LIGHTS OUT FOR
LITTLE STARSAILOR; or,
“THE BIG BUMMER STRIKES AGAIN”
• • •
Let’s just go ahead and get this out of the way: I need you to make sure they get my epitaph right. I have plans to have a tombstone that is twelve-feet high . . . though at this point I don’t reckon I’ll ever have enough money to afford that much primo stone. I have a backup plan. Any hard, semi-permanent surface will do. Hell, just go ahead and carve this into a rock:
FOR GOOD OR ILL,
HE WAS AWARE
. . . anyway: I am back from Oakland. I wasn’t there very long—just thirty-six wild and terrible hours. Here’s the thing about driving from Portland to Oakland and then back to Portland again in thirty-six hours: it’s rough as hell. Do they tell you that? No one told me! I’ve done the drive a dozen times at this point, though before I was never budgeted for time. Back then it was a free and endless resource. I was alone, and had a few bucks in my pocket . . . No one was expecting me anywhere, and no one knew where I was. It was good and beautiful.
But that’s not what happened this time. See, I had two other humans in my care, and both of them could only swing a weekend in the Bay Area. And if I’m being honest, I couldn’t be away too long either, on account of having to get back to Portland to do something or another, some of it involving a tradeoff of my time for a little bit of someone else’s money.
And that is how our story begins: With me earning a laughable hourly wage in a part of town that I absolutely despise. It was a Friday night, and I was alone on Division Street peddling food to unremarkable people. The place was crawling with these creeps, which always confuses me. Do these people have nothing better to do than walk around eating novelty food? I sit there and I think bitterly: “Really, is there anything more boring than food?”
I got off work real late, which meant my crew, my partners and me—we didn’t end up leaving till eleven p.m. I’m certain that right from the start we all felt awful for our own special reasons. I myself was fairing a particularly dark and stormy period of utter self-loathing, which I did so as quietly as possible inside my own mind. As for everyone else: Who’s to say. If they didn’t tell me, I didn’t ask. I figured it would have been rude. We talked about a whole lot of things, and if our demons came up, we dissected them vaguely. Sometimes that’s all you can do amongst good and honest people who mean you no harm.
I drove and drove, on and on, twisting every which way through Oregon till we got to its final outpost, which is Ashland, and God knows I like that place. I guess it’s a nice place to stop and walk around for a little while, and sometimes that’s just what the god darn doctor ordered. Plus I know of a gas station right off the interstate where you can get some super-charged black coffee, and though no one has ever explained to me why, it is also free. . . .
This is precisely what I did on our long journey: I drank me a whole bunch of this delicious potion. Ten minutes later I was wild on the stuff, and feeling half-insane. I told Ella, who was my co-pilot, and who was undoubtedly feeling the fear as well, that I was certain we would get to Oakland much quicker if I pulled the car over, picked it up, and hurled it toward the Bay Area. And afterwards, I said, I would get a running start, and launch myself in the same direction. Lord almighty, I sure was a cuckoo for Coca Puffs right then and there. I was a freewheeling maniac on wheels—a real Looney Tune!
It doesn’t hurt to mention here that we were totally alone on the highway—save for a Hummer, which we had been following for hours, ever since passing through Salem, and this Hummer had attached to its rear bumper a big swinging pair of truck nutz. Imagine watching those awful things sway hither and tither on all those menacing turns through rural Oregon!
We got to the food checkpoint on the California border, the attendant there asking if I had any Oregon-bought fruit in the car, and me replying right away: “Sir, the only fruit in this car is me.”
The road smoothed out from there, became straight and flat, and the truck nutz stabilized, and we all felt a little better, now freed from their hypnotic undulations. . . .
It wasn’t until six or seven in the morning, the sun all the way up in the sky, that Natalie rose from her death-like sleep in the backseat to take over driving. I felt completely insane by then. We pulled over in some bumfuck nowhere and switched seats, and I put on my sleep mask and curled up uncomfortably and did what I could with what little I had. Realistically I could only get a few hours of miserable sleep before Pipefest II began, but I knew that no amount of the stuff was going to turn it around for me. I was juiced up on adrenaline and bad craziness and a whole host of other naturally-occurring chemicals that make my life a hellish never-ending freak show. I closed my eyes anyway. I had a strange sort of half-asleep hallucination involving clairvoyance and ghostliness. I felt a great vague shame for sins I had committed in the past, and for the ones I was bound to commit in the future, many of them the same. . . .
