Let’s call this a cabinet of curiosities. A place to store a narwhal tusk because you don’t want a museum to have it. But that’s not why you need the cabinet. Museums rarely come knocking, but that shouldn’t stop you from collecting.
A lot of it, A LOT OF IT, comes from reading. You try to tell students this. Be a sponge. Connect ideas. Let one thing lead to another. Borrow style until you have your own. The following stories don’t exist, or in this way, without a sentence from Tim O’Brien’s “Spin” where he describes how he has, and then shows us how he uses, his “odd little fragments of memory.” Or, this essay on my lap (“Tusk” by George Watsky) about a performance poet from California who has a blue car that he loves and goes to Canada to smuggle a narwhal tusk over the border for an old lady. I can barely stop the memories from pouring out.
I can’t avoid thinking of being in Tijuana at 2 a.m. with Victor. We were picking up a teddy bear at his brother’s house that his daughter built at the Build A Bear Workshop. Victor said if I came along we’d get tacos. We did. In a dark alley with glass bottles of Coke. It never occurred to me that we might be doing something other than picking up a teddy bear. And we weren’t. But when I tell the story, people don’t believe me. A common theme.
Returning from a weekend in Yosemite. Driving my blue 85 Celebrity. Jurri has been talking all day, and all night he snores. And a song on the radio goes “there she goes…” and when I start to to sing along my tire blows and we drive 35 on the donut for hours.
I learned that there are 500 wild bears in L.A. County from a man who was volunteering to stay at a Fire Lookout in the San Gabriel Mountains. He said that looking down at the sprawling lights of L.A. at night made him dizzy. And I later learned that the California Grizzly, the bear on the flag, is extinct. Some say because of Gold Rush Era settlers who used them for bear and bull fights, or some say that people just shot them all. I remember that this guy at the top of the fire lookout talked about how dangerous motorcycles were and he took a picture of Mike and I and gave us a link to his website where we could see some of his pictures. Nice guy. Friendly. To this day, one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen was his list of clubs and affiliations that he was a part of. Somewhere near the top of his list he wrote that he was a Subway Club Card Member.
I was in L.A. to paint. No. I moved to L.A. to start a media empire while at the same time plotting with friends how our church could start a church in every nation in the world. But painting too. Paying the bills and all. Once I was painting an office with sand paint, which was tricky to get to flow. I had to remove all the certificates and awards and framed degrees from the wall first. The room had crown molding. The paint was expensive. But when I looked at the certificates, I realized that they weren’t that far from advertising being a member of the Subway Club.
I’ve only seen a wild bear once. My cousin and I were camping and we went up to the tree that it had been rubbing its back on and we saved some of the black hair. It was a black bear. We put it in an envelope and sent it back and forth to each other. Ownership was contested. We both owned the experience.
Sometimes I try to put them in poems or songs or stories or essays. All these odd little fragments, these memories, these sketches. There was the bear hair that my cousin and I shared. And there was a piece of driftwood that we both found on the beach. We reached down to grab it at the same time and were young enough to argue about who owned it. We had a plan to send it back and forth in the mail. It was the coolest thing we had both ever seen. The shape looked just like…I don’t remember. What I remember is the distinct and confident feeling that I would never forget what this piece of wood washed to shore from a giant ocean looked like. I was wrong.
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