December 21, 2006
All I needed was a train ride.
All I needed was a train ride!
The story of how I sold my house, quit my job, left town and found true Happyness.
GONNA HIT THAT OREGON TRAIL
I can’t see the forest for the trees. They’re hugging the window of Roomette #8, Sleeper Car 1431, obscuring the big picture. Well what do I expect, I’m in Oregon, after all, land of trees and more trees where trees came from, between Klamath Falls and Chemult on the northbound Coast Starlight, busy adding another eight hundred miles to my train travel tally.Considering the tried and true therapeutic value of train rides, my usual recipe for regaining sanity, I’m surprised I didn’t think of this sooner. But when my Brooklyn friend Jon Crow of “Hello Dalí!” fame invited me to meet him in Seattle over Labor Day weekend and drive back down to SF with him and his parents, Bob and Doreen, I jumped right on board—this train, that is. Perspective. One can’t have it simmering in one’s own stew. After endlessly stirring the pot back home, I had to lay the spoon down and get out of the kitchen.
IT’S GOOD TO BE QUEEN
As I approached my sleeper car my train attendant announced “1431!” “That’s me!” I said. “Miss Jones?” said Hayward. “That’s me!” said I.Ah, Hayward was expecting me. Hayward had already turned down my bed, knowing, my train leaving an hour fifteen late at 11:30 p.m., I’d be ready to retire. I was ready all right. Ready for a train ride. “How are you this evening?” “Great! My train’s here!” Hayward can’t go to sleep till he hits “Sac,” Sacramento that is, where another patron awaits his welcome as did I. Hayward offers to bring me a cocktail and I think about it, just so I can be lying in bed and have a man bring me a cocktail, but I don’t want one.
In the 80’s I used to take cross-country train rides, The Empire Builder or the now sadly defunct Pioneer, west to east and back with three stops thrown in, say from Portland, OR (to change trains in Chicago) to Syracuse, NY (to visit a friend in Ithaca), to New York City (to visit Jon and others) and to Philly (to visit my family).
THAT WAS 6000 MILES
of travel, for about $300.00 at the time—in coach, that is. If I was lucky—very lucky—no one would sit next to me and, being short, I could spread out and curl up on two seats and be comfortable enough for such a cheap trip. Out of luck and I slept sitting up or accordioned into wherever I’d fit.
I won’t take that chance anymore. I’m 51 and my coach-riding days are over. I won’t ask that of myself anymore. I figure I’ve earned that much just for living half a century. It cost me $300 for just this room for just this one night—that’s in addition to the fare but oh so worth it, and it includes three meals, coffee, juices, the newspaper, use of the first-class shower and the sleeper car special wine and cheese tasting. You can always meet people on a train—in the dining car or the observation car, squeezing by each other in the hall—and be as social as ever you want, but if you don’t want, your own little window on the world awaits and you’re in charge. Will you read, will you sleep, will you write, will you watch the world go by—you will do what you will.
MY SECRET RECIPE
Silence + breathing space + down time = sanity. You stop at a station in the middle of space in the middle of time and see three dozen people waiting to get on, and you know there’s not a chance in the world that one of them, no doubt the fattest among them, will try to squeeze in next to you.
It’s good to be queen.
THE COULTER STEEL AND FORGE CO.
is my first sighting as the train pulls out from Emeryville. We pass through sleepy Berkeley where the train whistle regularly terrorizes customers at Cody’s books on 4th St. (the store’s best feature). I flash some titty at a dude in a pickup truck at the railroad crossing as I change into my p.j.’s.
I’ve always liked the visual of the mini city of lights that is an oil refinery from a train window, but this one with the pond of rising vapor in front of it gives me the creeps. I betcha if I dipped my foot in that brew it would take me down clean to the bone. As I recline, a tree lit from beneath looms over me like a giant mutant radioactive broccoli flowerette.
I AM INDEED TIRED.
I worked late, stayed up late, got up early for my plumber Armando and ran on empty all day getting things done. While doing errands I stopped for a fine-eatin’ frankfurter at the ’dog cart at Cable Car Central. As I chomp down on it, the miraculous tap man who holds court there on a rough plywood board chastises me for not bringing him one, so I go back and get him the $4.50 Jumbo-tron. “God bless you,” he says between breaths. “That stuff sure ’nough keeps you in fine shape,” I tell him, and indeed it does. He could earn a living demonstrating musculature to med school students. “Keep on tapping,” I tell him, and he does so, on his tippy toes, as I head for my bus. I am thinking, this is my city, there is no other, my mind is made up, here I stay—even as I head north to check on my Portland house and decide where it is I want to live this life of mine.
I slow down to nurse a headache in the tub at 4:00 p.m., and discover the pleasure of bathing with my soft golden fabric shower curtains drawn around my clawfoot tub like a canopied bed. I had closed them to block out the light from the window.
“WOULD YOU BE SO KIND AS TO ACTUALLY GIVE ME A PEN?”
