I once asked a woman I knew—a California writer—what her definition of evil would be. She paused for a moment and then said: the absence of seriousness. I thought for a moment that she was referring to California—so many jokes had been made about it—but in fact, it was in California that the serious revolutions began and it was in California that I began to think about the larger issues of freedom and free will and what it meant to be an American.
Now, there are so many books about the 60’s. Some claim that the radicals of the 60’s felt illegitimately comfortable in a bourgeois society and called for a more participatory democracy. Others believe that without the revolutions of the 60’s, we would never have seen the revolution of 1989 and the fall of communism.
But I think of my life in California, during the six years I lived there, as full of laughter and gaiety, and then I try to remember that anyone who is young and happily married with two beautiful children is bound to be happy. We had been living in London for six years and coming back to the States gave us a good chance to see life here through the eyes of an expatriate.
We moved to California in the 70’s at a peaceful time, a kind of Pax Romana after the 60’s, even though the 60’s were still very much with us. Whenever I crossed the Golden Gate bridge, I focused on the beauty of the views and the glorious patina of the bridge against the blue bay and tried not to think of how many people had committed suicide there. I remember driving along Tiburon Boulevard in my new Volkswagen station wagon full of kids in wet bathing suits and thinking that there was no happiness like mine. Nothing is as exhilarating as California sunshine when you have come from the rainy London streets, and I loved driving along San Francisco Bay with the sun bouncing off the brilliant sparkling water. There was that feeling that, well, nothing bad could ever really happen here, although, in fact, the day that we landed at the San Francisco airport, Patty Hearst had been thrown half dressed into the trunk of a car and kidnapped, and the terrible black and white murders had begun. I had forgotten, too, my original fear when my husband had told me about a job offer in San Francisco. We were sitting in our flat in the Albert Hall Mansion looking out over Kensington Gardens; from our French Windows, we could see the curve of the facade of the monumentally ugly Albert Hall, and just a glimpse of the sun going down when he asked: “Where do little cable cars climb halfway to the stars?” and I answered “Good God! Earthquake country.”
But I hadn’t thought too much about earthquakes as I drove around Marin County looking at houses with Smith Olson, an agile, short-haired real estate woman who looked like an athlete. Smith took me to all of the towns and drove around with me for hours, discussing real estate and her own life in Northern California. It was Smith who drove us to little house on a hill overlooking the Bay with a brilliant view of Angel Island and of the Corinthian Yacht Club. The house was in need of repair, but we saw it and we fell in love with it, and when we made an offer, it was accepted immediately. I was able to take my kids out of the Corte Madeira Motel and register them into the local schools and begin to settle in. I think I will always remember the day that Smith arrived proudly with a new fountain pen to sign the new lease, telling us that, in fact, this was her first sale. She had just started her real estate job two weeks before and she was delighted that we were such “easy” customers. Years later, I was to think of Smith many times, since her life had turned out to be more complex than my own, if that’s possible.
I myself signed up for a course in journalism at the College of Marin in Kentfield, where I hoped to learn how to write and to develop some skills that would be marketable. The college lay in the shadow of Mt. Tamalpais like a concubine nestled in the arms of a lover; newly built, its lawns were fragrant, and young people lolled indolently beneath the giant redwoods and the leafy birches. I had registered for two courses, and I wandered into the first one only to discover that the instructor, Rita Meese, was a lookalike of myself. The other students looked at me, and then at Rita, who was slightly heavier and ten years older than I was, and they laughed. She was a dark-haired, wise-cracking and slightly tough lady who had an anecdotal style of teaching; it seems she had once been a well-known lady journalist for The San Francisco Chronicle, and she had a a lot of good stories. The class was full of young women who laughed at every one of Rita’s jokes and followed her around after class. It was the seedtime of the Women’s Movement in California, and she provided a role model for these young women who were easily tempted to head over to Berkeley on weekends or to spend an evening in Haight Ashbury smoking and inhaling illegal substances. I liked her instantly and, in my usual way, pestered her for help with my writing. She didn’t seem to mind, and before long, she was inviting me to meet her in the faculty lounge to have lunch with her, a lunch which consisted of my laughing at her sardonic stories about people she knew and about students’ grammatical faux paux.
We were made much of by the other faculty because of the fact that we looked so much alike, and, aside from the fact that Rita had layered hair, we did look an awful lot like sisters. In fact, it was somewhat eerie, that resemblance, and I thought it a totally unexplicable coincidence. One hippie from the journalism class, who wore a headband and long stringy hair, remarked on it. He came up to me after a class one day and said: —”Welcome to the Collage of Morons. I’m sorry, I mean the College of Marin. You’re new and you are cloned with Meese, right?”
