Friday morning. 5 a.m. A soft pink dawn is lightening the bedroom. The cicadas are gone—or at least silent.
There were many dead bodies on the driveway when I got home.
I had to go to the doctor yesterday for a COVID related treatment. I had a dental carie.
I blame COVID. And myself. I must have been neglectful for some days. Or weeks. Or months during the dark days of the past 15 months. My dentist appointment for 2020 was canceled due to COVID. I go every June whether I need it or not. When I went a couple weeks ago, the dentist showed me a shadow on my X-ray, and I was scheduled to have it fixed after my return from California.
It was the first cavity I have had filled in 20 years, I would guess.
I sprinted through the California trip.
Was I running to things or away from something?
The final day was the most difficult.
I am paying for that now. I am still exhausted.
I’d spent the last few days touring with a friend.
Tuesday I had an overnight flight home taking off at 11:59 p.m. We checked out of our rooms at the Hayes Mansion and sped up the east side of the Bay in our two cars. The hotel is southwest of San Jose. Near Oakland, we stopped at a friend’s bookshop. It was my first visit. It appears he has been acquiring books since COVID. But he is one of those booksellers who remembers where everything is.
We were in a rush, and I only had time to find one book. It was a leaf book with an original issue of The Spectator tipped in.
We left one car there and headed to the far end of Napa for a wine tasting at a place she wanted me to experience. The Frank Family Winery near Calistoga.
Drive. Drive. Drive.
It was an idyllic afternoon there. The tasting rep was delightful. He had a grasp of the area’s history, viniculture, gossip…
“Where are you from?”
The tastings were sold out but for one slot, we’d been told. The only time available was 12:30. But the only other people being regaled by this man were a young couple on the other side of the veranda from us. There were a few other tasters and their tutors scattered around the grounds.
“They’re from Maryland too!”
“I’m from Frederick,” I told them.
“That’s near my bookstore. Wonder Book.”
“We LOVE Wonder Book! We were just talking about it this morning—how much we miss it,” the young woman offered.
“I love your work,” the young man added.
Turns out they’d moved out to Santa Cruz a couple years before.
The wine monologue multiplied into a Maryland, COVID lockdown, book, 5-way conversation.
We even discussed east coast wine. I told them the old joke about the bottle of Maryland wine that was re-gifted so many times it became legend. No one wanted to open it.
“You already gave that to me. Twice!”
True story. It is not as bad nowadays. Some—like Black Ankle—are excellent.
But east coast wine is nothing like the Frank’s had. They can’t compete with the climate and soil and… I ended up buying the most expensive case of wine I’ve ever gotten. It is just stunning.
We were told that some vintages had been ruined by the fire last fall—he pointed to the charred slope beyond the vines. The Glass Fire.
You can see the mountain beyond the wine glass.
He ran off a list of the wineries that were destroyed in the month long fire last September and October.
I stood right on this porch with the owner (a former Paramount and then Disney President.)
“They dropped fire retardant all over us.”
Our tasting took quite a while, but eventually the master had to break us up.
The couple bought a couple bottles, and as they rose to leave the young man repeated, “I love your work.”
I guess that makes me a “book artiste”—the business is my palette.
I was very flattered and gratified.
We tried to rush back down the Bay, but it was rush hour—so we crawled.
I had to get across the bay to San Francisco for a farewell dinner with my sister-in-law and her sister and my nephew.
I took them out, and we had a fabulous (and fabulously expensive) dinner. Butternut squash ravioli, if you must know. I was so tired I feel asleep back at their house.
My nephew nudged me awake at 10. “Uncle Chucky, I think you should get to the airport.”
I was on autopilot when I got to the airport and dropped off the car. The overnight flight wasn’t very long flying east. With the 3-hour time change, we landed about 7:30 a.m. I had an interview to apply for Global Entry and was back in Frederick about 10 a.m.
I was way behind. I was exhausted. I spent the day mostly going through carts of old books set aside for me in my absence. I went home a little early and crawled into bed. My own cool sheets felt good.
I noticed something was missing. The droning screams of the 17-year cicadas were gone.
I left off last Thursday when this story was rushed off due to the time differential and my editor leaving early Friday.
I spent Thursday looking around San Jose. The fat DK California guidebook wasn’t much help. My first stop was the Winchester Mystery House. On the promotional material, it appears to be a tourist trap, but it is actually a fascinating and huge Queen Anne style Victorian mansion. There are thousands of windows and dozens of doors. The builder, the widow of the Winchester rifle magnate, apparently built the house continuously from 1886 until her death in 1922. No expense was spared. There was also no planning. According to Mrs. Winchester’s whims (or guidance by spirits according to some theories), she added on. And on. And on. Up and out and around. There are something like 160 rooms, and the self-guided tour rambles up and down. Some of it is quite beautiful. Some downright weird. The main reception room with its huge pipe organ has two stained glass windows with odd Shakespeare quotes is stunning.