I had humbly asked the station attendant at the Ferry Building Amtrak thru-way station where I picked up the bus to Emeryville. In my rush to clean the flat for h who is shepherding Zazu and Zzyzzy through their first birthday in my absence, I run short of time and leave the house in a hurry, forgetting my bag with my camera, my toiletries, my prescription drugs, my gifts for friends Bill and Dave’s new daughter Gabriella in Seattle—and my half dozen pens and pencils. I arrive more promptly than is necessary as the bus is late and the train will be later, but heck with that—I’ve got me pen and paper! With paper and pen, I can go anywhere. The rest fills itself in. For the trip I had picked up a new supply of Night and Day extended wear lenses, the contact that revolutionized my life (like having new eyes!), and the Embarcadero sparkled in blazing beauty like the crown jewels as I bid it farewell for parts north. This is my city! There is no other! Goodbye, for a time, fairest of the fair.
UNION PACIFIC IS PERFORMING TRACK WORK
on the Coast Starlight line. I’d been notified by phone after making my reservation that the train might be running two to six hours late—only one, it turns out. Hey. Bring it on. On a train, “hours” melt away and there is only moving through space and time. I’m just here for the ride. I regretfully lay my head down to sleep at only our first station stop, Martinez, CA at 12:21 a.m., where the sideways-hanging tattered American flagettes I take note of every trip have disappeared from their lampposts. But right there above me if I’m not mistaken, is Sagittarius following us along.
I AWAKE 4:30 a.m.
from a fitful sleep of not wanting to sleep. Two bored hoodlums are smoking and watching the train pass, the only ones on the streets at this hour. One of these days they are going to get on this train and Chico, California is never going to see them again. I’m kind of sorry we left them behind. I eat the three plums I brought and go back to sleep.
I AWAKE AGAIN.
The train is creaking uphill and I wonder if we’re nearing Dunsmuir. I reach for the curtain but—ah, I’ve seen Mt. Shasta a thousand times—and crumble back onto my mattress pad. I thrash about and throw open the curtains. Lakes, mountains, forest. This sentence is interrupted by four tunnels. I am torn between looking, looking, looking, and sleeping, sleeping, sleeping in the warm, dark cocoon afforded by the black-out drapes. I alternate between the two for a bit. Someone is camping on the edge of a promontory sticking out into the lake. I’d rather be on the train.
Then I bite the bullet and haul my carcass out of bed because it’s Natural Beauty Day on the daylight Starlight and there’s plenty of time to sleep back in that city of angry, crazy hustle and bustle, tap dancers and panhandlers. It’s all far behind me in this land of mile-wide horizons and ooh-ah scenery. I succumb to a nap after breakfast and awake on the Oregon Trail at a sheep ranch in Klamath Falls. A flock of them gambol across a pasture. This is Crater Lake country, and a nagging case of Pacific Northwest nostalgia is creeping up on me. I lived amid its god’s splendor for 15 years. In this infinite regression of evergreen trees does San Francisco even exist? If I sell my flat I have a whole life up here to step right into. Best of friends, beautiful house, hip, cool city—a huge wad of cash and no need to work, for a while. That’s a big one. That’s a huge one. That could tip the balance.
It’s the end of August as I travel north in an attempt to figure my life out. I imagine but don’t believe that I will walk into my torn-apart mid-renovation house and know instantly what it is I want to do. In order to complete the renovation, which was interrupted by the news that I needed a whole new foundation, for which I shelled out 31 grand and am on my way to inspect, I would have to 100% mortgage my house, which basically means I don’t own it anymore—and I would not be able to charge enough rent to make the payments. I need to make a decision, and fast. Portland vs. San Francisco, sell Portland vs. sell San Francisco.
A rainbow travels swiftly across a field as it follows the arc of an irrigation line.
WHAT KEEPS ME IN SAN FRANCISCO, ANYWAY?
I don’t feel at home there. I have a 16.66% interest in a 6-unit TIC with a commercial loan that adjusts (rises) every 6 months, while needless to say my salary does not. I have five partners collectively deciding how my money gets spent. That’s five partners too many. I could lose this place any month now. I find myself in the bizarre position of being the very Jones I can’t keep up with. Plus we all know how highly TIC owners are regarded, especially when they aspire to condohood. I feel just short of a criminal. A city in which you likely have to hook up with a crowd of strangers to gain “entry-level” ownership into that city is a city that inspires not security but resentment. Does San Francisco hold its arms out to anyone but the richest of the rich? I feel like punishing San Francisco by leaving it. Fuck you you fucking fuck!
Portland has always felt like home. Portland is my security. In Portland I have a 4-bedroom house, a beautiful 1923 bungalow, owned by me and only me, a situation I find gut-wrenching to think of giving up, it ties my stomach in knots. The most expedient thing to do would be to sell my SF flat, use the proceeds to pay down my Portland mortgage, and live a far more simple and easy life than I possibly can in SF.
The sun is sitting on the horizon and the fields around Salem are burnished an orange gold. A flock of ravens rises at once and fans out across the sky.
San Francisco? A few really good friends, but my job means nothing to me and I got no man to love, not one who’d ask me to stay, nor have the right to. Portland would welcome me back with confetti and fireworks. Lifetime friends that are my chosen family. A ready-made comfort zone. Nevertheless I pass through Union “Go By Train” Station like it means nothing to me, and glide across the Oregon border into my destination state.
HAPPINESS CAN HAPPEN ONLY IN THE NOW
and now is my moment of greatest happiness. I don’t know what you live for, or what anyone else lives for, but when I am lying flat on my back in the night, gliding through Washington state lulled and rocked by the chugachugachuga of the train, contemplating the stars and treetops speeding by, the only light seeping in from the hallway or whatever flashes by outside, I am thinking, this is what I live for.See you in Seattle!
