Life As a John Irving Character

I grew up reading massive volumes of books. We moved around frequently and I rarely got connected to the libraries outside of the elementary school ones, with their age-specific selection, but Ma was also an avid reader and often had books on hand that I would read after she’d finished, before giving them back to the lender. My two all-time favorite “childhood” books were written by John Irving: The World According to Garp, and The Hotel New Hampshire. I read both of them repeatedly, and the openness of other sexualities in both had a profound effect on my own self-recognition and my ability to come out at the age of thirteen. Reading books like these very likely shaped my outlook on life in general, since I began the infatuation before I was ten years old. The oddities of the experiences therein are portrayed with an amusing perspective, and I think the point of view rubbed off on me in terms of how I perceive the world around me. It reflects in my observation of happenings around me as well as my subsequent storytelling. It’s something I’ve been reflecting on frequently, of late.

Especially after the adventure of taking Ma back home to Guerneville after a flood evacuation. A week prior I went to pick up Ma up in Guerneville at her home, to evacuate her from the flood zone and bring her to our home in San Francisco til it passed. I drove up in the height of the storm, and when we retreated we found ourselves driving out River Road as water crested the road in Forestville. For me, it was a thrill. She had been here with us in San Francisco for five days, only two weekends prior, for Christmas. And the following weekend, we’d hosted Tony’s family for New Year’s. This flood evacuation was the third and fourth consecutive weekend of hosting family.

On a very sad note, Ma had to have her cat put to sleep two days before evacuating her, and I’m glad she got to be here for some company. On the drive northward to return her to home, she remembered she had told the vet that she would be picking up her cat’s ashes that previous week she’d been at my house, and wanted to call him to make new arrangements. She didn’t have his name or number on hands, but she could remember was that the vet was both a veterinarian and dentist in Occidental (a very small town in western Sonoma County) and operated out of a caboose in the woods. I looked up the only vet in Occidental and we called, but of course it wasn’t them. I explained the situation and the receptionist wasn’t familiar with this vet, after 30 years herself working at the only vet office in the town, but she said she’d ask the doctor. Came back a minute later with “Oh! She knows him. Retired guy up in the hills. Here’s his name and number.” I called him and we chatted and he asked when she wanted to pick up the ashes, and Ma thought early next week would work (with her caregiver who brought her to the vet in the first place). He said he was in and out all the time, so he would go out right now and leave the ashes in a bag in the dog crate on the caboose steps, and she could pick them up any time. Ma seemed happy with that.

Ma knew she’d be wanting a meaningful container for her cat’s ashes, and we stopped by an antique mall along the way to look around. The narrow, twisting aisles lined with expensive and breakable items piled high and close were difficult to navigate with Ma’s cane and prerequisite travel mug of cold coffee in hand, but we broke nothing in the end. We ultimately passed on buying anything, not knowing what exactly to expect in terms of volume for the ashes.

A few miles down the road I decided we should just go pick them up. I know I would rather have my pet’s ashes now, if it were me, and I could get them. I hadn’t gotten the guy’s address because I wasn’t planning to go when we spoke, so we went into Occidental and found the vet office. I asked if they knew where he was, and they didn’t. But, they gave me his last name and I was able to Google him. Off we went.

My excitement was a little too inappropriately evident when we passed Western Hills Botanic Garden, which I’ve always wanted to visit. I didn’t drag Ma in, of course. Not today. My excitement continued when I found the guy’s address shared a fence with the back of the Garden. Anyway…

The property is eclectic. There’s a meadow with a mannequin sitting in a chair. And a pasture that was planted with mannequin legs. And old toys like rocking horses and rubber duckies placed in trees and on rocks and peeking out of the woods. Then we came to this caboose. It was surrounded with all sorts of toys in the woods all about. The guy wasn’t there, and the only thing in the dog kennel was bags of medications for other animals. I wasn’t terribly surprised, because we’d only called an hour before, and had indicated it would be days before she arrived for them.

We were going to leave disappointed, but I decided to walk up the road farther. I mean, his address was the only one on this drive, and I knew he was a retired vet who worked from his own property, so there would likely be another building. Around some trees I came across this massive, massive Georgian mansion. But with old toys strewn about. And broken statues, and fading Christmas lawn decor. All tucked into redwoods. As I mounted the steps, I could see through the big glass French doors in front and right out the other side of the house. The whole thing was three stories high and only maybe 12 feet deep. I knocked.

Music somewhere upstairs turned off, and a minute later the retiree came stolidly towards the door in his disheveled grey hair and beard, muck boots, bath robe, and puffy vest. I introduced myself and complimented the house and property (with utmost sincerity, because it was fucking awesome). He said he’d modeled the place after an historic mansion in Santa Rosa, and that the other side was a mirror image. Pointing at a paper Safeway bag of black bits and pieces, he said he hadn’t completely processed her yet because of the weather, and needed a few minutes. The heavy storms had put out his crematory; he’d completed the cremation, but the pieces were wet still and he hadn’t crushed them up yet. He said he’d bring them to the caboose in a few.

I grew up with Ma working at the mortuary in Willits, and had watched a cremation from start to finish, so there was nothing morbid to me/us about him needing to still crush up the bones. I wasn’t expecting to see him dump them out on a stone right then and there, and take a pestle to them. (The mortuary in Willits used a good ol’ kitchen counter-top meat grinder. The manual kind.) I headed back to the caboose.

Back at the truck, surrounded by rubber duckies and rocking horses, we waited for Ma’s cat’s ashes. The wait lasted long enough that I started wandering around, snapping photos of the scenery. I had to go take a wiz in the woods, and when I finished Ma wanted to as well. Her balance is off, so I had to brace her feet under mine and hold her hands so that she could lean back with her ass pointing out and do the deed. It was a typical mother-son bonding moment, by anybody’s standards.

Eventually we heard his muck boots crunching along the drive from behind the trees, and he rounded the corner with a styrofoam shipping container. He walked up and casually talked about the wet ashes, and opened the box to show us inside. The ashes were loose in the container, and he stuck his hand in to show us they were wet, as if his fingers were a toothpick testing a cake, and explain that we’d want to open the container and leave it to dry for a few days before transferring to a decorative box or urn.

On the slow and winding exit from the caboose, and Occidental in general, Ma hugged the styrofoam box in her lap and rested her head on it, and cried. I took the trip slow and gentle, pulling aside to let cars pass, so that she could have this reunion time. Along the way I had to stop by her pharmacy to pick up some pills, and to drop off Christmas cards for her favorite cashier and for the store at large. At the post office, I took the opportunity to sift out anything I thought could lead to her making catalog purchases, and dropped off another card, for the post office itself.

We had not found a container for the cat’s ashes along our trip, but Ma had a music box she knew would fit the bill for size. Incidentally, it plays a classic lullaby. The ashes were too wet for it, of course, so I transferred them to a dry saucer to air out better than in the box. They were largely clumped into the corners of the styrofoam container’s interior and needed to be dislodged, so I used my fingers to scrape out the gritty ashes. It’s not unlike sharp shell-laden beach sand, mixed with cigarette ash. I scratched out every bit I could, leaving a charcoal grey flood line inside the box, and set the bowl in the window, on the settee that was the cat’s favorite sunning spot, where the ashes could dry sufficiently to enclose for the year that Ma plans to keep them before scattering. Once dry, she would pour them into a zipper baggie and put them in the music box with the collar and tags.

At the sink, I nonchalantly picked bits of cat out from under my nails while we made smalltalk to avoid emotion. Parting after dropping her off is always an emotional one with lots of goodbyes and ILoveYous, with an intensity as if we may not meet again. Her cat had been the one draw to returning home, to an apartment and a town that she either loved or hated depending on the latest hour’s events. With the cat now gone, the ride home had been a quiet one on my part, fearing an emotional breakdown I would need to quell. It never came.I fixed the breaks on her walker, took out the trash, showed her how easy it was to cook the frozen single-serving dishes she had in the freezer after she mentioned having nothing to eat, and now, with the last bit of cat dislodging from my thumbnail and clinking down the drain before me, I knew the moment of departure was nigh. Ma was more composed now than I was myself at the loss of my own dogs a few years ago, which surprised me more than anything. We said our goodbyes as I gathered my things and put on my jacket, and tried unsuccessfully to pocket a frozen honey-glazed ham she was passing on to me.

In the truck for the beginning of another two hours on the road, I looked at the ham in the passenger’s seat beside me and mused that I should strap it in. I cranked up the heat on my feet and opened the windows – my favorite combination – and put it in gear once again.

On the way home from visiting Ma, I always like to gas up at this cheap station at the north end of Mill Valley around Strawberry Village. For years I could never remember which exit it was, always relying on visual clues, then I paid attention to the fact that it’s southbound Seminary Drive. All of the sudden it clicked for me, from my childhood reading. In Irving’s Hotel, the family is opening a Hotel New Hampshire in a building that was formerly the Thompson Female Seminary, and had such engraved in the stone facade over the entrance. Stonemasons are in the process of carving out the old name so that the new one can be carved in its place, and stop for the weekend with half the letters gone. What they left was “male Semin”, and that visual stuck with me for life. I would never again forget where the gas station is.

Pulling out on the Seminary exit, that visual in mind, I had a revelation that the stories of my life are like I’m a character in a John Irving novel. It seemed fitting, and spurned my recent self-reflection on the topic. Is my perspective on life based on having read him so young? And how about seeing Woody Allen movies at the drive-in when I was five? My day had been every bit worthy of a novel: I’d found a small-town individual through good ol’ asking-a-local, I’d had a photography spree in a rural garden of fake body parts and derelict toys, I’d balanced my pissing mother (and only the day before I had bathed her, all the while humming to myself the mother-scrubbing song from American Dad), I’d watched bones being ground on a stone amid rubber duckies on the porch of a faux Georgian mansion at the end of a dirt road deep in the woods, I’d dug ground cat out from under my nails… I can certainly see how I could relate that to a John Irving sequence. Or do these things happen to me – do I allow them – because of the fact that I read books like these in my formative years, and normalized the absurd situations that arise in life? Is my outlook based on influence, or is my experience based on influence? I’m sure it’s some of both.

The day had been long, and quite irregular. It was full of absurdities and quirks, emotional highs and lows, comforting and laughing. Yet, as odd as the day was, as “abnormal” as the day’s events had managed to be, nothing felt out of place. There was not a thing unusual about it.

Pop’s Home Turf

After four days of getting to know Pop during a transnational road trip, our intensive “captive audience” journey was nearing its end. Ahead of us lay Calhoun County, Pop’s home turf, in a very minimally populated part of the Florida Panhandle. There are offices in San Francisco that have more employees than the entire county’s 14000 or so people. As I said before, this is what you’d call an “insular community.”

