It was 1967, and it was the summer, and there is absolutely no mistaking this, because it was to be my last summer in a sense. Late in the next spring, a bullet and six months in hospitals brought an end to summers. And the following one, well, it also was not recognizable as a season. So, this was my last normal summer, and how genuinely normal it was…that is an interesting, not to mention haunting, question.
August. It must have been August. And I am almost certain it was Point Reyes. Certainly it was that month that the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page photo of South Beach at the newly opened Point Reyes National Seashore. The photo showed an empty parking lot. No one was coming to the country’s newest national park and, dammit, the Chronicle was letting us know. Foolish things, national parks. Anyway….
I was there, certainly with a group of Berkeley student friends, one of whom must have had a car. No one had a car. So the car-owning one may not have been a Berkeley student. Not that it matters. I got out there, we got out there, and in its day, this was a place for the cognisenti. Who had ever heard of Inverness, California? Absolutely no one but people who knew. People who knew important stuff. A certain in crowd. And a crowd it was, in whatever vehicle we shared. No student car drove from Berkeley to the seashore on a Sunday in those days without being crowded. Who knows? It may have been a van, even a truck. For me, it was an era of orthopedic nonchalance. Who the hell cared if my leg was jammed under someone else’s? Or if I was rattling over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge in a posture favored by one of the contortionists on the Ed Sullivan Show? In fact, aside from not caring, I may have achieved another level of oblivion by being loaded.
Surely, on a trip like this, one got stoned going or coming. Not to mention while there. Which actually was truer in spirit than in reality. Drugs had their downside, and stumbling into classes tired on a Monday morning was such a downer. Despite the spirit of the times, I may have inhaled nothing on this particular Sunday. Nothing except the marshy penetrations of the Pacific reaching into the boggy edge of dairy farms just beyond Point Reyes Station. The little town seeming so silly compared to this, islands of grass or reeds, a mystery of botanical and marine sweetness at this end of Tomales Bay. All of this hitting me as way beyond a day in the country or hippyish new-agey back to the land…no, a profound and calming force of water and wind and hills.
Was it a Sunday? Why would such a thing matter? It had the feel of a Sunday, and that I can recall the feel of such a day 44 years later…that is all that counts. The only doubtful part of the story involves the Richmond Bridge. Actually, we must have gone across the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. How else to account for Margaret? For she, Margaret Cohen, stands at the heart of this story.
Actually, Margaret stands in the surf. She had waded into the waves pounding at South Beach, lifting her skirt slightly to feel the ocean waters. This made an indelible impression on me. She did not have sinuous model-type legs, but rather full ones. Womanly thighs, one would say. Furthermore, she had not really come attired for the beach. What was she expecting, what sort of dress-wearing experience? In any case, it was the way she held her skirts, making way for the sensuous feel of water, the gentle smile on her face…the gentle everything…that must have struck me. Who knows what touches a human heart? Or why? But there was something endearing about her unpreparedness for the beach and the way she adapted. Something revelatory about womanly, non-movie-star thighs that got to me. It was so embarrassing and confusing being a 20-year-old virgin at Berkeley…which had more to do with being a recovering member of the Bendix family. But that is another story.
In any case, there is Margaret wading in the Pacific surf, holding her skirt, water swirling about her ankles and her legs, and proceeding with warmth and serenity. As though she had something to propose within her. Not to mention the suggestion of a loving, open heart. And we were talking. I was saying something to her. She was saying something to me. And what was it? It was serious, that’s what it was. For once, I was not clowning around. I was not being witty. Something about her made me serious. I was speaking as much from the heart as was possible for me. I was too frightened of women to converse easily and unguardedly, but this exchange felt like a step in that direction. Again, I do not recall the subject matter. But surely we were talking about relationships. Which must have made me feel utterly at a disadvantage. Nonetheless, that was the approximate topic. For I do recall Margaret saying something. It was the hippie era, after all, the summer of love, to be precise. Margaret lived in the epicenter, San Francisco. And she was talking about her peers, the people around. They don’t know, she said, the tragedy of love.
She had hit pay dirt, without knowing it. Margaret was speaking my language. Of course, it was a secret language, most of it not even known to me. But these words of hers struck me hard and deep. A trenchant, preternaturally adult insight, spoken by a woman who had raised her skirts to allow the Pacific Ocean to swirl about her legs…all of this more 19th-century than contemporary. Some of us are born old souls, they say. None of which I knew at the time. Only that she was a woman of substance, and soon she became an obsession. We must have driven her home, this gaggle of Berkeley students, dropped her off in San Francisco. And I almost recall this. Furthermore, I almost remember promising to get in touch, to see her again.
Which I did, but not without some prodding. We had a mutual friend, after all. Who this was…well, that detail has long since evaporated. Surely it was a woman. And she let me know that I had made some sort of impression on Margaret. Which was almost inconceivable to me. After all, she was a real woman, this Margaret. And I? Obviously incompetent, a 20-year-old virgin and so on…the debased level of my self-image cannot be exaggerated. Still, there she was, Margaret across the bay. So what was there to do but call her?
The plot immediately thickened. She was quite friendly, our Margaret, but full of additional information. She was going with a man. But this man could not have children, and their future together was unclear. Yes, she would love to see me.
Now the stakes became enormously greater. Margaret loomed across the bay. She was a woman with a lover. She was a woman with a lover who wanted a baby. I was a baby myself, most of the time, wasn’t I? So what on earth was I doing getting on the F bus and heading for the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco? Not to mention getting on the N Judah streetcar and heading for the Inner Sunset District? I was a doomed man. I was doggedly in pursuit of…well, a miracle. Women, alluring and frightening, one of whom I had talked to in the Point Reyes surf…and whatever boyfriend she had, I couldn’t hope to compete with…and surely I was a fool. The streetcar, green and curvilinear from the 1940s, trundled through the tunnel near Buena Vista Park. Were the brakes blocks of wood that smoked during use, or were those the cable cars’
? Who knows? Margaret lived on Baker Street. I vaguely recall that she was a schoolteacher. Again, this must have been a Sunday. I knocked on the door of a Haight neighborhood house, and Margaret let me in. She ushered me into a kitchen, and introduced someone, someone who was just leaving. A young black man, although I say ‘young’ from today’s perspective. Actually, he was older, perhaps mid-20s, which must have made him seem very grown-up.
Once he was gone, I felt myself shrink into my true boyish stature. After all, this woman had a man, a black man which meant…who knows…that he was more earthy, more streetwise, more something…she wanted children…he shtupped her and everything…and now she was entertaining me. There was no way I could hold my head up. There was no way I could compete. Why even try? I didn’t. I began acting silly, boyish. It would be interesting to recall the details here, but they have evaporated. Still, I can feel the approximate outlines, me at her table, talking about myself as though I was somewhere between foolish and clueless. Ha, ha. I had come to see her to…ha, ha. Time passed. Our visit concluded. I don’t believe I ever saw her again.
I don’t believe I really saw myself again, at least not very much, until I met another woman that December. Another warm, sensuous Jewish woman with a certain repose. With that woman, things worked out even worse, more traumatically. Yet there was to be even another Jewish woman, only a year and a half later, who was 70 years old and lived in London and had a photo of her pipe-smoking instructor on a bookcase, Carl Jung. I shook her hand, sat down, provided an overview of my shooting, divorced parents, this and that. After which there was a long silence. Yes, she said, when mother is sick, life is very difficult.
Boy, you can say that again.