The Fixer-Uppers

We’re having our deck rebuilt because the years have rotted it away. We solicited bids and decided on a contractor who looked like he understood Judy’s design thinking. The last time we engaged a contractor, he and his crew went to work on a roof line that would have obliterated the view of the mountain we moved there to see. He understood when this was pointed out and his crew went to work pulling out the nails they had just pounded in, getting with the new program without resentment. Driving nails and pulling them out the same day, no big deal; they got paid both ways and it was all good. This was in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana where everybody wakes up to beautiful views and goes to bed with them. It’s nothing special when you’re born and live all your life in such a place, so outsiders have to be careful if they remodel. Californians, generally disliked, average about two years in Montana. We held out for five before the long winters got to us. I used to walk the fence line in all weathers including blizzards with our Yellow Lab and Jack Russell  until Ollie the lab got too old. Then it was just me and Stella.

As with all contractors and guys in the trade that we have dealt with, a generous allowance must be made for eccentricity. One we hired in Northern California (the distinction is important to those who live in that state) put in beautiful redwood paneling in a room for us, arriving more or less promptly each morning. Martin took the Chronicle into the adjoining bathroom and took a leisurely dump on our time; we thought it strange at first but didn’t mind after a  while because he was doing fine work. He had majored in English at Berkeley and found his bliss in physical work. This was Marin and there was an infestation of mind-control cults at the time. That old counter-culture crowd is being squeezed out of the county now by the young and wealthy overflow from San Francisco into materialism. Needy and unsure of himself, according to Judy, who saw much more of him than I did, Martin signed up for a cult called the Everyman Theatre, later The Theatre of All Possibilities, led by Alex Horn and his wife Sharon Gans, who starred in the film version of “Slaughterhouse Five.” They ran a tight ship with beatings for “students” who didn’t sell their quota of tickets for the weird plays written by Horn himself. Or for “whimpering” or making noise backstage. A drama critic sent to review a production wrote that he staggered out at the three-hour mark unable to take any more; he said it was the most unpleasant experience of his professional life. Tickets to these grueling events were sold by wheedling or badgering strangers on the street.

Martin was assigned a woman to marry and he brought her over to meet us after the job was over. She seemed as nice as he was and sometimes I wonder how it turned out. Other couples in the cult were forced to divorce as part of the therapy, which had some connection to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic who was a striking figure with a head as bald as a cue ball and an impressive handlebar moustache. Hypnotic eyes, of course; all cult leaders seem to have that feature. Dipping into Eastern thought, Gurdjieff maintained that most people live lives of “waking sleep,” but can kick it up to a higher state of consciousness and achieve “full human potential” if they put their minds to. Down the years from that came the human potential movement, a term you once couldn’t go a day without hearing in the Bay Area. The theatre cult broke up when Horn and his wife left hurriedly in the wake of the massacre at Jonestown, which gave cults generally a bad name. People’s Temple had sent down robust roots in San Francisco, even grafting itself onto the political culture, before Jim Jones in a spasm of paranoia ordered everyone to pack up and leave for British Guyana. The Chronicle wanted to send me with the party that was to be ambushed at the dirt airfield, but my good friend Keith Power, bless him, an assistant city editor, said the man’s celebrating his anniversary in Big Sur, let him be. So they dispatched a bright, ambitious young man who wore pinstripe suits to our ‘Thirties “Front Page”-style city room that was as noisy as a boiler room at deadline . It had wooden floors bearing the marks of a thousand cigarettes crushed underfoot.   He caught a slug in the buttocks as he took to his heels when the shooting began and spent the night chest-deep in swamp water, counting himself lucky he wasn’t slain with the rest of them; he went on to become editor of Town and Country magazine. Everyone at the Chronicle despised the New Yorker. “You’re the only one who talked to me,” he said to me.  The tradition at the newspaper still lingered that you didn’t talk to newcomers for six months, but perhaps he took it personal. And he was aggressively ambitious in an off-putting way. Maybe in a partial balancing of the scales, the famed Nepenthe restaurant where we were to have dinner celebrating ten years of marriage caught fire and burned down. I noticed the chimney over the open cooking area turning red and then a brighter red. I said to Judy, “Let’s go.” I think we were the first ones out, threading our way past the people with happy faces looking forward to a great time at a place where it was hard to get a reservation.