I laughed and told him that he looked just like John Lennon, especially with the granny glasses, the faded denim, and the odor of marijuana that seemed to cling to him like an old friend. He was pleased about that, I guess, since everyone seemed to want to resemble one of the Beatles, but when he said, “Why thank you,” I detected a Tennessee drawl that was pleasant.
His name was Sam and I didn’t call him the hippy for long since it was not a word one used then for the counterculture. I called him the Wolf because he ranged the campus, lean and hungry as a wolf. There were a lot of old radicals around then, free radicals some people called them, but sometimes we also called them the Old Left, or the Leftovers. The Wolf was disaffected from society and, to be quite honest, we were too, although we lived like the establishment, hoping patiently that things would change in America. We had left New York for London at the time of Nixon’s election in 1969 and we were convinced that we would not return, but after six years in London, I began to get homesick, and although I was far from chauvinistic about my country, I could not bear to see the children become anti-American. At one point, my son, on the playground of the Bousfield School in the Boltons, W 1, refused to admit that he was an American, and perhaps it was then that I sighed and thought to myself that it was time to go back home.
We had spent the early part of the 60’s in Manhattan struggling to survive with two babies and somewhat impossible living situations, and though we felt the heady idealism of the movements that were taking place, we were never actively involved in them. I think that we can divide our friends into two categories now: those who marched for Civil Rights and those who didn’t. The Wolf represented someone who had not only marched but who had dropped out completely in revolt of the system, had landed in jail in his anti-war activities, and now seemed to be suffering from some kind of paralysis of will about life itself. His years of drugs and booze had taken their toll; the Wolf was anemic and almost incapable of holding a job. He drifted around the campuses of Berkeley and Marin without much enthusiasm for anything and with a high-pitched sarcastic remark for everything. Like Rita Meese, he, too, had a highly developed sense of humor, which made him good company, although he could quickly slip into black moods of despondency. He was extremely well read too, and his literariness appealed to me.
These ex-radicals seemed to exist outside of society, and their appeal was especially strong to someone like myself who had similar political leanings but had never acted upon them. When the Wolf spoke of my life, it was with a peculiar little drawl that seemed to trivialize it in a most maddening way.
“I cain’t fall into the “allotted slot,”” he would say, repeating his favorite phrase again and again. “I cain’t get onto that same treadmill to oblivion that you happen to be on.”
This statement was a usual response to my questioning why he couldn’t get a job and “get straight.” His habit of living in a state of semi-starvation seemed absurd to me, and every now and then he would take off for a few weeks in a tenement in Haight Ashbury with a couple of friends of his and come back looking like a war refugee. He was attached to nothing but his freedom and probably would have died before taking a “regular” job. Like Thoreau, he felt that it was a matter of principle that you expend only so much effort on feeding yourself. Although I was living the American Dream at the time, driving kids to the Swim Club on the Peninsula every day and playing tennis now and then with a neighbor woman, I agreed with the Wolf about the intense commercialism and the dangerous growth of the industrial-military complex. There was an anti-authoritarianism in me too, a subversive fibre that was exacerbated whenever I was around the Wolf and his bedraggled set of friends with their dialectic of Us against Them, and I was like Steppenwolf myself, with one foot in the conventional world and one foot outside of it.
“I can’t figure out what the Wolf does all day,” I said to Rita over lunch one day. “He tells me he lives in a corrugated shack in the woods.”
“Don’t ask,” answered Rita, her mouth full of sandwich. “He’ll tell you he went to the woods because he wanted to live deliberately, to confront only the essential facts of life and see if he could not learn what it had to teach.”
“My God,” I said, laughing. “He said almost exactly that.”
“It’s Thoreau,” she said drily. “All these 60’s types know Thoreau by heart. And Blake. My God. If I see one more well thumbed paperback copy of Blake, I’ll die.”
Rita’s eyes twinkled as she leaned toward me. “Next thing you know he’ll be telling you that he wants to save on the low so that he can spend on the high.”
