I turned 18 near the beginning of my senior year in high school in Willits. I wasn’t exactly itching to get out on my own, but I knew it was coming soon enough, and a sense of independence was building throughout the year. It was also the blossoming of a creative learning period in my life.
I’d fallen in love for the first time, with an “older” 24-year old guy, a few weeks before the year started. I know that played a significant role in my demeanor as school commenced, even though it only lasted a couple of months. He gave me my first major heartbreak, before Halloween. And crabs, that bastard. Can’t forget the crabs. My self-expression that year took on new levels: cutting my own hair during art class, painting my clothing and wearing it until Ma would comment on my smell being like that of a homeless person, making creative alterations to clothing… In my teen angst I was struggling with the pull of independence, being gay in a small town (and, incidentally, it not being an issue or major ordeal despite what I’d been preparing myself for), a broken heart and nobody even to rebound with, and a burgeoning creativity. I had dedicated my school year to the arts; thanks to theatrical productions, I had already earned enough extra credits that I had no requirements for the year other than to pass English. If it weren’t for that class, I would have been able to graduate already, in fact. So, I devoted the other units to art. Besides the English class, I had one period as a Peer Counseling tutor at a school for developmentally disabled kids, and one period of calculus. Because it sounded fun. Aside from that, I studied loom weaving, silversmithing, and a fourth year of ceramics (two periods of it, in fact). Creative self-expression was my middle name.
The calculus class actually was fun, but not because of the subject. Actually, I managed to fail the class (my one and only class fail in all my schooling), but it was because I didn’t push myself, since I didn’t need the credits anyway. We were a small class – six students – so we were able to coerce our teacher into taking us on field trips. One of them was to the Hewlett-Packard facility in Santa Rosa. We learned about advanced math and computer science, and got a tour of the facility, from research rooms to warehouses. Half the students in calculus were also in my silversmithing class, and somehow we all managed to be making jewelry from pocket-sized heaps of microchips for weeks after that field trip.
Ma was still working at the town mortuary that year. Our house on the mortuary compound, on School Street behind the actual mortuary, didn’t have any insulation, and heating with the built-in electric heaters cost almost double the rent itself. We instead closed off the bedroom end of the house, and only heated the living room and kitchen. My room (with its lovely view of the crematorium smoke stack out my window) was large, but it was the farthest from the heated end, and shared no walls with the warm rooms. Every week I had to take a spray bottle of bleach and wash mildew off the walls. I even had mushrooms – literally mushrooms – growing in the carpet under my bed, it was so cold and damp in there. We tried insulating the windows with a plastic covering that you shrink into place with a blow dryer, but they filled with condensate water and burst open on the first night.
I’d endured this room for my entire high school career, despite my severe asthma and an allergy to mildew. After my senior year of growing independence, and graduating and spending the summer hitchhiking around Northern California, I wasn’t about to submit myself to another winter in that room. I found a room to rent in a lady’s house a few blocks away on Pearl and Madden, and told Ma at the end of the summer that I was moving.
I loved that room. It was my first place “out on my own,” despite the fact that Ma ended up moving into the other available room downstairs because she couldn’t afford our old place without my contribution. She stayed in the room only a couple of months, until she was able to find a cottage in Ukiah. My own room really appealed to me. It was a finished attic space, with dark green walls and orange felt squares glued down as flooring. The open central stairwell, with its multiple landings and the way the space wrapped around it, formed a complete spiral, and it was the beginning of my interest in the spiritual symbolism of spirals. The room had sloped walls that came to a peak in the center, and two small dormer windows, one of which looked out across the street to the railroad tracks, and a fence that I had run down my first week as a delivery driver for the town pharmacy. From my perspective, that room was perfect. It was so warm and cozy that winter, even though the only heat was a wood stove downstairs. It was dry in there, and I loved hearing the rain falling on my roof/walls. The following summer, though, the room got extremely hot. Candles melting into pools of liquid wax kinda hot. Cassette tapes warping when you touched them kinda hot. Not to mention, there was a beehive somewhere in the walls. I slept with netting around my bed, and I couldn’t walk barefoot in the mornings until I had collected all the bees that had gotten their feet hooked in the felt flooring during the night, and released them out a window.
