Harry Dodge: Scenes From San Francisco
"The world was wet, drippy magic."
When the universe, our 14-billion-year-old universe, was just a baby—say, for the ﬁrst tens of thousands of years after the Big Bang—everything was just a ﬁeld of plasma, an almost homogeneous ﬁeld of matter except for the lightest scattering of little tiny quantum density ﬂuctuations, or slightly thicker plasma, called random seeds.
Cosmic dust grains started to ﬁnd each other, to stick. And though they were ﬁrst moved by a type of Brownian motion, the globs—after they had reached a certain size—began to attract each other via their mutual gravity. (In this manner, legions of planetesimals formed.) Growth compounded—density created more gravity which produced more density—and, eventually, each random seed grew into a galaxy.
Is love a kind of gravity? (Affinity.) And is the space between people and between objects a sort of meat, or matter? Maurice Merleau-Ponty coined the term ﬂesh of the world which he characterized as a sort of incarnate principle, this charged space, a viscous tension between organisms in relation—space we commonly think of as empty. (I made a drawing recently in which a caveman is saying, Love is very diffuse meat.)
1985 I had been in San Francisco about three months. Just got this apartment, partially subterranean (under the real apartment, the nicer apartment upstairs); the sun had a hard time ﬁnding its way in, and the walls were concrete up to about four feet. Narrow, maybe nineteen feet wide and about sixty feet long. My roommate had cats so there was a litter box in the single bathroom at the back of the apartment. Always two litter boxes, one, a castaway outside the back door with four-year-old kitty craps that were never going to get thrown away, and a newer litter box, inside, you had to step over to get into the john. I liked sex in this apartment, my bedroom was unfamiliar, just a bed, someone’s bed, and women would come in and leave, the sex was unbelievably hot, any touch inﬂamed, one time we fucked each other with our big toes, not so much because I am a foot fetishist, but really just the opposite, to adumbrate the superabundance, the manifest exorbitance of the lust-current, so wet, easy to come. Or not come at all, just make it last, erotic sauna, dirty blankets, copious saliva. The front room, the living room in this place was so small, just big enough for a two-seater couch we pulled in off the street and a little stool to hold the phone. We had a phone, maybe it cost four bucks somewhere, or was already in the apartment when we got there, the cord was two feet long and if you didn’t lean right over it—hunched over in a weird uncomfortable way—you would pull the body of the phone off the shelf. I had weaseled into my front door this night, behind a SWAT team guy, another one pasted to the wall outside; Tactical People were on a megaphone trying to coax someone out of an apartment across the street. I listened to voice messages, and a friend from college, a nomad (I hadn’t talked to her in a year or so), she was in town; the message was short and unsentimental, I’m staying at Hotel Kinney, an SRO in the Tenderloin, guess I missed you, see you sometime. (This was before cell phones and the internet, so you had to have someone’s home address and/or phone number in order to ﬁnd them again; these chance contacts had a kind of desperate antic amplitude hard to imagine for a digital native.) I was enchanted by this person, so I decided to run up there. The phone rang; I talked to a friend who I hadn’t spoken to in a few years, someone I considered a best friend, I mean deﬁnitely toptier or whatever (I naturally do long orbits), she had had a child, which I knew. She had nominated someone else to be the godmother, a real pill—someone not that nice. My feelings were hurt, why wasn’t I the godmother. I didn’t understand why people thought of me as distant, elliptical, cruel in the broader ﬁeld of time-between-visits. Couldn’t they understand that time worked in folds to me, and didn’t appear as knots in stretched-out strings. She said, Things happen in the folds, Harry. Important stuff. After we hung up I cried.
The phone rang again, it was a close friend of my roommate, someone I hadn’t met, a sort of speed-addled in-betweener, on the femme side. He was sick and wanted to talk. There is no help, he seethed, and people are dropping dead. No one cares about fags. He had sores on his face, he said, and even his friends seemed to be avoiding him. Was he imagining it, he asked me, these fuckers, do you think I am imagining this? I was nineteen and the thing I bit on, attempted to address, was his fear of death. We talked for a very long time about what it might be like to die, the moment, to slough the burden of individuality, slough the violence—the illusion—of skin. We didn’t want to hang up but we eventually did, people do. Afterward my neck hurt from leaning over the phone. In the kitchen I found a little roach and took one long pull off it. And then I put on this coat of tails, tuxedo tails, like a penguin with two black triangles hanging down in the back, and jeans that were worn out in front so the two sides of the thighs didn’t even hang together anymore, the fronts of the legs were an open strip to ﬂesh. My hair was still long blond. I slipped behind the SWAT team melee and caught a bus. It was after midnight; we were moving—bus lights barely punctured the low-set rolling vapor, a white scud. Forty-ﬁve minutes in a spaceship. Then I was at her hotel and the guy at the desk let me up, I knocked on the door, holding a cantaloupe as an offering (I had spent my last eighty cents on a cantaloupe en route). She was sleepy and didn’t even let me into the room, which was darkened, deﬁnitely didn’t invite me in for sex, which, truth be told, until that point had been an open question for me. I think there was someone back there in the bed—someone bald, small, ugly. I was soon back on the street and out of money, facing a long walk home through several different neighborhoods. I was like the Warriors in that movie when the subway malfunctions and they need to make it on foot, through varieties of territory to get to the epic convention. I turned on the balls of my feet and strode, deﬁantly, while car after car slowed down next to me, making yes now faces, get in faces, blowing kisses, riding alongside, invitations I ignored. Sometimes I swore, saying, NO. GET LOST, FUCKER. The cars were innumerable; men were swarming to me. And then something peculiar, a sort of etheric ambrosial ﬁzz evanesced and then on beat diminished; no one saw it. This was followed instantaneously by a yellow taxi which pulled alongside, an old guy, pale, ruddy with a round nose, sunken eyes, big fat face, and three puffs of white hair right, left, and on top; he offered me a ride. Something about him was different from the other guys—I said, I can’t, I don’t have money to pay for a taxi. He said, No matter, it looks like you need a ride, don’t worry about the money. And I looked at him hard, in the eyes, and he didn’t avert my gaze, there we were looking, seeing for a while, and I thought maybe he was legit, so I boarded and we slid away. He busied himself with driving. A cable car slid by on Market Street, no talking, but I watched his face, lit, unlit, by streetlights also sliding by, strobing in fog, until we pulled onto 19th Street where the SWAT team had now, evidently, ﬁnished their business.