Natalie stopped for coffee in Concord, and that’s when I snapped out of it. I felt like throwing up. Instead I pondered gloomily the things I would have to do with my body and voice in the coming hours. There was no way the next twelve hours weren’t going to be mostly bad. I had hoped they wouldn’t be, but it was too late: I was fueled by almost nothing, was little else than a temporarily electrified skeleton, and the crash was inevitable, and when it came it would be severe.
Soon we were in Oakland. I had Natalie park near Donut Farm. It was a Saturday morning. I went inside, thinking I would see my old family, or at least a few old buddies, but it was just Molly at the counter, and Lord knows I’ve never really understood how that woman felt about me. She made some jokes about Portland being boring, and I confirmed that what she had heard was true: Portland was boring as hell. “But there’s no way in hell I’m coming back here,” I said. “Well . . . probably not, anyway.”
An overhead light flickered. There was no music. I didn’t recognize anyone working there. I felt terribly alone and strange just then, a sort of menacing emptiness I had felt many times before when confronted with the Twilight Zone feeling of visiting a place that no longer has anything to do with you. I bartered for a free T-shirt to no avail. I had no pull at Donut Farm anymore. I was a veteran of a bygone era, released into the wild, and promptly forgotten.
I made Molly promise me she’d come to Pipefest. She said she would. I don’t mean to spoil anything, but she never did come.
We walked a few blocks to my old house on Marshall Street. Tracey greeted us at the door in her pajamas. She walked us upstairs and served us breakfast. I shared my omelette and pancakes (called P-cakes in our household) with Ella while Natalie took a shower.
Honestly, it is difficult for me to remember what happened next. I know we walked over to the Pipehouse on 56th, where Pipefest was to take place. My friends there were setting everything up. They hugged me and I hugged them back. My body felt like a sausage casing stuffed with a hundred pounds of sawdust and shredded strips of newspaper. Everyone asked how I was doing, and gravely I muttered a few half-formed sentences in return. No one was concerned of course, because what I had said was not in any way abnormal for me.
In Mitch and Leyla’s room I lay prone, and it was there I groaned and felt the heaviness of all that sleeplessness. I asked Mitch if he still bartended at the Wolfhound Pub, where I had worked all summer and autumn, and he said he did. And then he said this—and I’m not sure why, and it was obvious that he immediately regretted it: “You know, I mentioned you were coming to town, and I realized that most of the bartenders there didn’t really like you.”
“They said they liked me,” I said. “In fact, I considered them friends.”
“Yeah. I guess they didn’t like the way you dealt with things. Too non-confrontational.”
“Oh, uhh. I don’t know, man. That kinda bums me out. Though hell, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. I was quit when I came in here. I’m twice as quit now.”
“Shit, man. I’m sorry I said that. Well, for what it’s worth, I still love you, baby.”
I thought of Donut Farm, and then the Wolfhound. Well! I thought. I guess the last six months of my life in Oakland were one great big haunted nightmare, and I guess too that the limited interactions I had with some of the people there were disingenuous. That’s Earth for you, baby!! I closed my eyes. Someone brought me a beer. I raised my head and, with my eyes still closed, made my third or fourth bad decision of the day by drinking a beer when beer may as well have been poison to my tired and broken body.
In the backyard I made the rounds. I knew everyone, more or less—some of them more, some of them less. In my mind I felt as though I were sitting on a couch watching a horror fantasy play out—as if the reality unfolding before me was little else than a television show I was reluctantly tuned in to. I got a lot of “You’re the guy from the commercial!” I shook hands, and thanked them if they had said something nice about it. One guy told me that he had watched it five times in a row, which sounded miserable to me. I didn’t say so, just kept on listening. “It was joke after joke after joke, man. It was good, honest stuff.”
Well there you go! I’ll take that, I thought. I took it.
I kept on drinking terrible beer. It seemed to pep me up a little, though I don’t claim to know why. At any rate I needed some sort of oral fixation, or at least something to hold in my hand, and something I would have to refill from time to time, allowing me to duck out when things got heavy, and when I greatly needed to be alone: “Excuse me . . . uh . . . I seem to be out of beer . . . I will be back in a moment (maybe). . . .”
Eventually the bands started setting up. I slithered through the crowd, avoiding a few women who would have justifiable reasons for scowling at me (I’m terrible at returning phone calls, you see), and climbed on stage—which of course was an enormous halfpipe that takes up most of the backyard. The first band was a country thing, most of them assholes. I mean, no offense to these guys, but they really were assholes, and the only reason I feel comfortable saying this is because they seemed to enjoy being assholes. It had become, for lack of any other defining character traits, their thing. Like most of the bands that would perform that day, they wanted nothing to do with me. I was to announce them, and they indicated to me in subtle, non-verbal ways, that they didn’t really care for that to happen.
