Getting into the city took more energy and time than expected. What should have been 5 hours, ended up as 14 hours in a car with a meth crazed evangelical millennial Christian from some shitty Oregon town driving a cramped yellow taxi, and stopping every two minutes for coffee, bathroom breaks, various junk food reups and not her not so mysterious trips to bathrooms, as well as odd detours and getting lost. As we wound away from Oregon, away from Billy, away from the RV, away from camping and the coast, the sand dunes and mossy coast line swamp, away from shattered hopes, unfulfilled dreams, away from what had become untenable at best, I started to feel unglued. It was like whatever cohesive that was holding me together suddenly failed, whatever safety net, whichever boat and life vest, compass and steering wheel had suddenly departed to leave me in an endless ocean of nothing.
I considered momentarily our safety, as the driver on this $1400 taxi trip barely missed yet another accident, did miss another turning and then another, and the trip, squeezed into the back seat of a tiny taxi, wound into its tenth hour, I considered giving up, returning. Returning to what? Billy greatly reduced by the tumor, by dementia? A Billy that reminded me repeatedly that we were standing on his floor? A Billy that had come to see my nursing him as his right and had become a restrictive racist old bastard? He used to be so cool, he used to be so kind. That better bird had flown.
Our drivers mood had turned dark, small talk about families and how they had never left Oregon before turned into a speedy wild ride, the edge starting to show in her actions and driving. She was hostile, seemed high, and was behaving erratically, taking her hands off the wheel, screaming along to some unholy amalgam of new country and middle of the road inane Christianese drivel at volumes that would burst the melon of even the most hardened metal head. James ,my teenage son, squeezed my hand tightly and gave me a meaningful glance, teeth gritted. We were going to make it to the city if it killed us. A prospect neither of us relished.
Hour 14, and the lights of San Francisco came into view, the bridge loomed and the future announced itself, unknown. I’ve always enjoyed pulling into cities. For all my years in the wilderness I never quite shook the bright light bug. The water shone blackly up at us, lit by the city unfolding. Baseball parks and skyscrapers. Painted ladies, and hills, and lights, so many little lights announcing we had left the swamp of small town Oregon gloom, and we headed to the city. When you land in Seattle its so green, so totally emerald shining lush that it looks impossibly verdant and fertile. You can smell the pine from the sterile cabin of the airplane. Tokyo falls upon you the water to land descent making you wonder if you are going to skid on the waves or land actually amongst the dense city streets. Paris pulls in sedate and grey, monumental. All I remember of Greece was the heat and the white stone of Athens and clean mediterranean patterns. I landed into Tokyo with Bread playing guitar man on the sound system all youthful adventure. I came into San Francisco on a hail mary, a shot at keeping what I loved, or at least delaying its departure. San Francisco was impossible. How could I live, just the two of us, no one to help or care for us, no one to shield us from the excesses of the American system that demonizes and criminalizes the desperate, the fleeing and the endangered. Still. Here I was doing the impossible again and again and again. I used to tell myself for the last time. Been down one time, been down two time, never go back again. I’m too old to actually think that’s possible. I’m always going to go under again, ducked again under the hoses aimed at me. Fault, blame, innocence fairness. None of it matters. None of it. Fair has nothing to do with life. San Francisco was not fair, it was not what should have happened, yet here we were three quarters over the bridge, James telling me we could do this. I could see in his eyes he saw this as his chance to thrive. As a future. For once, I was determined to give James what he wanted. Always the quiet one, always seen as standoffish when it was just fear or reticence he deserved to have his choice for once. To be frank it had become mine too.
The tumor had turned my partner-in-crime, my other half, my soul mate into a parody of himself. He had got mean as a rattlesnake, unkind, stubborn, uncharacteristically racist, and refused to tolerate any life of noise around him whilst simultaneously subjecting the two of us to constant radio bullshit, endless buttrock chatter in his quest for the right kind of noise he found acceptable. Every ping of the phone was met with derision and anger. I found myself apologizing for breathing. The tumor was a jerk.
We headed for a small air bnb in the safe, mainly Asian hubbub of the outer sunset district. my friend R, always the optimist had rented an Airbnb, a studio, with a bathroom, kitchenette and two huge soft beds.
We pulled up to the gate and nervously tried the entry code.My heart was in my mouth, I always felt like a fraud, or a criminal just doing things that other people take for granted. Im always feeling like Im about to be thrown out, or questioned. Once we were let in we proceeded to find every nook and cranny and area of the apartment other than the one we were staying in, hauling luggage up and down stairs. We finally made it in.
