S.M. Park’s continuing column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “A Town Without Pity,” Park talks about the worst place he ever lived: Bolinas, California.
I wrote recently how my emu and ostrich T-shirt business was the oddest work I’ve ever done. (Which was likely an exaggeration, given my factotum past.) But the worst city I ever lived in? Bolinas, California takes that honor in a runaway. (As it would, I imagine, for anyone who’s lived there.) It actually reminds me of my present home, in Port Townsend, Washington, if this wondrous jewel of a seaport was populated by insecure, surly, paranoid sociopaths. Seriously. When I look back on my four years in Bolinas, from 1981-’85, it’s hard to remember meeting anyone there who wasn’t pissed off and defensive. (Well, maybe the author Anne Lamott, before she wrote her extraordinary books.)
The source of this antipathy is rooted in the town’s history. It sits between Stinson Beach and Point Reyes on the coast north of San Francisco. Unlike those communities and the rest of the state’s coastline, however, it isn’t populated by the well-heeled and prosperous. Instead it’s always been such a poor community that in 1919 the San Francisco Chronicle sold lots to subscribers for five bucks a pop.
It seemed like a blue-collar legacy to be proud of; instead (at least in the years I’m speaking of) the residents were so afraid of fat cats that they took extreme measures to protect their turf. This included painting over lettering on the road or tearing down highway signs.
In the meanwhile—to feed themselves and their habits—they ripped each other off. I had three backyard pot crops stolen (for the third one they even smashed a truck through my greenhouse in broad daylight) and my truck was burglarized so regularly that I had to buy locks and alarms.
I also got in more physical altercations than I had since I’d left Texas fifteen years before. And that was the good news. The bad was that my girlfriend Karen (bless her indomitable Leo heart) had the audacity to buy a lot next to her mother, then erect a small shack on it. That’s where we lived without hot water, heat or a shower. Even the electricity was run from her mother’s house on extension cords.
Who’d refuse a penurious property owner that humble abode? Only the real power in town, the Bolinas Water Department. Water was a scarce commodity locally and in controlling it they controlled everything else, particularly the building of new structures. (Of which, as far as I could tell, there’d been none for years.)
Except for Karen’s shack. They couldn’t let that pass: it was red tagged so often that, along with the various summons in the mail, it could have been a pinup board. I spent a large portion of my free time battling the scurrilous attorney who ran the water bureau, a Queens, New York transplant named Kader. He was a prime example of why I’m so disappointed when old friends, who like me have been maligning attorneys for years, proudly declare to me that their son or daughter is “going to be a lawyer!” (“Oh no, not that kind, High. She has principles, she’s going to help people.”)
Jesus. Kader’s lack of children was the only good thing about him. Particularly as one contentious year followed the next and he’d still failed to evict us. In the interim he slandered us constantly before the courts and permit authorities (much less the town). I wanted the sleaze bag dead and was aching to do it myself.
And then, late one afternoon in the Fall of ’85, the opportunity presented itself. I was driving home on Mesa road, with no other vehicle in sight, when I spotted Kader waddling along in front of me. He was maybe two hundred yards ahead and I thought: This is it, goddam it! I can run the bastard over and no one’ll know but me! My heart rate accelerated even as I pressed down on the accelerator. My plan was to veer over and wing him first—maybe break both his legs—before backing up and popping his head like a grape.
No wait! I thought, That’s too easy! Maybe after breaking his legs I should jump out, kick his teeth in with my steel-toed boots! Yeah, that’s the ticket! That way he’ll KNOW who’s killing him!
My lips peeled back on my gums and I laughed maniacally, spraying the windshield with spittle.
I’ve struggled since childhood with a volcanic temper. It rarely erupts now because I’ve gone to great lengths to tame it, but what I learned that day is it’s nowhere near as lethal as I thought. Because of course I didn’t run the bastard over: not only am I not a killer (I collected butterflies as a kid and still feel bad about the ones I suffocated before mounting), but decades later I remain shaken by how badly I wanted to hurt him. My Bolinas experience had transformed me into a sick, twisted version of the locals, even as I sloughed it off as more of the “dry drunk” I’d been on since quitting booze, or the pressure of growing marijuana illegally in our backyard.
It was all those things, I suppose, with my history of wanderlust thrown in. I know it poisoned my relationship with Karen. She had her own faults, of course, but anyone who could live with me that long (in an environment that ugly) was obviously a saint. What’s more we’d been inordinately close in that time, not only because of the tiny shack, but the way (except when I was working) that we rarely left each other’s sides. This was so unusual for me that friends and family looked at me askance even as I felt like an imposter myself.