We had seen rolling hills, verdant mountains, flat plains that extended to the horizon all around, forests, swamps and marshes, beaches, the Gulf of Mexico, bayou… Now we were heading into a gently-rolling landscape of pines, moss-dripping oaks fringing grassy meadows, everywhere dotted with marshy pockets of cedars in the low points.

An interesting thing occurred to me while driving the plains and being out in the middle of flat country on a few days prior. I grew up within an hour of the Pacific Ocean, pretty much my whole life. The Pacific is, of course, the biggest single anything on the earth’s surface. When you’re standing on a cliff, gazing out to the west, it’s awe-inspiring. For me being in the plains, though, was a similarly awe-inspiring moment. The vastness. The vastness of it all. Every direction you look ends at a single horizon, all around. Nothing interrupts it. It goes on forever, like the Pacific but in every direction instead of just a 180 view with mountains always behind you. It makes you feel so small, in a way the Pacific oddly doesn’t.

The previous day on the Gulf, I’d had a similar moment of awe. As we neared the gulf, Pop looked at his watch and gunned the accelerator. “Oh, shit, Nnaz, you’ve gotta see this. I think we can make it.” We flew down a remote coastal road, perhaps a mile parallel to the beaches. The road was made of ground oyster shells, like we would do to make a gravel road in places that have access to rock. For Florida, oyster shells are numerous and freely available and make a great stable bed on sand. Pop had explained before how they grade out the road and the ditches (that’s his job, and I got a personal tour of ditches that he had dug along highways), build a layer of oyster shells, and pave on top of that. This road was not paved, though. As we flew along, Pop screeched and cranked hard right, creating a cloud of dust and shells as we then punched it straight towards the water. Pop’s tour guide self continued the tour as we raced up and down an oyster road over the dunes and through the scrub. Off on both sides of the road were where artillery practice used to be held, and where Vietnam vets were trained for beach combat. “That’s not why we’re here, though.”

The gulf leaped into view as we crossed the last dune, wide and sunny and sparkling. Pop rolled to a stop at the head of the beach and we got out. He looked at his watch again. “Perfect! Perfect.” Looking out across the water to the south, way way way on the distant horizon, you could see a tiny dark line stretching from east to west. “It rains here like clockwork, Son. Let’s see, it’s eleven and thirty-four right now. It’ll be raining dogs on us long about eleven and forty seven. Forty six maybe.” I looked out over the water, appreciating the difference from my familiar Pacific: smoother water, smaller waves, expansive views the same, but no cliffs behind me so it felt more like being at a lake.

The dark line on the horizon got thicker and thicker. Within five minutes I could clearly see that it was a solid line of towering white clouds with dark shadows of rain underneath. We stood. A few minutes more, you could hear the rain. The breeze was starting to turn into a mild wind, straight off the water. Moments later you could see the line of disturbance where the rain was hitting the sea, and it was moving fast, right towards us. It only took another minute from that point for it to reach us completely. It was like when you’re playing hide-and-seek, and you haven’t quite hidden well enough. You know you’re going to be found any second, and you start getting goosebumps as you prepare to leap out and startle them before they startle you. The wave of rain swept up the sand and was on us in seconds. We stood there and enjoyed the warm shower for a minute, and got back in the truck in case of lightning. Ahead on the horizon I could see a white line growing, like the dark line had done earlier. Fifteen minutes after it began the storm was over, as abruptly and thoroughly as it had begun. The air was now fresh-smelling, but the humidity of the day was upon us.

Before long, the mesmerizing beauty of our journey would be clouded, like the Gulf’s horizon at 11:34am.

The landscape of Pop’s country was attractive to me, with the sometimes wet, sometimes dry land, alternately open and wooded. We drove briefly through Blountstown, the county seat, and headed up north a bit to the town of Altha so that he could grab his mail. Altha was the nearest post office to his home. Back south about midway between the towns we turned west until hitting a little town called Chason. Calling Chason a town is an exaggeration to the extreme. Two roughly-paved roads intersect. The intersection is framed by four poles, holding a single blinking red light over the center of the intersection on crossing wires, to function as a stop sign. Somebody decided at some point that this was better than just putting actual stop signs at the four corners. One corner had a cinderblock general store that advertized via white plywood signs that they sold mullet (a local fish, amusing me so much that it was the subject of far too many of my photographs of signs on our road trip), liquor, cigarettes, ammo, and food.

That is the town of Chason.

The “liquor and ammo” combo is a funny thing I noticed in the South while driving. Pop explained to me that the religious domination of the region meant many communities ban certain vices within their jurisdictions. All along our drive, we would be out on a rural stretch of highway, and there would be a huge sign above the trees touting “Gas! Guns! Ammo! Fireworks! Cigarettes! Ice-Cold Liquor! Porn!” all on one sign, and as you’d turn the bend there would be this enormous metal warehouse on the shoulder with its own exits and no other businesses around, a one-stop vices shop out of the jurisdiction of any city’s limits. The parking lots were exceptionally large as well, and more packed on a Sunday than any church parking lot in the South.

A few miles west of Chason, we turned up a dirt road and wound our way between a few properties with houses or trailers. One part of the road went straight towards a giant oak, only turning when it got there, only to arc around it and continue on the same straight line as before. Pop’s property is six acres of pine forest on a bit of high ground, and his “hootch,” as he calls his house, is a double-wide nested into a clearing he made. He positioned it smack in the center of his acreage, where he can see nor be seen by nobody. He likes to be left to himself.

Coming up his driveway, I realized I was about to see a different side of him than I’d been seeing the past few days. We were now back in the South – the Deep South – where mentalities are different than, well, the world. Pop made no effort to hide his embrace of local heritage. Along the driveway he was building a colonnade of posts to hold a collection of old lawn jockey lamp. I didn’t know they have a racist implication at the time until retelling stories back home, but it was all the more fitting to learn about that when considering Pop had mentioned they’re considered controversial but he likes them to “keep away the dark.”

Pop’s place was nice, furnished about exactly as you’d expect the inside of a double-wide to look. Clean and orderly, but nothing modern. Oppressively dark forest green carpet throughout. Carpet is not a good thing in humid environments, for reasons that don’t need explanation. Handmade Confederate flag quilt, actual Confederate flags as curtains, antique Confederate flag in a display frame, Confederate flag license plates on his other truck (the “local” truck; the one we had been driving was his new one for driving beyond locally, so he knew the implications of his plates).

Sarah was immediately welcoming and gracious. She reminded me very much of a former roommate from Alameda and San Francisco, a favorite of my past roommates, and I instantly took a liking to her. She proved to be very much like this friend in personality and humor. The first thing she did was whip out a tin and start rolling joints while Pop made a batch of cheese grits that could feed a stable. We smoked and talked, talked and smoked, and there were no leftovers left over. Pop had a couple of mastiffs, being a big fan of the breed. Very sweet pair, father and daughter.

The next day Pop wanted to get an early start to explore his local area with me. We got in the Local Truck and drove cross-country out the back of his property to (yes, really) Back Woods Road. The landscape was rolling with wide dunes of red earth, and his dogs ran along behind us for a mile before turning back. We pulled out onto another country road, one that did not have signs and may well have been a private drive or something. Pop was carrying a beer out the window. A little spot of dust in his rearview mirror soon proved to be the county sheriff, and he put his lights on behind us. Pop said, “Hang on a sec, Son, I’ve gotta talk to this guy.” “Is it the beer?” “No, Son, beer’s not a problem. The law here is specific that you can’t have an open container in the car, so everybody just holds it out the window. I’ll be right back. Don’t get out.” He got out and finished his beer, tossed it into the truck bed, and walked to the front of the truck to wait for the sheriff.

The sheriff looked like Boss Hogg, except for the uniform instead of a white suit. His and Pop’s bellies were in a sumo face-off, Pop’s thumbs looped in his belt loops, the sheriff’s thumbs tucked into his suspenders, both of them rocking on their heels as they talked. After a few minutes the sheriff left, both of them bidding each other goodbye by first name.

“That was [Billyjoebob or something like that, but it was at least three names for sure]. We went to school together. I left in the eighth grade, but he went on another year so’s he could get a good job. Now he’s this power-hungry guy who acts like he owns the place, and he wouldn’t hesitate to put cuffs on you for sneezing.” “What did he want?!” “He saw me with a stranger in the truck.” “What?!” “You. He didn’t recognize you, so he wanted to know who this stranger was in his county, why I was driving a stranger towards the county line. I set him straight. We won’t see the law again while you’re here.” Oh good. Who doesn’t want to hear that? Actually, down there that’s exactly what you want. Exactly.

Free of our tailing sheriff, we turned towards the gorgeous metropolis of Blountstown. The town is tiny (I mentioned in an earlier chapter that it’s about 2500 people), with a main street that looks to me like it was built in the 1950’s, based on the brick architectural style. I could be wrong. The highlight is the town hall, or rather the Old Calhoun County Courthouse (Wiki link). It’s this big, pink sandstone building, probably the biggest building in a hundred mile radius. Blountstown is more or less Goff Central when it comes to my own twig of the Goff Tree that has covered the entire South since the early 1600’s. In the yard of this historic courthouse is a train engine. This train engine is historic. It’s historic because it carried the “worker trains” to the plantations, and passed through Blountstown, right on this bit of tracks that’s still left to hold this engine. This is the Deep South, where not everybody is welcoming of everybody else, and this historic train brought unwelcome people through Calhoun county. Apparently this train, this very engine, would carry the black workers through the white county, and stop here to transfer supplies, and not all of the workers on the train would leave alive if it stopped here. As Pop detailed, one senior Goff in the day, my great grandfather I believe, was locally celebrated for his personal goal of lynching a worker from each passing train. What’s more, he kept trophies of his “success” in the form of a jar containing a finger from each, pickling. If his telling is true, this jar had been proudly on display as a “historic memento” in the entry lobby to said Old Calhoun County Courthouse until the Civil Rights Movement changed things. I have not researched these claims.

I had to shut off emotion at this point. True or not, the sentiment is locally present. It may be more prevalent in just Pop than in the county at large, but I’m led to believe it’s the county. I’m only going by two confirmations, though: Pop’s and Sarah’s, and they may not be the best sources.

We left Blountstown and headed farther afield. Pop showed me the Suwannee River, just because of the song. He took me to other rivers that were favorites of his, one in particular that was so clear you could see the bottom the whole length of it from my vantage point. (No sneaky gators!) We drove to the monument marking the highest elevation in Florida, a whopping 312 feet. He crammed in the rest of what he could think to show me.

