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Chapter 7 — Early intuition about wanting to be a writer, my sister, and drugs in the house.
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 07 — Church Street
The J Church streetcar line passed directly in front of the flat where I lived with my mother the last couple years of high school. Before I got a motorcycle, I’d jump on the train in the morning for the few blocks up to 24th Street, and then take the 48 Quintara bus up the hill to McAteer High, one of several large urban high schools in San Francisco but perhaps the most prison-like both in its architecture and for being situated directly across the road from a so-called “detention center” for underage lawbreakers. The looming threat of “Juvie” was always present at Mac, and students would often migrate between the two institutions during the course of their four-year educational bid.
My mother’s house was one of a row of nearly identical two-up Edwardians, ours painted light blue with an iron security gate and simple hardware-store address numbers on the white garage door. My mother had bought the building with her friend Mary, who lived downstairs. To get to our place, you’d come in through the gate and go up the covered exterior stairs to a landing with the two front doors. Inside ours there was another set of stairs that curved upwards and ended in a short hallway from which you could see into the kitchen as well as out to the living room in the front of the house, which had a huge rectangular window with a view of Twin Peaks.
* * *
One afternoon after school I sat working at the machine of the moment, an IBM PC ‘Junior’ with a color display and a janky little keyboard whose square-sided keys often jammed as I typed. My mother’s friend and neighbor Betty was there with me, perhaps having offered some supervision, or just company, for those after school hours while my mother was still at work. Betty had become something of an aunt to me—wide-hipped, warm and womanly, funny and free—and openly gleeful about not having kids of her own, just as she very clearly took a parental interest in those of others.
I was bashing away in Wordstar on my creative writing homework when she turned to me and asked, “So, Bo, what’s it gonna be?” I quickly thumbed the Control key and then the K-S command sequence to save the document that I was working on and listened for the grr-grrb sound of the floppy drive confirming that my work was safe. I knew what she meant—what did I want to with my life? At this point I hadn’t yet come to resent the question, and I liked Betty and appreciated her interest.
I pushed my chair back from the desk a few inches. The short story I’d been working on was still displayed in blocky text on the screen in front of me, and sitting on the shelf in the next room were some of my favorite books—Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, and the hard SF of Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and others, like Charles Sheffield.
“I’m going to be a writer—in my fifties,” I said.
Those books were already part of my identity, but I hadn’t made any real connection between the short fantasies I’d been writing in class with the idea of becoming a writer, something that felt totally unknown and as far from my world as fifteen feels from fifty—light years apart, like the far-flung future worlds that I loved reading about.
Even so, I completed my answer as if “Now, all I need are stories” was something that felt like part of me, and Betty took what I’d said at face value.
She looked back at me with some satisfaction and said. “All right—so, go get them.”
I did understand that I would need material, and I was pleased at having had come up with an answer that sounded like it made sense—and I was also relieved, since the way it came out gave me about thirty-five years to fuck off and party before I would have to get down to business. I might actually have considered for an instant that I could go out and begin to gather those stories right then, but I dismissed that idea as quickly as it appeared. of
Later that day, replaying my short conversation with Betty, I imagined going out into the world alone to make and collect stories, and I heard a different voice, one that had been growing in me right alongside my interest in language and writing.
The voice said, “I can’t,” meaning that as I pictured it, it felt very lonely out there in the world. I didn’t lack confidence or capability—but I was already feeling an acute sense of loneliness and confusion that would grow stronger for decades before I eventually began to revisit the source and reverse course towards “I can.”
I loved what I was reading, and I enjoyed what bit of writing I was doing even then, but I had no conception of the writers themselves as people, let alone any way to see myself becoming one of them. Instead, I was consumed by the world around me, and filed the idea of “writing” away so deeply that it was soon forgotten.
