Sunday, May 16, 2010

97 days to Bar Mitzvah: virtual time-travel

When you live somewhere for most or all of your life, change comes with fair warning. Buildings don't pop up overnight. People don't gain 25 pounds, lose their hair and suddenly have to stay home Saturday because they couldn't get a babysitter. Neither do you feel any gaps in time. Of course everyone got older. Of course they knocked down my old elementary school. I was here when it happened.

Even my friend Roger A. Hunt, Esq., who has much better access to -- and a much keener appreciation of -- the scenes of his youth than most, has to acknowledge the passage of time. His sometimes wistful looks backward are all rooted in concrete evidence of the present. He knows where he might run into people he knows and where he won't and it would never occur to him to frequent a nightspot he hasn't been to in 20 years.

Prior to moving to San Francisco and becoming a tax-paying, home-owning citizen, my life was a series of self-contained time units: ten years of Pennsylvania (legal term: "the childhood"); about a decade in Orange County ("the adolescence"); four years in Santa Clara ("college"), then about another decade in Seattle ("the years when other people were creating "careers" instead of staring at their shoes, hoping for inspiration"), with a couple of years off for Boston and San Francisco. Then, in 2000, San Francisco where, ten years on, we have remained.

This is a blueprint for disassociation. Everywhere you go, you're there but not really there. You're visiting not only a place but also a specific point on your own personal timeline.

I get off a plane at JFK, I start looking for my grandparents' yellow Chrysler because the last time the air smelled like this, I was riding in the backseat on the way to Jones Beach. I sit in Roger Hunt's hot tub at midnight and think, "Gee, when I grow up I want to be..." Even Boston, a brief layover in what I hope is a long haul of a life, last time I was there I automatically began trudging up Beacon Street, trying to approximate the feeling of a young, tormented artist with $12 to last until the 15th.

It's a cursed blessing. At best, it keeps you dialed into all of the significant (and not-so-significant) parts of your life. At worst, it makes you want to drive past an old girlfriend's house not because you want to see if she's there but because you want to remember what it felt like to drive by an old girlfriend's house to see if she was there. It's real, in an unreal way.

Last Thursday, the "romantic weekend" Sandra Bullock and I planned went sideways, leaving me alone in Seattle for 24 hours before my wife and child arrived. So I had all night and most of a day to wander the very same streets I once claimed as my own.

This was the Seattle of my first year in town, of sharing a one-bedroom basement apartment two floors down from a drug dealer named "Slim" and ending most evenings either eating grilled cheese sandwiches at The Dog House on Seventh or wandering through the rain alone because I'd had another argument with my girlfriend and she'd kicked me out of the car. Stuff whose Venn diagrams in no way overlap those of a 45-year-old dad who a few hours earlier was dragging a wheelie bag through the airport, his prescription sunglasses stuffed into his shirt pocket because that's where dads keep their sunglasses when they're not wearing them.

Last Thursday, I start the night the way I started almost every night back then. I put on my coat and start walking down Fourth Avenue. Difference is that this time there's no doorman who knows me to wave me past the line to get in.

Still I look into every bar I pass, unconsciously scanning the crowd to see if I know anyone, which is ridiculous. Not only is everyone at least a decade younger than me; most of the bars I went to are now gone as well. They're all in Ballard, where I once bunked with my friend The Legendary Dr. Bando, who took me on a stroll of Ballard Way and said, "Wouldn't it be great if all of these empty storefronts became bars?"

I end up at the Pike Place Brewery, a tourist joint, according to Seattle lifer Butter Goats, alone at the bar, eating a garden burger and reading the paper.

A few hours later, I'm back out on the streets, chasing ghosts. Over there, where that 25-story condominium tower is? That was the parking lot where one night I was arguing with my girlfriend, completely exasperated, when suddenly Dr. Bando, six-foot-four and about 170 pounds, all arms and legs and (naturally) black Doc Martens, came roaring up in a Jeep CJ-5 with some girl, scooped me up and got me out of there.

Ironically, on this night 21 years later, the only two people who've respond to my Facebook message saying I'm in town? The girlfriend I was arguing with and The Legendary Dr. Bando. I end up seeing neither of them. Babysitter issues.

