Ali stopped by last night to pick up the clothes I had set aside for him. Ali of the seductive, inquisitive chestnut brown eyes, noble Ali, the rare immigrant who is neither obsequious nor strident, proud of the culture he was born into but receptive to the one that by choice or necessity has become his second homeland (he speaks a near flawless Greek).
He arrived with his younger cousin, who by coincidence was also called Ali but who unlike the elder Ali had no papers, and two large, somewhat beat up suitcases. That was my idea. I didn’t want them returning home with giant black garbage bags stuffed with clothes and running the risk that the police would mistake them for illegal immigrant peddlers.
I knew he didn’t want them all the clothes, but he was too polite to choose, even though I encouraged him to do so. “Someone will need this,” he said, folding a red-and-black checked lumberjack shirt into one of the suitcases. I doubted it. But it was clear that he didn’t want to offend me by rejecting items of clothing and thus criticizing, even if obliquely, my sense of fashion.
I was ashamed to tell him why I was getting rid of these clothes. The thought of voluntarily ridding oneself of one’s possessions would have seemed obscene to him. His father’s farm was expropriated by the government, or he had been forced to sell, I’m not sure which. Not that it matters. In either case it was a matter of forced dispossession. He was somewhat stoical about it. Fate, he said. The luck of the draw.
I can’t pretend to understand what it means to have the very source of your livelihood wrested from you, to see what you have you always thought of as yours as much as you would your skin and breath, suddenly and arbitrarily declared not yours. And it’s gone. Either that or you are.
Or maybe I do have an inkling. A year of my life was stolen. My 18th to be precise.
I was coming back home to New York after spending a year in San Francisco before starting college. I was hitching back, just as I had left New York ten months earlier. I might never had made it to California if the second ride that picked me up on I-80 West outside Paterson, New Jersey—a guy with a pony tail in a pink Chevy—wasn’t headed straight to the Bay Area. His car suffered a major breakdown in Indiana; he bought another used car on the spot and continued to Oakland. I was in California in four days.
I wasn’t so lucky on the return. The guy who picked me and my fellow traveler Jill up outside Daly City—also a long-haired Haight veteran in a beat-up car from the previous decade—wasn’t clear about where he was headed. That should have been a tip off. But I thought he was just being nice when he said, “Hey, I can get off on the next exit. Bring you closer toL.A.Every mile helps, man, eh?” Eventually he let us off at an isolated spot near San Luis Obispo—“Probably easier to get your next ride here,” he said, as we exchanged the traditional locomotive hippie handshake through the driver’s window. He pulled off with our backpacks still in the trunk.
“Hey, you forgot our backpacks!” I screamed. “Our backpacks!”
That night Jill and I giggled ourselves to sleep at a Catholic youth shelter in town. Now I would’ve flown back home the night of the theft, but I suppose I was a lot more flexible back then.Jill and I bought a bus ticket to L.A., where we stayed a few days at a friend’s house before she went back to her husband in the city and I continued on to Mexico, travelling till my money almost ran out, and then hitching back to New York.
I was saddened by the loss, though I didn’t realize how great my sadness was. My loss wasn’t on the scale of Ali’s or his father’s, but it was a theft of identity nonetheless.
There was a pair of jeans in the backpack that I had worn most of my year in San Francisco; it was so tattered that a counselor at the halfway house I worked at had taken them and sewn on patches from a wild array of fabrics; the pants were a walking patchwork quilt and I loved them. There was also a favorite sweatshirt in the pack, the one I had worn travelling with Jill to wineries in Northern California and the coast at Big Sur and artichoke farms in the Salinas Valley. And loads of pictures. The witnesses of my year of self-discovery and adventure and coming out. Pictures of Don, the son of a hamburger tycoon with a self-appointed mission to document gay life in the city who had let me stay with him at his spectacular apartment in the marina, and gentle Damian, a young psychiatrist in the Mission with his coterie of crazy transsexual friends, and Martin, a failed writer with a penchant for Singapore Slings who gave me a place to sleep when I first came to the city, a bunkbed in a dorm with other stray adolescents that he would visit late at night with less than honorable intentions, and Jill, of course, and a dozen other people I would never see again in my life. All this was gone. It felt at times that I hadn’t really lived those adventures, as if I had never really met these people.