Like so much of the rest of the place, no one knows what their meaning is. All her possessions were sold after her death, so the dozens of bookcases throughout the house only have junk in them.
There is only speculation about Mrs. Winchester’s motives. She left no records or diaries. It is clear that there was some madness and depression involved. Some same she was haunted by the ghosts of Native Americans killed by the rifles her husband invented. Her incredible wealth allowed her to have any whim built to fruition.
From there, I headed to the Santa Clara Mission. The website said it was open. But when I arrived, it was locked.
It is on the grounds of Santa Clara University which are beautiful. Graduation was the next day. A stage and seating were being set up. I felt sorry for the seniors who had their final three semesters stolen from them. Along the cloister walk at the former monastery was a row of olive trees “Planted in 1822.” 199 years ago.
From there, I headed to the Basilica downtown. I had checked to be sure it was open. The website said yes. But when I pulled on the front door:
I wandered around the dining and shopping district. So much was closed. Vacant storefronts’ windows stared out like empty eye sockets.
It was pretty depressing.
I decided to leave town. I drove down to the seaside town of Santa Cruz. The beach and amusement park were pretty busy. I walked out to the end of the long pier, and about half the shops and restaurants were open. I had an early dinner of Spam Musubi (a Hawaiian delicacy) and Lychee Martini.
Friday morning was spent tweaking the last book story. Then I headed up to San Francisco. I checked to make sure the Legion of Honor art museum was open. I verified that by buying timed entry tickets. The website said the special Pompeii exhibit was sold out.
Damn! I would have liked to have seen that.
When checked in, I asked if any tickets for Pompeii had become available.
It was stunning. The theme was “The Last Supper in Pompeii.” Artifacts frozen in time showed daily life of dining and socializing and food and wine production.
“From the Table to the Grave.”
In one glass case, they had a carbonized scroll. There is a library frozen in time by Vesuvius. With technology, those books might be deciphered someday.
From there, I headed to Chinatown. I hadn’t had “American” Chinese food since I was a kid. Doreen Feng‘s mention of Chop Suey had me interested in trying it at an authentic restaurant.
I’d seen this place on my last visit. It boasts having been cooking food for over 100 years. It was only carryout. COVID. I took it across the street to the park and ate it out of a plastic box with chopsticks. I sat on a bench amongst the elderly Asian chess players or those just sitting and soaking up the sun.
The Chop Suey was good, but not something I’d bother with again.
It was a short walk to City Lights Bookstore. The aura of—was it arrogance?—was still off putting when I stepped across the threshold, just like my visit 2 months ago. There was nothing for me there. However, across the very narrow alley—Jack Kerouac Alley—the Vesuvio Bar was now open. I stepped into the cool dimness. I asked the young bartender if he could make me a martini.
I was the only one in the place, and we chatted a bit.
It was like being in a different world and time.
Like Pompeii, this place was frozen in time. Unchanged for decades.
From there, I headed to the Mission Dolores. I’d checked online to make sure it was open.
I spent an hour or so wandering through the adobe mission—built in July 1776. In the adjacent basilica, I prayed and lit candles for my brother and parents and other departed brothers. An organist was playing for no one. I knelt at the same altar as Pope John Paul II did in 1987.
I had come to San Francisco for my brother’s memorial service that evening. I don’t like these sorts of things, but I did my duty.
I didn’t know people were going to be invited to speak, so I hadn’t prepared. But after three or four others, I stepped up and did my duty. I was the only representative from my side of the family, so I talked about growing up with my parents and three brothers. When I was done, I couldn’t think of anything else I should have said.
There was no l’esprit de l’escalier. But I wish I’d said more. Everything.
It was interesting meeting the nearly grown great nieces and nephew. There were about 25 people there. Mostly my sister-in-law’s family and my brother’s friends from Cape Cod and San Francisco.
Saturday I worked my way up to the city once again. I searched hard for something I hadn’t done before. The guidebook mentioned the Filoli Mansion with little more than a footnote. But I sought it out. When I pulled into the parking lot, there was a sign that you had to buy tickets in advance. I dug out my laptop and turned on the hotspot and bought tickets online in the car.
It is a beautiful building. The TV series Dynasty was filmed there. Never watched it. The Filoli Mansion had a stunning library. But all the books were “Books by the Foot.” Maybe we sold them. The gardens were lovely and sprawling.