I cant begin to describe the sheer joy of showering inside for the first time in years. Showers had been in campgrounds, rarely water pressure, not often hot, and never absolutely private. The virus had closed down all the showers so for the last 6 months it had been entirely tepid buckets in the cupboard. The bathroom was clean and warm, the water was hot and poured out from the showerhead at full pressure. A far cry from tepid water in a bucket in a tiny shower cubicle with no running hot water. The pebbles of the shower floor felt cool and clean under my feet. I let the water pour over me. Dried off on clean towels. I hadn’t dried on a towel in years. Paper towel from the campground toilet was about it, wearing flip flops so I didn’t catch some awful disease from the floor, and grateful for a hot shower. The virus had taken away even those cold outside showers. Park showers were of varying quality, from those that ran on quarters and ran freezing cold for 1 minute, boiling scalding hot for 90 seconds and then cut out completely leaving you soapy and irate. The worst has to be in Minnesota, in Pelican rapids, the shower doubled up as a storm shelter, and was housed in a thick, dark, lightless, windowless building in the middle of the campground, it looked more like a kill room of some particularly scuzzy serial killer, or a dungeon from some forgotten time in some godforsaken place, or a disused hospital which had fallen into terrifying mouldy disrepair, with shower curtains from the 1970s, and a lone hose spouting water of uncertain provinence at varying degrees of freezing to sub polar. No heat in the building at all, and filthy beyond dirt, it was a horror. But not so much of a horror as no shower at all. That was always unforgiveable intolerable. Plus at that point W had filled the shower in the RV with books and records, and trash and goodness knows what else. Nothing useless, nothing valuable, just shit that got in the damn way, and rendered even the little cupboard space unusable. Or the rusty showers of Norway loop in my beloved Cass Lake. The iron ore from the ground leeched into the water and left everything stained rust deep red. But at least they were warm and cleanish. The school like communal showers, with women who didn’t care to dress in the tiny cubicles, breasts and bellies, pubes and asses hanging out to dry like old handwashed laundry. My favorite were the ones at stony point, in Minnesota, or the Honeyman showers. Individual cubicles, cleaned regularly, not so many filthy sanitary towels and diapers left to rot, and a door that closed fully on the world outside, water that ran hot and you can adjust the temperature, and retreat into the happiness of getting clean. I love getting clean. I love soap and shampoo and feeling fresh and sparkly. I can think in the shower, the rhythm of the water falling, the white noise, the warmth, its my happy place. I had not been able to have any kind of shower at all for 8 months, since the virus started, and I was filthy, despite my best efforts. Being unconventionally homed is one thing, being filthy is quite another.
What was missing, despite the indoor, clean shower, with fluffy towels, and hot water, were people. It was just me and James. We were depleted. Things would never be the same again. Ild give anything, almost anything to have just one more day with all my people, as they should be, as they were. Now its gone forever. People took themselves away, or were taken or fell apart. The people I loved, the people I went on the road, on the run with. All gone. And my heart is so hurt I barely even think about it I barely feel it day to day, then something happens, Dylan singing not dark yet, the way the clouds move across the sky as if they are being pulled by some invisible chariot, the memory of the days when things were beautiful. And I fall apart all over again.
Me and James were in an Airbnb in the safe quiet outer sunset district of San Francisco. Beds that felt like they were made of unicorn fluff, $100 pillows and a tv. We had been living in a 2001 class C, 26 foot RV with a leaky roof and a chemical toilet. Full of mold, damp, cold in winter, and a tin can oven in summer. But it had been home, and we had loved it. This was luxury that my 14 year old Lieutenant could not even remember. Our house in Tokyo, had box springs with no mattresses and his father beating me up. Any place we had stayed since then had been dirty, infested with ants, roaches, mice, and more than that, it was always temporary. This was the nicest place he had ever stayed. It was almost strange and jarring to see him relax into clean sheets and a clean bathroom. What people failed to realise is that the fact this was temporary was too much to cope with, the fact that it would soon be over was too much to cope with. The stress on me, immense.
I ordered James Japanese soul food take out, tsukune, and karage, rice and yakisoba, edamame. He sat at the breakfast bar working his way through a vast amount of food, having his very own madelaine moment. I used to buy him tsukune and korokke, with sachets of yakitori sauce and edamame from chicken stand in Seiyu back in Tokyo, and serve it on his best Anpanman plate, with a glass of Calpis, made from syrup and water, not the good kind ready made, or the bubbly kind, but the stuff you mix with water till it barely flavors the drink.
Still, as ever in the back of my mind, poking at me was the knowledge this was for ten days at the most, and then we would have to move on. To where, I did not know. It is a strange way to live a life, not knowing where you will be week to week, one you never quite get used to. I like to think the enforced movement makes me less stagnant. The reality is it makes me kinda nervous.
So this is where we are for now. I’ll write about the past, the time on the road. I’ll probably write less about what came before that and what triggered this course of events that led here, and a little about my new life here in the city. Im mourning my lost freedom, my old life, the ability to start the engine and go. I miss the blacktop and the road signs that take you over mountain passes and through the patchwork of small communities that make up this beautiful country. I miss looking out of my window and seeing lava beds, or lakes, mountains or plains. It feels like its gone forever, but only just out of reach. I hope you will come along with me, it was quite the ride.