On our driving tour, we saw many old plantation mansions, surrounded by grand oaks and immense lawns. It was so gorgeous, seeing these impressive icons of grander days. But then I started thinking about what, exactly, “grander days” means. We read history in school, and so much of it is focused on the perspective of life on a plantation from the owners’ perspectives. These grand houses, with everything you needed at your fingertips, all you had to do is demand it. It was very grand. But taken in perspective, especially with what I was seeing and hearing around me fairly consistently, the grandness appeared to me to be less of a monument to greatness and more of a mausoleum. Despite the impression and upkeep, these magnificent mansions represent an ominous darker side of our history. One that’s not as purely “historical” as I had thought before visiting the area. The “greatness that once was” is an idea of supremacy that’s still tightly clinged-to, celebrated, ingrained in the local psyche. I’m hopeful it can change. It may take several generations still, though, until people like Pop who won’t even stop to pee in certain places because “this is ‘their’ county – we don’t stop here and ‘they’ don’t stop in our county” have been replaced by younger generations with more open minds. Given the insular nature of such a small town in a small county, though, it can take a remarkably long time before inclusiveness reaches there.

At last our trip was coming to an end. One last night at the Hootch, and the next morning (after another vat of cheese grits) we hit the road for the airport. We had a breakdown on the side of the road, that I often suspect was a ploy to avoid having to go to the capital and have an emotional goodbye at the airport. They got me a cab for the final leg of the trip, and I arrived at the airport after the plane had boarded. Being a regional airport (still tripping me out that this was the case for a state capital), they flagged down the plane and held if for me as I was hurried through security. You know how museums often have a big plexiglas case to drop in donations? What stood out at Tallahassee was a similar case, but for people to deposit pocket knives, Bowie knives, guns, etc., before boarding. It was full.

I ran across the tarmac in stocking feet after security, up the steps to the plane, smiled at the two other Orlando-bound passengers who I had held up, and away we went. The rest of the journey home I was an exhausted emotional zombie.

We stayed in frequent contact after the trip, for probably another year, and started planning a reverse trip, with Pop coming to San Francisco to see my own home turf. He said he liked the idea of seeing “the place where all the world’s advances come from. If it starts in Frisco, it spreads to California. If California says it’s right, then soon it’s the country’s law.”

The day came that Pop was supposed to arrive, and I’d planned to get a rental car and take him on a trip around the area up through to Willits. I was poor as heck, though, and all my reservation attempts fell through when I hadn’t left enough on one credit card, assuming they’d accept split payments (they do not). Frustrated and trying to figure out what to do, I arrived back home, dejected, to a phone message from Pop. There was a long tale about a time in the late 70’s when he was supposed to fly out of Tallahassee. The plane was delayed an hour for a mechanical problem, then they finally announced a replacement was on the way. It arrived, everybody boarded, it itself had a mechanical failure, and it crashed. As it went down, he prayed and promised that if he survived this crash he would never fly again. Well, today he was breaking that promise. While waiting for the plane, they announced it was going to be delayed for an hour for a mechanical problem. Then they announced later that a replacement was on the way. He took that as a sign, and went home.

We’ve never had another reunion since then.

Our meeting answered so many questions for me, and at the same time put so many of my own life observations into context. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. It’s interesting to see how many similarities we have, despite a lifetime not shared. We have a similar apathy, in fact, when it comes to staying in contact. Like I’d mentioned with extended family, you know they’re there if you want to reach out. After the vacation no-show, which I get, we talked regularly for some time, then started to drift off. Aunt Tina and Cousin Lisa had mentioned how they saw him very infrequently, that he would pop up out of nowhere and then disappear for years at a time. Aunt Tina had the same to report. Our own relationship soon settled into a similar routine. Calls on birthdays and holidays soon turned into unanswered voice mails. We catch each other by phone maybe once every year and a half or so now. I’ve got his last eight voice mails saved, and listen to them every now and then. They’re my version of the Father’s Day card I sent him when I was ten, that he carries in his truck visor.

I know Pop is there, and that’s enough for me. He’s as there as he ever was. Moreso, in fact. I talk to him frequently, in my own mind. I tell him my stories when I’m writing them. I tell him local histories when I think of them. I give him tours of the land whenever I’m driving around. I tell him everything I can about my own home turf. I wonder if he still does the same for me.

Meeting Pop: Reunion on a Transnational Road Trip

After thirty years’ absence, I was finally off to meet Pop for the first time since my parents’ divorce when I was three years old.

Flying to meet Pop was in itself an experience. He lives in the Florida Panhandle about halfway between Tallahassee and Pensacola. West, in fact, of a line that cuts off a little piece of the Panhandle from the rest of the state and sticks it into the Central Time Zone. It’s the “orphan child” part of Florida, the state that is itself the orphan child of the nation. The road bordering Pop’s property is, I kid you not, Back Woods Road. It’s vigilante justice, self-ruling Deliverance country. But I’ll get to that later…

I took a late flight out of SFO, kidding myself that I would get some sleep on the flight. As if. It’s not like sleep was going to be possible with such a momentous event in the making. The first leg of the journey was to Atlanta, and from there I’d catch a connection to Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital, where Pop would pick me up. The flight was uneventful, if unrestful. Atlanta saw me sitting for two hours (again, a time I was planning to rest, as if) in wait for the connecting flight. When it came time to board, I was amused at the smallness of the plane. I’d only flown on jets prior, except for small twin-engine Cessna flights to scatter cremains over the ocean. This was one of those little planes with a row of single seats on one side of the aisle and a row of pairs of seats on the other. Eighteen in all. It was a small and friendly handful of passengers making the trip that morning, and I quickly found myself in conversation with a woman who worked for the state government and pointed out the landmark highlights of the capital as we descended. As we landed from the short flight, I realized the reason the plane was so small: Florida’s state capital doesn’t have an airport big enough for jets. What’s more, they didn’t even have return flights to Atlanta! The trip home meant catching the (only) morning flight south to Orlando on the same commuter plane, waiting for two hours, then catching a big plane up to Atlanta. It was quite the different experience for me. It was also my first experience with a tarmac airport instead of loading gates, aside from the regional one in Willits. It amused me that there were four “gates” in the airport, all of which were simply side-by-side numbered doors onto the tarmac from a solitary waiting area.

We had exchanged photographs by mail before this reunion, so I knew what to expect when looking for him. It helps that the crowds waiting for a passenger load of five are not vast. As I came in through Gate Whatever, I scanned the wide, low room that reminded me of a 1980’s bank lobby. No sign of him at first, so I started walking towards the main entrance on the other side of the room. Suddenly, I realize that this round thing sticking out from behind a concrete pillar was Pop’s belly, and he was trying not-so-hard to hide behind the column knowing full well that it couldn’t possibly conceal him. The sense of humor I’d gleaned from our phone conversations was alive and well in person. I’d been up for about thirty hours now, but that had no hampering effect on my own amusement. It was hilarious. I ran up to him and threw my arms around him in a strong embrace. He let me have a few seconds of hug before pulling away from a second one because “we don’t do that here.” I could tell he was getting embarrassed and left it.

Our plan as we had discussed it was to go to his “hootch” in Chason, about an hour away, and decide what to do with the week from there. He wanted to give me a tour of his home stomping grounds, an experience I was greatly looking forward to. When we got to the car, though, he popped off with “how about we go have breakfast with your aunt?” It was 11am or thereabouts, and I’d nibbled on the planes and at the airports over the past eleven hours of my journey, but of course I was excited for this moment.

Perhaps half an hour out, we crossed the state line into Alabama, and I realized he wasn’t going where I thought he was. One of his two surviving sisters lived in Brooksville, down near Tampa, which was completely the opposite direction. “Wait, when you said ‘breakfast’ you didn’t mean with Aunt Judy, did you?” He looked at me. “Naw, I thought this week would be a great opportunity for you to meet both your aunts. We’re heading up for breakfast with Tina.” In Michigan. And so it was that we immediately embarked on a transnational road trip, from the southernmost state to one bordering Canada.

The trip was a long and flat one, up I65 through Birmingham, Montgomery, Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis. Then I69 up to the palm of Michigan. We rode and talked, talked and rode. One of the most touching moments for me was when Pop reached up to his truck’s visor and produced the Father’s Day card that I had sent him almost twenty-five years prior, when we had briefly been in contact. I had mailed it after our single phone call, and had never heard back again. At the time, I was fatherless and used to it, so while there was a bit of disappointment over that being the end of our communication it didn’t bother me as much as it could have. Back to status quo, in other words. The fact that he had saved the card and carried it with him everywhere welled up a new set of emotions for me. I had not expected him to exhibit that sort of sentiment.

Growing up without a consistent father figure in my life, the prospect of meeting Pop for the first time was exciting but at the same time had left me so unsure of what to expect. I had no point of reference for interacting with him or anyone as my father. This intensive close-quarters road trip was a great way to break the ice and really get to know each other. I was still emotionally drained, though, both from this experience and from Adam’s suicide less than two month earlier. And tired. So tired, from emotion and from the long journey. We must have eaten at some point during the day, but I don’t remember what or where.

Along the way I learned more about family. I learned more about Pop’s immediate family and my own direct relatives. I learned more about his wife and their lives, his work as a ditch and road grader for the Florida transportation district, what his childhood was like growing up. We talked lengthily about my own childhood and Ma. Eye-opening to me was to hear stories of his and Ma’s relationships – the exact stories I had heard growing up, but from a different perspective. Ma’s description of him is as a womanizing, angry, redneck asshole – labels to which he readily owns up, but hearing the stories from his side enlightened me to a different way of understanding than what I had grown up “knowing.” Ma’s telling of their separation, for example, was how Pop was always angry and screaming, and that she’d finally had enough when he shot her with a rubber band from across the room, they’d argued, and he threw his wedding ring at her and left. His parting words being, “you keep the kid, I’ll take the dog.” Hearing a different frame of reference from Pop, his remembrance of the event is actually identical but it’s the emotions and personal experience that change the telling. It was the early 1970’s, and the cultural hippie vibe of “free love” abounded. Pop was brought up with the belief that marriage is sacred and forever and that you don’t commit adultery. Ma, on the other hand, was a hippie. She wanted free love. She got free love. Pop didn’t like that, and they argued about it constantly. He was losing weight from the stress and had decided that if he ever lost enough weight that his wedding ring wouldn’t stay on, that would be the cue to call it quits. He loved to shoot rubber bands, almost unconsciously. If they were in his hand, he was playing with them, snapping them, shooting them. That fateful day, he’d shot one at Ma, and she didn’t like it. A screaming match soon commenced and moved out to the front yard. Pop was yelling and gesticulating wildly, and suddenly his ring launched off his thin finger and over Ma’s head. For him, it was now. He feels very strongly that a child shouldn’t be taken from his mother, and he had no intention of fighting her over me, despite (or maybe because of) her own mental instabilities. “You keep the kid, I’ll take the dog.” And he left. Same/same, right? Knowing full well that Ma as I remember her from my childhood was exactly how Pop described her, I could suddenly empathize with both of them. They simply weren’t right for each other, and I don’t think any less of either of them.