From there, I headed to Haight Ashbury. I don’t recall ever walking around there. Driving by, it seemed too touristy, and as if the denizens trying to recreate an era they had no part in. I walked to the Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury. Then on Haight, I stepped into an authentic looking dive bar. The Golden Cane. Established 1926.
I asked the bartender if he could make me a gin martini.
“I can. I can.”
He was one of the most interesting barkeeps I’ve ever met.
He was tall with white hair and had Irish features right out of central casting.
And he said everything twice.
“Good man, good man.
There you have it, there you have it.
You’re the boss, you’re the boss.
Very good, very good.
You too, you too…”
From there, I headed to Tony’s house. I wanted to follow people to the pier where the sailing ship was docked. I had no idea where it was.
Turned out I was needed. My sister-in-law and two great nieces hopped in the Camaro. The girls were nimble but needed to sit on their legs in the cramped back seat.
The ship was beautiful. Hand built. Two masts. Three sails. There was a crew of 5, plus a teen girl who was apprenticing. We motored out into the bay, and then the sails were hoisted.
At some point, a minister stepped forward. He was a childhood friend of my nephews from Vermont who happened to live in the city.
Tony was not devout. I don’t even know if he considered himself Christian. But at times like these, people—families—do things.
The minister nearly apologized to the 30 or so onboard. “I am an Episcopalian minister, and these are the kind of words I use.”
He said prayers, and many of his words were blown away by the sea breeze and flapping sails.
I did hear, “I am the resurrection and the life…”
Those always take to the last moments before the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities.
“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-Three.
They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.
One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe—a woman—had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her. If he had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these:
“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.
“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Then a wooden box containing my brother’s ashes was produced.
“Anyone who would like to, please feel free…”
I reached in and took a handful of Tony. I knelt at the gunwale and said a Paternoster.
I leaned over far, so the gritty sand wouldn’t fly back up into the ship.
Without thinking, I wiped my hand on my knee.
I was now free.
A friend from Walnut Creek came down and met me.
What to do…
Looking online, there was a part of Stanford I had never visited. Leland Stanford’s Mausoleum. It is set secluded on a large lawn of dead brown California grass. Nearby is a huge facsimile of the Weeping Angel statue I’d fallen in love with when I visited the Protestant Graveyard in Rome to seek out Keats and Shelley’s graves.
My friend had never seen the Cantor Museum there. I could do with another visit as well. I had booked online—free tickets—just to be sure it was open.
It is a beautiful building. The marble lobby has a large statue of Minerva (Athena) looking down from the mezzanine.
I almost laughed when I saw the mezzanine was lined with bookcases loaded with thousands of repurposed books.
“Books by the Foot.”
It is a temporary display. #art.
I didn’t think to read what the meaning was.
It was very nice. A lot of work went into it. But we do similar things every day.
I did send images back to Frederick for us to consider using as inspiration.
The museum has some stunning work including more Rodin than I ever seen in one place. There are also many Rodin in the statuary garden outside—including a massive creation called The Gates of Hell—from Dante.
Monday we headed down to Monterey to buy books.
We stopped in at Carpe Diem. It is a jewel of a bookshop. I gathered a nice little stack, including some signed by another dead “lover”—MFK Fisher.
From there, we headed down to Big Sur. I wanted to find the Henry Miller Library (which is apparently more of a bookshop than anything), but I couldn’t find it. My phone had no reception. It was probably closed anyway. COVID.
We got as far as Nepenthe. That is an iconic cliffside restaurant built around a cabin once owned by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. It is over 70 years old now. The views are stunning.
No. I didn’t have a martini. I was driving, and the coast highway is nothing to mess with.
On the way back, we drove through Carmel and discovered Robinson Jeffers’ handmade stone home—Tor House.
Drive. Drive. Drive.
I didn’t relate to you many of the other things I did and saw.
Did I capture enough? Did I earn every minute?
There was certainly no creeping at a petty pace.
When I entered the warehouse, there was something wrong.
People now had faces.
We had gone with the CDC, OSHA and ADA guidelines in my absence.
Masks were now optional for those fully vaccinated.
Some of these people I’d worked with for over a year and never seen their faces.
It was surreal walking around—exhausted after the trip and overnight flight with almost no sleep.
Whenever I approached anyone, I automatically reached to my chin to cover up. Muscle memory.
So, is it over?
Some Maryland jurisdictions still have protocols.
I still see people driving alone in their cars with their eyes wide above their masks.
The fallout will last for years no matter what.
At some point, the debts generated in the country will need to be paid.
I’ve lost some great friends and relatives—none to COVID. But still dead or gone.
But Wonder Book has survived.
And the books…they abide.