The landlord of the house was an interesting lady. Mel was a mammoth bull-dyke, built like an industrial refrigerator, who played shortstop on the local women’s softball team. She was also deaf, so we never had any conflict about my music playing late at night. She didn’t get along well with many people, though, which is part of why Ma was anxious to find a place of her own as soon as possible. Mel had grown up in the house, and had a pantry with cases and cases of her dad’s k-rations from his time in the Army during the Korean war. We ate some one night, and they were surprisingly decent, despite the decades that had passed. The dehydrated spaghetti was our favorite, if you can call it that. She also had a dog that was perpetually chained up in the open yard. The dog’s personality wasn’t unlike Mel’s own, actually; it was always best to look out for both of them, and try to dash by without being seen. I spent as much time as I could at my job at the natural food store, or taking classes at the community college, or participating in local theatre.
When Ma moved out of the place, Mel was anxious to find a replacement tenant for her downstairs room. Mel’s parents owned the place, but I think having renters was her means of an income. My friend Ken just happened to be needing a place, and had been couch-surfing for months at a friend’s place in Ukiah. I mentioned him to Mel, and soon after, he was moving in. Ken was a good friend, and I enjoyed having him in the house. He was working at an adult-care facility that had a bad habit of bouncing its employee’s paychecks, and Willits was a constant struggle for him. He had to rely on a Chevron card for food, more often than not. Ken had an extensive collection of music, and taught me a lot about musicals and composers and cult classics movies. We acted together in a couple of theatre productions, and he also created some amazing political artworks in sketch and oil.
Mel’s personality was not a good fit with Ken, though, and by the end of that summer we were looking for a new place together. At the main crossroads of downtown Willits is an historic old brick building called the Hotel Van, and a 1-bedroom apartment came available. I’d pretty much grown up in Willits, and had only been in the building once. It is a beautiful old building, though I’m sure it’s got some structural issues after all these years. The entrance lobby was large and Renaissance revival, with white marble floors and stairs, and an ornate mezzanine. The ground floor was always conspicuously vacant, even with several fantastic spaces that would make great shops and cafes. The landlord at the time (The Greek, as he’s called, then and still) was notorious for his lack of concern for the wellbeing of his properties and tenants, and charged a little above average for his rentals. Still, we loved our unit.
Our apartment in the idealistically-named Chateau Royale Apartments was on the lower of the two floors of apartments, which was a plus given the lack of a buzz-in system for the door. In fact, there was no intercom at all. We had a window to the back alley, so friends were able to get our attention by throwing pennies at the windows, but the alternative method was a hoot: you’d go to the convenience store next door and make a collect call on the payphone, giving a celebrity or president’s name as the caller. That was the “password” that let you know someone was wanting to come up. Cell phones didn’t exist yet, after all… The apartments themselves were unusual. The building had, as the name suggests, been a hotel in the past. That meant that every room had its own bathroom, and its own door to the hallway. Our kitchen was a converted hotel room, with a bathroom that still had a functioning shower, though the sink and toilet had been removed. We used the room as a giant broom closet. The living room’s bathroom was the “actual” functioning bathroom, and you had to walk through it to get to the bedroom. The bedroom had yet another bathroom, with a functioning toilet, but the tub had a bar over it so that it could be used as a walk-in closet. The nice thing about having all the doors to the hallway was that you could go around if someone was using the “actual” bathroom.
Ken and I set up the apartment as nicely as we could with our hodgepodge furnishings. Our kitchen table was a legless coffee table propped on crates, and we sat on the floor around it. I had a large collection of James Dean posters that we hung on the wall in there, affectionately referring to the table corner as the “Deaning” room. In the living room, Ken had an ornate red velvet Victorian love seat and a period lamp, which we had used on set in a production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap that we had both been in. My living room contribution was a legless 1970’s overstuffed former swivel-rocker with scratchy ochre-yellow upholstering, and a plank-and-cinder block set of shelves. I had a long, low dresser that we used as a room divider in the bedroom, creating two separate bays for our beds. The beds themselves were foam pads on the floor.
