Below are two short stories. Click the title to read.
San Francisco in 1965 was the best place in the world to be. Anything was possible.
—Hunter S. Thompson
I was fourteen years old and had a head full of ideas that was driving me insane. Right now the main one was a question: Why was Bob Dylan sprawled across me with his head between my thighs?
On December 5th, 1965, the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman gave a performance at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco. My parents dropped me off at the concert with cab fare, a slip of paper with the address of a party they were attending in “The City,” and careful instructions about how to call a taxi to transport me to them after the show. I had seen Dylan perform in Berkeley the night before and could not wait to get another dose. I slipped into my seat among the sold-out audience with excited anticipation. By this time, Dylan was an international phenomenon, and adulation was running high.
Just as Joan Baez had been a spokesperson for my longings for Truth and Beauty, Dylan expressed my anger at what was happening in the world around me. His surreal imagery created something that had not been embraced by songwriters in the folk and protest idioms. Dylan’s lyrics harked back to the Beat poets and forward toward the psychedelic future. However, he was none of the above. He was an original when we all aspired to be original, yet he also tapped into the collective consciousness of the times that were a-changin’. Sam Andrew, rhythm guitarist of Big Brother and the Holding Company, voiced what so many of us felt: “I paid attention to Dylan’s lyrics as my pattern for living.”
The performance had a prickly, uncomfortable feel to it, as if Dylan didn’t really want to be on stage. He made the audience come to him on his terms; he didn’t make any attempts to woo his public. In fact, he played hard to get, ignoring us, seemingly turning inward to the deep place from which his magnificent lyrics emerged. His rough voice and intermittent harmonica-playing were a gift, a glimpse he offered as an afterthought to those fortunate enough to witness his own private jokes, musings, epiphanies, sarcasm, rage. People loved it. Following Joan Baez’s lead, we regarded him as a prophet operating on a much higher plane of existence from the hordes of pedestrian mortals. He could see and understand the workings of the universe. Bob Dylan was better than us!
Joan Baez made a surprise appearance for a couple of duets, draping an arm over Dylan’s shoulder, claiming him as her own. His body language indicated something less than reciprocal affection. He even tried to shake away her arm. That was confusing, but he was a poet, a seer. Bob Dylan could act any way he wanted, even towards Her Royal Highness of Folk, Queen Joan.
The concert was over all too soon. The magic dissipated and the packed house slowly emptied. I found a phone booth in the lobby and called a taxi, carefully mimicking my parents’ unfamiliar instructions step-by-step. A half-hour later I was alone, sitting on a bench in the massive polished granite foyer, still waiting for the cab. Through the row of glass doors I watched the rain pouring down outside. The wet street was as shiny as the lobby walls, reflecting car headlights, blinking neon shop signs and streetlights in what seemed like a visual counterpart to the surreality of Dylan’s lyrics. I sank into a reverie, reliving the concert and my hero’s enigmatic presence.
The sound of footsteps jogged me loose from my thoughts and I looked up, expecting to see a cabbie. Instead, what to my wondering eyes should appear but Bob Dylan! He was staggering and weaving across the lobby in my direction. His shock of unruly hair was even more disheveled than usual, his skin even more pallid and his normally hooded eyes unfocused and partially closed. Before I could take in what was happening, Dylan collapsed next to me on the stone bench. His head fell into my lap face-down, and his arms wrapped around my hips as if by their own volition. He was out cold. By then I was barely conscious myself. I froze. I stared in catatonic terror at the sainted head between my legs.
A few seconds later there were more footsteps. Joan Baez appeared. Seeing her beloved sprawled unconscious across a paralyzed teenage girl, she hit the lobby at a dead run. She hurled herself onto the bench and dragged him off of me. She placed the holy head into her own lap. She stroked Dylan’s face and tenderly crooned to him.
“Someone get some water!” Joan Baez ordered the empty lobby. Water did not appear. She cast an accusing look at me. I stared into the beautiful dark eyes, now filled with urgency, and slipped even more deeply into catatonia. Unlike Michelangelo’s Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, who was brought to life by the touch of God, I had been rendered inanimate by the touch of my god in the Masonic Auditorium lobby. Baez looked disgusted. She gently propped Dylan’s inert body against me as if I were a statue. The creases in his brown suede jacket pressed into my arm and his hair tickled my cheek as I struggled to support the surprising heft of the slight form of my fallen idol. As his body language gave every indication that he was going to slide onto the floor if I didn’t do something, my arms suddenly rose as if by their own volition and wrapped themselves tightly around Bob Dylan.