My name was also a subject for which he was able to offer me new insight. “Zann Cannon Goff” is pretty unusual. Unusual enough, in fact, that I went through a period of hating it when I was in middle school. I didn’t want to have a “weird hippie name” and decided I was going to change it. Ma said I could do whatever I want when I’m 18, but she wasn’t about to do the legal paperwork to change it for me while I was underage. I certainly had no feeling of connection to the Goff part of my name, but that wasn’t the driving force behind the desire to change. It was the Zann part. My chosen alternative name, so that people wouldn’t make fun of me anymore, was Gandalf. Just the one name. I practiced signing it over and over again in the inside covers of Ma’s books.

Zann, as Ma tells it, was the name of a guy my parents had met at a concert. About a year or two after Woodstock was a weeklong concert that was proted as “the next Woodstock”, though the Goose Lake Concert did not live up to expectations. Pop and Ma were there, camping out for the week with everybody else. Ma was seven months pregnant with me at the time, and the leading contenders for my name were Tom Jr. or Dallas if I came out a boy, and Kelsey Richelle if a girl (named for Ma’s childhood pet cow that she used to ride around the farm, until her parents served Kelseyburgers one night without telling her, instantaneously spawning her vegetarianism). At this Goose Lake event, being 1970, free love and free drugs abounded. Ma participated in a peyote-induced orgy, favoring this hippie flowerchild guy named Xan, who explained that the generations of males in his family were always named Alexander, and Xan was his diminutive for the name. Ma liked him, liked the name, and decided I would be Xan whether a boy or a girl. She spelled it Zann because the “nn” fits visually with the “ff” in my last name, and Pop had chosen “Cannon” because it looked and sounded good. Pop’s telling confirmed the story (and added to my understanding of his role as unwilling cuckold), except that he had deeper insight into his choice for my middle name: he felt “Zann” was too androgynous, so he gave me “Cannon” to give me strength.

We drove straight through the night (my second night awake), and arrived in Tina’s town at 7am after a continuous nineteen-hour drive. Both very tired now, we rolled into a rest stop to sponge-bathe in the sinks and clean ourselves up for breakfast before meeting up at a Denny’s-esque restaurant. Aunt Tina was there with her daughter – my cousin – of my own age. Tina had last seen me as an infant, but Lisa and I had never met. Sitting all together, the women tapped into subjects that Pop and I had not: Adam, being gay, and newly becoming a widower. I’ve always – my whole life – been more comfortable around women, especially in conversation. I don’t know “guy” conversation very well at all. Pop noted immediately after breakfast that he was glad to see me relax and open up at last, and for the rest of the trip we had much more openness and a closer connection because of it.

Breakfast in Michigan was necessarily short because of Tina having to work at 9 and Lisa having to head to school, but we got the most out of it. In fact, we’ve all been much closer and regularly interact with each other through social media. Getting back into the truck, Pop said, “so, are you ready for lunch with your other aunt?” Of course I knew by now that the only other aunt is in central Florida, and that couldn’t possibly mean that he was talking about lunch the same day. So, off we went, on our (again) overnight drive back to Florida.

We took a different route south than we had north. Columbus, Cincinnati, Lexington. Night was approaching as we reached Nashville, Tennessee, and there was a storm of extreme power that was further darkening the sky. Rain began falling, pouring, and intensified quickly to the point that we couldn’t see the windshield wipers on our truck. Seriously. Pop, well-seasoned on highway safety and precautions, pulled off the pavement in favor of driving along the shoulder until we could feel a paved exit under the tires, and we found our way to a motel for my first night of sleep in roughly sixty hours.

Morning was a bright new day, cloudless and clear even after the remarkable rain from the previous evening. We went to a local dig called Kountry Kitchen Kafe. Personally, I was horrified at the name and its abhorrent initials. In commenting on it to Pop, his response was, “it’s the South, Son. What did you expect?” I guess I expected a lot more similarity to the mindset I’d grown up with. I expected what I expect from the rest of the country. That underscores the trouble with expectations.

The restaurant was at the base of it like any familiar fast food joint, but with very Southern food. Things I hadn’t really thought of as fast food. Grits. Collards. I was telling Pop that I wanted to try grits because I’d never had them before. An audible gasp eminated from the kitchen. “What’s that I hear? Did I just hear you say you ain’t never had grits?!” “No ma’am, I have not.” “Collards?” “No ma’am.”

By now, the whole kitchen staff – I kid you not – had emerged from the back to marvel at this creature that had not eaten “real food” before. Pop explained that I was raised in California, and they all suddenly acted like I was some sort of freak of nature. The staff – all of them – were so jovial and welcoming and encouraging me to try everything. The apparent woman-in-charge was a round and jovial lady with the look, speech, and mannerisms of Butterfly McQueen in her role as Prissy. I wanted to curl up and let her nurture me with spoonsful of butter-laden grits until I fell asleep on her bosom. You wanted her to be your mom. Half an hour later, I was stuffed to capacity on Southern food that wasn’t even on the menu, after the staff’s insistence on cooking regional dishes for me that the restaurant didn’t even offer. It was a special and phenomenal breakfast.

That began the new food culture part of my trip.

Yet again in the truck, our sojourn to Tampa resumed. Having grown up in northern California, I’ve always been partial to oak woodlands, redwood forests, and steep mountains. Any landscape outside of that was not only unfamiliar, but actually unattractive to me. Kentucky and Tennesse changed my opinion in a single day. I have never seen such gorgeous landscape as I did asending out of Chattanooga an hour later. The (as-yet-to-develop) geology nerd in me was fascinated at the granites and limestones, and the different flora and topography. Continuing southward we passed through Atlanta (with my geology fascination now abated), ironically only 24 hours after I’d been sitting in that very airport while awaiting my flight to Tallahassee.

We reached Brooksville in time for an early afternoon lunch. This was a whole different scene from breakfast the day before. A much different social and physical landscape than the previous morning in Michigan. Lots of rundown houses, lots of musty damp mildew smell permeating from everything. Dogs on chains that were staked to the ground at the center of dirt circles worn bare from a lifetime spent confined to a sixteen-foot radius. This was not city life, or even suburban or Midwestern life. Interestingly, my maternal grandmother had spent her last years in this very town, mere blocks from my aunt, without either being aware of each other. Both sides of my parents’ families are split between the Tampa area and the Kalamazoo area, independently and quite coincidentally.

In any case, we didn’t eat from the few offerings. Given the foods I did eat while on this trip, there’s something to be said about the lack of appetite at this moment. More than just because of the fact of having eaten breakfast, which was hours past already. The feel of the house and cohabitants (I think some were cousins, others were not, but I lost track in the many introductions) was like something out of a John Waters movie. An early one. One with Edith Massey. At the time I was a little unsure of myself there, but in hindsight it was certainly an amusing and memorable experience.

Aunt Judy, et al., were exceptionally hospitable, Southernly hospitable, and we pored over photo albums for a couple of hours, delighting me with copies of photos I had known from childhood but that had been lost to me, and talking about the ubiquitous family tree. Before too long we had to leave the family to their Egg Lady. Pop wanted to make the trip back to his place more scenic than necessary so that we could continue to have our one-on-one time together, and since it was getting late in the afternoon we decided to put up for the night in town and get an early start with the daylight. We got a big double room in a recently-constructed roadside motel that felt really out of place given the complete lack of anything on the horizon that would make you think a motel would be relevant here, with a parking lot full of cars bearing anti-abortion bumper stickers that called for the death of anyone who isn’t pro life, and warning signs about gators posted around the marshy perimeter. We went into town to get some drinks and shoot pool at a dive bar he favored when he visited Aunt Judy. Pop was concerned that I might stand out in the crowd there, or perhaps it was his own struggle with internalized homophobia creating an unnecessary fear for me, but his fatherly instinct was to scram, so we left after one drink without playing pool. I hadn’t felt any discomfort myself, aside from that spawned by Pop’s own discomfort.

Pop really wanted to do something special for me. He tried to talk me into going in halves on an eightball of coke and then we could go to the truck stop and “break me in with a lot lizard.” “Lot lizard? What’s that?” It’s real. It’s a thing. Truckers are, by nature of their jobs, frequently lonely creatures with no home life for a sexual outlet. The women who make a living from others’ loneliness are apparently known as “lot lizards” among the trucker community if they frequent truck stop parking lots. Pop says it’s because, like lizards, they appear from nowhere, popping up from behind rocks when you shine a light into the shadows. Vivid mental picture, no?

We did not get an eightball. I did not get broken in by a lot lizard.

The next morning found us packing up the truck and heading gulfside. Pop was born in Port St. Joseph (“P-Joe” or “Port Joe” locally), south of the Apalachicola (“The Apalach”) National Forest, and he wanted to show me all around his childhood territory before heading back up through The Apalach towards Blountstown (“B-town”). B-town is the largest town, and county seat, of Calhoun County. The largest town, with a population of about 2500. What you’d call an “insular community.”

One of the most charming little towns we visited was a place called Carabelle, sandwiched between the Gulf and a portion of The Apalach known as Tate’s Hell. Just a cute little hamlet. Even the police department was cute: it’s a phone booth. Just an actual phone booth, painted with signage to point out its distinction as the “World’s Smallest Police Station.” When local residents call the police, it rings the payphone. If they’re lucky, the solitary cop car will happen to be parked there if they call.

After our twelve-second tour of downtown Carabelle, Pop started heading down a residential street, saying he wanted to show me something. We went to a tiny little cemetery, overgrown and dripping with Spanish moss. Pop opened the rusty wrought iron gate and kicked around the weeds for a minute until he found what he was looking for. A small headstone, simply engraved with “Baby Girl” and a date. Like Ma’s family and many at the time, infant mortality was much higher back then. Pop is one of five siblings, though I did not know there had been a sixth. The first, Baby Girl, succumbed to scarlet fever before she was Christened with a name. Pop knelt and wept openly for several minutes, for the older sister who never had a sibling. Wept for the pain it caused his parents.