* * *
Middle school lets out earlier, and so my younger sister was usually already home by the time I came back from school myself. As I came up the front stairs with my skateboard in my right hand, I could hear her thrashing in her room down the hall. I stopped there on the landing before opening the door, unsure whether to go inside. The sounds coming from the house were violent—things being thrown and hitting the walls, fists pounding on the door, and her voice, a nearly incomprehensible, frantic torrent of crying, shouting and wailing, “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, you don’t understand, you can’t help me, I hate you, you don’t understand, you don’t understand!”
I stood at the front door with the key in the lock, considering my options. I felt some fear of stepping inside, but more than that I was repelled, even disgusted. I didn’t want to be part of it, and I hated my sister for what I saw as causing these massive scenes. Still, I didn’t really have anywhere else to go. It also occurred to me that the drama might make for good viewing. I turned the key, opened the door, and climbed the inside stairs, my ear turned towards the back of the flat.
My mother was in the kitchen, standing on the large black and white floor tiles. She looked almost wildly distraught, moving back and forth in the room one way and then the other. I could feel her desperation, and also her impotence. Powerless and empty, like dry toast left out on the counter. My father was in the living room, bent down to collect a mess of shnibbles—their word for the mess created as my sister would enact her unrest by taking scissors to a magazine and producing hundreds of tiny bits of cut-up paper, and then sweeping them like confetti from the table to the floor. As he worked, he was shouting back down the hall, “Thea! Stop, Thea!” as the volume of sounds coming from her room continued to increase.
It sounded to me like a tornado breaking up a building—boards splintering, breaking glass—a terrific, crashing storm, but inside the house. Dangerous. I felt cold. My mother looked up at me and asked me with her eyes if I knew of anything that might help. I didn’t know what had happened, but I’d seen my sister this way before, and there wasn’t anything that was going to help.
In a momentary lull, the doorbell rang. My mother threw up her hands and sighed, remaining in the kitchen while my father scrambled downstairs to open the door. I heard another man questioning him, and then my dad’s voice calmly trying to explain what was happening in a way that would satisfy whoever was asking. I couldn’t quite make out the words, and I wondered what he could be saying when my sister, still in her room by herself with the door closed, let out a long, blubbering howl, a sound of deep, animal suffering I’d only ever heard from her.
Growing up in San Francisco, making my way around the city through alleys and stairways, timing the red lights and drinking beer from paper bags, I knew from my youngest years that it wasn’t a good idea to stick around when the cops showed up. Looking back, I can only try to imagine what it might have been like for my father to face them and their questions at the front door. Right then, all I wanted to do was get out of there.
I grabbed my skateboard, and I must have gone down the back stairs and out through the garage, because the next thing I knew I was back on the sidewalk. I felt the close air of the house like a cloud of thorns behind me as I sucked in the breeze coming over the hills from the ocean. I opened my hand and stepped forward, my board landing just as my foot came down on top of it, pushed off, and rolled, the four wheels instantly click-clacking fast across the square creases of the concrete, feeling the freedom in my legs—and I was gone.
* * *
Just a year or so later, my parents had reached their wits end and sent my sister off to boarding school in remote northern California. With her room empty, my mother rented it out to a series of lodgers—a woodworker, an actor, and then for a while, my friend and first idol of masculinity, Sandy.
Sandy was already using when he came to live with us. I stuck with alcohol and speed myself, in part due to a feeling that heroin would prove to be just too attractive. I knew better than to risk getting stuck in that tar pit, and so while I had heard of certain friends shooting up, I had never seen it done.
Once Sandy moved in, I got to see it all first-hand.
I came home from a day in my junior year of high school to find the house blissfully quiet in the afternoon, a complete change from when my sister had been around. Sandy was a year or two older than me. As I recall, he dropped out not long before he left home to come stay with us, and then earned his GED later on his own. I don’t know exactly why he stopped going to school, but I knew what it felt like to be disinterested. What I didn’t quite get was how depressed he must have been, spending so much time alone, indoors, and isolated.
What it meant for me at the time was that he was almost always at home when I got back from school, and I was always happy to see him. I made my way down the hall and heard him there in his room, the door cracked a quarter of the way open.
“Hey Sandy,” I said, giving the door a push and then leaning on the jamb, poking my head in to see him lying on top of the covers in the dim, reading a Spider-man comic.