Before that happened, some Everyman Theatre members rented the house and its cottage next door and our five-year-old son struck up a friendship with a cheerful, wholesome woman (there must have been some good that came from belonging to the cult). She was run down by a car and killed not long after, leaving my wife to explain what death was to our boy. The accident was in front of a house where a girl lived that he came to like years later when they were in middle school. Her father, an assistant district attorney, was enraged by the homeless who wandered past and used his yard as a toilet. He rushed out one night and stabbed a man he caught in the act with a knife. It cost him his job and he was lucky he didn’t do prison time. When we last saw the girl, she was hard-faced and wearing a dog collar. Teenage rebellion. It was an eventful neighborhood now that I look back.

I used to walk home past the storefront of another cult, The Laughing Man Institute, never failing to admire the name. The place was always empty when I passed. nighttime being when things happened, I suppose. The group also had property in the country. Laughing Man was helmed by Bubba Free John, christened Franklin Jones in Queens, who adopted various names during his life, including Da Love-Ananda, Dau Loloma, Da Kalki, Hridaya-Samartha Sat-Guru Da, Santosha Da, Da Avadhoota, Da Avabhasa, and from 1994, Adi Da Love-Ananda Samraj, or Adi Da for short. He was a heavy user of LSD while studying for a master’s degree in English at Stanford; no doubt he was part of the Timothy Leary set. Adi Da himself had nine or more polygamous partners he called “wives”, including a Playboy centerfold model.

Bubba, as I still think of him, directed his followers in “sexual theater”, a form of therapy featuring public and group sex and pornographic movie-making. Drug and alcohol use were encouraged after an earlier ban was lifted on eating junk food in one of his theological U-turns. He thought he was God, by the way, like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who founded the global mind-control cult called the Unification Church. There were quite a few of his followers, called Moonies, who were busy in Marin as well. Bubba’s cult was seized by schism, as they all are sooner or later, and he moved with a bobtail remnant including the Playmate to a Fiji island once owned by Raymond Burr. There he died of a heart attack.

Another guy we hired for a job was equally as intelligent and likeable as Martin. He pushed his tools around the neighborhood in a wheelbarrow looking for work, having come down in life somewhat from teaching English at the nearby community college. I was careful not to inquire to closely into the details, it seeming too much like what I did for a living, but gave him space in our garage to store his tools and to use as a workplace. One day he showed up with a woman I thought was like a succubus who bled him of  what drive and ambition he had left. She lazily watched while he worked;  I suppose drugs were involved. I managed to persuade him to vacate the garage many months later. In our last chat he said a job making shelves for a Chinese businessman was going so slowly that he had been seized by the throat as a kind of termination notice. I understood the merchant’s impatience, but also the other side of the story.

What I started to write about was this deck guy said he has been working since December on a house in the middle of our sleepy village, which covers the same geographical area as San Francisco but has maybe 13,000 people in its wooded and rolling hills. “She turned on the water in the laundry room sink and went to Texas,” he explained in the understated way we admire in the South. The Texas border is maybe three hours away from us in Arkansas. If you are of a certain absent-minded age—mine—you can appreciate how this could happen. All too easily you can understand. The damage was $50,000. My wife and I have been speculating about when she remembered she left the water on. Maybe a neighbor saw water running down the hill.

This is proving to be an expensive year so far. We had to have all of our copper plumbing in the attic replaced after the pipes began having what plumbers call “pinhole leaks.” These are not normally detected until a part of your ceiling falls to the floor. Those are unhappy times, people. You have to locate the shutoff valve that leads from the street – do you know where yours is? –go out in the dead of night and turn a wheel sunk in a concrete hole and covered by an iron plate. I found a toad wintering on the wheel. Our new next- door neighbor tells me the new pipes are much more durable, good for up to a half a century. I’m glad we won’t be around to oversee that. You read about these Silicon Valley super-achievers who hope to transfer their minds to a cloud and thereby live forever. Does that appeal to you? If so, pass on by.

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