We somberly left the cemetery, and pop said, “hey, Nnaz” (his nickname for me) “let’s go check out one more thing. Walking down the street, Pop told me how his own dad had grown up in a cottage on a barrier island just off Carabelle. Sometime in the 19-teens or twenties, a notable hurricane wiped out the island and Pop’s grandparents rebuilt in Carabelle. Up the street should be the house that Grandpop had grown up in, where he lived when Baby Girl met her fate. The house was there – a corner lot with a low chain link fence. It was a simple little cottage, what you’d call a Shotgun Cottage because the front and back doors open at the ends of the central hallway, with no interruption, and you could shoot a shotgun straight through. Do you suppose they call them that because somebody tested the theory? Regardless, it was two bedrooms on one side and a living room and kitchen on the other. Cute little thing, and it looked like it was still being maintained. After a lenthy story of the building of the house and the rundown of everybody who had ever lived in it, Pop tailed-off the story with the last he knew of it, when his dad had died a few years earlier. He thought it was likely still in the family, unless the good-for-nothing heir had sold it.

A curtain moved, so Pop decided to take a chance and knock. The door opened with a chain across it, and a timid older woman peered through. “What can I help you with?” Pop introduced us and briefly explained that his dad had built and grown up in this house and he wanted to show it to his son visiting from California. She was visibly skeptical, and asked more probing questions, which Pop later explained to me were a coy deception to mislead his story and see if he caught it. She asked if his dad (real name) stayed in contact with this brother (fake name), and that sort of thing. Pop caught on and went into Full Southern Mode with the family tree thing. He named the generations from the time the house was built, the relations to other local families, the intermarriages that led to this and that, who was whose cousin, and that there was this side of the cousin connection he was unclear on, etc. She was convinced and swung the door open graciously, introducing herself as Vivian, the cousin that fills Pop’s missing connection in the family tree, and our day suddenly took a new turn.

Vivian made sweet tea for us. My first sweet tea, and I immediately understood its appeal in this oppressively humid climate. Then we settled to the living room (after a brief tour of the house, showing us the couple of modifications she had made), and out came the photo albums. She and Pop went crazy going through them, recognizing family members and explaining to each other how they were related, filling in whole new branches of each others’ knowledge. Vivian reached the end of the last album and turned the final page, pulling out two loose photographs that were tucked in, almost as an afterthought. “These have been sitting in this album like this for near on thirty five years, I recon. Nobody in the family has ever been able to figure out who they are, but we know they’re family because they’re in the family album, so we’ve all just held onto them all these years.” She flipped one over to read the timestamp on the back. “Says here October seventeenth, nineteen hundred and seventy.” Facing me across the pitcher of tea was my very own baby photo, one of me fresh from the oven with the umbilical cord still attached. The other photo was Ma holding me in the hospital bed, the first-cradling photo. I was unexpectedly able to connect a new branch for Vivian. We left her my address to mail copies, but I’ve never received them. That’s fine. I know where they are, and like the extended family itself you just let it be and know it’s there if you ever want to track it down.

Our day had been very fulfilling after the four or five hours we spent in Vivian’s gracious and impromptu company. The food adventures continued when Pop was talking about how good the oysters are along the Gulf, and I mentioned I’d never had those, either. No! We went straight off to a seafood restaurant that’s locally renowned for its oysters. It was one of those places where people travel for miles to get to this dive in the middle of nowhere, because it’s the place for oysters. It’s one of those classy places where the men’s room has a condom dispenser filled with French ticklers. I bought one as a fifty-cent souvenir.

It was quite pretty, the restaurant, sitting at the mouth of Apalachicola Bay. Our waitress was young, probably recently out of high school, and reminded me of girls during my high school years in Willits in the late 1980’s, right down to the acid-washed jeans and extreme hair feathering. Pop told her we wanted to get somma them there ersters they’re so famous for, and mentioned I’d never had them before. “You ain’t never had ersters before?!” “Nope.” (Pop,) “He’s visiting from California…” “Oh! You’re from Californ?! I ain’t never been to Californ before! I’s born here in Apalach, I ain’t never been anywhere outside a here.” And off she went to bring ersters, her exceptionally thin acid washed self whisping through the cigarette smoke to the kitchen.

I was not terribly adventurous. I had one. One oyster. And it was deep fried, so quite tolerable, but not enticing enough to make me want a second. I liked the beer-battered fried gator nuggets better.

One of the other local food favorites that worked great for me was peanuts. I swear, everywhere you go in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida… Peanuts. Roadside stands, even gas stations, would have giant cast iron cauldrons where they were boiling fresh peanuts. My favorite was a stand in Alabama called ‘Bama Nut, but I have a juvenile sense of humor so that’s probably why I liked it best. You gotta get ’em hot, and pop ’em out of the shell like edamame. (You know you’re from California when edamame is a better point of reference than boiled peanuts.) The best ones put a bit of cayenne in the boiling saltwater. Pop enthusiastically wanted me to try boiling peanuts myself back at home, so he mailed one of those yellow padded envelopes to me, filled with fresh peanuts loose in the pouch. When I returned home it was several days before I could get to the post office to pick up the package. The post office reeked when I walked into it. The whole place. The guy brings me this damp, moldy yellow envelope that is quite obviously the source of the entire building’s stench.

I did not boil peanuts back at home.

Our tour of the region continues with a drive through Tate’s Hell, with a detailed story of how it earned it’s name. Something about a guy lost in the forest for years, or something. It’s easy to find on Wikipedia if you’re curious. The road through The Apalach was long and straight. Exceptionally wide, too, as it’s one of the hurricane escape routes. It’s weird to be someplace so rural, so remote, surrounded by dense forest, and here you are driving along, a solitary car on a ten lane highway. We passed through the entirety of Hell without seeing another soul.

Coming to the north end of the forested area, we passed an enticing sign for a restaurant. In the dense, close darkness of the woods, a dirt road led off into the shadows. Nailed to a cypress at the marshy edge of the road was a cardboard sign with a single hand-painted word: “food →.”

We didn’t stop there. Instead, we ate at a greasy corner deli/gas station that Pop favored, perhaps because it was called Goff’s, and it was on Goff Street, but more likely because of all the fried things. This tiny town whose name I forget was hot and sunny, and it appeared the attempt to pave it had been a single try many many years earlier. The deli counter was huge, with many offerings that, frankly, scared me. No cotto salame here. No salami of any sort. Just varying themes of grease and body parts, but mostly grease. Squirrel and ‘possum and raccoon were options. Pop got a quart size styrofoam vat (quart was the “small” option) of pepper-pickled chicken hearts, and a quart of fried ones. I found seeming safety in the broccoli and cheese, and got my own styrofoam quart of that. When I popped the lid in the truck, things had settled. I poured the oil off the top, which reduced the volume by about a third, then did my best to pick out the bites I thought I might tolerate.

The now four-day road trip portion of our reunion was nearing a close. After days of driving through, seeing, and eating in eight different states, we were finally approaching Pop’s county. At last, I’d get to see his property and meet his wife. There were three more days of visiting to go, and still so much more to look forward to!

 

Embracing Pop

One day in late 2003, I came home to a phone message. The voice on the other end had that familiar slow, deliberate Southern drawl that I immediately recognized from a single phone call over twenty years prior. “Ahm loookin’ fowah Zayan Caaayannon Gaowf. Ah think this heyah is heyis nuumba. Ahm his daayad.”

After a lifetime of having virtually no contact with Pop, having a message from him out of the blue one day was the last thing I would’ve expected. Pop’s voice was immediately recognizable to me. I had heard it only once before that I could remember, over twenty years prior, but it was distinctive and memorable. A little more gravelly and less genteel than the “high Southern” of, say, Charleston, but not too dissimilar to my own ear. I knew Pop likely lived somewhere in the Florida Panhandle. It’s where he was born and raised, and had lived the last time I’d spoken to him when I was ten, and indeed he did still live there. More or less in his hometown, in fact.

 

Pop and Me in 1971.

Pop and Me in 1971. I remember those clothes as my favorite outfit back then. This would have been around the last time I’d seen him.

I was with Adam at the time, and he was skeptical of the message. You hear things all the time about people pretending to be someone’s long lost relative in order to get something from them. Or, actually being that relative, and still just wanting something. Adam preached caution, but I had nothing to give or lose. Besides, I knew that voice, and was optimistic about starting up a conversation after so many years. I decided to embrace the opportunity presenting itself, to embrace the fact he was reaching out.

I had put some significant effort into internal processing over having grown up with no father, and was more than ready to connect. After a bit of preliminary searching and trying to find him through the Internet a couple of years prior to that, I’d soon discovered Goff is almost like Jones in that part of the country; it’s a well-established name that’s been prevalent there since the mid-1600’s. Trying to track down a Goff, in that region, with a first name as common as his was, well, futile. I knew my paternal grandparents’ names, so I put out feelers on message boards and a genealogy site, and left it at that. I never had any response to my inquiries on what was a very active message board, but it turns out that board had nothing to do with him finding me anyway.

Pop had unspecifically put his sister to the task, around the same time I was looking for him. Tina lived in Michigan, and worked for the state’s university. As Pop put it, “she has that there computer net in her humble abode.” She’s the same aunt who had been able to get a message from Ma to him when we were looking for him so many years earlier, and now she was able to reunite us once again. Pop and Aunt Tina had a discussion one day about trying to find me and seeing what had become of me. She told him that there were many websites out there that helped to find people, and all it took was wanting to look. Perhaps paying for a formal search. That was food for thought. At least he knew it could be done.

Some time went by, and Aunt Tina tried free searches for my name on her own a couple of times, but to no avail. When opening her browser, she would often get pop-up ads. One day, the pop-up was an ad for a site that offered to “find anyone in the US for $20,” and she thought to herself that they were offering a very cheap service compared to the others, and bookmarked the site. Later, she went to lunch, and when she came back she again opened her browser. The ad that popped up asked her, “Looking for commercial real estate in Houston? Visit zann.com.” She knew it was time. She went back to that earlier site and paid the twenty bucks. Zann Cannon Goff came up right away, with an address in San Francisco. She called Pop and told him what she’d done, and gave him the info.

He sat on it for another half a year. He knew where I was, ostensibly, and could now find me more easily. One day he finally decided to check it out, and called 411. The interesting thing is that I had always had my phone number unlisted. Adam and I had just moved into a new apartment after close to a decade in the previous one, and I had forgotten to request an unlisted number. So, there I was. In San Francisco, and listed. Pop finally had my number. And I came home to that message…

Over the following months, we talked on the phone almost constantly, catching up on a lifetime of missed conversations. We’d ramble for sometimes several hours at a stretch, at least once or twice a week. There was so much to learn and share! So much family history I had never known! I loved getting to know more about him. I’d been a Peer Counselor all through high school, and had learned listening skills to get to the root of what people are saying, to understand motives and backgrounds behind statements. On the surface, Pop was exactly what Ma had said he was: a hot-tempered womanizing misogynistic racist gun-toting Southern redneck asshole. A perfect case-in-point is that he told me how “his heart sank when [he] learned [I] was living in Frisco” and he new “what that meant.” I went off on him a bit that just because somebody lives in San Francisco doesn’t automatically mean they’re gay, for Pete’s sake. Then I affirmed to him that I am gay. I was able to dig a little deeper, though, and see that in many ways he was self-consciously – almost resignedly – reflecting the contextual culture of his upbringing and current home town, despite having experienced some of the world beyond it through the Army. He knew his manner was politically incorrect in the world at large, but that he was falling back on familiarity of behavior. On many occasions he acknowledged the irony of recognizing what he knows is the “evolved” world view but still displaying the vulgar unenlightened thoughts with his peers, thus perpetuating the behavior. My favorite quote of his, in fact: “People say we’re all backwards down here in the South. Like we don’t know what’s right from wrong. We’re just like everybody else, though. We know the world is round… Just like a nickel.” With serious conversation I could elicit that there was a decent person buried in there, and could embrace the fact that we were different but still meaningful to each other. I could embrace our differences and accept Pop for who he was, just as he could embrace me the same.

