thought to end on.
• Jacquie & Charlie’s GoFundMe page is here: https://www.gofundme.com/w85tn3dg
• Our friends at WhyHunger are here: https://whyhunger.org/donate-1
• Fairfax Food Pantry is at Fairfax Community Church, 2398 Sir Francis Drake (at Oak Manor). 415–755–3775.