It is Friday the 13th in the a.m. as I write this. (I always want to follow sentences like that with something like, "... time is running out. Within moments they will be upon me.") There is your Friday angle, anyway. It is Friday now. I have not been out of town for an embarrassingly long time. Recently I decided it was time to visit a friend in Berkeley whom I hadn't seen in ages and booked a flight. I discovered what late-night talk-show hosts have been riffing about since 9/11 and the shoe bomber -- airport security. With a pacemaker preventing me from walking through metal detectors, this becomes even more of a deal and somewhat more personal. I wonder how many times these security guys hear cracks about buying a passenger dinner before the body search. By now it must be hilarious.
Going to a drizzly and cool city with great bookstores was a pleasure tempered by my friend's ill health and old age. My old age, not his. Walking around Berkeley, hitting bookstores with a backpack and a wad of cash is a dream I've nurtured for decades, but the dream never included wheezing. It never included seeing roving gangs of Westernized East Indian or Pakistani lesbians with chopped hair and big butts in denim either, and that was an amusing feature. If it occurred to me that here was a particular brutalization of female beauty, it could only add fuel to the argument of those who consider me a pig. Whatever.
At one bookshop on Shattuck Avenue I had the maybe thin (maybe, some might say, pathetic) but real gratification of finding a bookseller who knew me by name and produced one of my old books from a dusty pile of pulp in the basement. He also handed me an envelope, which contained an original typescript: the first page of a poem from Clark Ashton Smith, dated, I think, 1932. In the upper right-hand corner Smith had typed something like, "For your usual rate," and I noticed his typewriter ribbon had needed changing. This was a little thrill hard to describe. If I were ever to find myself writing this kind of florid stuff, I would immediately acknowledge it as the onset of Alzheimer's or something equally serious, and so it is difficult to defend the kind of affection that I have for it.
It occurred to me at some point my second day there that the old hippies on the sidewalks, with their beads and crafts and pretty much useless oddities for sale in front of them, might well be the same people I saw, with the same stuff, in 1969. The Robin Williams joke -- or whoever it was -- that goes, "If you remember the '60s, you weren't there," completely applies to my recollections of the place in 1969. I remember patchouli, Gorilla Records, and Blind Faith coming from open windows, it seemed, everywhere. In this aspect, it had changed only in details.
The area, around Shattuck and University, seemed to have undergone a large influx of Indian, Afghan, and Pakistani immigrants over the decades, and this certainly satisfied my dinner ambitions. I asked one very tall, young guy at a convenience store which was the best, reasonably-priced, Northern Indian food bet on the strip, and he plugged a vegetarian restaurant two doors down that had won several awards, but added, "If you must have meat, if for some reason you simply must have meat," (sounding like Peter Sellers), "then you can go across the street. They have meat. All the meat you want." He had suddenly made me insist upon chicken, and I had an absolutely great vindaloo take-out in the Travel Lodge room, eating with one hand while I read a novel by Steve Erickson. I subliminally enjoyed the fact that I needed to turn on the heat in the room and did not. "There is no wine so sweet as thirst," Omar Khayyám once observed.
I really did nothing remarkable but sort of mentally tapped my foot, telling myself, well, I'm out of town. It's not that I missed San Diego for any reason, and I'm not sure it's possible anyway to miss anywhere in only 24 hours or so, but I wondered when, exactly, did I begin thinking of this place as home? It wasn't when I bought a house here or, in October of this year, observed that I have been living here for a quarter of a century -- but it was probably only a few weeks earlier, in September, when my son, as grown man, came to live with me again. I called him. I called my girlfriend. I did not call my sister who lives in San Rafael, not far away. Or my other sister who also, I think, lives in San Rafael. I thought this was interesting, and I walked around the streets of downtown Berkeley that night remembering being 19 years old, broke and homeless, out of a band and rock and roll dreams, joining a black soul and blues group out of Oakland, playing military bases and not being happy.
At the airport, the guy at the Delta counter tried to persuade me to take a later flight, only an hour-and-a-half difference, and I'd get $200 credit with the airline. I told him no, and I'm still not completely sure why.