GAVIN GODDAMN NEWSOM
get your scrawny ass up here and figure out how Seattle keeps itself so clean. While in the neighborhood find out how Portland runs a clean, efficient, punctual, friendly bus, streetcar and light rail system.
I discovered something about myself that I knew already but not for a fact. I love Bill and Dave’s daughter Gabriella. I could watch her and cuddle her for hours. I love holding her, playing with her, feeding her, smelling her head, watching her sleep. Despite that, I have no maternal instinct whatsoever. There is no womanly crying out from my heart to have this or want this or regret I never had it. My womb does not curdle with longing when I pick her up. Nevertheless I fantasize about abruptly leaving SF and moving into the rental house across the street from Bill so Auntie Alexandra can be there to see her grow up.
IN A RECKLESS
“I’m on va-ca-tion!” Seattle shopping spree I buy a 3’ high statue with a set of detachable wings and a large metal sign reading “Relax,” which Doreen will later draw blood bumping into. A tad ironic. I myself have never drawn blood relaxing. Jon will spend a goodly amount of time arranging and rearranging the trunk of the car to accommodate my frivolity, and in Portland will nearly leave my wings on the roof of a neighboring car while trying to fit in a friend’s walker. His mom will retrieve them from the roof and bring them in to Rose’s where we are having lunch. This of course does not stop me from buying something everywhere we go—a painting, a handbag, earrings, Space Needle socks.Jon Crow has come from Brooklyn to attend a reunion in Yakima, WA, his hometown, and is using the opportunity to take his parents on a scenic drive down the coast and hang with me in my flat for a few days to tour San Francisco. Jon and Bill and I all know each other from Portland and they haven’t seen each other in 20 years. Time has scattered us all to different cities.But it’s time to hit the road.
WASHINGTON STATE FACTS
Area: 68,139 square miles
Highest point: 14,411 ft., Mt. Rainier
Grass: Bluebrush wheatgrass
Fish: Steelhead trout
Bird: Willow goldfinch
Tree: Western hemlock
Song: “Washington My Home”
Unofficial song: “Louie, Louie”
Motto: “Alki”—Chinook jargon for “by and by”
Gem: Petrified wood (??)
I LEARN ALL OF THIS
at the Chehalis-Toutle rest stop run by Methodist Church Volunteers, one of whom chased bees away from the lemonade for me. We have neglected to make hotel reservations, planning to wing it—which we discover was not a wise “plan” on Labor Day weekend. We finally settle our butts at Nondescript Motel in I Forget Where, America and are charged the ransom holiday rate of $160.
Before I know it it’s time for Portland. In the safe haven of my home away from home, Bob and Adrianne’s warm, lovely house not too far from my own, I revel in the pleasure of being back in a real house, with yard, porch, staircase, cats moving freely in an out. I cannot avoid The Issue any longer. I have already used much of my credit line and would have to use all of it and more to complete the work on my house, which I have owned since 1989. I walk into the house bolstered by my friend and sounding board Tom Steigerwald who has loved the place as much as I, and much to my surprise, he tells me it’s time to let go.
I mean for Chrissake the place is a wreck. Isn’t it obvious? It’s got a new foundation, but the bathroom and kitchen have been torn down to the studs, it needs rewiring, replumbing, floor refinishing, new drywall, just a total rehab. How do I imagine I’m going to accomplish this? But the house has good bones, great heart, and a fresh paint job that belies the deficiencies within. It is as charming as ever. I can see it in the glorified state it deserves, but I would have to sell my SF flat to save this house. But save it for what? Just so I can continue to say, “I can always go live in my Portland house”? Pete Emerson shows up. Pete and Tom and I were a regular Three Musketeers for a while there. Then people started getting married and what not. Much to my surprise, Pete tells me without hesitation that if moving back into the house right now is not in the picture, to get rid of it. Rrrrrrrip it off, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, like a band-aid.
I CAN EASILY SEE
living in the beautiful completed house with all the great furnishings I’ve accumulated since I left, taking the Belmont St. bus over to the Bipartisan Café, working on my novel there, not really caring much about anything else. How easy and simple a life that would be, and I’d have money in the bank instead of in equity. But I still don’t have a decisive feeling about it as we leave town.
WHERE’S THE ROCK?
Heading to the coast we of course stop at Cannon Beach, where an afternoon fog has blown in and it’s too thick out there to see Haystack Rock, one of the biggest in the world. We begin our coast-long hunt for the best bowl of chowder, and it ends up being at a bar right there in Cannon Beach. Not as thick as some, but best flavor. While in the neighborhood we stop for a forest hike at one of my favorite spots on earth, Short Sands Beach at Oswald West State Park, which in recent years has been taken over by surfers. I only half mind because a surfer stripping out of his wetsuit is one of the sexiest pieces of free eye candy on earth.