“We know the world is round… Just like a nickel.”

Discussing family history is a very Southern thing. I mean, it’s a very many-places thing, but in the South learning about your lineage is uniquely cultivated in a way that demands reverence for its cultural significance. Perhaps insists upon reverence is more accurate. Knowing who was married, from what family, to which ancestor, in which year and church, and what scandalous stories need to be passed along so that they can continue to be whispered about for another six generations are of the utmost significance in daily life, in my observations. “So-and-so was going to marry this one guy, but he was left handed,” the last two words emphasized with a you-know-what-that-means gaze that you can actually hear over the phone. Ma’s side of the family, on the other hand, had a completely different take. The Gaulin family are Quebecois, though she and her seven siblings who survived infancy were all born in Indiana. Her parents used French only between each other, as their “secret” language when they were arguing with each other. The immigrant culture of the 1940’s was assimilative, favoring a departure from heritage, so many of Ma’s generation were never taught their parents’ native tongue. Ma’s own father had died when she was barely in her teens, so even the dependence on family in agrarian communities was soon to be made irrelevant to her own upbringing as they were no longer able to hold a farm. Me being raised as an only child with a single mother of this background meant the importance of family ties was not strong in my life. We had even left the home region completely in favor of California before I was old enough to connect with family, weakening the ties even further, especially for me being raised without a single family member aside from Ma.

Pop’s phone conversations were quite another thing by comparison. I had lengthy, exhaustive stories and histories told to me. So many that I quickly lost track of how one hour-long regurgitation of lineage was related to the previous hour’s story that had led to this new one in the first place. There are cousins and aunts and uncles galore. There are (more than on Ma’s side) many cousins and aunts and uncles who are related through second and third marriages. Cousins who are blood, but whose siblings from newer marriages are not, but by default they now are, even if there have been subsequent divorces. Cousins who are cousins despite having no actual direct family connect to me aside from being the spawn of my aunt’s ex husband and his other ex wife. I got to learn their histories.

This was a whole new thing for me, and very exciting. Of course, without meeting any of these people (repeatedly) it’s difficult to recall even the slightest detail. Especially considering every family member has a nickname for each other that’s unique from anybody else’s nickname for the same person. When Cousin Billy (who’s really Joe), and Cousin Joe (who’s really Bob), are referring to Uncle Buddy or Uncle TJ, I have to remember that they’re talking about my Pop. When Pop is talking about a cousin and “his Uncle Buddy,” I have to figure out that he, for whatever reason, has transitioned to talking about himself in the third person as he retells a story about one of those cousins I’ve never met.

In those ensuing months of conversations, we knew we were going to have to meet.  It felt so surreal, planning this seemingly as-seen-on-TV reunion with Pop. We talked and formulated plans for me to fly to Florida for a week, starting the Fourth of July weekend in 2004. Plans which almost didn’t come to pass, when in mid-May I came home from work to find Adam had taken his own life that day. My job ensured I was able to keep the planned time off, despite having more than used my accrued allotment, and my coworkers had even taken up an incredibly generous collection to make sure I could still afford the trip. I may not have been entirely ready for the trip, emotionally speaking after the recent events, but I was glad to be able to keep to the plans and embrace a new venture in my life, another new turning point.

And so it came to be that, six weeks after that life-changing event, I finally set foot in Florida to meet Pop for the first time, on his home turf…

 

Denver Ghost Story

I remember living in many different places in Denver as a young child, but not exactly which memory flash fits in where when it comes to sequence. I do recall the last two very clearly, though. Both were distinctive, thanks to events relating to felony, police, hidden basement nooks, a zucchini, and a ghost.

But we’ll get to that.

I was born in Flint, Michigan in October 1970, and landed in Denver with Ma after my parents’ separation when I was about two years old. I have specific memories in both places, and know my second birthday was in Flint, but I lack clarity on which place was first in the Denver recollections. What I can say for sure, though, is that it was many. Disruptively many. Much like our first year settling in California, after the Greyhound dropped us off in Santa Rosa on August 4, 1976. I remember a surprising lot from those three or so young years.

I remember one place clearly from its kitchen. It was the 1970’s and the place was very new and contemporary. Orange shag, brown paneling with spindle-trimmed cabinets, the whole bit. The kitchen was long and narrow, with a sliding glass door at one end. Dark brick-red glazed tile flooring (you know the ones, with the slightly blackened corners) shone bright and glossy, ricocheting light off the shiny wood panels and through the wide archway into the otherwise dark living room. The living room had its own windows, but light never stood a chance with the bulkiness of the coarse, vertically fine-striped pleated drapes coupled with all the dark paneling. I learned how to tie my shoes in that kitchen, sitting on the scallop-edged bench at the scallop-edged table. And I was pissed that I had to wear arch supports.

That flash – that’s my specific memory of that house.

There was another scene I remember. The house had a straight run from the front door to the bathroom, along a linoleum corridor of sorts, that was open to the right to the living room through a wall that was low and topped with tall spindles. Again with the spindles and the wood paneling. Ma was asleep one morning, and I had woken up and was restless and playing, as any toddler/young child would. Ma had this funky wooden walking stick that always just sat around decoratively, and a heavy earthenware jug that she had found behind some stones in a basement as a child, and they often turned into toys for me. In playing that morning, I decided it would be fun to see if a whole role of toilet paper could fit down the toilet intact. (It does not. Even if you push with both hands and then climb in to stomp on it.) When Ma woke and came sloshing through the living room to see where the water was coming from, she was even more irate when I tried to charge her to access the bathroom through the toll gate I had made across the door by fitting the walking stick into the jug in a way that I could pivot it around.

That flash – that’s my specific memory of that house.

There was a little pink place. It was stucco and 1930’s, early, with a steep pitched roof. Sort of a storybook house, in my memory. We lived in some little cavey part of the house, accessed through the corridor-like laundry room that doubled as my bedroom. I don’t think we lived there long, though, not even compared to the rest in such a short period. Perhaps days, even. Maybe it was the light flickering from the dryer’s pilot, maybe it was bogeymen, but at night there were shadows that moved on the wall, creeping in towards me. They made it very hard for me to go to sleep. I discovered masturbation as a distraction in that cot.

That flash – that’s my specific memory of that house.

One place was a bright 1960’s apartment complex with a huge “natural-style” pool with boulders built into it. We stayed there with Ma’s friend whose son was, by default, my friend. Again for just a few days. I got washed off the step I was sitting on in the pool by the turbulence from herds of kids doing cannonballs, and started to go under. Someone grabbed me and pulled me out. I cried, I peed.

That flash…

There was a dome high in the mountains. We were there a couple of weeks perhaps with some friends of Ma’s, and their two sons my age and a year younger. It was cold and snowing, and I loved the shape of the house, warming by a pod fireplace that hung from the ceiling, sleeping in bunk beds, and fascinating over the pattern of connected triangles-within-triangles. In the bunks one night, I tried to teach the other boys about masturbation. The boy my age caught on to the trick. The younger brother thought it was weird and wanted to tell his parents on us, but we begged him out of it.

That flash…

Way out in the country somewhere was a white Victorian-style farmhouse that had been covered in asbestos tiling. It was on a huge, sunny, sloping clearing, with pockets of woods all around, and no neighbors in sight along the dirt road. There were others living in the house, too, so Ma and I shared a room with her boyfriend at the time, with me on a pallet of blankets on the floor. The slope of the land allowed for an above-ground basement that was reached from behind the house. The basement was very poorly sealed, with wide gaps between the white planks, big enough for me to stick my fingers through. One of the ladies living in the house told me to watch out for the bogeyman grabbing my fingers, and I ran screaming and never approaced the basement again.

What is it with kids and persistent bogeymen?

That same country farmhouse an outhouse with spiders. I still get freaked out by spiders (but I cup them and bring them to a plant outside when I cross one in the house. I just squeal loudly while doing it.) There was no plumbing in a house that was so remotely situated, aside from a hand pump in the kitchen. It was the first place we lived that was free from the bounds of modern conveniences like light and glorious push-button heat and being able to bathe when you feel like it in warm water without grit in it and being able to poop without having to get dressed and put on shoes and grab a roll of toilet paper because the one outside is going to be damp and icky and have spiders in the tube. It would not be our last.

The house had a smell of cow dung about it. About the general area, really. And the ceiling was covered – literally encrusted – with flies. Flies like you’ve never imagined possible. The house what white inside and out (and remarkably dark despite that and the altitude and open setting), but the ceiling was black. Black with flies. I can’t express enough how solidly fly-inhabited that ceiling was. Maybe the bogeyman in the basement was really dead bodies that the lady was hiding and that’s why she scared me away from there. I can romanticize, can’t I? It was probably related to the dung smell though. Ma regularly inhaled flies on accident when hitting roaches. It grossed her out because she was vegetarian. Not because of, well, flies.

Ma’s boyfriend had a red Jeep, the open type. We went riding around the countryside a lot, and there was this one prairie area we went to when the prairie dogs were “running” or something like that. I don’t know if it’s a seasonal thing, or a time-of-day thing, or what, but this particular field became so overrun with them when we pulled onto it that we had to stop because they were as dense as the flies on the ceiling at home sweet home. The golden light of the late sun shone at angles across this field of dry grasses, sparkling off the seed heads like light dancing on water. It vividly remains in my memory, the way the twinkles were turning from bright yellow-gold to amber, and then darkening to orange, and suddenly there was a new type of movement as the prairie dogs surfaced and started multiplying. The diminishing fiery light shone across the mass of them, a tangle of tan furry bodies and shadows too thick to even put your foot down, as far as I could see.

