The summer before the summer I left the Groves of Academe behind I worked as a laborer at a construction site, an apartment building that was being built in downtown Oakland not far from the public library and Lake Merritt. My friend Greg lined up the job for me.
Greg was the friend of a friend who I got to know mostly through working this construction job in downtown Oakland. His cousin was a drywall contractor based in Seattle who had decided to bid work in the Bay Area because Greg lived in Berkeley. (Greg had lived in Seattle but couldn't take the dark falls and winters; so he had relocated to the Golden State.)
The summer of 1987 was sort of an ideal time for me. My girlfriend, whom I would marry the next summer when we were in our way to New York City for her to attend medical school, had moved out, leaving me to my buddies and my books.
That summer was a steady bacchanal. The San Francisco Giants were playing well. And on the days I wasn't needed at the construction site, and my cousin, who had moved into the apartment with me when my girlfriend had moved out, was off working at the health food store where he was employed, I sat in a large stuffed chair and read Homer's Odyssey or Defoe's Robinson Crusoe or a collection of Frege's writing.
I idolized Greg because he was older than I was, a big guy with a wry sense of humor who was a superb multi-sport athlete; he was also a big drinker. Mostly I think that I looked up to him because he seemed very independent. Unattached to a woman, though the ladies loved him, unencumbered by familial ties, though he worked for his cousin, his lot seemed to me worthy of emulation (since I was ensnared in a long, flawed relationship).
That summer of '87 freedom seemed possible to me. My girlfriend, as I said, had moved out, and, while we were still seeing each other, it was not clear that she would reel me back in (which she would do effortlessly four or five months later after whatever tryst she had been pursuing expired).
In the short letter below, addressed to Greg, I look back drunkenly and longingly on that summer from two years on. For some reason, I choose to focus on the morning ritual of making coffee for us to drink while we make the short drive from Berkeley to downtown Oakland.
Greg, goddamn, it's always good to hear from you. You're always up and going forward, and taking no prisoners while you're at it. -- Let me quote: "Go to the job site and do the job. FIRE OUT!" That's it. 'Nuff said.
I'm drunk. I've finished all the malt liquor in the house, but fortunately there's a half-filled fifth of Jack Daniels and I've been dipping into that; at first it was shots, but now I've moved on to ice and a little bit of tap water. I put the ice and the Jack and the tap water in an old salsa jar, and I swirl it around vigorously. It's doing the trick. I've got Neil Young on the turntable. TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT, a great album, one of my all-time favorites, and I'm thinking back to those 6:30 AM truck rides to downtown Oakland in the gloomy bay fog.
I'd wake up before 6 and start that mud brewing in my Norelco coffeemaker (Norelco. Yes, that's right. The same company that makes electric shavers, but, sure enough, they make a fine coffeemaker). My cousin Colin was asleep in the living room on the futon; I'd stay in the kitchen, at the kitchen table, waiting on the coffee, reading a little Homer and thinking about the gray sunshine of life.
You'd show up sometime between 6:30 and 7, ringing the buzzer. I'd rush down the stairs, two big peanut-butter-jar glasses full of coffee and half & half in each fist (you dubbed 'em, "tank shells of mud"), and we'd scoot off towards Shattuck Avenue and the freeway and the workday.
Oh, well, as Dylan says, "The past is gone," or, as Neil says, "What do you mean he had bullet holes in his mirror. He tried to do his best, but he could not."
-- Give me a burlap Sun and I'll bury the Earth. But let's not stop to investigate the shark's teeth!
Keep in touch, and don't let the bedbugs bite or the toilet give you any pepper.