The Caldecott Tunnel bores through the hills separating Walnut Creek, Concord, and Pleasant Hill from Oakland, three little boom towns in 1971 on the way to being the San Francisco Bay Area’s newest and fastest-sprouting white-flight suburbs. I shared a rented house with a young family in Concord for a time in 1971 and 1972.
During which time, in late October of 1971 to be exact, a couple of good friends from law school and I – whose birthdays were on three consecutive days -- had our thirtieth birthday celebration together five years out. With friends and lovers we whooped it up on a beautiful late Indian summer afternoon on a San Francisco pier, with a string quartet, fine wines, champagnes, and a tank of helium. As I left, the party was dissolving into evening. Blissfully and utterly smashed, I aimed my old Chevy sedan at Concord through the Caldecott Tunnel. As I approached the tunnel’s Oakland entrance I realized I couldn’t resolve its multiple, slowly moving images, but I really didn't care. Then I crashed into a concrete wall at the tunnel’s entrance, destroying the car and very nearly myself.
But characteristically I was lucky, and subsequently I found myself almost uninjured and resuming life in Concord, but without personal transportation – a life with John the landscape contractor, his wife Laura, and their baby boy. Paying my share of the rent by gardening for John. During this time a job, a place to live, and personal transportation were My Big Three - very big - and when I had two, well…I couldn’t complain.
Laura and John were high-school sweethearts who got married within a few years of graduating, and in 1972 Baby John was a year old. Papa John ran a landscaping business while Laura tended baby and kept home. Like everyone in Concord their age (twenty to twenty-five), Laura and John smoked dope and partied a lot. Probably less typically, my housemates practiced Scientology, popped little white Benzedrine tablets for fun and profit, and dabbled in wife-swapping. I say “profit” not because John was a dealer – I suppose “everyone” dealt some -- but because these speed tabs were John’s bottom-line currency for paying his landscaping employees. And although the bennies made crawling around planting bushes and flowers really fun, it became clearer to me as time passed that however workable speed-for-wages was in terms of getting the gardening done, John’s habit wasn’t working for the business as a whole. What with the construction boom underway in Concord in 1972, John could have made good money just contracting one job and completing it, then contracting another and completing it, and so on, mixing in the bread-and-butter maintenance jobs. But no, John always had to juggle at least six balls in the air at once -- estimating, completing, and maintaining enough different jobs so he wouldn’t be dead-heading between estimate sites and work sites, between keeping appointments with prospective customers and getting equipment rentals onto work sites and returned; between personal visits to home and other visits to his dope connections and numerous friends.
Such is speed that not infrequently some juggled balls were dropped.
Howsoever, immobilized, I started constructing mobiles in my bedroom. More interestingly, John and Laura and I would stone out on bennies, grass, and red wine, nude at night in the light-dimmed living room. The unclothed part was new to me. Moreover, I’d lusted for Laura from the first time I saw her. Although my attraction to Laura never became blatant in our evening stoner sessions, I knew John was hyper-aware of it. But to all appearances, John was oblivious to my lust for Laura. In time, I realized why that must have been. On one subject, and one subject only, could John be counted to lose it with Laura -- her failing to enter sufficiently into the spirit and the practice of their wife-swapping.
It was Laura’s pretty, hardheaded fidelity to her concept of traditional Christian values that prevented her from joining equally with John in their wife-swapping soirees; and to my thinking, it also mainly explained her persistent obliviousness to my desires. Nonetheless, I wasn’t surprised late one night when Laura appeared in my room by my bedside and said John had told her to come have sex with me. Since I’d fantasized that the consummation of my fantasies about her might eventuate this way, I’d even prepared a question for Laura to de-couple my part of the situation from John’s manipulativeness. I said, “But do you want to?” Laura left without a word. A while later she came back saying, more or less, “…this isn’t just because John told me to do it. I do want to, I really do....”
That was the only time Laura and I slept together, and not long afterwards I moved back to Oakland. But not before a summer evening when the four of us were eating supper at the dinner table. Baby John was gurgling and struggling in his little baby chair while John talked about some of my Mexican co-workers who were dissatisfied with so many bennies instead of dinero for their labors. One of the Mexicans had mentioned it to him, and John had told him that if he didn’t like it, he could quit -- Concord had a surplus of unemployed Mexicans willing to take his place.
“You know, Laura, I just can’t give a sh*t about those guys,” John said. “Compared to my family responsibilities, those guys are nothing. You, me, and Baby John are all that matters.” The man was almost radiant. “Nothing comes before putting food on the table and having a good place for the three of us to live. We’re a family, and fu*k anybody who tries to interfere with me taking care of family.”
(Written from 2004-2008)