Richard Denner


Now That Spalding Grey Is Gone, I've Heard There's an Opening for Best Standup Memoirist, and I've Decided to Apply

Now that Spalding Grey is gone, I've heard there's an opening for best standup memoirist, and I've decided not to apply. I'm from the old school of sitting memoirists, like Spalding, and like Spalding, my paranoid remembrances are best remembered while sitting in a sold chair on a firm foundation.

In any good memoir, you need to begin with a corner stone of fact and build upward towards a cathedral of fabrication. I have heard the past referred to as a garbage dump, but I prefer to think of it as more of a compost heap—positive in my attitude that the present rests on a clear interpretation of past events.

Don Bradford and I were dorm mates at Cal. I was in my freshman year, and Don was in his senior year, or even his second year as a senior. He claimed he was a professional student and had been living out of his car until recently when he got a job as an attendant in the Campanile. It was a very uninteresting job with a good view. He sat in the booth that housed the handles that rang the great bells that were suspended above the viewer's deck.

I had taken the elevator up to see Don, a trip I always enjoyed because of the mysterious displays of archeological treasure that were visible through the grid of the elevator, as we passed openings to each of the floors. When I found Don, he was writing diligently in the notebook he carried with him. He would write his poems in neat, printed letters, and if he made the slightest error or slip of the pen, he would tear the page out and begin again.

"What are you writing?" I asked.

"I writing about war," he said. "You want to hear a bit of it?"

"Sure," I said.

He laid his notebook in his lap and began:


I open the door to my kitchen.
I find a cup and put the kettle on to boil,
In this time of war.
I make a sandwich and sit at the table
To eat it. I make a cup of tea
to drink in this time of war.
I open the kitchen window
In this time of war.
Two quail cross the grassy yard
In this time of war.
In this time of war
I feel a breeze on my cheek.
My poem begins
In this time of war.
And like my poem
The war goes on and on.

Don looked up. We sat for a minute in silence.

"It seems to me that all poems begin in the ground of war. Take The Iliad, for instance."

"Right," he said. "I wish I had something more sayable."

It wasn't this visit Don showed me the pattern of alliterative s sounds in Robert Frost's "Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening."

It wasn't this visit a grad student climbed up on the rail and threw his briefcase of the edge and jumped to his death. As a matter of fact, the suicide didn't occur while Don was employed at Cal, although as deeply engrossed as he was in his writing, an entire Jim Jones congregation could have jumped off the Campanile.

No, I got a letter from Michael Rossman, a distinguished historian of the 60s political scene in Berkeley, which straightened me out on that point. He had read a version of my memoir in Seeker

Bratman, whom I did not know before calling him in pursuit of reference by his friend who now lives in Florida from whom I was buying through eBay a batch of political posters he had collected whilst in Berkeley and who thought (incorrectly,it turns out) that Bratman might have others. I know what you mean, how details elide themselves together in memory for more effective narrative...
Also, by the way, although Prof. Learner (Lerner?) may well have been subpoenaed to appear before HUAC in their planned 1959 visit here, as many people were, that visit was cancelled; and it was not until May 1960 that HUAC actually did visit, to interrogate other dozens of subpoenaees, and to face the protest you speak of, in which we were hosed down the steps.
Don Bratman says that the suicide did NOT happen while he was working there, but before that. As for your reference to Fred Moore, who was sitting-in alone on Sproul steps in '61 to protest compulsory ROTC, I can correct that from my own memory. Gos, it's hard looking back that far without documentary sources, isn't it?

Don and I climbed up a winding staircase hidden inside a corner pillar and reached the bell chamber. From there we ascended a ladder with metal rungs to the glass lamp atop the bell tower where, through a slit in the casing I could see the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay.