He called me by the nickname that only a very few of my friends ever used, always of their own spontaneous choosing, and then gave me the prompt I’d been waiting for.
“Hey Bobo. All right, day’s events?”
Having Sandy ask me how my day had been was a like warm embrace, even as I also knew that he put it in the specific terms of “events” because of how, as soon as he’d given me the OK, I’d spool off a list of all the mundane details of what had happened without pausing or saying much about how I might have felt, let alone stopping to ask him anything in return. The bus ride up the hill, who was sitting on the stairs, first period art with Ms. Pannone, second period creative writing with old Charlie, third period Civics, psychology with Harry, the slightly shady guidance counselor, what I had for lunch…on and on, until he raised his hand to stop me. “Hey, hey, ok, ok, hang on a second,” he said, pausing my stream of chatter.
I just wanted to talk to my guy, but I could tell that I was boring him. I was boring myself, but that’s how I’d learned to respond to how are you?—just make a list.
Sandy rolled off the bed, gathering a few things from the floor and the milk crate that served as a nightstand as he got to his feet. I backed a few inches into the hall, watching him move. Sandy had the musculature—and the salty, wavy hair—of a Santa Cruz surfer, or so it seemed to me, and he moved with a powerful grace. I still have no idea where this bodily presence of his came from. He wasn’t a skater like me, and despite having grown up out near the beach, city kids didn’t surf in those days. I never felt a sexual attraction to him or to any other man, but I did like how he looked, and even then I would have said that he was sexy dude. He was an example to me of how a man could be—strong without being hard, and just as open and warm as he was tough and capable. Girls loved him, and so did everyone else.
He moved towards me at the door, his energy filling the space between us.
“Let’s hang in your room,” he said, and I moved in that direction as he pulled the door fully open and stepped out, following me to the back of the house.
My sister’s room that he was renting faced north and was boxed in by the neighboring house, whereas my room extended from the back of the building, with windows on three sides exposed to the light. I had old sheets hung up as drapes, along with album covers and some of my Xerox collage art push-pinned to the walls, along with a tilt-top desk from the art supply store, a few crates of record albums, a shelf of sci-fi books, a dresser, and my bed.
I’d already had that desk for years. It was covered in the doodle and scrawl of colored pencils, red Sharpie, and fine-point felt-tip pens, the plywood top angled perfectly to match the sprawl of my folded, golden arm as it curled around my sketchbook.
Sandy sat himself at my desk as I dropped my school backpack in the corner and started flipping through albums, looking for something to cue up. He began arranging things in front of him on the surface of the desk:
A green Bic lighter, standing balanced on its end.
A spoon, clearly borrowed from the drawer in the kitchen down the hall.
A loosely rolled baggie containing some indistinct powder.
Even more than wanting to show me how it worked, I think he just wanted my company.
As I moved in closer to watch him work, the sounds of the firemen next door playing basketball came in through the window, the ball ping-ping-pinging on the concrete court between scraps of their conversation.
I had a camera in the room, a Pentax K-1000 that I mostly used outdoors. I wish I had more photos of those years, but there are a few, including those that we made that afternoon. One that survives is a shot of me miming with the rubber strap around my arm, holding the needle as if I was about to put it in. My mother found that picture of me a few weeks later and asked with some distress what I’d been doing. I told her truthfully that I had been just pretending, and she didn’t ask anything else about the gear.
I handed the rig back to Sandy and watched him cook up a fix and draw in the juice. He tied off and pushed the needle in, his eyes softening and his body melting. He slid off the chair, crawled over to my bed and spent the rest of the afternoon drifting there in a heroin haze as I sat and read The Martian Chronicles, an electric hum running through my body that didn’t fade for weeks.
Thanks for reading, and for being part of this journey.
This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, the book-length memoir about a man learning to listen to himself, and the price I paid until I learned how to do that, serialized right here on Substack with a new chapter published every week.
You can find everything from the memoir that I’ve published so far right here.
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