All-in-all, it worked out great, though we struggled to make ends meet. We continued to work our respective jobs and act in community and college theatre productions. We sang, and wrote, we drew. We even helped kick off an ongoing monthly performance of Rocky Horror Picture Show at the town movie theater, the Noyo. The lobby of our building made a great rehearsal space for the dances, and it seems like we always had a motley crew of cast and castaways hanging out at our place. To me, it was the ultimate Bohemian lifestyle. Coffee, theatre, music, and loving life despite a complete lack of funds. We lived on (almost exclusively, at times) day-old Alvarado St. breads from the store where I worked. The driver, Karen, would give me several loaves, and bags of bagels, twice a week on her delivery rounds, and I would stockpile as much as our freezer and fridge would hold. I still see her around, delivering for the same company, and always say hi and express my appreciation for her food support. She kept us from starving for several months.
Eventually, the bread-and-Chevron card lifestyle got to be too much for Ken to bear, and his constantly uncashable paychecks were the final straw. He moved back home to the Central Valley, and for the first time in my life I was living alone. Alone. It was brief, though. There was no way I could afford The Greek’s rent on my own, and I needed a roommate.
Along came Gary. We had hung out a few times at Gulf War protest rallies, and were both in a writing group called the Underground Poets’ Society. The writing group was a great experience. It was in the basement of probably the largest old Victorian house in town, right behind the old Carnegie library, and was owned by the county judge and his wife. The group was only partly a writing group, guided by woman named Sister Mary Norbert. She had been in a convent until she sneaked out one night to go to a Bob Dylan concert, and had dropped acid and never returned. Needless to say, her mind had been opened up to alternate realities, and she now found divinity in creative writing instead of God. The writing group was also part covert political activism. The judge’s wife was rabidly liberal, and when we weren’t working on writing exercises, we planned political rallies and plotted acts of civil disobedience. CD was hard to do in Willits, with any real impact. The only federal facility was the post office, and blocking the entrance meant keeping perhaps only a dozen people from their business that day. We did successfully block off Highway 101 in front of the high school one day, with massive support from a student walk-out. We also organized a charter bus one time to come down to San Francisco to participate in the largest rally I’ve ever seen, protesting Bush’s illegal war for oil control. Good times.
Gary was a horse of a different color. His own animal. He was about ten years my senior, and had been born in Willits and raised an alcoholic on the Hoopa Reservation up by the Oregon border. He had joined the army at 18, partly to escape his upbringing, partly to experience the world, and partly, as he put it, to “fuck as many fine European military boys” as he could get himself into. From his tales, he was quite successful in all three endeavors, though the first eventually caught up with him. He moved in with me at the Van, thus ending my month of self-dependence. My own self-awareness and creativity changed more in that period than ever before. Life became a swirling mix of Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, Gore Vidal, and Sylvia Plath. Every thing, every action, every breath, was a study in the senses. We wrote, we painted, we broke things and made them into art. We drank copiously and graffitied boxcars at the rail yard. He painted large paintings, and stretched his own canvases, and we would get stoned and drunk and analyze the underlying subconscious meanings of his paintings. We listened to music and sculpted and made plaster masks. We ate Alvarado breads and supplemented with food he stole out of people’s refrigerators.
In Europe, Gary had fallen in love with Germany. Berlin, specifically, and the edgy Kreuzberg neighborhood in particular. He loved it so much that he went AWOL from the army to stay there, hooking up with all sorts of artistic types and squatting with a punk band in abandoned buildings. He found himself on the streets during some intense rioting one time, and got caught in the crossfire as police were releasing dogs on a crowd. His leg got torn up by the dogs, broken in several places, badly enough that he had to have screws put in to keep his bones together. His friends held a benefit concert to get him back to the US, and he came back to his hometown and lived with a cousin until my roomshare offer. He never looked at anything with a negative eye, though. The upside of all that was the cool stories, and the many friends he had made in Germany. And the fact that you could hang refrigerator magnets from several points on his leg.
