Monday, August 3, 2015

Ghost stories of the West

Prologue: Dead books

We are all strangers
walking down the artificial hallway,
this boxy tube from plane to airport
that they'll collapse when they're done.
Other people roll their suitcases on wheels,
but not me;
I carry my baggage — it's my preference.
We go up the carpeted ramp
to whatever is out there,
and I know better than to expect to see you
waiting for me
— you have a life without me now,
a life, a wife, a dog,
private jokes, matching Fitbits —
but when you're not there
it is still a shock
and the book we conceived
is stillborn.


Ghosts of San Diego

My old friends in San Diego have been replaced by shadows and birds.

I came back, six years later, to look for them. They’re all gone.

There was that row of homeless guys who used to sit with their backs against one wall of the Scientology church on Fourth Avenue, harmless as old hobos in a family-friendly movie.

Among them was Jeff, an older guy with leather skin, longish gray Willie Nelson hair, blue eyes, and a vaguely bigoted vibe. (He said he didn't think being gay was "natural;" I told him I believed my gay friends were probably -- to quote Lady Gaga before her time -- born that way; we agreed to disagree.) He was flirtatious with me and suspicious of everyone else, but he was friends with Roan, a younger guy who looked like Keanu Reeves playing the part of a homeless person, who seemed normal until the schizophrenia kicked in and then you realized he wasn’t a poseur. There was Chris Carroll, another older fellow who told me a joke – he said his middle name was “Must,” as in “Chris Must Carroll”/Christmas carol, and then I swear to god he pulled out a harmonica and played what I guess was supposed to be a Christmas carol.

When I moved to San Diego and lived here briefly, six years ago after getting laid off back East and figuring what the heck and starting a new life in California, I didn’t have a job for a while, so I just walked around downtown. I felt a kinship with these guys and would often linger by the church talking to them, for 20, 30 minutes some days. (I once hung out with Roan for the better part of an hour or two, as I walked by the bay and he followed along like a chatty puppy, straddle-walking a bike, talking in a mixture of alternative-rock song lyrics and conspiracy theory and inviting me to “a nude beach.”)

I knew their stories, and except for when they called me “Cathy,” they knew and remembered mine. I had walked by on my 30th birthday soon after I arrived in town all those years ago – and a few of them tried to pool together some cash so I could buy myself a cake. (I didn’t let them give me any money.)

There was this group run by the city called “Clean & Safe San Diego,” these men and women in neon-orange vests and some on Segways, whose duty was ostensibly to look after the tourists and homeless people downtown and call 911 if anyone needed medical attention or the cops. But when I went to the group job interview, the director showed us a map of downtown and said he wanted us to help nudge the homeless people away from their beloved downtown – away from the eyes of the tourists and their flow of tourist cash to spend in safe, anodyne, bum-free cities. (I didn't return the call from the recruiter asking me to come in for a follow-up interview.)

I don’t know if the group’s ominous master plan succeeded, or if the guys I knew who sat outside the Scientology church found a different place to hang out, or if I was there at the wrong times or what – but six years later, when I walked to the place where they had been every day I’d lived in town, any time I passed by on my frequent rambles through downtown, they were gone. I had even planned to hand out some cash to anyone who was still there, now that I had some to give.

There were just shadows where they had been.

I took a picture of those shadows. 

Down by the bay is where I went walking at night when I lived here six years ago. I had friends on both sides – the brightly lit side close to the convention center, with its hotels and restaurant-bars and T-shirt shops and docks full of yachts; and the shadier side, where the Tom Waits characters lived for cheap on their ramshackle vessels.

There was a young couple, Aaron and Sarah, who lived on their small yacht over on the nice, tourist side of the bay, and took rich folks on “sunset dinner cruises” (they had a brochure and everything). The night I met them, they had just lost a lot of dough in the stock market (this was 2008, after all), and they were both drunk and Sarah had been threatening to take her life. In desperation, Aaron had gone out onto the deck, or the dock, and had called out to the first age-appropriate female walking by: “Hey, girl in the red hoodie!” That girl in the red hoodie was me.

Not everyone would have stopped, but I did, intrigued to be called out to by a guy on a boat. He quickly mentioned his girlfriend, said I should come onto their boat and hang out with them, and it didn’t take long for me to realize – he’d recruited me to talk her down because he’d been unable to.

What followed was a surreal and soap-operatic night, of Sarah raging at me (thinking, in her drunkenness, that Aaron had blatantly picked me up right off the boardwalk, right there in front of her) and Aaron drunkenly storming off – leaving us essentially trapped on the boat until he came back with the key to the dock, but Sarah kicked into hostess mode and made the best of it, teaching me how to fish and playing some songs from my iPod (I remember one called “Alone, Jealous, and Stoned” by a band called Secret Machines) through some speakers they had on the boat.

