Center of the Universe (27)
Joy to the world
Got a woebegone PM from Wendy Fitz about Chelsea and Travis a few hours after the Oakland fire. And after rousing myself from wherever you sink to when it’s this bad, I wrote back.
Talking helps, I told myself.
I started by explaining a bit of our history with Chelsea. Chelsea Faith Dolan, as she was christened. Velvet Chang, as she pretended to be in the band. Cherushi, as she was becoming internationally known these last few years as an electronic composer and DJ.
Fairfax girl, Manor School girl, sometime Sorella diner, sweet, smart, funny, a wildly musical soul — a natural who could pick up and play any instrument, who, in every sense, heard what others didn’t. Chelsea was our daughter’s best friend since second grade. Her younger sister Sabrina, our younger son’s best friend. There were lots of silly sleepovers.
There were more silly sleepovers when her family moved to the Marin coast and Chelsea stayed with us to be closer to school. Sometimes the girls would bug me to drag a keyboard up from the basement, so they could present an impromptu house concert — always with “Memories” from Cats (which they’d learned for a school talent show) as the finale. But, with Chelsea earnestly working the keys and buttons, captivated by music already, already surprisingly competent, it was never as bad as it sounds.
And Chelsea was family — at the office, no less than in our living room. When Duncan Channon moved to SF and started with the crazy parties, Chelsea, now a budding DJ, was up front in the 747 desk (when she wasn’t in the Tip), with a blinking tangle of pedals and boxes — her blue hair, sparkly makeup and glittery dress the first thing partygoers would see, her sparkly, thumping disco, improvised on the spot (“Live PA,” the kids call it), sweeping them in. Chelsea — dedicated to music, not to partying — was nonetheless a party all by herself.
I told this to Wendy, in as abbreviated a version as I could manage within the bubbles of Messenger (which is how Wendy always writes me), within the bubbles of Chelsea’s determinedly outside-the-bubbles life.
I had to leave out the story of a young Chelsea saving up, for years, to visit her pen pals — all 78 of them (by her mother’s calculation) — in Japan, where she was first dubbed Cherushi and got to promenade with the dress-up dolls of Harajuku. Or when she first picked up the accordion — not every 10-year-old’s choice — and composed a fight song for her sister’s soccer team, promptly marching over to sing and play it from the sidelines. That was Chelsea — gifted, fearless, offbeat, overflowing with fantasies and ambitious plans, simultaneously dreamy and independent as a mule.
It was enough to buckle the knees when we heard she was missing.
“Unbelievable,” it says on the banner behind them. Chelsea and a couple of co-conspirators are onstage, electrifying the crowd at DC’s twentieth anniversary. The banner is about the unlikelihood of our goofy company lasting two decades. Looking at the pictures now, it feels like it’s about this. About them. Chelsea and Travis.
In the band, pretending to be from Berlin — a cartoon, “Sprockets” Berlin — Travis Hough, from Benicia, California, called himself Michael Blitzen. Chelsea, in the band, called herself Velvet Chang, the amazing name she’d spotted on an Alameda lawyer’s office. And together with Donnie Service (aka Eric Bateman) on custom light-show, they were Easy Street.
Travis was such an assured, athletic, astonishing front man, such a strong, expressive singer, and the songs they composed (music by Chelsea, words by Travis) so catchy — even if, as a straight white fart, I wasn’t any kind of neo-disco fan — I had to reach into my pocket, which wasn’t deep, to pay to finish their first album and then, with the indulgence of business partners, invent Tip Records to release it. When friends at One Union gave us a deal, along with engineer Matt Zipkin, to mix the record, I could even claim I introduced Chelsea to a longtime boyfriend. But take a peek at Easy Street holding forth at DC’s first SF party.
What I’m saying.
But I couldn’t fit all that in the bubbles to Wendy. I couldn’t fit it in my head. And as the world’s most implacable foe of euphemism, I was helpless. Straightforward words were way too certain, too contained, for a thing that was both irretrievably uncertain and contained everything. I could not acknowledge to Wendy, to anyone, that these kids — and to me that’s exactly what they were, full of kid life and kid daring — had died. All I could manage was euphemism.
But I needed to say more, if not for Wendy, for us, bring it all together in a hope-laced balm. I didn’t want to backslide to the cockamamie hodgepodge of superstition and tall tales I’d struggled to replace with something that might actually hold up in an age of reason — having taken solemn responsibility for my own metaphysics (if not my hubris) after Catholic school — but Jesus H. Christ, I needed a way forward.
Right after I got up, early Saturday, right after I read about a fire at an art-and-music space — a story that left me apprehensive (Wasn’t our friend Dasha, Josey’s friend, I said to Roni, going to Oakland Friday night?) — right after a V of pelicans skimmed the bay outside (Look! I said, hoping to interrupt the gathering cloud), the cloud rang. Too early.
Are you watching the news? Are you watching? Josey implored. There was a big fire, and Chelsea’s missing!
I invited our daughter to come to us, offered to go to her. Anything, anywhere. But she was headed to the sheriff’s station, a few blocks from the scene, to offer comfort to the family and maybe absorb by osmosis what could never be absorbed by frontal lobe. Maybe to be close enough and soon enough in space and time to snatch them back. Pull it all out of the fire.
Impossible for any child of mine to accept how one minute it’s all this and the next not at all.
Roni and I spent the rest of the day watching TV, eyes full, throats closed, until finally we’d watched too much, until finally we went wandering the neighborhood looking for a bar where nobody knew our names. Landed in an old-school joint in North Beach. On the TV at the far end — but not far enough — I could still see the Breaking News loop, flames in the dark, chopper in the day, flames, chopper, flames. When the bartender switched to the Crimson Tide, I was never so relieved to see football.
But before we went out, I wrote Wendy back with the only hopeful conclusion I could muster, for either of us: Focus on the love and joy.
Which sounded right. Or was it just platitude? Or pandering? Or euphemism?
And what is joy? I said to Roni.
We never quite figured it out, not sitting at the bar of Tony’s, not later. It’s like being drunk, I think. But more. And there’s love that bleeds into it. And maybe some blood, too — because, amid the day-to-day of adulthood, no matter how childlike, joy doesn’t grow on trees. It’s like you’re lost, but not missing. And all the bubbles burst and and the love flows — from fingers, toes, voice, heart, brain and mirror ball. From cosmos, co-conspirators, crowd. Looping. Not like the flames and choppers of Breaking News. Like a JamMan at 140 beats-per-minute — Velvet at the con, Michael at the mic. Like when love fills the eyes and opens the throats. And clears the smoke.
So lend an ear to Chelsea in twinkling glitter and blinking pedals. And get a load of leaping Travis in feathers and glittering hot pants. And feel the world surge around them.
Love and joy, Wendy Fitz. Love and joy. Focus, focus, focus, focus!