Jon and I first came to Short Sands after a tremendous windstorm in 1981, shortly after I moved to Portland. Jon still had hair and I weighed 105 lbs. I think just my breasts weigh that now. I remember someone had stored a vinyl swimming pool against a wall in the alley outside my apartment, and it had rocked and rolled by my window all night long. The sign at the park said the roads were impassable, but Jon and I looked at each other and said “Well, Lewis,” “Well, Clark…” and off we went, clambering over fallen trunks, massive exposed root systems ripped out of soggy hillsides, huge evergreen branches draped like fans across the path, and today, 25 years later, there are full-grown trees that have sprouted out of those root systems. I have always thought of Short Sands as The Enchanted Forest. There are all sorts of little amphitheaters in the tree trunks where I imagine the fairies and elves have their midsummer nights’ dreams. Sheets of moss, a magical suspended bridge, a steep path off the cliff to the ocean and a beautiful alcove like arms embracing the Pacific, a grand place to watch a sunset. While the surfers strip. One night a bunch of us slept illegally on the beach (good way to drown) and were wakened with “Morning! Ranger!”
ANY NEWPORT IN A STORM
We went on and headed south for Newport, where we visited the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which has a very cool Passages of the Deep Tunnel where sharks swim all around you. But the highlight of Newport was breakfast at Shirley’s joint—“Darned Good Food ’n’ Grog on ‘D’ Bay.”
No sooner do we land in our seats and are perusing our menus when suddenly Shirley herself divebombs into our table and rattles off the menu like Elmer Gantry on cocaine. By golly we’re gonna whip us up an omelette and we’re gonna stuff that baby good with cheese, with black beans, with onions, with peppers, and don’t cha know we’re gonna smother it all up in guacamole, in sour cream, in salsa. Or we’ll scare up some right righteous French toast whirled in batter and served right up piping hot with maple syrup, with cinnamon, with whipped cream…
LOONY FOR DIEGO
I’m sexually intrigued by this 60+ woman in the guise of a hard-worn weather-beaten Western businessperson, with her no-nonsense short spit-curled hair, her pale, lashless eyes and easy air of authority, because of my fixation on young Mexican actor Diego Luna, for whom I have a thing like nobody’s business, though even I can’t say why. I can see Shirley’s eyes in that picture. He is, as Simon Cowell once put it, a “naughty little minx.” He was Gael García Bernal’s buddy in “Y Tu Máma También.” Anyone who looks even remotely like him, now including women, even a fleeting 1% passing fancy flitting across the face, gets beaucoup bonus points from me. He is as I write, about to turn 27 in December, but he was I think 21 when the film was made. I am routinely attracted to men—notably Matt Gonzalez, Chronicle reporter Delfin Vigil, various others variously encountered—who look anything like him and also have a bit of the minx in them. I don’t like his latter goateed look, though, it is that fresh-faced twenty-five years-younger-than-I boy’s face in the film that makes me lose it. Not to forget that sexy boy-on-boy kissing scene. I am helpless in the grip of this inexplicable fascination. Why him? No reason.
MY EYES FOLLOW
Shirley around the room as she makes her efficient rounds. Jon and his parents sitting all around me are not aware of my bizarre preoccupation. (I anticipate Jon’s phone call shriek of “Shirley?” And then that stuttering laugh of his: uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.) But eventually it’s time to pay the check and get back on the road.
Jon has contacted a friend who researched some B and B’s on the coast for us. I am astonished to discover that the one we land at, the South Coast Inn in Brookings, Oregon, is a Bernard Maybeck building, and the owner is astonished that I know who he is. In San Francisco, Maybeck particularly is no doubt known for the Palace of Fine Arts, but I’m not surprised that people outside the tight-knit world of architecture may not have heard of him.The Inn has Kenneth Cardwell’s book Bernard Maybeck, Artisan, Architect, Artist in their library—along with about a dozen Wayne Dwyer paperbacks, including the one on my night table which in a random leaf-through advises me to lose my attachment to things. Things like a house you don’t live in? I pause, though, on this Maybeck quote:
Easier said than done? I don’t know—we make choices every day. Put them all together and you’ve got the life you built for yourself. Whatever you ended up with, it certainly wasn’t the only way you could have gone. I, of course, have kept myself free of complicating relationships like husbands and children and have only myself to think of. That’s why I often schedule trips like this one with virtually no planning. As long as h brown is around to smoke my pot and cuddle my cats, I’m good to go.
We are picking up Jon’s brother Dave at the Greyhound bus stop in Willetts—which we are lucky someone on the street tells us is merely a McDonald’s—so we can all go to a B and B Jon and he had visited somewhere in the Fort Bragg/Mendocino area—Howard’s Fork Lodge I think it was called. It’s a magical little complex of buildings, with another suspended bridge lined with Christmas lights, a good place to lose yourself or find yourself, whichever you need.
JON AND I GET NAKED
and settle down in the outdoor hot tub with the wide open sky but no stars. This is the sort of thing one remembers, not the ten years spent paying one’s mortgage. Aaron Eckhart remarks in “Thank You For Smoking” that 99% of all things people do, good and bad, is to pay a mortgage. That percentage is no doubt off-kilter, but as I soak in the tub, between my two mortgages and my credit line I have $458,000 in debt following me around. That is a figure that is not going to melt away in a hot tub. But with the rising steam my head is beginning to clear. By the time I’m back in San Francisco, I know that the extraordinary measures I’d have to go to, to save the house, I am just not up for. Hand the keys over to someone else and all its problems become his.
and it’s a big but (kind of like my own), the fact of the matter is that without the house and its equity and its income, I can’t afford my San Francisco flat. I would have to not only work full time but take a roommate to make it work, and I am famously hard to live with—in fact, Pete, who once did live with me in the house in question, said to me: “I won’t allow you to consider that.”