I was mistaken, of course. Memories exist outside of the objects in which they are at times incorporated—the souvenirs, photographs, and gifts that record the persons and events that mark our days. But it’s also true that the memories embodied in these mementos can exist independent of the memories archived in the neural backwaters of our brain.
I have one photograph from my year in San Francisco. I don’t know how it survived. It must have been in my pocket. It’s a picture of me. A cycling cap sits on an unruly mane of curly dark-brown hair. I have the start of a beard, denser at the chin but hopelessly spare on his cheeks. I’m wearing a salmon-colored t-shirt, the kind you’d pick up in a discount department store, the ones sold three to a packet, with a pocket where men of an earlier generation used to keep their cigarettes. It hangs loose on my my somewhat wiry frame, drooping enough to reveal tufts of chest hair and a trace of a thin silver chain.
The young man in the photo has a mix of grace and vulnerability, sharpened by a subtle sexual energy that seems to course just below the surface. I don’t remember myself this way, beautiful and desirable. I still keep the picture with me. It’s a memory I would not otherwise have had.
Of the things we keep for others (as opposed to those objects we retain because of their utility or value or pleasure or beauty), some we keep because of a perceived obligation to our forbearers, others because of our respect for our friends. And then there are those things we keep because they remind us of the persons we were. And, as in the case of the beautiful young man in the salmon-colored t-shirt, because the object is the only means we have to remember.
For a moment I consider sacrificing the photo for the sake of the project. But I know I can’t do that, not now. It would feel as much a violation as the initial theft, and indeed, a more traumatic one than the first, as this is the only thing left connecting me with that year.
This is detachment on a grand scale, and I’m not ready for it. I need to inure myself in the discipline of relinquishment, and to do that, I must start small.
Matthew and I were a couple with intense serial friendships. We went through periods when we’d spend almost every night with the same couple. And then something happened—the couple would split up or move—and then we’d meet another couple and do the same thing over again. Stathis and Vangelis, Greg and Paula, Nick and Nick. It was always the same pattern. We’d hang out together, cook together, take our dogs out together and travel together. And we’d play cards together and almost always birimba. During our travels we had amassed a collection of playing cards. We had decks with reproductions of maps from the Age of Exploration. We had decks with traditional Russian figures—landed gentry and country folk, with very fine (and small) markings in fine Bodoni-like font for the suit and number, which wasn’t all that practical, but more playable than the French revolutionary facsimile deck, which didn’t have kings or queens at all. There was also a set of decks called Vieux Métiers de France—the queen of spades is a fishmonger, the ace of hearts a wine grower. There are brossiers and ceinturiers, cartiers and chandeliers. We had decks emblazoned with malt whiskey brands and decks with ducks. The most handsome was a reproduction of a deck called Hector de Trois, designed by a certain Baptise Griumaud in 1848, who based it on a 17th century design held by the Cabinet des Estampes de le Bibliothèque Nationale. The deck, with its strongly drawn if somewhat unattractive figures in black, gold, dark red and pine green, seems almost hand-painted. It is beautiful and memorable at the same time.
It’s odd. I haven’t had these cards in my hands for years. I took them out tonight and shuffled through them. They made me think of Stathis, who sadly died a few years ago. And the Nicks, who long ago separated, though I’m still convinced they were always looking for each other in the relationships they had after they left each other. I suddenly felt enormously grateful—to whom I don’t know, really—that they graced my life for a period of time. I suddenly want to write about them. I think that if I do, there’s no reason to keep the cards.
Trusting myself that I actually will write Stathis and Vangelis’s story, I slip the decks in a leftover department store gift bag. I’ll take them to a friend of mine who organizes poker nights at his house, though I doubt if his card-playing buddies will appreciate the crownless Liberty and Equality appearing on the figure cards.
The San Francisco photograph excerpt is taken from a longer post in Breach of Close entitled Looking Back.