Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine.....

So....here is a story of probably no interest to anyone.......

I am a famous test-taker. For some weird idiot-savant type reason, I score well on any kind of test. It may be related to my upbringing in the Anaheim School District under the evil Max Rafferty. Max turned me and thirty of my classmates into proto Uber-Youth back in the 50's by fast-tracking 5th graders into calculus, ceramics, publishing...and godforbid.....even learning Spanish and Latin. Of course, I had to test well to get into the class.....

The testing thing is so absurd that I once took a Hebrew Advanced Placement test.....and scored well. At the time I did not know that Hebrew is read upside down and backwards. I did better in Hebrew than my brother Rob did in actual math. Go figure.

In high school in New Jersey I took the National Merit Scholar test....and fell 20 questions short of finishing. So....I just guessed at the remaining answers. And got one of the highest scores in the country. Whatever.

On the test, there was a box to check if you were interested in a Telluride Foundation Scholarship. I checked the box.

I wound up failing miserably at the scholarship competition because you actually had to write things, not just mark boxes. Still, Telluride House was at Cornell University. Cornell got a copy of my test scores and sent me a postcard when I was a junior, accepting me to the University.

It turned out that my lunatic best friend from high school had similar scores.....and was similarly drafted. We were inivited up for a weekend, turned over to fraternity guides, encouraged to drink ourselves into insensibility....and we were hooked. We never looked back.

This whole testing thing was big in the 50's and 60's. Cornell had embraced the trend and placed the best testers all in one dorm in their newly constructed University Halls. The practice was eventually abandoned, probably after our year there. See, no one was testing for maturity....and things got really ugly.

Still, there was some history to the project....however short. The U-Halls had been built in 1953....and Peter and I arrived in 1967. Some of our fellow SuperDorm residents were the character in the Life Magazine story who tried to have sex with a Coke machine under the then completely legal influence of LSD.....and a famous rebel and rabble-rouser named Richard Farina.

In the course of several administrative hearings about our poor conduct it was revealed to Peter and I that we were the direct geographic descendents of this Farina person, who had occupied our room twelve years earlier. It was not a positive reference, so we instantly took on Farina as a patron saint of rebellion and misbehavior.

We were not completely off base. Like us, Farina started as an Engineer. He quickly switched to English, which never occurred to me. Richard was a ladies' man and was part and parcel of one of the first great student uprisings....the Collegetown Riots. He and his buddies were upset at college rules that forbade women and men from gathering together even in off-campus housing without supervision.

Richard was expelled, said "Fuck you" and followed the bohemian road to Greenwich Village, then to Ireland and France. He met and became friends with Bob Dylan and Tommy Makem in the Village. He flirted with the IRA in the early 60's....and soon met Mimi Baez in Paris. Mimi was 16, not even close to legal in the US at the time. They built and played their own dulcimers and recorded sweet ringing folk music. They married in 1963, when Mimi was 17. They had one moderate hit: "Pack Up Your Sorrows"...written by Richard and Mimi's sister Pauline. To me it is one of the top two or three folk songs ever written.

Meanwhile Richard finished his novel about his Cornell years: "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me". It was a breakthrough novel. Richard's friend and fellow Cornell failed Engineer, Thomas Pynchon called it: "like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch....hilarious, chilling, sexy, profound, maniacal beautiful and outrageous all at the same time." Pynchon dedicated "Gravity's Rainbow" to Richard....which is all you need to know about his continuing literary influence.

Peter and I discovered "Been Down So Long...." took it as a field manual for Cornell life. We had already experienced a lot of it: Ma Snyder's creepy motel where you could take dates....with the toilet in the middle of the room; Ithaca's gorges...and it's crazy mix of crushing winters and glorious springs that matched the miserable depression and constant brilliance of the lunatics that we found ourself surrounded by.

One of Richard's more amusing and poignant episodes I have adopted a few times: at one point his main character has a brutal, killing hangover. His friends call a priest to administer last rites. The ashes, the annointing with holy oil.......

Been there....done that. Sorry, Lord. But, hey.....it works!

Eventually, I too was tossed from Cornell. I too fell in love with a 17 year old and ran off to Europe with her and lived like bandits in Ireland and France with just our motorcycle to get us around. There were no dulcimers, no Bob Dylan, no magical folksongs.....and no novel.

"Yet knowing how way leads on to way......."

Jane and I found ourselves in Telluride.....running a restaurant that looked up at the world's first AC power line...that had led to the money that led to the founding of Telluride House at Cornell.

And eventually found ourselves in Carmel Valley Village. We lived on Flight Road, just up from the Running Iron, and across the street from a little house where a lawyer friend had his practice. We had our little catering company and a crew locals from Cachagua would drop by and trade this and that for this and that. Gene and Claire. Peyton and Pauline. The kids.....Dianna and Pearl. Tommy Nason. Smoky Joe Ortman. Tom O'Neal.