1989 My friend Jimmy and I had planned this trip for a couple of weeks. We borrowed backpacks from one of the spate of German Deadheads that had been quartering at his place. (Jimmy didn’t like Americans and always found new roommates at the international hostel.) One of these guys, a big-huge-gentle white boy with dreadlocks we called Yeti, hadn’t worn shoes in seven years, I’m assuming as a point of pride. I had very little cash and Jimmy was a fucking tightwad so we had to carry food. A multifuel camping stove lifted from a store in Berkeley was deemed essential, as was a thirty-ﬁve-pound bag of organic brown rice (!)—we ﬁgured we could always get water and then eat whenever. He said, Meet me at 3:30am cuz I want to hitchhike out the 280 and it’s illegal to be on the freeway.
My pack was almost too heavy to lift when I hoisted it onto my back and boarded an otherwise empty bus at 2:30am. It was cold, loud, buzzing, bright. My guts ﬂipped blue. The bus dropped me nine or so blocks from the subway, an interminable walk with a pack I could barely lift; my shoulders and feet were aching when I ﬁnally got on the train. I careened overground through night toward the stop at the freeway where I knew Jimmy would be waiting. The windows on the train were dirty, with hair oil, and the fog was in like disaster.The sky opposite was clarion, pastel, fuckable. I mean that in the most pleasant way possible.
Jimmy was there. His backpack extended almost two feet beyond his mop of black hair in loose curls. He had a long, errant, handsome nose, and screwball teeth that were indelibly white. He was so skinny he sometimes wore sweatpants under his jeans to look more normal. We blew on our hands, headed down some sticky stairs onto the sidewalk, and proceeded about half a mile to the freeway ramp. It was about 3:15am. The freeway was, as we expected, empty, stygian; the few cars there were, sped by at warp speed inches from where we shuffled along the shoulder, chain-smoking with our thumbs out. We walked for a long hour, realized we had misjudged so many things about this situation. The wind had picked up since we had descended to the freeway (bit into armpits, eyelids).
Suddenly there was a yellow taxi, which came up fast and slowed with a jerk, pulled over hard to the left, and stopped. We ran to it, as hitchhikers do, light glowing from inside, an old guy, pale, ruddy with a round nose, sunken eyes, big fat face, with three puffs of white hair right, left, and on top. Get in, he jerked his fat thumb to the backseat, you can’t be on the freeway like this. I said, We don’t have money to pay for a taxi. He said, No matter, it looks like you need a ride, don’t worry about the money. We got in and the car slid away. Once we got to Half Moon Bay he let us out. Stay on the ramp and you’ll be ﬁne, don’t go down on the freeway. But now it was dawn, and not enough cars rolled by on the ramp so we walked over the curb and headed down the grassy slope to the eight-lane roadway and put our thumbs out, chanting loud, incantatory spells devised to bring pickup trucks (lying down in the back was our favorite mode of travel). Sharing cigarettes, lighting each from the cherry end of the last, we could see the ocean now. The sky opposite was clarion, pastel, fuckable. I mean that in the most pleasant way possible.
1994 There was another time too. We were broke, so walking back from the Wave Organ—a whistling ocean sculpture made with rock from a demolished cemetery—at the harbor, the northernmost point of the city. (Tides would inundate narrow, long tunnels crafted into the rocks. Each time a wave receded, pressure built and a fusillade of low drony hums issued forth: songs both mournful and abject.) This night was cold and a coagulum of torus-shaped billows piled like layers in cheap white cake on the surface of the bay. Three of us walked, racked with laughter, took turns doing impressions of people gravely injured during bondage-related sex acts. A cable car blasted by, clacking up an impossibly steep grade, we grabbed and held on to ﬁligreed brass uprights, reading scuffed wood signs and staring at tourists who were staring at us, through the fog and dark, until the conductor asked for cash, and then we dropped away at the bottom of Nob Hill. The world was wet, drippy magic; mist was rain that never fell, just held, like a gaze, someone you loved.
At Eddy and Golden Gate a guy pulled a gun, I saw it emerge from his coat, he whispered the words, Don’t even move, and we ran as fast as we could for as far as we could. The assailant gave no chase, but we were touchy, bullshitted up from it. We approached City Hall, which looks like a mini-Capitol, gold dome, fronted by a long, rectangular tent city. My lover at the time was peeing between parked cars and vapor rose up from the stream. The taxi showed up again here, you know him by now. He looked shabbier, old, thinner, more ruddy, now pocked and kind of rotting. I remember my stomach dropped, I had to keep myself from laying a hand onto his face. How old he had become. Pink cheese. Human. His mouth was stuck open a little bit; I said, We have no money for a taxi. He said only, I know that. And he did that thing where he jabbed his thumb into the air in the direction of the backseat. We giggled until we cried and the car slid away from Civic Center. He dropped us on Mission, near 24th. I never saw him again.
From My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing by Harry Dodge. Copyright © Harry Dodge, 2020. Published by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Random House LLC.