Board the Train and Watch the Sky


~ I don’t remember who took this photograph, but there I am, on the right, in 1997 ~ 

Mill Valley, California


Board the Train and Watch the Sky

I wept like a child when I left San Francisco. Leaving all that I loved behind, in the middle of a bleak February to return to a bleaker Northeast.  To a small town I hated. A lonely life. One without my jazz clubs and nights of jumping rooftops.  One without the drugs and glamor and quasi hippie lifestyle I was leading. Spending my days at City Lights.  Hitchhiking everywhere.  Nights filled with music and parties and free love; nights of wild unabashed freedom.

High on coke and pot, red wine and strange boys who either dressed like Robert Smith or were in love with the boy I was dating that did.  

I slept with them all. The gay boy, my Cure boy, his goth girlfriend.  That strange elfin girl at the party downtown.  She and I locked ourselves in the bathroom and emerged hours later covered in glitter, lipstick smudged, and a stench of sex too strong for her husband to ignore.

The Eurythmics were playing on the stereo.  I hid out on the fire escape. I tried to explain to my wounded boyfriend (the sweet little effeminate goth boy – I did love him in a way) that this is just how I was.

I was not going to waste my time on etiquette and monogamy and otherwise sober, straight living. That this was not me. At least – not me yet.  I was young still.  I had experiences that needed having.  I would not capitulate to Bourgeois strictures, as I saw them.

I loved cocaine. I loved the high and thrill and creative impulses that overtook me. I loved that it made the world right and endless.  I loved breaking into that abandoned insane asylum across the bridge that night with another man I barely knew.  Making it to the roof and literally feeling on top of the world – the city lights blazing just for me, as the saying goes.

This man, Evan his name was, gave me my first copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s  ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude‘ and I will forever owe him that. It has become my favorite book, one I always return to over the years.  I find myself with multiple copies but wonder where I ever put that old worn copy, his gift – my first, my favorite. The one with his sweet note.  His address. His number.  Both out of date, no doubt.  I’m sure I must have it – torn vintage cover and all.  I can’t imagine having left it behind.  For sentimental purposes, if nothing else, I’d like to find it one day.

Why did I leave?  I still wonder that.

I had places to stay. With boys of course. A young girl of seventeen can always seem to find a number of boys and men willing to house her.  At a price, I know now.  I knew that then.  The price of playing girlfriend or lover.  But I was usually game.  For a time.  Before I grew bored and restless, again.

There was this one man, in his late 30s I believe, who tended bar and dabbled in woodcarving.  He owned a houseboat in Sausaltito. Why didn’t I go with him? He was nothing if not persistent and oddly loyal.  He liked me quite a lot actually (as this still surprises me) and he seemed kind.  Maybe that was what tipped me off.  This grown man, years past my age at an age when these things matter.  It certainly angered my brother to the extreme.  Matt cursed and muttered idle (I hoped) threats.  That I was underage.  That he would report this man.  That it was just not done, not right.  I must have listened, even not-knowingly.  Maybe I was scared Matt wasn’t bluffing.

I met this man whose name I can’t remember one night when I was out with Matt and the Englishman he apprenticed under at a little quaint English pub off Highway 1.  It was a beautiful, stunning ride to the pub.  The dramatic, lush landscape where the coastline was just an extreme, jagged, dizzying drop below.  A windy and somewhat scary drive, after a few stouts, back.  Not that we weren’t careful, I’m sure.   I don’t quite remember.  Our borrowed Mazda Miata went quite fast, this I know, and took those sharp turns with seemingly little effort.  Matt was always conscientious.  I’m sure we were safe.

And this man with no name I can recall was there behind the bar while we played darts.  Chatting with us, pulling free drafts – decent and kind.  I believe he knew Ian.  And I was taken with him in a school-girlish way.  He had this long, gorgeous, wildly curly hair – golden blond.  And deep sea green eyes.  And he wasn’t vain. He pulled that off somehow.  I was smitten, but I was young and lacking self-confidence.  I thought very little of it – at the time.

He, this man with the golden hair (and perhaps one day I will remember his name; do him that small justice) might not have known my age that night but I’m sure he was able to wager a guess when he picked me up that one afternoon, schoolbooks in hand, outside my high school.  And each and every following time he ‘just happened’ to appear.

He also started stopping by the small apartment my brother and I shared.  The one room with the most wonderful deck, where we could watch the fog roll in over the hills.  So many evening fixed in that Northern California glow, that spell it casts.

The spare room in our apartment was converted into a wood shop and so the wood chips from the elaborate carvings wound up everywhere.  I became used to sleeping with them, finding them in the cutlery, the coffee-machine, on the floor, and so on. But then the glitter  that covered my body when I got home that one night wound up everywhere as well.  My brother and I shared clothes at the time and the trunk where we kept our clothes, so often our Carhartt pants and white sleeveless undershirts sported both sawdust and glitter. Very Northern Californian in retrospect:  Haight-Ashbury meets The Castro.  The perfect accidental juxtaposition of elements.

And Matt and his boss taught weekend carving classes.  I would be asleep, sleeping off some drug or drink or both from the night before, curled under layers of covers, invisible until I stirred and scared the hell out of some poor soul just wandering through to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.  