THE NEXT PROBLEM
is that for mental health reasons, my job is becoming intolerable—I’m actually popping tranquilizers at the front desk—not only for the soul-squelching days spent as a writer pretending to be an office manager, but because it monopolizes my energy to the point of imminent breakdown. Lastly, though it started out a pleasant enough job through which I made a few really good friends, after 8 years there it comes down to living my life doing someone else’s work, advancing someone else’s career—and the time has come for me to expend that extoplasm on myself.
UNCLE SAM WANTS ME AND ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING I HAVE
So I’m thinking that if I sold the Portland house, perhaps I could quit and take some time off, but between my mortgage, my credit line and my capital gains tax (the “gain” is six figures) I’m afraid I could possibly end up owing the feds money, much less have enough to quit on. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with less than a year’s expenses to give me time to recoup and chart a new course. When I run out of money, I’d be unlikely to land a job that would support the flat, so selling the Portland house would still ultimately end in having neither house nor flat. The knot in my stomach simply will not untie. I’m just not getting any closer to a decision that feels right.But the need to quit my job is pressing. I just can’t do it any more; it’s working my last nerve, and it’s not fair to my employers. So I decided to lessen my expectation of coming out of the sale with a year’s worth of money. If it gives me three, four months, fine. I would just have to quit and deal with the consequences later—probably sooner rather than later. If I sold either of my two books perhaps I would not have to lose the flat, but that’s hardly guaranteed. Then I get an email from my TIC partners announcing that our long-term repairs account has been underfunded for years, and that our dues would have to go up from $200 to $4- to $500 a month. I read this in a panic. Just exactly what I needed at just exactly this time. For one horrible, bone-chilling moment I thought, “Well, I don’t have to quit my job…maybe I could quit in the spring.”
I NEARLY SLAP MYSELF
upside the haid in short order. Because I know that if I do not do this thing I will forever consider myself diminished, a coward who took the safe route, like Pete’s beheaded chicken, dragging my lifeblood across the floor of life. Far better to emulate the monkey who swings from tree to tree with the faith that the next branch will be there when he needs it. After all as Pete put it, “We’re all about leaps of faith.”
I was reminded at the 50th anniversary of Howl panel discussion at the Commonwealth Club, that Alan Ginsberg had been living with a woman in a Nob Hill flat while working at a market research firm where he had his own secretary, but was miserable. His shrink said to him: “If you hate your life, why don’t you stop doing what you do?” He up and quit and took up with Peter Orlovsky.
Easier said than done? What’s the alternative? Continuing to hate your life?
There’s something about steam rising. Hydrotherapy. One evening after the trip, as I was lounging in Contemplation Central, my clawfoot tub, the solution came upon me like a clear bell ringing. A feeling of utter serenity and lucidity descended upon me, like a blanket of warm air blowing over me. I had suddenly been freed from something, I was no longer carrying its weight. I could almost hear gears and cogs clicking into place. In a second of insight, I no longer had one worry, care or concern about my future.
WHAT IS THE REASON
I work full time? 99% of the time, to pay the mortgage. Everyone needs somewhere to live, why not own it? It was quite a coup for a regular office worker like me to gain entrance to a 2-BR SF flat as nice as mine (I sold a house and fourplex apartment building I owned in Berkeley to do it—a property I acquired drawing on the Portland house’s appreciation). But in order to shoehorn my way in to the SF market, I made a gigantic downpayment so I could afford the still gigantic mortgage (interest).
what stands in the way of me and my freedom is, that’s right, Buddha, my attachment to my flat. BOING. Rid myself of that, and voilá, I have years of freedom to live as a writer whether I sell my books or not. When I walk away from that flat I’ll have a bankroll thicker than John Holmes’ cock. If someone said to me today, you can live in this fabulous flat but in addition to your gigantic downpayment it will cost you your freedom and solitude, I’d think, Get real! So not worth it! Because as Charles Bukowski said in “Barfly” in the beautiful home of some rich bitch thinking it p.c. or exotic to be slumming it with a boozing writer, “Look around you, babe, this is a nothing but a cage with golden bars!” Once I had freed myself from the notion that I had to save my flat like I couldn’t save my house, I became open to the possibilities of the universe.
IN “AMERICAN BEAUTY”
Annette Bening interrupts some rare lovemaking with her husband because he is in danger of spilling his beer on the sofa where they are about to kiss. He is turned off by it.
“It’s just a couch!”
“That,” she replies pointedly, “is a four thousand dollar sofa upholstered in Italian silk!”
“It’s just a couch! It’s not life!”
SAME FOR MY FLAT .
It’s just a place! Just walls and the things contained within them. It’s been home for three years, but the fact is, I create a beautiful, comfortable home for myself wherever I go, beginning with my first own bedroom as a child. You know why? Because I live there. If I don’t treat myself well, who will? The best way to get a job is to not care whether you get it. The best way to rid yourself of attachment to something is to not care if you lose it. Now there is no desperate wondering what I’m going to do if and when the Portland money runs out, and I am completely fine with it. Right now, I don’t give a damn how far the money goes. But if I don’t sell either book by the time it is depleted, I will sell my flat with no regrets. Anything rather than go back to work, because it is time to take the Maybeckian religion to heart—art comes before finances.
the flat has served its purpose. When I was searching for a place Lower Haight was one of my target areas, but I just happened to land on Page St. because it happened to be available at the right time. But Page St. put me around the corner from Ross Mirkarimi’s campaign headquarters and had it not been so close I probably would have been too lazy to volunteer. Were it not for Ross’s campaign I would not have met h brown, without h brown I would not have The Ax Files, and without The Ax Files I would not have my small but dedicated readership. Don’t know yet what that will lead to, but perhaps Page St. was only a stepping stone.