Then the incident with Kader happened on the eve of our first real separation. My high school class was celebrating our twenty-year reunion in Portland and I was eager to attend. The plan was for me to drive up and back while I pondered Karen’s ultimatum, i.e. either marry her or hit the bricks.
That’d be a slam dunk ordinarily. But I still loved Karen and couldn’t imagine hurting her. Even as—an hour up Highway 101—the veil lifted and I was me again, alone on the road with nothing but my thoughts. This was my natural habitat, not what had transpired with Karen. I knew it, she knew it, a blind man could see it. Plus I hated that goddamned town, and getting up at five in the morning to give myself a sponge bath with cold water, or risking my life racing up and down Mt. Tamalpais to reach my word processing job in San Francisco. Worse yet … Karen had begun to embrace the Lord lately: I’d caught her watching Pat Robertson or the 707 Club (with Tammy Baker) several times, and she’d be at a church retreat while I drove to Portland. The minuses outnumbered the positives so completely I finally quit tallying them because again, what difference did they make, Karen had done so much for me that I couldn’t leave her high and dry.
I put the conundrum aside for the reunion weekend and simply enjoyed myself. In the course of the coke-drenched festivities on Saturday night I ran into my old buddy Dwayne Hammer. He’d been one of my roommates at the Sixth Street whorehouse in Portland. We were fresh out of high school at the time and afterwards he joined the Marines while I boarded the booze train.
Now he was working for a gas company and dabbling in real estate on the side. He’d also experimented with pot cultivation and when I told him of my efforts he offered to be my partner in a Portland grow operation, with him buying the house and me raising the plants. All I had to do was move up there.
Talk about piling on: now I was really conflicted as I drove home. The longer I thought about it the more helpless I felt. This was unusual for me: even in my darkest hours, when I was being shot at or writhing in a straitjacket or being told by doctors my death was imminent, some part of me felt in control. That isn’t to say I actually was, of course, but simply that I believed it. But now? I was prepared to ruin both our lives because I couldn’t bear to hurt Karen.
Even in my darkest hours, when I was being shot at or writhing in a straitjacket or being told by doctors my death was imminent, some part of me felt in control. That isn’t to say I actually was, of course, but simply that I believed it.
Which leads to the point of this column, i.e. why don’t I believe in God, or, at least, some aspect of Him? Because I’ve lived a life so ridiculously charmed and been saved by simple luck (or Fate) so many times … that I feel like a celestial pinball.
Though good fortune was nowhere in sight as I pulled into our Bolinas driveway. I stepped from the truck, grabbed my suitcase and trudged up the long row of pallets leading to the shack.
And then it happened. The door opened, Karen stepped onto the porch, and in the week I’d been gone she’d fallen for another guy. You know that expression? When your mate is looking at you and seeing someone else? My God! I thought. This is manna from heaven! I wanted to fling my suitcase in the air, do a series of headstands up and down the pallets.
Instead I adopted the Frozen Man persona I’d perfected in the d.t.’s. Walked up the steps and gave Karen a hug. We didn’t have a phone so we hadn’t spoken since I left.
“Well,” she said, forcing a smile, “how’d the reunion go?”
“Great,” I said. “Who’s the guy you met?”
“Wha … what do you mean?
“Oh come on, Karen,” I scoffed. “It’s all over your face.”
Turns out it was a little hippie at the retreat. He sounded like such a twerp I knew it wouldn’t last. (She’d call and ask me to return forty-eight hours later.)
I’ve gotta move fast, I thought.
“My God,” I said, feigning outrage, “did you sleep with him?”
“Oh no no, Wilson. He’s a Christian!”
Huh? “Well,” I continued, “do you love him?”
“I … I think I might!” she blurted, wiping away a tear.
“Well, that’s it then,” I declared, making a show of gathering up my meager belongings. I lugged them out to the truck, threw them in the cab as Karen made a half-hearted attempt to stop me.
Instead I backed down the driveway and headed for my friend Tony DeBola’s home in Forest Knolls. He and his family were in Hawaii and he’d be happy to have me housesit for a while.
I reached over, pulled a small envelope from the pocket of my suitcase. Inside was a Haze roach I’d been saving for a special occasion.
Given how long it had been there, it tasted mighty fine.