Joan surveyed the lobby until she located a trash can. She fished out an empty Coke bottle and filled it with water from a drinking fountain. Then she returned and quickly poured it over his head and into his mouth. I watched rivulets of Coca Cola-laced water cascade down my best dress, then pool and sink into the immaculate black velvet.
Dylan slowly regained consciousness and pulled slightly away from me, his suede jacket making sandpaper noises against my soaking dress. Joan Baez draped one of his arms over her shoulders to support him and hoisted him to his feet. For just one brief, shining, shaky moment, Dylan turned around, placed his free hand lightly on my shoulder and gave me a slight, lopsided grin.
“She’s a friend of mine,” He muttered to Joan.
At that moment my cab pulled up in front of the auditorium. I held a door open for them as Joan half-guided and half-dragged Dylan out of the building and down the rainy steps. They commandeered my taxi. She folded him into the back seat and then climbed in beside him, her body curled towards him with almost maternal concern. I watched them as the cab pulled into the snarl of traffic and disappeared amidst a parade of taillights, two silhouetted heads in the back seat, Joan’s arms tightly around her man and her cheek pressed against his, and Dylan appearing to pull slightly away.
I called another cab.
The Best Meal I Ever Ate
The best meal I ever ate took place when I was nineteen years old. I don’t know whether it would taste as delicious to me today, but as a memory it has remained unsurpassed for over thirty years. Some might propose that the meal’s appeal lay in satiating a lusty and ravenous adolescent appetite. However, my most potent hungers were of a different nature. I had recently fled from an emotionally shaky Berkeley and Haight-Ashbury adolescence to the sanctuary of a small college in rural Michigan. I desperately needed to be among people whose daily diet did not include mind altering drugs, and who had never inhaled tear gas hurled at them during anti-war demonstrations. Most white, middle class Michigan college kids had not yet witnessed narcotics arrests, a school bombing, suicides and acid freak-outs among their friends. I wanted their innocence and freshness to rub off on me. I longed to view a world of promise and goodness through their trusting eyes.
A number of students rented ramshackle clapboard farmhouses that dotted the countryside surrounding the college. Doors remained perpetually unlocked, and front porches, kitchens and sometimes bedrooms welcomed fellow members of the tribe at all hours. I shared a rambling upstairs apartment in a comfortably faded Victorian house with Annie Joachim. Annie was tall, willowy and elegant; I short and zaftig. However, we both had masses of frizzy brown hair to proclaim that our sisterhood was powerful. Indeed, we had one of the closest of bonds: Annie and I loved to cook together. Every day except during finals week we concocted elaborate meals for ourselves and our friends in our commodious, beat-up kitchen. We constantly sought out unfamiliar ingredients and tackled particularly difficult recipes. She called me “Crazy Mimi” and I called her “Greasy Annie.” We envisioned ourselves as rough-cut versions of all-embracing earth mother goddesses: Bring us your huddled masses yearning to be fed, and we shall provide from our ever-full larder and largess.
The only times we plummeted from our amber waves of grain-goddess heaven were when Annie’s mother descended upon our funky temple of gastronomy. Mama would furiously scrub our kitchen from stem to stern while muttering imprecations in a rural Italian dialect. When every surface was sanitized within an inch of its life, she would produce a shopping bag containing 4–inch lengths of carefully sanded broomsticks that served as molds for cannoli shells. Pointing us in the direction of the nearest exit, Mama would disappear for several hours into clouds of flour and perpetual motion. When the white dust settled, all available surfaces were covered with tubes of crispy pastry stuffed with an exotic, hard-to-find delicacy called ricotta. The rich and unfamiliar filling was laced with bits of candied orange peel and tiny chunks of chocolate. Mama would survey the profusion of pastries, then glare at us. This maternal force of nature would hold her fire for a moment while I gushed about how much I loved her work. Then, with a tart comment or two about Annie’s bralessness and unruly hair, she would vanish with her broomsticks, leaving evidence of her fierce love for her daughter behind in a mountain of cannolis.
When Mama was not around to remind us that we were still our mother’s daughters, Annie’s and my cooking prowess made us big fishes in a very small stockpot. That is why we now sat in the living room of a somewhat intimidating couple we barely knew. They were friends of friends; I believe their names were John and Rita, and they had invited us over to help them prepare a very special dinner. When we arrived, they were out trudging through the woods, searching for elusive but plentiful wild mushrooms. Annie and I decided to begin preparations for the feast while we waited for them to return, hopefully with a bounty of foraged fungi. Like our kitchen, John’s and Rita’s probably had last been refurbished during the national post-World War II spring cleaning. The room featured dingy linoleum flooring of mottled blue and white squares, and yellowed wallpaper with Dutch boys and girls ice-skating around windmills. We wandered around, searching cabinets and drawers for utensils and ingredients. Having located the basics, I peeled and minced yellow onions on a deeply grooved, plywood pull-out cutting board that was probably as old as the house. I melted a large quantity of sweet butter in a blue speckled enamel kettle. Annie cut up a chicken, then browned the pieces in more butter in a cast iron skillet on the burner next to mine.