This scenario is identical to the one I faced hosting the original Pipefest. It is common knowledge, this far into the twenty-first century, that musicians, and artists in general, are vain, self-centered creeps who shudder at the thought of having the spotlight taken away from them. My intention was to announce their presence, which took only a few seconds, though hell, that’s just enough time for some of these jerks to give you grief about it in ways that are, as I pointed out above, slimy and passive aggressive, and not at all direct. I would sooner have a man hate me outright then shuffle his feet and twiddle his thumbs about it. There was a lot of shuffling and twiddling going on that day. I blew through it, announced them anyway . . . to a crowd of equally bewildered and indifferent punk kids wolfing down sausages and guzzling cheap beer.
I got off the pipe, wandered for a bit. I found places to talk to nice people and I found places to be alone. At some point in this swirling insanity I spied the Belgians near the beer cooler. I went over and introduced myself, knowing all the while that I was a great a big bummer just then, and maybe a whopping let-down as well. They were as calm and gracious as I had imagined them to be. We hugged, of course, because Lord knows I wanted to hug these people. I wondered what they must be thinking, seeing this black-clad cockroach with bags under his eyes. If they were masking any contempt for me, I detected none of it. Unlike the bartenders I had worked with a few blocks from where I stood, I trusted that these people liked me when they said they did. I went on liking them a whole bunch too.
I didn’t get much time with them, or anyone really, because I was so fried and burnt out. My flame was dying, and so I went into the house to lie down for a bit, knowing I had to make my return sooner or later, to announce all those bands who didn’t know me or want me, and to say incomprehensible and stupid things to the lovely people who dug it anyway.
Mitch and Leyla’s room seemed like a good refuge, and so I went inside, only to discover that seven or eight other people had had this same thought. The place was crammed with people trying to get some peace. I ducked out, went someplace else. I avoided a few old friends out of shame, and out of feeling disconnected from them, having been away for so long, and not wanting to be confronted with that godawful “So what have you been up to?” question, knowing that my answer was a bummer.
On the street, under the blazing, screaming, psychedelic California sun that I knew intimately, and missed greatly, I felt a button get pushed deep inside my brain. Intentionally or not—for all I know some entity living inside me sat on it—the “EJECT” button had been depressed, and now it was time to leave. And not to escape any one person or any one thing, but to escape it all—to hide somewhere for a little while, and to shut my eyes and have a strange heaviness crawl over me, and take me someplace much farther away than ordinary sleep ever could.
I made my way back to Marshall Street, delirious as I crossed four lanes of deadly traffic on San Pablo Avenue. I knocked on the door of my old house again, feeling as though I would pass out right there on the doorstep. Tracey answered in her gym clothes. She seemed a little sad. I asked her if I could crash for an hour. She motioned for me to come inside. Upstairs it was dark. I looked around for Dante—the thought of seeing Dante was magical to me just then, and I could imagine nothing that would bring me more joy—before quickly remembering that he was six hundred miles away in a little house in Portland, which was a decent and boring city that I was not particularly happy to return to. Tracey heated up some food for me and I ate it very quickly. We talked for a few minutes while I did my best to hide the fact that I was intoxicated and exhausted and terrifyingly miserable. She left for the gym, and I curled up on the big purple couch in the living room. Had I not immediately fallen asleep, I imagine I would have started crying.
An hour later I jolted awake and saw that I had a dozen missed phone calls. A lot of people wondered where I was. I wondered too. I looked around and saw a place that was familiar to me. For a half second I again imagined that I still lived there. The brief comfort I felt, followed by the immediate crash, left me in an even stranger place than I had been before. I put on my jacket and went outside. The sun had gone down and the street felt sinister. I put my hands in my pockets and got to walking. I had walked in this same way in this same place thousands of times before, but now I was alien to it, and not altogether welcome. I walked on anyway. There was nothing else I could have possibly done.