Oh, where was I?  Why did I leave?  That was it.  Why did I board that train, wired out of my mind on the bit of coke I made sure to have in my possession.  That I snorted in the cafe restroom at the depot, as it happens – just to numb my mounting despair.  Just to give myself that little false lift of all things being okay.  Coke did that.  It made things seem doable.  It made life seem good, manageable.  All false, but I was willing to buy into the myth.  More than willing, for a time.

A common theme in my life – this numbing of unpleasant emotion.  And conversely the quantities of drugs I took to heighten those other moments that were sublime.  Even the sex.  That was just another escape.  Always under the influence.  I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t live this way.  It took me years to understand.  But at the time it seemed to work just fine for me.  Somewhat.  Again, for a short period.  The short story of all my drug and drink use.

To be honest there was that time I snorted yet another fat line on the steps behind the school with a girlfriend and momentarily blacked out.  I ignored that.  And the many nights I pined for sleep, still wired and coming down.

There is nothing worse in this world, that I know, than coming down.  It’s hell.  Pure hell.  I slammed NightQuil.  I stuffed tissues up my nose.  I tried to suffer quietly as my brother slept on a mattress on the floor next to my bed.  I was unsuccessful.  I rarely slept and would need another  line or two with my coffee the next morning just to make it to school.  Those were the unglamorous moments.  The moments I chose to ignore in search of an even better high.  In search of an even more heightened experiences.

So things were far from okay that day I waited on the train heading back East. I had a serious little coke problem I was going to have to kick and a progressive drinking problem that would take me many years more to address. That would almost kill me. That still could.

But these points only occur to me now, almost nine years sober and looking back.   I was too young and too brazen then to really understand.  Yet, I do suppose I understood a bit.  There must have been a small voice of doubt echoing in my head.  Enough to drive me East.  To drive me someplace else; location irrelevant.  Because, as with all my many moves, this may have just been a strong part of  my genetic make-up, rearing its head.  Again.   It’s time to go.  Someone or something tells me it’s time to move on and I do – for better or for worse.

I suppose that’s why I didn’t stay. Romany genes and the slight premonition, that small unconscious inkling, that staying where I was might lead me places I was not ready to go.  Not with Austin or Peter or Evan or Lucian or the man with the houseboat whose name I can’t remember   Maybe I was not staying for my brother.  Maybe the scene was played out.

My brother who had assumed legal guardianship of me when I returned from living in Germany for a year.  The year before this.  He knew I couldn’t go back to suburbia.  It had been settled.  I took the Zephyr to Ellenville and moved into the most wonderful and impossibly small apartment in Mill Valley, and I was in heaven.

I think my train West arrived around three in the morning.  What I do know is that Matt and I polished off a bottle of gin that night. Or was it two?

And the next day the newspapers announced – front page and splashy bold – the legalization of medical marijuana.  This is my kind of town, I thought. And it was. Still is in a way.

Not my New York though.  For me there will always have to be a space in that sleepless city I call home.  A leftover from a childhood love-at-first sight and something for another story.  And, of course, there is the distinct possibility I am not, nor ever was, spiritual and earth tuned enough to truly fit in in San Francisco.  I need more grit.  I resist spending my time on subjects pertaining to organic foods and hemp clothing, natural cigarettes and henna.  I can live simply – but I need a harsher reality to feel in place.

Yet when it was all said and done, boarding that train back East was murder.  Another slaughtering of the soul – a part of me left behind. Another part, another place, and something I would continue to experience. I still experience.  The curse of the gypsy. Motion and movement and relocation is in my blood, but not always out of choice.  Often we have been forced to leave, homeless, landless, nation-less.  The true boundary crossers. But loving and living in motion out of necessity.  Adapting to life on the road.  Embracing the life of a wanderer, forever in search of a home.

I left San Francisco out of necessity.   I think it was to spare my brother.  I think I greatly disappointed him. It would not be the first time, wild as I was.  I still have many amends to make to many people.  Sadly, I often don’t even remember their names – just the vague generalities.  When I even remember those.

And though it might seem like a contradiction,  I still wish I stayed with the man whose name I can’t recall.  I truly do.  I’ve never lived on a houseboat and he had such beautiful hair.  I’ve wound up with men on much less.  Not that it’s worked out, but I do have stories to tell.  

So I’m on a bus to New York, my New York, and for some reason the memory of my leaving California was triggered.  Because I’m returning home briefly?  A home without a home?  

The song plays in my head, as it did that day:

Wind of fate has pried us loose / light of mercy hurts my eyes / is it worth the things you lose? / to board the train and watch the sky?

And I sometimes wonder about where I would be now, had I took any of the multiple other paths that were offered up to me throughout the years.  I wonder how I might have turned out.

Would it be here, with the man I love – pregnant and content; sober and alive?  Would it be here, with a world of possibility still stretched out before me?  Tom says I came back East to eventually meet him.  To marry him.  A random spurt of romanticism.  But I claim that’s why his record deal with RCA was a slaughtered affair – those many years ago in London.  Had he become the rock star he was destined to be, would I ever have met him?

These are not the most productive of ruminations, but they do fill my mind at times.  At those times that I wonder “what if?”  

However, at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, I have no regrets.  Je Ne Regrette Rien.  There is little I would have done differently.  Some things, but I bury them deep – the pain too great.

I sing myself to sleep at night. / I sing myself to sleep.


© StephiaMadelyne, 30 May 2013

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