The charming fishing interlude didn’t last long, though, and before I knew it Sarah had changed into a long formal red gown and was talking, again, about ending her life. She found a spare key that would open the gate to the dock and she let me out. I protested and summoned up my best Dr. Phil sound bites about how life was worth living, but in the end I was back on the boardwalk, Aaron was still at some hotel bar, and I watched Sarah walk the length of the dock back to their yacht in her long red dress, like a girl in a Shakespeare play, Juliet, Ophelia.

A few nights later I was walking by again, and Aaron waved me over – everything between them was apparently A-OK now. They invited me to watch “Dexter” with them on their boat, and asked if I wanted to be a boat waitress – “a member of our crew!” – on a cruise some rich people had booked on their yacht for an upcoming evening. I said OK, and I tagged along for free. I helped Sarah grill vegetables below deck as Aaron steered the yacht and played tour guide, and I refilled the fancy guests’ wine glasses. We saw sea mammals and a gas station just for boats and clustered houses on the hillsides of Tijuana.

That all happened six years ago. When I came back to town this last time, I walked by the spot where I was sure they had docked their small yacht – and there was an eerie vacancy; it appeared to be the one slip without a boat in it. This was fairly late at night on a weeknight, so it wasn’t likely that they were out cruising around – they were gone.

In their place was a long-necked water fowl, ghostly and golden in the dim light, looking for all the world like a totem, like their spirit animal.

I took some pictures of the bird. 

One night during the four months that I lived in San Diego, I was walking through a little park near the bay when I passed a stone table with four stone stools around it – the kind of place where people play chess with other chess-happy strangers – that had three homeless people sitting around it. Not having a job or anyplace in particular to go in a hurry, curious and endeared by then to the friendly homeless people I’d already met while in town, I came over without hesitation when they spoke to me, and completed their quartet.

There was an older woman with unconvincingly dyed red hair who offered me a shot from her bottle of booze. There were a couple of guys, including one named CD who could have been Bill Murray’s alcoholic uncle. CD started talking about wanting to show me “the statue,” and the others groaned and said, “Oh no, not the statue…” “She doesn’t want to see the statue!” But of course, I did want to see the statue.

So I followed him a little farther out. There, looming giant and floodlit in front of the bay, was a statue version of the sailor kissing the nurse from that one World War II-era photo; it was tucked into an alcove and somehow I hadn’t seen it before. CD seemed to be something of a romantic, and I gathered from his friends’ reactions that I wasn’t the first girl he’d brought out there to ponder “the statue.”

Some predictably loopy conversation followed. While sitting on a bench, he asked me: “Do you know why he did that?” – presumably meaning, did I know why the sailor passionately kissed that nurse – and then he answered himself: “Because that’s all he’s got,” which sounded to me like as good a reason as any. Then he got caught up in the idea that I was an actual, literal, honest-to-god angel. He said things to me like, “My kind had stopped believing that your kind existed,” while peering at me sideways with a knowing twinkle in his eyes.

At one point while the two of us were sitting there, side by side on that bench looking out over the water like characters in an indie movie, something about the scene and other life drama I had going on in the background caused me to audibly sigh, and CD indicated that he had somehow comprehended the full emotional weight of my sigh. He said: “You’re like a poem within a poem.”

When I went back to that spot six years later – “the statue,” that bench we’d been sitting on – there was of course no CD, no quirky homeless clan sitting around a chess table, nobody but tourists and me. An alarming number of male tourists were having their pictures taken while pretending to look up the skirt of the nurse in the statue.

I sat on the bench and sighed again, but there was no one to hear it, and no one to tell me if I’m still a poem within a poem or if I’ve changed. 

One guy – there was one guy I saw, the whole time I was in town for my visit six years later, who had been there before: the guy who hangs out downtown shirtless and wearing a luchador mask. He’s a public joke, a crazy person, but I was happy to see him. I tried to make eye contact, wanted to tell him I remembered him from back when I lived here six years ago. He avoided my eyes, possibly used to being ridiculed by anyone bold enough to acknowledge him (and not merely snicker at him and point him out to their friends). He just stood there on a street corner, his hair grayer, shaking a dumbbell back and forth in some private crazy ritual.

It’s possible that it wasn’t even him – that the role of “crazy shirtless dude in a luchador mask downtown” gets passed on from person to person, like that guy who leaves three roses and a cognac on the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. 

