Brown Cake


I crossed Funston St. on the bus home today. I once stayed in a house near Funston and Haight. It was Christmas time, 1983 and the city was still irrepressably fresh and alive to me as if every possibility lay resident in this place waiting to be awakened. I was with my girlfriend Alison and we were with a girl Darcy and her boyfriend, Gierdon. I remember the cotton linens and the intense cold yellow light and the smell of incense and colorful fabrics, the warm morning caramel aroma of coffee, and hundreds of strange and exotic objects from faraway places.

I think of Gierdon pacing the rooms of the apartment madly, ravenously and then calling Darcy a fucking bitch, a fucking whore, again and again until she broke down crying. I think of his gaunt frame and hollowed out burning eyes and handsome unshaven face. He held up semi-precious stones between his fingers and twirled them in the light. Look at them, he said. Look at how beautiful they are. And I asked where they came from. Afghanistan, he said. I brought them with me from Afghanistan. I import gems from Afghanistan, he said.

On New Years Day we awoke to streets littered white with calendar pages and Gierdon he had been at the New Years show and at midnight Bill Graham’s gnarled face had appeared on a massive video screen above the stage intoning: THIS IS BIG BROTHER. AND YOU KNOW WHAT? I’M FUCKING TIRED OF WATCHING YOU GUYS. YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN, he said. And then father time descended in a spinning cloud of fireworks and the band broke into Big Boss Man and Gierdon was backstage, he said. How were you back there, I asked. I have friends, he muttered.

I think of the fight I had with my girlfriend and of how a friend’s mom drove me back to San Diego and of how this woman on several occasions saved my life. I think of how she saved my life and of how years later she was murdered by her husband.

I think of 1980 on the grass in San Diego stadium up front waiting for the Stones to come on pressed in a pack of people. I had lost my shoes and boots crushed my feet and I burned my soles on glowing cigarettes. It was so hot, burning crushing hot and Bill Graham strolled onto the stage in a cut off t shirt and sprayed us again and again. He sat on his haunches and sprayed us.

I think of the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Oakland Coliseum and again being there with my friend’s mom and of how she wanted to talk to them and how the stadium had cleared out and a lone figure made his way down the rows of thousands of chairs cramming the field and how I raced down the steps and hopped the railing onto the field and how I moved down the rows in parallel with Bill Graham slicing the plastic bracelets linking the chairs and I asked him why are you down here doing this? I pay twenty fucking thousand dollars an hour for this place, he said. I want to get out of here as fast as I fucking can, he said. I cut the bracelets and we talked. I loved this man I admired this man and I asked this man where Paul Simon was staying and this man stood up and stared with such fury. Do you think I’m stupid? he shouted. DO YOU THINK I’M FUCKING STUPID? Get this kid out of here! he bellowed. Get this FUCKING KID out of here!

I think of when the Dead played the Warfield in spring 1983 and I had driven up from Irvine by myself and it was cold that night and I had no ticket and I pleaded at the door explaining that I’d been inside and that I’d gotten sick and my friend had my ticket stub and if they would just let me in I’d take them to my seat to my friend to my ticket and the bouncer escorted me in and I led him to the balcony to a stranger whom I implored to hand me a stub but he couldn’t understand me and the yellow jacketed bouncer dragged me through the lobby right past Bill Graham who glared and hissed to me, to the bouncer, to no one, get that FUCKING kid out of here.

I think of Walodja Grajonca 13 years old before he had even reinvented himself as Bill Graham and his sister younger yet and their parents burned in the ovens of Auschwitz and how they had walked across France hiding stealing until they eventually came to Spain and his sister died there and he came alone on a ship to America. And of how he came to study business in a Bronx community college.

I think of his offices decades later torched and burned to the ground by people who hated him. I think of those final moments when his own body was consumed by flames after his chopper hit powerlines as he surveyed the Oakland fires.

And I think of the kid in the Russian class I was failing. Three days a week I was bullied by the authoritarian Gospodin Hramov a bitter White Russian who hated shitheads like me and this kid a hippie kid who spoke better Russian than me and the kid told me how that weekend some cops had found Jerry parked in his limo in Golden Gate Park and he was shooting up, he was there with all his works and when the cops realized who he was they just let him go, the kid said. Isn’t that cool man, the kid said. They just let him go. Yeah, that’s cool, I said. But even as I said it I began to think it wasn’t.

And I think of that morning that Jerry died. He was in rehab in a private clinic and he was trying to make a go of it but it was too late by then and his heart could take it no more. That morning the news had run across the ticker of the New York Stock Exchange and I had been up all night on call at the San Francisco VA with Anna not yet my wife and Danny Feikin, the only one among us who was a doctor. But there we were all three of us in blue scrubs rounding on patients pretending that we knew what we were doing. Jerry had died and I made my way across the city to the spontaneous gathering in the park and his kids and recent wife stood on a stage and his daughter said to the mass of tweaked out kids: get a life, she said. And thank you. You put me and my siblings through college.

I think of those fields and fields of crimson poppies still growing in Afghanistan. And I think of now, of this once unimagined year, of our boys, our soldiers, of the pinch and the prick, their veins lighting up with gems of china cat, with cakes of Jesus’ Son.

I think of how horrible this world is, of how truly crippled we can be, and of how strange that we can find beauty in it yet. I think of how in this wide universe none of these stories have existed except in my own head, except they now exist perhaps in yours. And I wonder what’s left when even the ashes have burned. And as I find myself being burned each day in this she-goat chimera of a city, I wonder when ones stripes have finally been earned. Does it come with being incinerated?

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3 thoughts on “Brown Cake

  1. What great Bill memories. The Simon & Garfunkel one is as classic as they come. I don’t know about those things only existing in your own head, as soon as you said you were in SF at Christmas time in 1983 I could pretty much see and taste and smell the whole thing. I think some of those runs of shows we all existed inside of each others heads.

    Bill died on power lines on Hwy 37 near Vallejo. He wanted to get home, his pilot didn’t really want to fly, but you know Bill was hard to cross. He was a Great Man, legendary and larger than life – like Kesey and Cassidy – not necessarily someone you would want to have a personal relationship with, but someone a whole generation felt they knew personally. I still have a hard time getting my head around San Francisco with out Bill, its sort of like “The Dead” with out Jerry, but for some “its better to burn out, than to fade away.”

    I know what SF looks like looking backwards into the dark. I saw plenty of people throw all the sweet goodness they had been given into the cauldron just to earn some stripes, any stripes as long as they were hard-won, or maybe to cover up one form of being crippled with another. Some of us, like us, we were just there practicing for the real challenges to come – there was some brinksmanship, and some of us kept enough balance to maybe just get singed a bit, and some people fell in when they did not mean to. Fire initiates, but the terms of the initiation matter too. I think it matters very much, for the kind of stripes you want, that this is not something you called in recklessly – this came to you and you are meeting it.

    • To think that some remembrances of Bill Graham summoned those last two sentences of yours. Thanks popsters. Sitting here in the North Beach library, eyeing the elderly chinese men reading their papers from Canton or where ever. So many lives crossing paths in this city, on this afternoon, on any afternoon.

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