Her comparison of the Wolf and Thoreau was not lost on me, since he was also in another class I was taking that spring: Advanced Composition, which I had taken with the hope that I would improve my writing skills. The course was taught by a brilliant, feisty young Berkeley professor who had condescended to come across the bay each day to teach writing at our junior college, and he was dynamic, prolix, and infuriating. When we discovered that his name was Sharkey, we dubbed him “Jaws” and the sobriquet stuck and was perfect, since his style of teaching by intimidation kept us all on our toes. It was obvious that those of us who were “well fed” were special targets, and, since Sharkey was himself brilliantly educated and used to a tangle, he would delight in throwing us a bone (Does this mean that Thoreau was a capitalist businessman interested in enterprise?) and watch greedily as we struggled to respond. Thoreau was his specialty, and if there were some of us who had reached the age of 30 without having read all of Thoreau (including his journals and especially Civil Disobedience), then Jaws was merciless. He would dip down into his great fund of information and pull out a sililoquy that took your breath away and at the same time made you feel the great lacking in your knowledge and your own pigheaded assumptions about life. Jaws was the kind of a professor every student dreams of having, and he taught me that thinking is what makes us happy and not a station wagon full of kids in wet bathing suits.
The Wolf was the best student in both the journalism and the composition classes. On one occasion, for Rita’s class, he had to interview the editor of Rolling Stone, and his questions had been so subtly ironic that even the editor himself didn’t realize he was being ambushed. I would buy him coffee and donuts in the morning before class and he would slouch in his cafeteria chair and mumble, his eyes wild, about Joyce, Kerouac, Thoreau, and other writers that he loved. He had published a little poetry himself and he knew how to recite Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” by heart in French, something I found impressive. I couldn’t help but feel that, with his long dirty hair pony-tailed at the back and his smudged, adhesive taped glasses, there was something infinitely dignified and noble about him, although it was obvious that others around me would have disagreed. He loved telling me about his past in Salinas, California where every evening, the bartender would “give me a nod on a lay” and told me he was busy writing his Auto-by-God-ography. If I coaxed him with another cup of coffee, he would tell me horror stories of friends who had been brutalized by the police or about drug cults in Haight Ashbury.
One night, Rita and I went to a coffee house in Fairfax, and we saw him playing guitar with a group of musicians. He was there, plucking the strings of his guitar aimlessly, it seemed, with his long thin fingers, and he seemed to be spaced out on something. I thought it was pretty sad, seeing him in that state. I was embarrassed for him, really. Rita was much more cynical about it.
“He’s wasting away,” she said, dreamily through her cigarette smoke. “I really think he gets thinner every day.”
“I think the only thing he eats is the donut and coffee I buy him after class,” I said to her, watching Sam fumble for the right notes on his guitar.
“You don’t think that you’re being used?” she asked looking dolefully at me. “Sam has a reputation of moving in with one woman and living with her for a while, and then a few months later, moving out. The fact that you’re married, and happily, makes everything easier for him. Now, he can cadge cigarettes and food from you without guilt.”
But I didn’t mind paying for the donuts or the coffee. Deep down, I was fascinated by Sam, and found him enormously interesting. There was one whole part of me that knew that it was Sam who was the innocent, the noble savage, the untouched-by-life, primitive and I who was the cynic. I was, in fact, using him, not vice-versa, and a big part of it was in having a male friend I could share things with; could talk of books and writing and poetry. It was the springtime of the women’s movement in America, and women were feeling the great rush of liberation that was a part of such a revolution. The idea of a married woman having men friends was not a new one, but there had always been a sense of guilt connected to it in the past, a feeling that one should not get caught in an intense relationship with someone else if you were married. I also had the peculiar feeling that the Wolf represented something in myself that I had tried to bury. It was like Catherine in Wuthering Heights crying out: “I am Heathcliffe.” There was something in Sam, something decaying and unregenerate and—yes, subversive to everything in our everyday life, that was also in me.
But another part of me wanted to convert him to a more respectable life, and I was constantly cutting out jobs from The San Francisco Chronical for him and pasting them on his notebook in class. I thought of him as pagan, helpless and demonic, and some part of me came alive when I thought I might effect some change in him. Women, I believe, carry the sense of the order of home within them, and they are always trying to extend that sense of home to others. And the Wolf was pagan, there was no doubt about that. You had to see him running with his dog on campus, his long hair flying, his head thrown back and grinning joyfully to see it. I thought of him scrounging for food every day, of his living in a shack in the woods and I said to myself: he has to get a job. Little did I understand that Sam did want to save on the low so that he could spend on the high. I was purblind, slow to understand this, and yet I knew that even Christ had himself mocked the white sepulchre of respectability.
He tried to woo me, now and then. He would bring me a white acacia flower and hand it to me in the cafeteria.
“It’s the flower of chaste love” he would say to me. “I know,” I responded. “I live on Acacia Avenue, remember?”
“You and I,” he once said, “are a curious liason. Kyrie Eleison.”
And I enjoyed the attentions in spite of the fact that I wanted to have, just once, a celibate love, innocent, assexual, natural. Women needed this spiritual kind of connection with men. Why insist upon rash personal relations with your friend, Emerson had once written. Let him be a spirit, a message, a thought. Leave out this touching and clawing.
