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Dreams, Omens, Birds, and San Francisco

Last night, very weary, as I often am on Friday, I watched part of a DVD of the David Attenborough series, “The Life of Birds,” thought about how hard most birds work to feed themselves (nonsense the expression “free as a bird”), felt great compassion for the birds–working almost without rest every day of their lives. At 9 p.m. I gave in to my own exhaustion and huddled under the goose down for an early winter sleep. I woke suddenly from a dream that I met a mirror image of myself on a sunny path through the Marin hills by the Pacific and said to her, “This place has it all!” Awake, momentarily confused by the goosedown and the shadows in my Texas bedroom, I didn’t know where I was. I saw the clock: 1:59 a.m. Then the music started in my head: “If you’re going to San Francisco, you better wear some flowers in your hair….” So maybe it’s going to work out for me to live at Green Gulch.

I lay in the dark, wide awake. Basho, the extraordinarily affectionate brown and silver tabby who shares my life, sensing my alertness, came up from my feet and snuggled against my chest, and as we breathed together, I thought about the many years I have dreamed of going to San Francisco. I remember exactly when the dream was born.

It was a Friday night in 1968, and on my coffee break at work that day I had been reading an issue of Look magazine devoted to the hippie phenomenon in San Francisco. I felt very far away from those flowered and sequined hippies who were my age and had taken, I thought, the right path, instead of the morass I had gotten myself into. Instead of living with the Cockettes in a commune in San Francisco, I was living in a tacky rental house in Metairie, Louisiana, with Chris (then two years old) and his father, a man I had married in 1965 three months after we met. Three years later, I still didn’t know him and had stopped wanting to. I had a job as the editor of a house organ for a “finance company” (an organization with 500 offices spread throughout the southern states, full of people who sought out poor people, lent them money, and then charged exorbitant interest and hired cruel bill collectors to harass these people and garnish their hard-won wages when, as usually happened, they couldn’t keep up their payments). The so-called finance business was a vile business, and my job was to write about the work in such a way that would make the bill collectors, slimy office managers, and hopelessly underpaid and overworked secretaries feel good about themselves and compete with each other to reach new levels of deception and exploitation of the poor in order to reap bigger profits for the bosses who lived in enormous suburban houses and belonged to high-status Mardi Gras crewes. I hated the job but desperately needed the money, because Chris’s father and I together could not quite ever make ends meet each month.

I had argued with the Director of Personnel that day because I’d been assigned to write a story glorifying a repo man who succeeded in not only repossessing the car of a Black woman my age, but also sending her to jail and her child into foster care. “I can’t do this story,” I said, with tears in my eyes. My boss leaned back in his chair, looked out the window at Carondelet Street in downtown New Orleans, and said, “If we buy your seed, you’ll sing our song,” and waved me away without looking at me. I wanted fiercely to quit the job and walk out. But Tom and I were just about to have our electricity cut off. We were almost two months late with the bill, and without my paycheck….

That night I stood washing dishes, old at 23 and exhausted beyond words. I was cooking, shopping, cleaning, doing the laundry, ironing. Tom (Chris’s father) was a sales rep for Drackett Products (Drano, Windex, O-Cedar mops) and spent his days setting up displays in grocery stores but did nothing around the house, so in a typical day I got up early, bathed and dressed Chris, rushed him to the babysitter whose fees were half my salary, then drove through morning rush-hour to my horrible job, drove back through evening rush-hour to the babysitter, then home to fix dinner and prepare for the next day. Tom and I no longer had sex. Chris cried and fretted all the time. There was no joy in my life. None. As I stood at the kitchen sink with the radio on, Donovan’s song, “Atlantis” came on. It was about a world of beauty, joy, and peace, an ideal world, the world I had dreamed of before I made my early and unfortunate marriage: all beneath the ocean, lost forever. In that moment San Francisco and Atlantis became one in my mind, and I sat down on the kitchen floor sobbing into a dish towel but gripped by the possibility that I could take Chris to the babysitter Monday morning and instead of driving east into New Orleans, drive west. I could leave Tom and Chris and drive to San Francisco.