Crossing San Pablo to get back to 56th, I thought that my life had for a long time resembled something I didn’t want it to look like in the future, as opposed to what I did want it to look like, which was still nebulous to me. I wanted the other thing, whatever it was, so badly that I could hardly breathe. No one had cast me out of Oakland—I had left because there wasn’t anything there for me any longer. And now my bed and my books and my little friend Dante were way north, and hardly anything was different for me, except that I was far away from the people who care about me. Well old man, I thought, stepping over a dead squirrel, I guess it’s too late now . . . you lost your rent control, and there’s no place left for you in the Bay Area, even if you did want to return to it. There is only the forward path, and though darkly you gaze into it, it is the only place you’re going now.
A man pushing a shopping cart rolled by me. He spit on the sidewalk, and made a sick throaty noise of disapproval, as though my very existence was revolting to him. I said and felt nothing in return.
I returned to the Pipehouse and saw that the loss of sunlight and the consumption of gallons and gallons of beer had made everyone wild and weird. I wanted nothing to do with it. I went into the house and searched for Natalie and Ella. I found Natalie in the kitchen. Some creep was eyeing her in a way that would make any warm-blooded American uncomfortable. I tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the exit. She nodded and unplugged her phone. Outside the house, quietly nearing oblivion in my mind, I said to her: “We’ll sleep now, if that’s what you’re feeling. Meet me at the Marshall House and we’ll find a nice place to lay down on the floor. Now—now I have to find Ella.”
“She’s around,” she said. “She looked way tired. Try 55th.”
Natalie grabbed a pillow and blanket from the car and took off. I went in search of Ella. It didn’t take long to find her. She was a block away in the passenger seat of her friend Shannon’s car. I opened the door and sat down on the curb. I told her we had to get away and sleep and she agreed. I climbed in the back of the car and Shannon drove us to Marshall. We idled there for a bit, feeling rotten in that car, as I waited for the big OK from Tracey to house four people for the night, with the promise that we’d be out first thing in the morning. After a half hour she responded, saying it was all right with her. The four of us went inside, climbed the dark staircase, and made little beds here and there on the floor and couch. Soon we were succumbing to a sort of fairytale sleepiness—as if a gigantic cat with a molasses-coated tongue were lapping at our backs, and sending us someplace dark and heavy and far away. I plunged into it right quick. In my last moments of bleary wakefulness I spoke to whichever omnipotent cosmic creator was receiving my transmissions, and asked it to spare me any more pain, at least for a little while, if that were at all possible, and to protect my little buddy Dante in Portland, who I loved, and who brought me joy when very little else did anymore. I’ll be damned if I didn’t end the thing with an “Amen.” I thought, Why not? It’s just as good a word as any when you really think about it.
I woke up in an empty living room. Everyone had gone away. It was noon. I ate some toast and took a shower. I had no clean clothes so I wore the dirty ones. I went outside. It was a nice sunny day. The light was different from what I had been experiencing in Oregon. I had an obnoxious thought, which was that I was more California than Oregon. I knew it deep down. I turned it into a sentence right then and there, and sealed it away somewhere in my brain, since it was mostly useless to me, though not altogether without merit.
I walked back to the Pipehouse and grabbed the car. When I had last seen it, it was covered in beer cups and little paper plates and God knows what else. Now it was totally clear and so I got inside and turned the ignition and drove around for a bit. I picked Tracey up in downtown Oakland, and the two of us drove over the Bay Bridge to get to San Francisco—to get to the theater where our dear friend Laura was getting her diploma that day, having worked every day for two miserable years to get her master’s degree. I want to talk about this another time. I won’t talk about it right now.
A little while later I collected Natalie and Ella from the mouth of Golden Gate Park, across the street from the Haight-Ashbury, where I had had so many strange and wonderful times, all gone now. I met Ella’s mother. I shook her hand. I told her I would make sure her daughter got back up to Portland in one piece. She said, despite knowing me for all of five minutes: “I don’t doubt you will.”
Like Roy Orbison, I drove all night. Through California and Oregon I kept my foot on that gas pedal, saying very little. We got into Portland around sunrise. I dropped my friends off and went home. I went inside. The sink was full of dishes and the recycling was overflowing. I found Dante roaming around in a shadowy mess. I picked him up and slung him over my shoulder. I rubbed the fur above his spine. In a quiet voice I said nice little things to him. He stretched out his arms and purred. I was sure it was really happening. It was the only thing I was sure of. I set him down and went around the house pulling the blinds shut. No sunlight would get in until I opened them again. I planned to keep the house dark all day. I stripped off my clothes and got beneath the blankets. I closed my eyes and sent out one final transmission to whoever or whatever was picking up my sad little frequency. The heaviness came to me in the dark. I received no response from space. I reckoned that was all right with me.