(I got a surprise fan email from a reader in Australia who had found my site thorough h brown’s column which she had found through a reference to Matt Gonzalez which she had found on Michael Moore’s website. Fascinating, these connections! That’s what makes the Internet a web. And minutes after reading this most welcome of comments from a stranger a half a world away, “You have a lovely way with words,” my boss called me to complain about some foul-up with a reservation of hers. Never again, I tell you, never again.)
THERE IS NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT
Often when deciding whether I should go to any given event, I remind myself of a certain writing project with the motto, “There is nothing more important.” It’s why I didn’t work on any campaigns this year—for me, it was not the best use of my personal time. I am most effective on the written page and as long as I was working full-time, that is where I needed to spend the bulk of my own time.
FAITH: DO NOT whoops
I have a set of art glass bottles etched with slogans like “Hope: Do Not Abandon,” “Magic: Uncork the Possibilities,” and “Caution: Faith: Do Not Lose.” Unfortunately I lost Faith when my cat knocked it off the sill and it shattered in the sink. But I will not lose faith in myself. I don’t have to. I am a gifted writer. I refuse from now on to live my life as anything but. I will never allow myself to work full time again, I just cannot handle it. And the things an office manager has to be good at, I could care less about. God gave me something to be good at, and I’ll stick to that.
SO LONG STORY SHORT
I sold the Portland house, it closed November 30, I got the check, I walked over to my bosses and said, “I’m not coming back after Christmas.” December 15, 2006, was my last day as a working stiff. Let the chips fall where they may. I still don’t know how much of that check goes to Uncle Sam, but my flat is as good as money, and I’d rather have the cash. You have to be pretty strong in yourself to do such things. You have to be able to walk into a room full of silence and own that room. I have plenty of practice with that. I do it every day. And you know what: there is nothing to fear, because everything I can ever want or be, I already have and am.
I am not “known” around town as a writer because I don’t have a great big mouth. I’m not out on the scene making myself seen and heard. It’s not my style. The scene is not my style. My style is to finish one piece of writing and go on to the next. Nevertheless the tide is turning. Got some unexpected ego massaging from unexpected sources at the Josh Wolf rally at Balazo Gallery the other night. I arrived just in time to freshen h’s bourbon on the rocks. He set about to introduce me to Chris Daly, with whom he was arguing, but we’d already met and Chris remarked that he was “floored” the first time he met me. I stared at him. “Floored?” I scowled, truly clueless. “By what?” He confessed he reads my column “religiously.” I stuttered, “I, I’m floored. Is that what you do at those Board meetings?” I don’t know him well enough to know if he was just funnin’ with me, nor if he was, why he would, so I took it at face value. Though I didn’t make the time to work on his campaign, I congratulated him by email: “Local government just wouldn’t be any fun without you.”
THE MONKEY SPEAKS HER MIND
Later Andy Blue commented that he’d enjoyed the narrative of my last piece. I was heartened, because while working on it, though I held my own interest, I was thinking, I told Andy, who the hell cares about my friend Pete’s dream of three years ago? I think my fans enjoy my style regardless of topic. But I had taken the story of the monkey and the chicken to heart. There is no reason for my inner monkey to be in a cage. This monkey has nothing to hide. From now on my inside is out and my outside is in. I am one person, a writer-at-large in my city of choice. In the end, Portland lost out by virtue of not being San Francisco. Why move back to a city I left out of boredom? I can just see myself with my backpack of Fred Meyer groceries standing in the rain at the bus stop at 39th and Hawthorne wailing “Why did I ever leave California?” I actually find the idea deadly. And Pete had asked me, is there any way I can replicate the situation I value in San Francisco here in Portland? No. So.
READ ME! PLEASE, PLEASE READ ME!
I enjoyed being addressed as a writer twice in a row at the gallery. After I mentioned The Danger and Despair Knitting Circle in a column, I went to one of their screenings and while getting a vodka and cran noticed a flyer on the cocktail table saying in bold letters, www.sfbulldog.com: READ ALEXANDRA JONES. At first it didn’t register, then I said to the bartender, “Wait a minute. That’s me.” While telling the crowd the Circle was mentioned on the site, Marc Dolezal actually announced I was in the audience and I gave the royal wave to the multitude of questioning eyes suddenly upon me. It felt like an out-of-body experience. Marc referred to h brown as “Louella Parsons on LSD.”
Sometime in my youth, I somewhere wrote, “Someday people will pay me for being myself.” Truth be told, that’s all I’m good at. I am not suited for the jobs of this world. The only job I’d want is one where I set my own hours, don’t have to mess with people, can do it when I want and ignore it when I don’t, one which allows me to travel at any time for whatever length of time I desire. I actually know of a job like that. ’s called writing.