My last night in town this time, I got dressed up to visit a special place. It was the SRO Lounge, although I hadn’t known its name when I’d been there six years before, stumbling in drunk on the night of my 30th birthday, just a few days after I’d arrived in town to “start a new life.” (I only learned the name years later, after a number of creative Google searches led me to travel-style reviews that let me know I'd virtually found the place.)

I had been to an alternative-rock nightclub earlier on that long-ago birthday night, but it was a Wednesday and all the cool kids at the club had work the next day. I hadn’t wanted my buzz to go to waste, hadn’t wanted to turn in early on such a momentous night (30th birthday! dawn of a new life in California!), and this subversive-seeming roadie-looking guy had told me where I could go to keep the party going while the geeks slumbered – “Fifth Avenue” or “a gay bar.”

The SRO Lounge was both, a gay bar on Fifth Avenue frequented by drag queens and painted bordello-red on the inside, with gaudy baroque-gilt frames around pictures and mirrors – the epitome of “dive.” I don’t exactly remember how I wound up there; I recall traipsing down the streets in my strappy bondage-looking high heels, hiccupping along in a zigzag, and just sort of arriving at this place, like it was my destiny.

Outside the bar I had met Bear, an obese man in a wheelchair, and Columbo, a scrappy black crack dealer with a white beard. “I want to dance!” I’d cried in my tipsy euphoria, and Columbo had said: “OK then, let’s dance!” and crooked out his arm for me to take, all formal, before leading me proudly into the bar, like we were in some black-and-white movie, a downtown Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Inside I’d met more Alice in Wonderland characters, and Columbo and I played Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on the jukebox (his selection), and we danced. It was like dancing with a wacky old grandpa; he was gentlemanly, not sleazy like the grind-y guys I was used to at clubs. Outside afterward, Columbo introduced me to street people – a man named Robert, snoozing in a sleeping bag in the open San Diego night; Jamaica, obscurely sinister and wearing sunglasses in the dark, with a man pushing a shopping cart containing all his belongings – before helping me find a cab.

When planning my return trip six years later, this was the part I had most looked forward to: revisiting the bar where I’d danced with Columbo on the night of my 30th birthday. I knew Columbo wouldn’t be there, but I thought maybe someone at the bar – a bartender? a regular? – might know what became of him. I had planned to play “Thriller” on the jukebox in honor of that long-ago night.

I was within a few blocks of the bar when a pedicab driver passed me. His speaker system blared “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” a Michael Jackson song. A nod from the universe – or simply proof that Michael Jackson songs have hit a critical mass in popularity and that one is probably always playing somewhere near you if you listen hard enough.

A block from the bar, I saw two figures standing in the shadows on the sidewalk. I knew it couldn’t be them, but I squinted and blurred my vision on purpose so I could imagine it was Bear and Columbo, standing outside as if no time had passed at all, as if I could just go up to Columbo again and say the magic words, “I want to dance!” and he would again say, “OK then, let’s dance!”

It was of course just two guys hanging out. They didn’t acknowledge me.

I arrived at the bar, seeing the sign with the name on it for the first time, and took a deep breath, stepping through the open door as if going through a portal.

It was the place – all red inside, tiny and cramped, the gilt frames. Pool tables that might have been there before, or not; my memories of that night are understandably hazy (I’d weighed close to 100 pounds back then and had drunk four cocktails before arriving at the SRO on my long-ago birthday night). A sparse crowd, mostly young white people. The bartender was young, a clean-cut hipster despite the trucker hat and beard; he wouldn’t have had a clue about Columbo.

The jukebox was gone.

I ordered a drink – a prop; I had promised my husband, at home back East, that I wouldn’t wind up drunk alone in a faraway city. The drink was a screwdriver, the same unimaginative thing I used to always order when I lived here, having only started drinking a few years before turning 30 in San Diego.

Sitting at the bar, I tried to look open to conversation. No one approached me and I didn’t approach them – stone-sober, I didn’t feel the warmth, the openness, the ebullience I’d felt on that long-ago night. (Was it really a magic time back then? If I were to drink a lot now, or if I were younger and amped up from the adrenaline of starting over – would *this time*, right now, be magic to me? Is it really a matter of being open, of saying “yes” to life – or was right now just watered-down and objectively *less*?)

Granted, there was also the fact that I was rocking cleavage at a gay bar – maybe the others there felt sorry for me, thought I didn’t know or had gone into the wrong place, didn’t want to speak up and embarrass me. (Maybe they were checking out the width of my shoulders and the squareness of my jawline to see if I were maybe a very low-key transvestite?)

