A Parable of Life
by Bill Anderson
There must have been a full dozen hitchhikers strung out like slightly scruffy birds on a wire along the higway out of Arcata, where you hit the bypass, and me the only black in the bunch. I have to do some serious hitching, the exhausting kind where you catch and hold the eyes of every driver, hitching my ass off because I've rashly committed myself to reach Grants Pass by 3, not realizing it's 100 miles farther than my guess. Not much chance, I think, but a white dude pulls me out of the crowd like picking out just the right salami in the delicatessen, saying I'll take that one, and I thought yeah. At this time (late '60s and early '70s), although there was plenty of racial discrimination, there was also what you might call a kind of constitutional friendliness, a general confidence in human nature, in the U.S.A.
As if to strengthen this sudden feeling of political euphoria, I cop another unlikely ride, this time from a judge of the Oregon Circuit Court, probably below the federal judge level. He immediately plunges us into deep conversation. What's going on? I start off telling him about an urban commune in North Beach in what was once a regular San Francisco whorehouse: tiny little rooms with funny washbasins, like late 19th century American bidets; buzzers in every room.
Everybody works in our residence hotel and gets home at about the same time and sometimes eight or ten of us are all jammed together in this small kitchen not more than 9 x 12, mixing martinis and cooking shrimp and washing dishes and hanging out. Sometimes new roomers have to take a course called Social Responsibility 101, How To Be Ostracized into Washing Your Own Dishes. Course given right there in the kitchen. As I'm trying to tell the judge how we get housekeeping chores done without making out lists and schedules, he pulls over at a roadside stand and scores half a dozen cans of smoked salmon. Then we take off again, talking companionably about many things. He tiptoes delicately around the subject of drugs, I don't start about religion, but we're pretty much agreed about everythig else except the sexual game. He has two nubile daughters and he doesn't want them out of sight, certainly not until they've finished school and may be not even then.
Obey the laws and respect the local customs, say the wise men, and you can travel anywhere. So I keep my big mouth shut for once, as if we're two warriors meeting in the Civil War, in mist, in a glade. We drive up the Oregon Coast with its cool, oceanic tone, me angled in my seat, waving my hands, having a good time. Perhaps it's only hitchhiker's therapy working on us, but we're both sorry when the ride is over. He jumps out, heaves open the trunk of the car and insists on laying a can of salmon on moi. I hadn't really known about smoked salmon. Later on after I catch up to my friend we scarf it up on wheat crackers with white wine. After all, you have to "play" life the way a great champion would.
Jack Gilbert, the poet, boasts he can manage to get a feel for any city in three days maximum: the energy, the physical layout, everything. I see you, Jack Gilbert, as the Africans say, trying to groke London, a collection of African villages if there ever was one, a place where even cab drivers often don't know where they are. Some of the London underground stations are so deep it takes two elevators to get to the surface. Jack would take these scary things all over town and walk back, being an eager, tireless walker. He would wander the streets late at night, looking at houses, making whole neighborhoods suspicious. But after three days he would have this kinesthetic grid in his head, like a magnetized pigeon. He could feel the city. Spin him around three times, blindfolded and set him down and he could head straight for the British Museum to gaze at the Elgin Marbles.
Lots of mornings I would get up early and hitch a ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. Riding one time with two young women, we're in regular San Francisco gray fog to start, then pearly white fog, then we burst into the luscious Marin County sunlight. We agree it's like a Parable of Life just driving to Sausalito every day. They let me off and wish me good morning.
So I can hitch up Mount Tamalpais, Mother of Lizards, by the back way to use land and seascape as a focus for emotions. Little jeweled things alternately dart through the true blond grass and then freeze in attitudes of repose? of alarm? An aura of sunlight lies on the ocean - half bloom, half glitter - so that from far away the water looks metallic, like it has this elegant, machined finish, like it isn't even moving. Yet there is a very pleasant "crawling" effect on my senses, as if a slight rearrangement of molecules had occurred, the way a thing shimmers just before it happens.