One day, in the middle of the semester, I drove him home because he had a limp and was having trouble walking. He had hurt his foot and also suffered from low blood sugar and was anemic. He looked old and fragile that day with his stringy hair and his wolflike, limping gait. I drove him to his shack in the woods and noticed a dog lying nearby, the same dog I’d seen on campus.
“What’s the matter with your dog?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s been sick,” he drawled, looking sadly at the dog.
“Well, why don’t you take him to the vet?”
“Well, ’ ahh . . . you know. I guess I caint.” he muttered, His eyes filled with tears as I scrambled in my handbag for some money. He took 20 dollars from me with gratitude and I thought then that perhaps he might see the connection between selling out a little and being able to keep his dog alive, but he didn’t. He continued to spend the better part of each day foraging for food, freeloading from other students, or standing in line for his food stamps.
That week, Jaws had us write an essay on freedom. We had been reading Thoreau again, since it was Thoreau who was willing to go to jail in Concord to protest the Mexican-American war, and it was Thoreau who thought men were too free if they were free to hold slaves. We were asked to write on the question of whether or not we were free ourselves, and if not, how was our freedom limited. I had been a busy and contented mother of two and I had to admit that I had never confronted this issue before, but when I looked closely, I saw that I myself was not really free. I had acquiesced to all sorts of arrangements within my marriage, for instance, that, although they proved to be expedient for the cause, had ultimately limited my own responsibilities. I began to see that the Wolf, for all of his carefreeness, was not really free, since he had no power to care for his own dog. Then, too, his mother had died recently in Tennessee and he was not able to go home for the funeral for lack of carfare. So freedom was not really freedom if you didn’t have the money to buy food or to enjoy it. Most of all, as I began to immerse myself in study, I began to see that my lack of education had, in itself, limited my freedom. In our Composition Class, Jaws was giving us selections from Rabelais, from Sterne, from Fielding and Montaigne and asking us to study the style of these writers, and it was in the process of discussing these selections that I began to feel an intense curiosity about the lives and times in which these men were writing. I was ashamed to think of all that I didn’t know—Thoreau was just the most contemporary of writers that I had not read, and I became enthusiastic to learn as much as I could and to fill the gap.
When I look back upon my years of living in California, I have to admit, I remember mostly the laughter. There were endless afternoons when the Office of Women’s Studies at the College of Marin would rock with laughter. Another friend, Inez, and I were working on a project connected to the student newspaper and women’s rights, which we always called women’s wrongs, and we loved the dry, sardonic women who worked there and the biting, steely humor. There were days that we laughed so hard we could not get anything done, and it seemed as though the whole purpose of our work had been accomplished merely in our getting together and being so happy.
My social life at home was also happy, although a few years after we left Marin County, two of our married friends got divorced and one man moved away from his wife to try living with his secretary. Smith Olson, the dark-haired beauty who had sold us our house, had left her husband to live with the head of the real estate company she worked for. We saw her husband, Ed, walking on the beach near San Francisco, and he looked devastated. “I took my eye off the ball,” he said, and it was a metaphor that was apt for a couple who spent their freetime skiing, playing tennis, and golfing. When I met Smith for lunch, she was glowing. “I can’t believe I can fall in love at the age of 40,” she said to me, happily. “We rented a little house on the bay and when I wake up in the morning, I find little presents under my pillow. Look at this.”
She displayed a beautiful pair of gold earrings below her nicely coiffed short brown hair. She seemed unbelievably happy, and I was willing to believe that it was all a part of the atmosphere of change and self-growth that California seemed to engender.
But I do remember a moment of intense seriousness. Sharkey had suggested a farewell party for the Composition Class and I had offered to have it at my home on the Bay. We all assembled there for shrimp with rice, while my husband poured the wine. Sharkey had a handful of poems he wanted to read, and he read Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane, My student Thrown by a Horse.” The jokes and the wisecracks ceased and a hush fell across the room, as Sharkey intoned in that deep sonorous voice, the lines written by a professor for a student of his. The sun was just going down behind Angel Island, and there was a kind of primordial beauty about the Bay that was reflected in the glass doors leading into the living room, and people sat very very quietly, then. The poet had made his euology to his former student, Jane, and had ended with the words; “I who have no say in the matter, neither father nor lover,” and it seemed that the very fact that Roethke had no connection to Jane made the loss even deeper. It was during that evening that we came into contact with real poetry that I began to feel the great seriousness of life that poetry can convey. It was only a moment, but the heavy weight of life could be felt in the steps of the syllables and in that silent sense of wonder. When he read James Wright’s “Lying on a Hammock in Minnesota” with the last line; “I have wasted my life” there was a stillness that you could swim out into in the room.