Any time anyone makes a big change in their life, the people around them get antsy about their own lives. If she’s leaving, what am I doing here? Some people want change but don’t know what to move on to. Or they need a kick in the pants to get them going. Many people feel trapped, but don’t have assets, as I do, that they can sell off. Many wouldn’t do it even if they had, because of the what ifs and the what’ll I do whens. The what will happen to mes and the what will I becomes. The day before my house closing the bookkeeper at my office (hi Peggy!! no more two-seaters for your latte now) gave me all kinds of advice about retirement funds, and how to wisely apportion my closing proceeds. “Don’t go to Europe,” she said. I thanked her kindly for all the advice I had no intention of taking, and quit the next day.
A friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, told me she had decided to divorce her husband of 31 years (23 of them spent in the same rent-controlled Berkeley apartment). “It took cancer to get me out of that,” she said.
THERE’S NO TIME TO WASTE
Well it took my house’s faulty foundation to get me out of my wage-slave routine. Why is this happening, I kept asking myself. Why should I lose this beloved house—and why am I clinging to it? What do I need to learn from this? If the foundation of my house had not failed, I would have completed the renovation, kept it as a rental and “option” in life, and not been able to quit my job. Life would have crept on apace as it had for 8 years at that job, during which my greatest accomplishment was paying my bills.
A MUTUAL FRIEND
said of my friend’s decision to divorce: “There’s no time to waste.” That’s true for all of us, not just patients with life-threatening diseases—but who acts like they believe it? Who prioritizes the things they do like there really is no time to waste? If you’re in a non-supportive relationship or situation, get outta there double-quick. Make choices that nourish, not drain, you.
“WE ALL HAVE A FUTURE
that ends in death; this much we know,” I wrote on the Coast Starlight in September 2004 on the way to Vancouver, B.C. “That is why now is so vitally important. It is where we spend our lives; it is for us to shape them.”Now my headstone need not read, “There was no time to waste, and she wasted it.” Instead it can read—well, the only thing I can think of at the moment is: She could turn a fuckin’ phrase. Can one carve vulgarities into a headstone? George Bush’s could read, “The fucking fucker finally got fucked.” Would cemeteries allow it? You might get arrested for disturbing the peace.
THE REAL ISSUE
The foundation of my house was faulty, but the foundation of my life more so. I had to rebuild it to create a new stable base on which to reinvent myself. The years spent acquiring properties and working to support them, turn out to have been a good investment, money-wise, but it was the wrong priority. Still I wasn’t ready for anything else yet. Things happen in their own time, so I won’t say I should have gone the starving artist route, because it is only now in my life that all conditions are ripe, that the universe brought upon me this harmonic convergence of my house falling apart, so I would be forced to demolish my old conventional ideas of what I should have, or be, or do. My own foundation crumbled. And what was left, when the dust settled, was freedom. From now on, there is truly nothing more important.
MY PORTLAND HOUSE
(bought in 1989 for $41,000) seven years later bought me my Berkeley properties, my Berkeley properties seven years later bought me my SF flat, and the final gift my house has given me is the freedom I so desperately needed to change my life. If I sell my flat, it will have given the gift that keeps on giving. Thank you, 2025 S.E. 52nd Avenue.
EVERY TIME I BREAK SOMETHING I REJOICE
because it is one less thing to own. True ownership in San Francisco for most ordinary people in ordinary jobs, is a dream that will never come to fruition. I don’t want to own again in SF unless I alone can own my own house, a little cottage with a ceramic sign over the trellis “LA CASA CONTENTA” (after a hotel in Mazatlan). If I can’t realize that dream without betraying myself, I will simply abandon the need to dream it.
BECAUSE OWNERSHIP IN SAN FRANCISCO, FOR REGULAR ONE-INCOME PEOPLE OF REAL-WORLD SALARIES, IS NOT WORTH THE TROUBLE. FORGET ABOUT IT. NA. GA. HA.
I don’t give a shit where you live in the country or the world, if you spend a half-million dollars buying your home, you should get a goddamn house, a house, goddamn it, not a flat, condo, TIC, lean-to, or bargain basement, but a goddamn house, Mojambo, a house with one key—your own. So when are all the owners going to get in a huddle and slash their asking prices by 2/3 so they can sell their hillside houses to secretaries, gas station attendants and Walgreens cashiers? Where’s the seller who’s going to give me a $4-, $5- $600,000 price break so a “writer-at-large” can own a modest home of her own? TIC’s are for the birds. And birds can build their own nests, so even they don’t want them. Unless you plan to cash out on the appreciation in a few years, I say, spend your downpayment money on fabulous trips, humanitarian missions, your retirement fund, your children’s inheritance, your rent, on that thing that you want to do.
My guiding light for the decisions I may need to make in the coming months, is to live in the present. My urgent need right now was to quit my job, and I gave myself the means to do so even if I might have wanted my house “for my retirement.” Why should I suffer today over something I don’t even know I’ll want when I’m 65, which I may not even live to? It may not be the prudent, sensible thing for me to do, to prioritize the present over the future, but there is no greater fulfillment than living life while you’re alive to live it, not for the day when or if whatever comes. Now. That’s all there really is, it’s all we have. Since I get to create my days, I’ll invent a future that includes the means to take care of what I need as I go along. The first step in making something happen is thinking that it will. Therefore I have not a worry, care or concern about my future. I am free to live today.
Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go fill my freezer with my own blood.
(That’s just a great Kramer line from Seinfeld that I’ve been waiting to work into a column somewhere.)
I HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOU SAN FRANCISCO
Fuck you you fucking fuck: you are not going to crush me. This is my town and you won’t get rid of me so easily. I am going to live my way, not yours. My way, see? I am not going to enslave myself to the most meager kind of ownership just to be in your presence. I’m not going to do whatever it takes to own a home here, or keep one. I know it’s just your process of natural selection. Not just the poor but the poor(er) people get weeded out. But as long as housing is owned by private individuals, people are always going to want to make a profit on the value of their properties. Every one has a right to sell their house for what it’s worth. Who’s going to forego the windfalls of appreciation so they can sell to a single mom? I certainly won’t.
BOYCOTT SAN FRANCISCO!
I say Boycott San Francisco Ownership! Let’s have a freeze on buying! Don’t pay these prices, people! If somebody wants close to a million bucks for their one-bedroom condo, tell them, Are you out of your mind?I don’t know who said this, but it was quoted in Jack Tracy’s book Sausalito, Moments in Time: “The supreme tribute that one can pay to a city’s charms—is a headlong, lifelong affair.” Will I have that affair with San Francisco? It remains to be seen. It doesn’t make it easy. But my work here is not done. In the meantime, my prophecy regarding the dead deer, daggers and axes of Radiating Auras has come true:
I am wearing that silver bullshit-piercing dagger around my neck this very moment.
wrote Jim Meko of All Signs Point to Yes. “Now what is this all about?”
What it’s about is that sometimes you just have to tear everything down and start over. I wasn’t making the move, so the universe made it for me. It forced me into a situation where I had to choose my priorities and get it right this time. I keep hearing the voice of my friend Mary, who retired from Kaiser Permanente in her early 50’s, went to Greece, and is now working part-time at Joseph Schmidt’s, saying of quitting her job: “It was the best thing I ever did.” And if I do indeed someday walk the streets of Tibet owning only the robes I’m wearing, getting rid of my Portland house was surely the first step! I’ll be the town crazy who can’t shut up about all the houses and stuff she used to own but really owned her until she found enlightenment.
Saul Bellow said that, by the way. In Herzog. All I needed was a train ride. And now, as a dramatic launch into the life of freedom I have granted myself, all I need is a real train ride, and Mojambo, I am taking it. Monday morning, I reported not to work but to the California Zephyr, carrying me in an easterly way through the Sierra Nevada, the awesome Wasatch Mountains of Utah and the Colorado Rockies, on to a layover in Chicago. From there, simply because I have never taken that train they call The City of New Orleans, I head south to hit some jazz clubs on Bourbon St., the next morning to board the Crescent, also a train new to me, and meander in a northeasterly way to Christmas in Philadelphia with my family, New Year’s with Jon in New York, then back to Chicago on the Cardinal. Next it’s on to the mighty Empire Builder across the frozen northern route to Seattle and Bill, then via the Cascades to terrorize that Portland gang of mine, and finally, the home train, the Coast Starlight from Union “Go by Train” Station in Portland, back to San Francisco, my city of choice, to live life as a writer-at-large.States I will cross either coming or going are: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington, and Oregon. Phew! I will walk the streets of Emeryville, CA, Chicago, IL, New Orleans, LA, Philadelphia, PA, New York, NY, Seattle, WA and Portland, OR. 28 states, 7 cities, in 29 days, 9 trains.
Boy, do I need this train ride! A week ago I was physically, emotionally, mentally exhausted, strained beyond the end of my rope. Today I have truly never been so happy in all my life.What’s next for Alexandra? asked a former coworker. Well, Alexandra doesn’t know. She’s making it up as she goes along. At the moment she’s lying on her side, head in hand, on the blue Amtrak blanket in Roomette #8, Sleeper Car 532, typing this with the other hand, listening to the Colorado rain, somewhere between Denver and Fort Morgan, at 12:30 Mountain time or 1:30 Central time, she doesn’t know which time zone she’s in. And why should she?
WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? AND WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK?
As I polish up this perhaps last Ax File of 2006 the Zephyr is 2 stops short of Chicago and my second train on to New Orleans. I’ve used only 2 of my pleasingly thick packet of 9 tickets (including the bus to Emeryville), crossed 7 of those states and am only on Day 3 of the trip. The dry, beige fields outside Princeton, IL perfectly complement this gloomy, washed-out day. A scruffy border of old snow lends what little brightness there is to the landscape. A line of 30 or more cars waits at the railroad crossing, their headlights blurry in the twilight rain.If you have read this far in my cathartic narrative, and enjoy my writing generally, I would like to hear from you. I am collecting reader testimonials to submit to a prospective agent. In appreciation, anyone who clicks on my email and sends me an address, will receive the highly coveted CD, “Songs from The Ax Files,” some traveling music I put together for my trip.
I close with an exchange from “Dr. Quantum Visits Flatland,” a cartoon featured, as were the quotes above, in “What the Bleep? Down the Rabbit Hole.
“Dr. Quantum to a Flatland circle: Ready for more?
The circle: More what?
Circle: Oh, no, yes, but, there aren’t any. More? What will happen to me? What will I become?
Dr. You’d have to become it, to know.
Have a Brave New Year.
Goodbye, old pal, my old pal
(Snowman by Pete Emerson)
Change your life! Change your life! Get rid of your wife!
copyright Alexandra Jones 2006