It's like some horrible bargain with the devil where you realize that it isn't that you're going to have to pay, it isn't that you have to give up something, it isn't that what you're offered isn't beautiful and true, it's that they snatch it away from you so fast. Before you even have a chance to savor it.
Some weeks later, in a pickup truck with some unsavory characters I suddenly realize the Man would dearly love to get his hands on, we're riding up Mount Tam to the same draw I visited before, with the oak trees and the view and the lizards, and we come around a bend in the road and there are several police cars parked with the highway patrol and Marin County deputies all clustered by the pulloff. And I'm thinking, Busted! Jesus! What will my mother say? But instead of pulling on by without stopping, tipping on by the way you would walk by the casket, my friends yell, "Stop! Let's see what's going on!"
So a park ranger comes over and tells us to move on, we can't stop, they're making a movie.
My companions are grinning from sideburn to sideburn, enjoying this, they say they want jobs as extras and they keep bugging the ranger and pleading they want to be in the movies until finally he begins to get a little pissed off and tells us to drive on. "You're sure we can't be in the movies. . . ." They just want to be in that movie so that all over the country their friends would see it and laugh.
Sweat trickles down my side. Wonder if my new birthday batik shirt is spoiled. We drive to the picnic ground farther up the mountain and have a birthday lunch in among some gnarled oaks, some big rocks. Years later in a strange city, I see the movie The Strawberry Statement and it all comes back, there's my old hillside, and I can't help it, suddenly tears in the corners of my eyes. Because the panorama of the past has moved across memory so stealthily that I didn't even know I had forgotten: the iridescent lizards, the ocean, California.
It's as if you had this thing going with a nice woman - a little naive, maybe. You put the rush on her, getting and sending mash notes, having little dinners at Andre's in North Beach, but you're not really serious. And she is always half mad, half alluring because of course she knows. After a while a fight is inevitable; she drags you to a nursing home to sing Christmas carols and many of the old people don't even turn around in their seats to looksee and it's so horrible that you both come down with a thump from the excitement of Mission Street in December and split even before dinner and without exchanging presents, but that's lucky because you didn't have anything for her anyway.
And you find yourself more and more crashing in another part of town and one day you find you're getting to feel a little stale so you decide to investigate the '80s, the new society, repulsive as it appears, get a half-decent job, stop doing dope, begin to clean up the old act a little. But after a while it really seems lik you aren't getting off the way you did in the old days when you would fool away the afternoon, sometimes Vesuvio's in early afternoon, sometimes Gino & Carlo's in late afternoon, walking up from Washington Square park. Sometimes it almost seems like you've blown it, as if something has been lost and nothing gained in return, and you realize suddenly that it's been years since you found yourself walking idly over in the Mission, in that large green field off Dolores, watching the Spanish-speaking play soccer, in late afternoon.
And one day you begin to think about her and how you used to go bounding up the steps to her tacky little apartment in the Outer Mission and you look her up and she's still at the same place. So far so good. And you rush up the stairs and see her looking just about the same - her profile perhaps a little more pronounced. You hang out for a while, careful to keep an easy smile on your face, you have a glass of wine and kick back because it feels like there's a nice energy going. And it's like when you wake up in the morning: There's a brief moment when you thnk everything is going to be all right.
But after awhile she says, "Can I ask you something?" And far away you can hear something clang shut. "Yes," you say. And she says, "Well why did you come here?" Now of course your timing has been gone for years and you blurt out, "Do you want to try to get back together?" And she frowns. "You've changed," she says. "You used to be so intense and committed and political. I liked you better the way you were."
"Bill Anderson was a Bay Guardian writer and poetry editor from 1967-1971. He now is a freelance writer living in Bedford, Penn."
from: The Rolling Stone magazine write-in on the Sixties,1976