Back at the apartment, we had developed something of a bad ant problem. I had lived there over a year, and this was the first time there had been ants. It was a solid path of them, about half an inch wide, and it was long. They came in through a tiny hole in the far corner of the kitchen. They traversed the Deaning room floor to the living room doorway. There, the sight of them was more difficult to discern, because of mottled brown carpeting. The trail became visible again on the other side of the room, where the stream of ants navigated the white hexagonal-tiled bathroom floor. In the bedroom, they moved along the wall towards Gary’s closet, and disappeared inside. We weren’t able to figure out where the trail went from there, and presumed there was another tiny hole that went either upstairs or down. No matter how many we wiped up and flushed down, no matter how completely we obliterated the line, it always formed again. We marveled at their capacity to find food and travel such a distance through the building to get to it, whatever and wherever it was.
A German couple came to stay with us for a month one time. It was a fantastic experience for me, getting to experience another culture while still in my tiny hometown. They cooked and cleaned constantly, preparing every single meal for us while they were there, as means of expressing their gratitude for the accommodations. Fritz was a cook, and the guitarist of the punk band Gary had squatted with, and Susanna was a studied artist who had recently opened her own gallery in Leipzig. She was quite elegant, from my viewpoint. We all spent many days hitchhiking around the county, spending much time on the coast in Mendocino. Ironically, a 1969 song called “Mendocino,” by the Sir Douglas Quintet was one of the most popular radio songs at the time in Leipzig, and they both wanted to see the place for themselves. The first trip out to the coast was a harrowing one. The four of us were too large a group to hitchhike as one, so we split into pairs. Fritz and Susanna got picked up right away by someone in a car. Shortly after, Gary and I were picked up buy a guy with a pickup truck, and we had to lay down in the back so we couldn’t be seen. The driver did the hour-long winding drive in about 35 minutes, all the while tossing empty beer cans out the back window of his truck and into the bed with us. We weren’t worried, though; everything in life was all just one part of a story to tell in the future, after all. We all met up again at the Fort Bragg end of the road, and actually managed to get a ride together in a big rig for the last few miles of the ride to Mendo proper.
I was taking a music appreciation class at the Willits branch of the county community college, and we always had a half-hour dinner break midway through the four-hour night class. One night, I came out of the classroom, and there in the courtyard, the Germans had set up dinner for me! It was quite a special treat, I must say. Fritz had made knödel, which are giant poached bread dumplings, and artichokes and spaetzle, and had brought wine and coffee and even cake. I was floored. They and Gary had set up a table with a cloth, and even brought real dishes and utensils, and put it all up without me knowing it was going to happen. My dinner that night was the envy of the class! These were really some of the most genuine and generous people I’d ever met.
One morning after the Germans had left, Gary and I were laying on our respective foam pads in the bedroom, with the dresser between us. I’d just woken up, and yawned as I was getting my bearings on the day. From the other side of the dresser, Gary softly called my name.
“Yeah?” I said. “I’m awake.”
“I just thought of something.”
“The ants,” Gary replied. “I think I know what they’re doing.”
“Oh, yeah? What?”
“The duck. I bet it’s the duck!” You could tell he was having an “a-ha” moment.
“What?! What duck?” I was trying to think of who in the building had a duck. I certainly hadn’t heard one quacking.
Gary got up and went to his closet. He fished around for a minute, pulling out piles of dirty clothes and tossing them aside. Eventually, he came to a backpack at the bottom, and took it out. He unzipped it, all the while cooing that he’d solved the mystery. He stuck his hand in the opening, and immediately a swarm of ants moved up his arm. He squealed, running for the bathroom with the bag in his hands, and threw it into the tub. Laughing hysterically, he flooded the bag with water and dumped it out. Sure enough, there in the tub lay a somewhat flat, though still recognizable, duck carcass. A duck carcass covered in ants.
Gary was working on a painting, and a while back had started collecting bones to frame it. It seems he’d come across this fresh roadkill duck one day while walking through town, and shoved it in his bag with his books and art supplies. And had forgotten it was there. Ant problem solved.
It was the duck.
Much to the delight of everyone in the building, Gary spent the morning boiling the desiccated carcass in bleach water, until he could get clean bones. I never did get a chance to see the finished work.
Around that time, I had started a new relationship with a guy from Alameda, and was gearing up to move in with him and his friend on the island town. I left Gary behind at the apartment, starting a new chapter in my life here in the Bay Area. But I would room with Gary again, as fate would have it…
To this day, whenever I see a trail of ants, I smile knowingly. I know what they’re up to. I bet it’s the duck!