Eventually, I wind up standing in front of The Virginian, where I once lived in the living room of what was officially a two-room studio, sleeping on a mattress I'd pulled off a Murphy Bed from the wall. We had no shower, only a bathtub, until my roommate Annie's brother Chuck rigged one up for us.

The Virginian, once the home of us, and Slim, and the White Surpemecist punks who hung American flags over their windows, now touts itself as a "boutique apartment building." Our block, which in 1989 contained us, a sandwich shop, a hotel, a run-down SR0 building for seniors, a body shop and a small grocery store called "Ralphs," has completely changed. Ralphs has doubled in size. The empty office across the street is now a chic restaurant. The run-down SRO on the corner now commands $300 a night.

I stood there, thinking about the old guy who used to sit in a wheelchair outside the SRO hotel. Every day I'd pass him, thinking that one day, I'd offer to push him across the street, creating this wonderful bond and bringing meaning to both his final days and my nihilistic youth, until the time I saw someone try to help him across the street and he started screaming at them.

My revery is interrupted when two young guys oame down and exit the building. Don't think more than five seconds passed before I'm doing the math, wondering if these guys were two four-year-olds I passed on this street two decades ago.

There's the spot where my car sat for two weeks in December, 1988, because I couldn't get it started after a snowstorm. Back then, you could park your car on the street downtown for two weeks and not get a ticket. That building over there used to be The Watertown, where Bando got me a job working the door about two weeks after I got to Seattle. Sandra Bullock tells me now that it's likely she was one of the girls sitting in the booth I had to climb over once an hour to reverse the movie we projected onto the building next door. One night, this drunk guy threw the owner, Keith, through a plate glass window.

That weird hillside has been the Seattle Art Museum for a long time. The low-rent portion of Third Avenue where one night after last call we went to see Annie, who was working as a P.A. on a movie they were filming there, is about as hazy as the memory of River Phoenix, star of said film, wreaking drunken havoc on downtown Seattle that summer while wearing tie-dyed pants.

If I'm still living in Seattle, if I hadn't talked Sandra Bullock into making tracks for San Francisco in 2000, I wonder if I notice this stuff. Maybe each new building gradually and effortlessly rubs out all of the memories. Maybe the daily administrative tasks of life don't allow for dramatic gaps in time.

I drive around San Francisco, I don't see ghostly images of the circa-2000 Sandra Bullock, the Jawa and me. Glen Park has changed completely since we've lived here, but I don't grab a barstool at the Glen Park Station and reminisce about that time, a week after we moved in, when those two cops we met at the bar welcomed us to the neighborhood.

Yesterday, having finally distanced myself from 1989 upon the arrival of my wife and child, Bullock and I took a slow drive across Capitol Hill, where we lived together from 1993 until we moved to San Francisco.

Here, instead of pointing out scenes of drunken brawls, almost every little patch of memory has to do with the toddler-aged Jawa. We see him in his tiny little Adidas Sambas, reaching up to hold our hands, pointing up to the sky and yelling "Ahh-pane" when a plane flies by.

Our old neighborhood barely resembles itself, so much has it been physically transformed. A six-story building sits where the old grocery store was, almost completely hiding our apartment building. One block away, the one-bedroom apartment at 711 10th Avenue, where the two week-old Jawa had his bris on a rare 100 degree day, now cowers in the shadows of another new condo building.

The Jawa and I hate time travel. We talk about it often. The only way it could exist, we posit, is if all time were to happen at once. If that were true, then we could see being able to step outside of time, choose another spot along the continuum, and set down there. Even then, we get frustrated and angry when we try to make sense of the implications of going back and forward in time.

When you slice your life into finite sections of time, though, it feels like you can go back and visit the sections that are already past. You can't go forward, obviously, and going back isn't like really going back. It's more like you're Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past has given you the keys to the time-travel machine. You float around visiting things that, even if they're no longer there, remind you of how you felt when they were. Perfectly preserved in amber, the past comes free of head colds and unpaid bills, which makes it really easy not to look back with regret.

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