I still had my motorcycle from Europe....a Dunstall Norton cafe racer. Zero to 60 in 3.9 seconds. Less than 4,000 miles and two major crashes. When by Norton buddies came to town we would race from the Village to Cachagua Road and back....taking great joy in getting air by clearing the center of the S turn by The Bucket in the air at 90 mph.

One day, I felt a whisper of cold on my neck as I landed the Norton on the far side of the S and hit some sand just before The Bucket. Brendan was 18 months.....I parked the bike in the garage so I could live to see him graduate from high school.

Long story short: Richard Farina published his book in April of 1966. He was visiting his sister-in-law Pauline in Carmel Valley and they had the book party at the Thunderbird bookstore.....the little house across from the Running Iron that is now a day spa.

It was Mimi's 21st birthday as well. Mimi was miffed that Richard had not gotten her a present, and they quarreled. Richard wanted some pot, and a friend of Pauline's had a connection...and a motorcycle.

They took off at 90 mph, heading for Los Tulares. They didn't make the S turn. The bike crashed, and Richard went through the fence where the vineyard is now.

The Valley Volunteers responded. Joe Ortman was the EMT. Richard died in his arms.

When Mimi got home days later, she found the wilted flowers that Richard had had delivered for her on her birthday.

Fast forward 35 years.

It is July, 2001. A Thursday. My brother, Rob has just left after a visit and returned to New York City. Rob is dying of lung cancer and not eating....and I am trying to think about how to arrange my schedule so I can go to New York and cook for him, because he will always eat my cooking.

KPIG is on the radio......the reception gets better as I pass The Bucket.

Pack Up Your Sorrows is playing:

No use crying, talkin to a stranger
Naming the sorrow you've seen
Too many sad times, too many bad times
Nobody knows what you mean

But if somehow you could pack up your sorrows
And give them all to me
You would lose them, I know how to use them
Give them all to me.....

Yeah, no shit.....

If somehow.....

The hairs rise on my neck as I pass the vineyard.....

As I pass the old Thunderbird, Arden on KPIG says....

"We just got word that Mimi Farina has died of cancer at her home........."

You would lose them......

Fast forward another eight years.

Thomas Pynchon has a new novel. I order three copies: one to wrap and save; one to read in the bath tub; one for Peyton.

Peyton (and Pauline) and I are members of the Upper Carmel Valley Light Reading and General Soporific Society. We read good trashy novels. Luckily we have enough favorite authors that theree is usually a bright light in any given month. We all agree that real literature is often too much of a load. We are Robert Crais, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Sanford folk. Annie Proulx is our step above.

Each of us is almost ashamed to deny that a beautiful afternoon spent alone on the couch with a great book.....or alone and unbothered in a restaurant with a great book....is all we really want from life anymore.

Did I mention that Peyton and Pauline attended Thomas Pynchon's wedding? Or that Pynchon was best man at Richard and Mimi's wedding?

It is Monday Night, and I know Peyton and Pauline will be in, so I have the book all wrapped up waiting on their table.

Monday Nights at 6pm are the most stressful moment of the week. Still, when Peyton and Pauline come in, we are taken a step down....reality check. We do this for our friends. This is our one chance in a week to use our skills to make our friends happy.

Deep breath. It will all be fine.

Peyton waylays me in the office with a paperback.

"I was looking through the old stuff for something to read and thought I would try this one again."

Lord Jim. Joseph Conrad.

Jesus. Real literature. God, Peyton.

"Then I thought you might like it......"

WTF?

I open the cover of the very old but very good shape paperback.

In small script on the first page inside the cover:

"R. Farina, Cookstown, N. Ireland, 1962"

Some town people at 6pm, waiting for their menus as I walk past heading for the garden.....

"Isn't that the chef? Why is he crying? Is everything OK?"

Yup.

It looks like Up to me........





4 Comments:

Blogger sam said...

Ahh, fuck your "no interest to anyone," Mike. You know the stories that make us tear up...

There's another eerie connection, though--one of Farina's Cornell girlfriends, Kristin Gould, was on United 93 the day you missed it.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Txacoli said...

Yeah....I knew that. Tangentially, one of the speakers at Rob's wake on 9/10 was Armistead Maupin.....a friend of Mimi's. He put her in Tales of The City, which Rob edited.

By the way, Mimi is 19 in the clip.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Pexster said...

Wow . . . I'm wordless . . .

If you haven't already, check out James Sallis's Lew Griffin series.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Wil said...

That was an amazing post. Seriously. Amazing enough to make me stop lurking and post something.

7:11 PM  

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