I didn’t do it, but I kept dreaming of it. I dreamed of it after I quit the Finance Company and went to work as a secretary at Tulane Medical School, dreamed of it through the divorce, and after Tom disappeared with Chris. I dreamed of going to San Francisco when all the other people my age went to Woodstock while I was working days and going to night school. In the mid-70s I finally got to San Francisco, but only for a weekend, as a board member of the Feminist Writers Guild. We stayed in the Marin hills with a woman who had inherited a house there, and I walked the hills and dreamed. Those hills were even more wonderful than I had dreamed, but by then I had another boy baby to raise, Haight-Ashbury had become the haunt of heroin addicts, and as ever, the rents were sky-high. I went again in 1980, when I was touring my one-woman show. I played two gigs in San Francisco, and the dykes brought down the house both times. I had an audience there, and I wanted more than ever to immigrate, and I tried by mail and phone to find a day-job. No luck. I kept on working, paying the bills, rearing Seth, and going to school.

In the late 80s when I was teaching at Smith, the woman who had been my lover left when the snow came and found a house-sitting job on Nob Hill. She had enough financial resources to pull it off, for a few months anyway. I went into a jealous rage: I wanted her life. Not the life I had, of constant overwork. I went out to visit her for a weekend, and we walked all over the city. There were flowers blooming, and her borrowed apartment had a spectacular view. It was perfect. I flew back into the packed gray snow of late winter in Massachusetts with hot tears in my eyes. I was chained to my job at Smith, and I wanted to give Seth a chance to go to college, if he wanted to.

I kept on dreaming of a life in San Francisco. When I came back from Africa, one of my old Smith friends had found a job in San Francisco and an apartment in the Castro. I went to visit him. Loved it. But then I had two African children to raise, both of them adolescent girls with emotional problems and health problems and…. In 2002 I was down to one teenager, and I considered moving, with that one teenage daughter, to share a house with some other people in Oakland, but Manko and I would have to share a room with a woman I had never met, and by then I was nearing 60. How would I get a job in that most competitive of cities? I didn’t go. I chickened out, afraid that trying to share a room with a stranger and a teenager would be worse than staying in Texas. Just three years ago, I thought maybe I could join Thich Nhat Hanh’s Deer Park Monastery near L.A., and when I went there for the UUA annual meeting, I visited the monastery. Beautiful. Perfect. I thought if I could just get Manko launched, maybe I could go there and become a nun. But they told me, sadly, they don’t take people over fifty-five. I was too old.

Every time I went, I looked around me and saw other people who were somehow working and living there. Why couldn’t I? Too old, too young, too poor, too scared, too responsible. Maybe this time. I know there is no “geographical cure” in life. I know we take with us whatever our obsessions and neuroses are. I know the San Francisco I associated with Donovan no longer exists. I know we meet ourselves on the path, wherever we go. And so I come back to that dream I had last night. I met myself on the path. In the hills of Marin County. By the Pacific. Maybe it’s an omen. Maybe my time is coming. It’s possible. My eyes fill with tears. I am almost afraid to hope for it. But I do hope. Maybe this time it’ll work. Even the hard-working birds get to soar sometimes. Maybe I’ll find a little nest in the Marin hills, where I can polish floors and do kitchen prep and have a little bit of time to gaze out to sea.

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-8 responses to “Dreams, Omens, Birds, and San Francisco”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    Yes, birds work without rest forever soaring about in the air for our cheap delight to get if they’re lucky a couple of insects to swallow. I look at my pampered parrot who doesn’t have to lift a wing, who hates flying and won’t unless pushed, and who sleeps sixteen hours out of twenty-four when he’s not shrieking for his salad and to have his head scratched. There’s a parable there! As a human being he’d be insufferable, it’s only his pretty feathers that save his neck from being wrung – that and his trusting dependence.nrI never cared for that ‘hippie’ stuff, I thought it was infantile from the start, but when I first went to San Francisco in 1973 I could almost have been converted by the remnants even while living in bourgeois comfort thanks to a kind American who took me to morning cocktails in a revolving air-borne restaurant and extolled on the ‘romance’ of the place, where those rugged pioneers could go no further because they’d met the sea. ‘Rugged rituals’ could still be conducted after dark in SF in those days, and there was a sort of second-hand romance in those too. It was only later I washed a plate ….
    One must never regret the past, it has its hidden purpose

  2. admin says:

    Is my regret showing? How embarrassing. I try never to regret anything, even the longings that come again and again. I don’t know if the past has a hidden purpose. I just know it’s the past. What I know is this moment, and in this moment, I see my old longings in the present, and I poke them in the ribs and say, “Hey, we ain’t dead yet!” Who knows what’s coming?

  3. stephenbrody says:

    I think you must pick up Proust again as soon as possible, Kendall!

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