Anyway, those flashes…

That brings us round to the more particularly memorable houses I mentioned at the beginning of this tale. Felony, police, hidden basement nooks. The very last place we stayed before escaping Colorado on Greyhound was Ma’s boyfriend’s basement apartment near a big park and a zoo. Different boyfriend than the fly place. This one was the one who would be my part-time father figure for the seven years after my parents’ divorce. This was the place where he was handyman, where I had a wall of my own to paint as I wanted. This was the place we fled to when Ma had gotten caught forging checks from the community college office, and we had to change our names and flee the state. This was the place where the police came looking for us, where we hid in a nook in the wall behind the hanging clothes in his closet, Ma telling me we were playing hide-and-seek. We were grateful that the stay there was also only a few days, given the stress of the period.

But before that was the ghost house.

Being the 1970’s, water skiing was really all the rage. At least, it was among Ma’s group. One of the guys she dated (I think it may be the same as the red Jeep) had a speed boat and took her out all the time on Sloan’s Lake. I remember the lake as this disgusting green water with frequent dead geese and ducks along the shores, mixed with the early onset of plastic trash such as six-pack rings and champagne corks. What a clear and specific picture I still have in my head, again, with the trash and carcasses stuck in slimy dark mud near the playground. I even remember floating dead rats in the lake while we were out. Great place for water skiing. But considering that later in the 70’s, in the Russian River here in California, Ma taught me that swimming the breast stroke is the best way to avoid getting hit in the face by turds from Santa Rosa’s constantly (at the time) overflowing sewer system, it shouldn’t surprise me that she skied (and tumbled) with dead things.

Not far from the lake, if memory is correct, is where we lived on Chase Street. It was a cute little one bedroom bungalow-esque cottage accessed through the back door on this little alley of a street, with a huge yard that was shared with a big brick house. Really, the front door was in from the yard, but since the parking space was behind the house on the alley, the back door was really the primary entrance. In the parking space was a little garden box about the size of a hope chest, and I was growing zucchini in it. I hated zucchini like all vegetables, but it was about the plant and the single fruit it was producing. I was devastated when we had to leave it behind, with all our belongings, in our flight to the basement apartment and eventually from the state entirely.

I remember one night in particular, waking in the dark and talking to Ma across the room in her bed. Our little cottage was a simple affair, with a living room, kitchen, and a bedroom separated from the living room by a wide door with a curtain; we each had a bed in opposite corners. I sleepily talked to Ma for a moment, about what I can’t possibly remember, then suddenly she was standing in the door looking at me through the curtain and asking who I was talking to. I said You! and pointed to her bed. When we both looked over, there was a very old woman in a black housecoat lying on Ma’s bed. She looked at us, startled, and disappeared.

Some nights later, we were watching TV when pictures started to drop off the wall and shelves.

Another night from the kitchen while eating I looked past the living room, and again saw the woman in black standing in the bedroom doorway. She waved, a cute little wave. The type one makes at babies, with fingers waving from a stationary palm.

Ma mentioned it the people in the brick house one day, and their expression of shock made her think they weren’t going to believe her. Instead, they told her about the old lady who had died in the house the previous year, and how she was a friend to all the kids in the neighborhood. They all used to come over for popsicles and cookies, and to play in the big, open yard. She loved kids, and everybody was missing her.

Ma was a freewheelin’ hippie type at the time herself, and it was interesting to note that whenever pictures fell it was always ones of her. The old lady never knocked my photos around, only Ma’s.

Once we knew of the story, I started talking to her all the time. I only saw her those two times, but I knew she was there. It all really started coming to friendly poltergeist head when Ma took me to see Raggedy Ann at the movies, and I was excited all morning to see all the talking toys. When we returned from the show that day, all my stuffed animals had been arranged in a circle on my bed – taken down from their shelves and the dresser-top. There was a deck of cards spread out among them, as if they had been playing Go Fish. Needless to say, I was thoroughly delighted!

Ma would take me to school in the morning then go to school/work herself and pick me up afterwards. Every single day for the rest of the time we lived there, we would come home to new tableaux with my animals: different card games, stacked in pyramids, hidden in amusing places like the cupboards. She knew how to entertain kids! But as the drama began to unfold with the discovery of the forgeries, she became much less friendly. More pictures would fly, and sometimes she even knocked coffee out of Ma’s hands, as if there wasn’t enough chaos in our lives just then. That certainly expedited our flight from the house; Ma was not entertained, and we were out within a couple of days.

I wonder if the old lady looked after my zucchini for me. I wonder if she’s still there, even. For her sake, I hope she’s found her own escape.

Farting at Hermes

Living in a city like San Francisco, there’s a very clear and distinctive classism among certain sectors of society. I’m sure it’s the same in cities all over the world, but I live here and this is where I’m most observant of it. Admittedly, I’ve caught myself on the “wrong side” of that divide, having treated people differently based on how they were dressed, but I’m repentant for having done so. I strive to treat everyone as equally important, and to empathize with their situations. It’s not any better, but I find myself being more judgmental of the “haves” than of the “have nots.” I try to be even, though, but I find the people in higher-income situations have a tendency to be far more disconnected from the realities of the rest of the world than the opposite, and I can’t easily treat someone as an equal who doesn’t do the same to everyone else.

Despite having been raised as a Welfare Kid, much of my retail-working life has found me working in the highest-end retail outlets. High end grocery. High end fabric stores. Even high end garden centers. The run-of-the-mill places always seemed to elude me, for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s a sense of self-worth that made me recognize I’m capable of “rising above” even in retail. Who knows. I humbly recognize that where I am is, in fact, retail. That’s not to demean it by any means, though I’ve encountered plenty of people whose opinion is obvious that retail workers are subhuman. Within all these places, though (and I do mean all), I’ve interacted with workers who act like they’re better than everyone else because of the reputation of the establishment, or that their position within the business is more important than all the others.

A decade or so ago, I ran into this very situation while out shopping one day. My partner at the time wanted a new wallet for Christmas. A wallet from Gap would not do, oh, no. Even Macy’s was not going to fit the bill, oh, no. Kenneth Cole had some lovely wallets, but even those were not the one. This partner, bless his late soul, was a victim of appearance-is-everything attitude, and would take the label off of his $110 Armani black watchman’s cap that he had to have, and keep it to pin onto a $1.99 Walgreen’s orange cap, or red cap, or whatever the color that day was going to be. Once he’d “been seen” in something, he couldn’t possibly wear it out again. Certainly not to a club, anyway. But at least he creatively made that label’s dollars stretch, and shopped recycled clothing as much as possible.

The wallet that was needed was to be from Hermes. (“But this is an investment! I know I go through clothes like crazy, but a wallet is different. I’ll be able to use it several times! Plus, it’s a name that I can recycle for a premium.”) I worked at the time at Britex Fabrics, the high-end fabric store off Union Square, right next door to Hermes. I had to dress nicely for work in the neighborhood, and enjoyed doing so. I popped over to Hermes on my lunch break one day to scope out the one wallet.

Hermes is one of those designer names you see in Vogue and all the style-conscious fashion mags that dictate what people are supposed to want to look like. The Union Square shop that vends this name has multiple small rooms and galleries, and all the pocket-size merchandise, such as the one wallet, is kept within locked glass cases. Each room and gallery has one or more employees, dressed to the nines, with nose in the air. In French, the layman’s term for snooty attitude is “il pète plus haut que son nez.” He farts higher than his nose.

I engaged someone whose nose was well out of reach of gas clouds to disdainfully open a case for me so that I could examine the one wallet. I was politely informed that the one wallet is $800, and would it still be necessary to open the case. Yes, it was. I examined it. I turned it over in my hands. I opened it. I closed it. I determined that it was, in fact, just a wallet. I handed it back with a “thank you” and left to ponder the worthiness of the one wallet.

We had our Christmas bonuses, and I decided what the heck. I may as well just get the damn wallet for him. We’d had some major struggles for the first six years of our relationship, and the past year had seen some remarkable changes in habit. The reward was expensive, but far far less so than our previous lifestyle as club-goers had been. I would get him the one wallet.

The next day, I set forth on my journey from home. It was my day off, so I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, and was not dressed like I would be for work in Union Square. That was my bad choice that day. Or was it? Is appearance really that important? I would argue strongly against that, but I have to recognize that it does get you different treatment, like it or not. I got to Hermes, and took a quick look through the rest of the boutique. Figured I might as well see what all was there. There was a cashmere scarf I liked, but I was only budgeted for a wallet that day and didn’t need another damn scarf anyway. Eventually, I made my way to the glass case with my name on it. The one containing the one wallet.

And I stood there. And I stood there. I made eye contact with several employees, literally not one of whom was engaged with any customers. Suddenly it started to dawn on me that I was being ignored because I wasn’t dressed nicely enough to be taken seriously as someone who would actually spend money there. These employees obviously had forgotten that they were working retail like me. They thought they were better than, because of where we were. It pissed me off, frankly. So I stood there a few minutes longer. Finally, I’d had my limit. Apparently my $800 wasn’t going to be good enough for them.

I made eye contact with an employee for the third time, and raised my eyebrows as if I were going to ask a question. His head cocked to one side and his nostrils flared with the now-familiar disdain. And I farted. I mustered up a good one, too. I farted. I pushed and pushed, and it was loud in the quiet boutique. People turned to look. And I continued to fart. It petered out at long last. I pushed again and got one last little wet-sounding toot. I don’t think anyone there had ever encountered a fart before, at least not that they would ever stoop so low as to admit to. Mouths were open in disbelief, and it was beautiful.

“Keep your nose out of that one, assholes,” I thought as I walked away, without the one wallet.

pooper

 

Where Am I From, Anyway?

The other day as I was walking the dogs I passed the first house I lived in here in San Francisco, and I started pondering how long I’ve been here. Earlier this month I’d gone to my 25th high school reunion, up in my hometown of Willits, CA, and was thinking about the fact that, though I think of that as my hometown, I didn’t really start out there. Nor do I currently have any family connection with the place. What makes that place my “hometown” in my mind, when there’s no home there to go back to? Where, exactly, is “home”? Developing a sense of place is an interesting topic, especially when you’ve had a lifetime of moving frequently.

I was born in Flint, Michigan, but left there when I was two years old to go to Denver, when my parents divorced. Being that I was so young and have no memories specific to Michigan, that’s hardly a place I think of as part of my self-identity. It was certainly physically a part of my history, but nothing to do with my “from”-ness. In Denver, we stayed until I was nearly six. I had just finished kindergarten when Ma and I had to flee the state, and moved to California. I think of Denver as my early childhood location, and have specific memories of events there, but no connection to it as a place to return to.

I identify myself as a Northern Californian. Ma and I got here when I was five years old, so I think of this as legitimately being where I’m from, though technically that’s not really the case. Still, nearly forty years counts for something. But even here in NorCal I have connections to more than one place.