Presently, we heard the creaking sound of a screen door, followed by the protesting springs on a glass and aluminum storm door, and finally a strong shove administered to a warped and recalcitrant wooden door. These sounds of entry were followed by the stomping of boots and a wisp of laughter. A husky, heavily bearded man and a diminutive woman with long braided hair stood before us. An aura of smoky autumnal air encircled them and their faces were whipped to a glowing ruddiness by its chill. John and Rita peeled off old navy pea coats and seaman’s wool hats to reveal identical outfits of faded plaid flannel shirts and well-worn blue jeans. They unlaced tall hiking boots caked with mud and bits of crinkly brown leaves, and dumped them with heavy thuds onto a rectangle of carpet sample beside the front door. John was an environmental studies student, wearing a woodsman’s uniform to prove it, whereas Rita had dropped out of graduate school to become a plumber. She immediately announced her profession whenever she was introduced to someone. Her testy, defensive tone dared any new acquaintance to question a career move which was obviously made to emulate one of the 1970s standard-issue models of the liberated, take-no-shit woman. I wonder how long she lasted at dismembering toilets and crawling under sinks solely as a political statement.
With shouts of triumph, the couple hauled in a tin bucket filled to the brim with enormous, meaty-looking mushrooms. They were shades of red-orange and white, the colors of freshly boiled crabs. The fungi were twisted into odd shapes, as if each wished to bellow a declaration of its individuality. At first I felt a city-girl’s distrust of Nature’s untamed forces. These mushrooms were not small, tidy and uniform. They did not come in a package. How did I know they weren’t deadly toadstools? However, the native hunter-gatherers did not look worried, so I closed my eyes, tossed off such thoughts as if they were the final shot of tequila containing the worm, and surrendered to the high spirits of the others. We rubbed off the earth which clung to the mushrooms in moist clots. It smelled of leaf mold and moss; remainders of the rich forest soil in which the fungi had been peacefully growing until an hour ago. Next, we cut the mushrooms into large chunks and sautéed them slowly with the onions. Annie added the browned chicken pieces to the kettle. Meanwhile, Rita reached for a bottle of wine from a tall cupboard—probably a rot-gut red commensurate with the general state of our budgets—and poured a liberal amount into the pot. Intoxicating swirls of steam rose up before she placed a cover on the kettle and lowered the flame to just above a flicker.
We retreated to the living room to wait, sprawling on lumpy couches covered with Indian bedspreads and woolen crocheted afghans. John knelt to stir up the coals in a black, potbellied wood stove and then carefully arranged a few logs over them. Before shutting the door he tossed in some cones of pine-scented incense to perfume the stove’s radiant warmth. Their scent mingled with the aroma of the simmering stew, permeating the room with elemental odors that sent healing smoke signals into my soul. We told dumb jokes until the stew was almost done. Rita returned to the kitchen and poured a carton of heavy cream into the pot. She tasted, wrinkled her nose and sprinkled on salt and pepper. After a few more samplings and sprinklings, she gave a satisfied nod. She then tossed in a handful of tiny wild chives snipped from a meadow near the house and let the mixture simmer a few minutes more.
John ladled the stew into a crazy quilt of improvised bowls: a 1-quart measuring cup, a stainless steel work bowl and a couple of heavy ceramic crocks designed to store flour and sugar. Thirty years later I can still see the tiny pearls of golden butter and chicken fat floating amid swirls of cream and wine. Onion-flecked pieces of chicken melted away from the bone at the touch of my spoon. I can still feel the textures of silken cream and melted butter and the tang of winey broth rippling around my tongue. Rough surfaces of chicken contrasted with slippery-smooth mushrooms against the roof of my mouth; the mushroom chunks chewy yet tender, with the essence of the woods exuding from the juices that exploded with every bite. The stew was rich, complex, and yet oh, so simple, so right. The flavors spoke of a clean, clear place of vibrant, pure air where flora and fungi pushed through rain-soaked loamy soil made from the fallen leaves of a thousand autumns. The stew tasted of a life force that had survived and replenished itself for so long that it just might outlast the War, threats of the Bomb, clashes between new paradigms and calcified social structures, and the travails of one shy and anxious person struggling through the transition from girl to woman. It was the best meal I ever ate.