Center of the Universe (38)
PART II: COMEBACK
I can hear middle C on the piano, coming through the jungle. C, C, C, C. Repeated. And then the octave. Then two notes simultaneously — C and what I’m pretty sure is a fifth above. A chord, of sorts. In second grade, the Sister with the circular pitch-pipe up her floppy black abyss of a sleeve (distinct from the Sisters with the rectangular lasagna up their sleeves) told my mother I had perfect pitch. But even after singing in bands and making up songs for decades, I never much believed it. Now, suddenly — with the kind of exuberant certitude you get when you’re head-over-heels in the shade on a sunny day — I’m convinced I know exactly what the note is, that fifty years later I’ve come into full possession of my remarkable power. Perfect pitch after all.
C, C, C, C. Over and over. But it’s not a budding Mozart banging out the first sonata or a brat trying to hijack mommy’s attention. Too steady. And then it dawns on me. The house down the trail sold last week. The new owner is getting the piano tuned. And even as C, C, C, C sounds again through the ungroomed trees, vines, blackberries and underbrush that crowd our hillside plot and hide the trail behind, St. Rita’s down the hill rings the three o’clock bells.
A chord, of sorts.
In case anyone’s forgotten, or didn’t notice, we live in the town of Fairfax, out past San Anselmo — not the city of Fairfield, out past Vallejo — at the overgrown intersection of Wreden Avenue and Berry Trail, 23 miles northwest of San Francisco, three vertical blocks from the small, but exceptionally lively, frequently inebriated, music-filled downtown and the world’s friendliest Korean-Brazilian Italian restaurant — Sorella’s, by name — that I think of as the center of the universe.
Berry Trail has to be one of the oddest public thoroughfares anywhere in the universe, outside of West Virginia or the Cinque Terre. At our end, it starts in my neighbor Ed’s dirt driveway, just beyond the brokedown 1982 Dodge Dart, between the falling-down fence and the discarded hot water heater, and travels abruptly up hill for the first 10 to 15 yards on less than a single-track, with a tree root for one foothold and a rock outcropping for another. It flattens out as it emerges from behind the untameable bamboo that knocked down the fence in the first place and looks down, from the height of a high-dive, onto our own dusty, brokedown fleet, a ’91 Lexus and ’96 Saab. The track doesn’t widen more than a couple of inches at that point and at night the light doesn’t reach it, so passage can be particularly perilous. One morning we found a big dent on the hood of the Lexus and a baseball cap, and Ed told us he’d seen a young inebriate fall off the hill. (And like all God’s blotto protégés, he popped up and staggered off, albeit bareheaded.) Berry Trail continues, a few feet above the window of my son’s childhood room, then above the deck where I’m writing this on a tablet resting on a music stand (my DIY standing desk) into the jungle beyond, widening a skosh more and eventually becoming, after a fashion, paved — with lumpy, rutted, disintegrating tar and gravel — all the way to Mountain View Road.
Perhaps I have not been clear. This is not an unsanctioned shortcut, a crowd-sourced, folk-art footpath through the trees. This is an official, town-maintained street, with a green, government street sign at either end and, out in the jungliest part, a towering Town of Fairfax streetlamp and Marin Municipal Water District manhole. And there are eight houses along Berry Trail — not lean-tos or cabins, but plumbed and electrified primary residences — one of which, clearly, has a piano.
Berry Trail is so odd there’s got to be a reason. There is.
I think I’ve mentioned that Fairfax has long had a roguish bent and raffish background, that in Prohibition (and, for that matter, before and after) it was not only the place to party in this neck of the woods, weekend destination of city mice in pursuit of nature (fermented, distilled and otherwise), it was the place where the bootleggers warehoused their booze, and there’s a secret tunnel for that under Mono Avenue. You can imagine there was much well-greased looking away by the local constabulary and that the licentious environment encouraged the gangsters to look around. And in search of further opportunities, they developed Berry Trail. The houses on Berry Trail were built as bawdy houses, boutique brothels. It was a perfect set-up. The forest-green buildings were discreet in the dense forest — so local authorities could pretend not to see them. And no access by car meant no easy access by the Feds — Elliott Ness would have to slog through the woods. But then — because you don’t want to make paying customers slog through the woods — came the masterstroke: a funicular, a vertical railroad that would help the wise guys control entrance, while whooshing patrons up the vertiginous 1,500-foot incline in three entertaining/terrifying minutes. At the top, the Mountain View end of the trail, just past the houses, they built a tavern, which was both the excuse for the funicular and where the love connection could be made.
When we moved the half-dozen blocks from Dominga Avenue to this house in Y2K, we found an old bottle of French perfume in the dirt at the edge of the property, still corked, ambergris bobbing in the clear liquid.
Odd streets, odd peeps, ingenuity in the service of iniquity, the jungle plunking middle C. That’s Fairfax. And after five years splitting our time between here and a studio in the city, I’ve been getting back into it — the town, the community and, following the six-month break, the blog. Searching for my soul — even as I try to show the endocrinologist I can drop a few pounds — I’ve been slogging through the forests and clomping up and down the zig-zag, roller-coaster streets of our Mayberry on Acid, including Berry Trail, and falling in love again, renewing my Fairfax vows, arguing with my son, who came home after eight years to opine that things have changed, that they haven’t, not fundamentally, that the distance from San Francisco helps keep the forces of speculation at bay — helps — that there are still plenty of funky hippie houses with big wooden peace signs on the porch and prayer flags in the trees and brokedown cars and water heaters in the drive. And, best of all, a joint downtown called Sorellas.
C, C, C, C, the piano tuner plays. Roni steps out on the deck into the sunny day from the studio where she paints glimpses of forlorn plants, leaving the door ajar and music on, and, with perfect pitch and exuberant certitude, I can hear it was Philip Glass all the time.