We first disembarked from our Greyhound moving adventure in Santa Rosa, and I started first grade there at Doyle Park Elementary that September. But that only lasted a couple of months. Over Thanksgiving weekend, for reasons I don’t recall, we moved to Oroville (a hateful, hateful experience in a dismal place), and I continued first grade there. We both hated it there, place and people. It was far from the hippie-type of culture we were accustomed to, to say the least. My two most vivid memories of the time there were that everybody made fun of me because I had long hair and an androgynous name, and that there was a bloody smear on our living room wall that perpetually seeped through the paint, no matter how many times it was painted over. Ma kept a partition in front of it to hide it, but we knew it was there and it creeped us out. That stain ultimately ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back for our stay in Oroville: the property manager at the apartment building did not disclose to us that the vacancy was the result of a brutal rape and murder in that unit a few weeks before we moved in. The stain was the result of the victim’s desperate, and unsuccessful, attempt to reach the wall phone to call the police. What’s more, the victim’s name was the exact same as Ma’s. Seriously. I kid you not. First and last name, identical. We learned about the crime the day after Christmas from another tenant in the complex, when Ma introduced herself and the lady’s jaw dropped and she said she’d been told Ma hadn’t survived the attack.

We were done with Oroville and its people, and moved back to Santa Rosa the next day. Needless to say, Oroville is not a place I consider a home base.

I continued my first grade once again at Doyle Park. Within a couple weeks, we moved from Santa Rosa to Petaluma, into the attic studio apartment in a cute little red Victorian on the main drag, half a block south of Walnut Square Park. I loved taking baths in the clawfoot tub in the dormer bathroom, and waking up before dawn to watch out the window as the town began to stir. For three whole weeks I attended first grade at McNear Elementary. Not long enough to develop a sense of place there.

By then Ma had discovered the Russian River, and we moved to Rio Nido and enrolled me in what proved to be my last enrollment for first grade, at Guerneville Elementary. Our first home on the river lasted only a few weeks, though, thanks to our lack of awareness about flooding. We moved a couple miles up the road, into Guerneville proper, and actually managed to stay put for nearly three years. Despite that relatively short time there it was a formative period for me, full of some of my fondest childhood memories, and it’s definitely a place I think of as a significant part of my past. Ma lives there now, in fact, and Guerneville also has a very strong connection with many, many San Franciscans, and it’s a place I can easily think of as being a hometown. But, we lived other places longer…

In the middle of fourth grade, we moved to Penngrove. Ma was a student at Sonoma State University, and needed to live closer to her schooling. It was a bittersweet move, though, and we still visited the river regularly over the following couple of years. Penngrove was the first place where I had my own bedroom, so there was that excitement for me. I went to school there through the end of sixth grade, and had a couple of good friends. I was the “token poor kid” in an affluent community, though, and never really connected with the place. Plus, the downtown itself is basically ten buildings or so – too small to actually have any sort of community based around it. The house we lived in has since been replaced, so it’s not a place I think of as home. One part of my childhood that does remain there, though, is the school totem pole: on the corner of the school property, at Old Adobe Road and Petaluma Hill Road is a ceramic totem pole that our school built while I was a student. Each of the students got to make a personal tile for the retaining wall around the pole, and on that wall, right behind the base of the pole, is my tile. Solid sky blue, with a sculpted turtle and a “Z” that hits the four corners of the tile. Penngrove may not be “home” for me, but a piece of my history remains.

The summer before I started seventh grade, Ma and I moved to Willits. Her sister had moved up there a year or two earlier, and told us about a house that was available for less than we were paying in Penngrove. I was going to have to transfer to a new school district after that summer anyway, since Penngrove’s school only accommodated up to sixth grade, so we figured we might as well try out a new town. Why not?

Once we moved to Willits, Ma was committed to not moving me around to new school districts anymore. She wanted me to be able to complete my teen years with a more solid foundation, and that’s how Willits came to be my hometown. Even so, we still managed to move around a lot within the same town. That first house was way up north of town, on a mountain called Shimmins Ridge. I did love that house, and in fact it was the first time in my life that Ma and I each had our own bedroom, without either one of us having to sleep in the living room. It was a great little shingle house, in a small group of houses in basically the middle of nowhere, and I loved it. It was, however, quite isolated. Twelve miles north of town, then over three miles of dirt road. Also, no electricity. That winter, the challenges of heating by fire and bathing with water heated on the stove got to be too much, and we moved closer to civilization.

That next house is, I think, my favorite house we’d ever lived in. It’s up in an area in the mountains above the north end of town called Brooktrails. Our house was a chalet style house, cantilevered over the steep hillside and surrounded by pines and madrones and oaks and redwoods. I had my own room downstairs, and Ma and her boyfriend had the upstairs master. Also upstairs in the A-frame part of the chalet was a large family room, with the sloping ceiling-walls, orange shag carpet, and one solid wall of windows looking into the forest. It also had a little balcony. I loved being in that room in the rain, with the wood stove heating the room and my dog Zephyr at my side, reading the days away or listening to the radio and taping my favorite songs.

By the end of that seventh grade year, Ma and her boyfriend had called it quits and we moved out. It was something of a “right now” kinda move, and the place we landed in was a tiny, tiny, tiny little cabin a few miles north of town along 101. It was a little trailer park with a few built cabins, very inappropriately and ironically named “Shangri-La”. As if. Our cabin had two cots. Not even twin beds. Cots. And a dresser. The bathroom just had a toilet and shower, and was too small to have a sink. The only sink was in the kitchen, which itself was too small to have more than the sink and two-burner countertop stove. The refrigerators for all the cabins were outside on the front porches. Shangri-La, indeed.

Fortunately, that only lasted ’til the end of the month. By that time, Ma had found a house within city limits. It was a basic little house near the Fort Bragg road on tiny little Raymond Lane. It was the newest house we had ever lived in, and we each had our own room once again. We felt so modern, so “now”, and I was excited to be living walking distance from the high school as I began eighth grade (which, for reasons of student body logistics, was at the high school).

Ma started working as secretary at the mortuary downtown (“downtown” being all of six blocks away from where we were), and one perk was that part of her salary was the house next door on the mortuary compound. So, after only two or three months on Raymond, we moved yet again. Less than a year and a half in Willits, but already moving into our fifth house in the ZIP code. We stayed there for nearly five years, though, until I graduated high school. It was the longest period Ma and I had ever spent in one house in my entire life. I moved out on my own after high school, and rented a room before getting my own apartment, and eventually moved down here to San Francisco at the age of twenty.

As I visited Willits for that 25th reunion, it really hit me how disconnected from the town I’ve actually become. I’d lived there and schooled there and worked there, but none of my family is still there. In fact, of all the places I’d worked – The Ridge Restaurant, The White Deer Lodge motel, The Willits News, Rexall Pharmacy, Harvest Bounty Natural Foods – only the newspaper still exists (and even that is in a different place than before). Walking around town and seeing some of the houses I’d lived in felt strange. The building which housed my first apartment appears to be more or less condemned, and my old unit is boarded up, I assume to keep out squatters. The town itself is an alien and unfamiliar place. Few of the old businesses in town are the same as they had been, and walking around I felt desperate to cling to the few things I did recognize: a shop here, a park there. It was interesting recognizing last names in the paper of twenty-somethings who were doing this and that, and realizing those were the kids of people I’d gone to school with. Families who had been in Willits for generations, and were continuing to raise ongoing generations there. It seemed like a sad thing to me in high school that there were people who’d been born in that small town of 4000 people (even today still fewer than 5000) and had never lived anywhere else, and probably never would. Now, going back to visit, I was seeing those same people still living there, and their kids carrying on the same legacy. A legacy of Place. It no longer felt like a sad thing to me. Instead, it felt impressive. Honorable. And I realized I was actually jealous. These people had a sense of place, and there was no question where they’re from, where they belong. They are (as far as I can tell) happy, and have a connection and duty to their town. The businesses may have changed, but the families remain. They stand up for Willits, they live Willits, they are Willits.

So, where does that leave me? Where is “that place” for me? There are little pieces of my history all over the place, but where’s my home? Where am I from, anyway?

I moved to San Francisco when I was twenty. Well, there was a two-year interlude on Alameda, an island community across the bay, but I knew when moving there that it was simply going to be the springboard that got me into SF. I spent all my free time here in The City. San Francisco was always a draw for me. There are moments associated with specific places – parts of Golden Gate Park in particular – that flash me back to being five years old and seeing the city for the first time. I feel a lifelong connection to SF, and have now lived over half my life here. It seemed natural to me that I would live here someday.

The beauty of a place like San Francisco is that it’s made for people like me. In fact, it’s made by people like me. It’s a place of transience and constant change, and I’ve been a part of that for most of my life now. It’s ever evolving and forming and reforming. It’s a collection of small towns, all squeezed into one common border, and its plasticity allows for each and every resident to mold their experience to make it their own place to be from. There are so many people who come and go, but even though there are people who are literally from here, anybody is welcome to stake a claim and take some ownership for their own reality of what it means to be a San Franciscan. Anybody can proclaim to be from here, and know they mean it, as long as they’ve contributed of themselves to it. It’s an incredibly young city. Think about it – the 1906 earthquake seems like ancient history to most people, but there are still residents alive here who were present for it. If you consider that the Gold Rush, when SF exploded from 26 settlers to a city of 50,000 in the course of a few months, was less than sixty years before the quake, you start to realize this town is really only about two lifetimes old. That’s not all that long. There are many people alive today whose lives overlapped with the founders of this city. So much history has happened here, beyond just the local, and local residents and innovators have shaped history, even nationally and globally. It’s an exciting place to be a part of, and it’s difficult to imagine living anywhere else.

This has come up in my mind a lot lately, given the current changes in the area that are pricing people out of being able to live here. I don’t know that I’d be able to continue to live here if my current living situation were to change and we had to find a new home. It’s scary to think of, because it’s a very real thing for many people I know, and that makes the possibilities all the more ominous. I identify with this city like no other, and while I occasionally think, “oh, we should just move to _____” or some cheaper place, I have a pig-headedness about not ever wanting to give up on the city I call home. There are aspects besides price to other places that are quite appealing, such as land and space, and I’m sure I could settle in if I were to move elsewhere, but it would never be the same. To get to the same place of having spent more than half my lifetime there, to really identify with that place as home, will take even longer than it’s taken me to do so here in San Francisco. It’s a city with its own set of challenges, but I embrace them as it embraces me. My early lifetime was largely unsettled, without any one place feeling like my foundation, and I understand how that has helped me to feel so strongly connected to this one place now. This is my true home.

Home. Home. It may have taken me nearly half my lifetime to get here, but I did. It’s the place I came to of my own choosing. It’s the place where I made myself what I am. It’s the place I want to be. This is where I am from whenever I go anywhere else. This is where I am from.