I moved with my drink to a table along the wall, facing a mirror. I pulled my iPod out of my purse, hit “Songs” and found “Thriller,” popped in some earbuds, and listened to the whole song sitting there in the bar. I smiled out at the area where Columbo and I must have danced to it, conjuring his ghost. I did what I could but the whole thing felt hollow. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this wasn’t really the right place – that the *real* bar was maybe one street over, that Columbo & Co. (and the jukebox) were over there in *that* one; that this bar was some kind of fraud, a set in a miscast movie that wasn’t as good as the book had been.

I tried to not feel ridiculous. I tried not to think about how the anticipated highlight of my trip was supposed to be going to a gay bar and listening to a Michael Jackson song in memory of a drug dealer I’d spent maybe two hours with six years ago, who surely had no memory of me.

That was something else I didn’t want to think about – none of them were trying to find me.

A foxy transvestite walked in and hugged everyone, clearly a regular, and I wished she would come over and hug me so I could tell her some of my story and hear some of hers, but she sat down at the bar with her back to me.

I didn’t stay there for long; after paying my bill, without really meaning to, I left my unfinished drink on my table, almost completely full, as if on some subconscious level I wanted to have a reason to return, a reason to live the night again. A toast to Columbo, “one for my homies,” a full drink waiting for me if I ever want to come back. 


It was still fairly early – nowhere close to midnight – after I left the SRO Lounge, so I walked through my old neighborhood, Little Italy, trying to find the whitewashed Catholic church I’d wandered into on my very last day in town six years ago, before I got in my car and drove back East, back home, having lost another job (again, it was 2008; the new job out here couldn’t afford to keep everyone on full-time), lost love (a long story, and not a San Diego story), and lost pretty much all my money on just day-to-day survival.

On that day, the door to the church had been open, and I sat in a pew staring up at the stained-glass window up front. I just sat there, steeped in a despair so thick it felt like shock, until a priest went around and kindly whisper-asked each of us lone souls sitting in the pews to go; they had to make some preparations for a service. Time for the loners to move along.

Six years later, after listening to “Thriller” on puny iPod earbuds in an unworthy tribute to Columbo and my colorful times here, I found the church again. I had originally planned to see if I could go inside it the following morning, right before leaving town again, but after my dutiful-but-brief Columbo tribute I thought I might stop by the church on my way back to the motel, because hey – I had time to kill.

The church was now covered in waxy clear-plastic wrapping – everywhere, over the door, over the darkened light fixtures, over each of the stained-glass windows. I assumed it was under construction, maybe getting renovated. I stood on the sidewalk, unable to enter now or tomorrow, or ever. My past was under construction, demolition, renovation. They were changing it little by little. My friends had turned into shadows and birds. All that remained was me.

I sat on a nearby curb for a long time in the warm, hospitable San Diego night – the same night that had been a bedroom for Robert, Columbo’s friend in the sleeping bag, and so many others, so many friends who were wherever now.

A long-haired, heavy-metal-looking dude came by looking confused. “Excuse me – how far is it to the trolley tracks?” He was asking about the jolly red Mister-Rogers-looking tram that will take you as far down as Tijuana if you want it to. I’d passed those tracks all the time, walking around downtown, back when I lived here. I looked up at him and spoke, because I knew the answer as if I were born with a map of it on my hand: “It’s about ten or so blocks that way” – I pointed south – “not all that close, but definitely walkable.”

He thanked me and hurried on, and I felt happy, because he hadn’t thought I was a tourist – he had assumed this was my home.

The next morning I sat at a small table outside the deli next to my motel, badly sunburned and checking the time every five minutes because my cab to the airport was late. I was wearing a new lightweight sweater I’d bought that said “San Diego” on it. (The day I left town six years ago I had bought myself a San Diego T-shirt, the one souvenir I bought the whole time I lived here.) I must have looked frustrated about the late cab because a homeless-seeming man, with a bushy beard and wearing stained clothing, loped up to me and asked if I was OK. He said I seemed sad.

I wanted to pour it out to him. I wanted to tell him that my friends are now ghosts, that I don’t know where they are. I wanted to thank him for being the first person in town this time to really talk to me other than cashiers, waitresses, bartenders, and others with whom I was making a financial transaction. I told him, “I’m waiting for my cab to the airport. I used to live here. I’m sad to be going home.”

The guy stumbled in place; he seemed surprised that I had responded to him. He told me he could see why that would make me sad. He seemed to be straining for something empathetic to say, something wise or at least helpful. I wish I could have let him know – because of him, my visit to the city six years later ended on a kind note, a friendly note, echoes of my quirky, sincere, crazy, lovestruck, and sad pals who lived on these streets, in the embrace of the San Diego sun. Because of him, the city will remain for me a city of friends waiting to be met.

My cab arrived, and the guy with the stains told me to take care, and said good luck. And I said the same to him. 

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