I had been away from California for about ten years and suddenly found myself back in Mill Valley. I was there for a funeral. Rita had died at the age of 45 of pancreatic cancer, and whether it was those cups of coffee and cigarettes I don’t know. I suspect it was a kind of despair, for I knew that beneath her joking exterior that she had missed out on family life and love. I remember finding her one day in the deserted Student Union at the College of Marin, with tears in her eyes.
“What’s up, Rita?” I asked, expecting a smile in return.
“I’m in trouble,” she said softly, smoking and staring down at the floor. There was a catch in her voice. “No social life.”
“God damn,” she said, standing up. “I never meet any men.”
I stood helplessly by, feeling her pain. I had always assumed that Rita was quite happy on her own, with her good job, her student following, and her many friends. But she had wanted marriage as much as the rest of us, wanted children and the whole thing.
None of us could quite believe that Rita could really be dead; she had been such a vital force in many of our lives. I myself had admired her so much that I had gone back to school while living in Boston and had managed to acquire an advanced degree. By the time I returned for Rita’s funeral, I had found a position as professor of English and American Literature at a local college, and I was, for the first time, involved in work that was meaningful and fulfilling. It had convinced me that the one thing people needed most in their lives was someone they could admire, and Rita had been that person for me. So, it was with a heavy heart that I found myself in Kentfield, California, at the funeral of my mentor, surrounded by hundreds of young people who had also loved her. The eulogies went on for hours, and as I wiped away tears, I looked around for familiar faces. I half thought that I might see the Wolf there, but he was not.
I drove back to Mill Valley to return my friend Linda’s car to her and then decided to stop in the center of town for a cup of coffee. There is a lovely little cafe there, shaded by sycamores, leafy and dark, and it serves a delicious cappuccino. As I sat at a table near the street, I saw a man, thin and haggard, enter the restaurant, and, thinking he might be looking for a handout, I turned away. But when I looked again, I realized it was the Wolf.
He walked past me, hand outstretched, not recognizing me. I was shocked to see how shabby and thin and ill he looked, how his clothes hung on his body. His mouth fell slack and he didn’t seem to see me at all, but when I said his name as he passed, he stopped. I saw the bluest of eyes behind dirty, taped and rimless glasses.
Sam? I asked
He looked down in a moment of recognition, his eyes dazed and then the old, lazy smile returned, the smile I knew so well. He pulled a chair out and sat down, settling his soft bag on the floor between his feet.
“Hey, it’s you,” he whined in a high, weak voice. “Where have you been? Did you get my letters?”
“Letters?” I asked. “I didn’t get any letters.”
“Well, hey, I sent them to the wrong place. I thought you’d moved to New York. Didn’t you move to New York?”
“Boston,” I said. “Sam, I said. Listen. Rita died.”
“Hey, no” he said, leaning toward me, the rank odor of weed pungent on his clothes. His eyes filled with tears and he put his elbows on the table and covered them with his hands.
I was terribly moved by this display and at the same time I was shocked by his appearance. I looked at him as something totally alien to me now, and this disturbed me not a little, especially when I thought of the wonderful poems, the stories, and the puns he used to write. I began to wonder if it was possible that I should have changed so much over ten years that a romantic and rebellious figure should now seem to be not much more than this sad man, and I saw that it was true. I had bestowed all sorts of justifications upon him when I’d known him—society had betrayed his intense idealism—was one, and I had idealized him in a way that only a young person could have done. I sat in the cafe mourning the loss of my youthful imagination as well as the loss of Rita and the Wolf, for, in truth, it had been my own imagination that had created the Byronic, fugitive genius who now sat before me in rags and in lachrymose subjection. I had created my own Steppenwolf to counter my own complacency in matters both political and social.
In fact, I suppose I had manufactured my own California, because whenever I ask my husband whether he remembers our happy times in California, he looks at me with dismay, and then chastens me with the real facts. He was having job troubles, our friends’ marriages were all falling apart, the schools were terrible.
I called a waitress over and ordered eggs and bacon and when they arrived, I placed them in front of the Wolf. He gobbled them up quickly like a stray dog without looking up. When he was finished, he stood up. I looked at him, thinking, “He used to call me his muse.” He leaned down and put his face close to my ear. His breath was sour.
“I’m in trouble,” he said. “Can you lend me ten? I’ll pay it back. I promise.”
I opened my wallet and gave him a 20-dollar bill and he grabbed it and without a word, walked away and out of the restaurant. He didn’t even look back.