After the suicide at the Campanile, glass partitions were installed to make it more difficult to jump. There was speculation that the Campanile had phallic content, and that being located across the bay from the Golden Gate Bridge—which was designated a maternal symbol, since the span has the shape of breasts—that the combination of male and female symbolism created a vortex of energy that worked on the unstable psyches of people prone to suicide. Interesting. Nothing about both structures being tall and accessible, and that falling from them would kill you.

Don and I climbed down, and he punched out on the time clock, and we walked down the path by Wheeler Hall and out Sather Gate. At the edge of the campus, a guy sat on a blanket with a sign that said he was on a hunger strike. He was protesting the involvement of American advisors in Vietnam, a place I had never heard of. Don and I stopped and looked at this young man—his name according to Michael Rossman was Fred Moore—and we wondered what he was all about.

"I guess your poem is prophetic," I said.

"Could be," he said.

"You understand, Don, that this is a memoir you're in and that this war that is beginning in Vietnam will lead to another war in Iraq and that you'll retire in Florida and I'll become a Buddhist monk and all the facts will be muddled?"

"Of course," he said.

"I'll cherish this time we shared, and I'm resolved to be faithful to the details."

"Sounds good," he said.

"Tomorrow hasn't happened. Monday, we begin the week, and you can be sure that no matter what I write about today, someone will have a bone to pick."

"That's the way it goes," he said.


What Comes Next?

What comes next? Betrayal, theft, disease, some calamity, you can be sure. Or what comes next might be appetizing. Make a cake. Bob's birthday, tomorrow. Bake him a spice cake and decorate it with Timmy's tiny army men. He's into the army right now, so into this war. Flags everywhere. I told him, "Your American flag decal is not going to get you into heaven." He just stared and said, "Well, my Earth in Upheaval license plate holder might."

He's got a point. Seems like the world is in a state of upheaval. Saved by the bell from another Columbine massacre at Shaker Heights. The kids had shotguns and dynamite. That boy shot on the bus last week. Another car bomb in the suburbs. Another flight canceled. Next, they'll require everyone submit a full profile to any airline you plan to fly on. Metal detectors in pre-schools. Lie detector tests. "No, I'm not supplying him with sugar. How much television? Four hours, no not more than four hours. Four hours, that's it."

Better to have the violence on TV than on the streets. That was Shakespeare's theory. Show the blood. Seemed a good idea, in theory. Go ahead, gouge out Glouster's eyes, but then, Peckinpaw made the blood gush. Pioneered those gadgets that make blood shoot out like the bullet hit an artery. And Tarantino takes blood-letting on the screen to a whole new level. Why violence works on the screen is our surprise that we are just bags of liquid and air, our sense of being contained, and then we're leaking, shocks us, gives us a thrill. Anything that moves on the screen IS the movie, holds our attention, enraptures us.

Maybe we should eat out, tonight, get some hamburgers. Eat some burgers with mad cow disease. No, I'm going to bake a nice spice cake. A spice cake with white frosting. Just frosting. And while it's baking I'm going down to the creek and meditate. I've got an hour.

A flood came through. Lots of trash on the banks. Looks like the contents of a supermarket, all these shopping carts, and that tattered sleeping bag hanging in the branches, the belongings of a homeless person's camp washed downstream. Pussy willow and blackberry bushes and the stalks of last year's anise reflect in the water, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of life in the water. A silent spring look.

Limbs and vines, a slab of blue plastic, reflected, the water clear, hardly a ripple, and the reflections, perfect, until a breeze ripples the surface and slightly warps the images. Sights deceive us, like yesterday in the Coffee Catz, a man with a trim beard working at his laptop next to a younger man with a pony tail sharpening old razors on a whetstone. The younger man asks the waiter for vegetable oil and is brought some 3-in-1, and the man at his computer looks confused, does this coffeehouse serve oil? Maybe the other man knows the owner, and it is just his luck to sit next to a man sharpening razors, while he surfs on his computer.

I have a thirst, and I keep coming to this cafe to drink tea, and the man with the trim beard drinks coffee, and the other man is served oil, whatever, the world cruises along its path, me sitting on this log by the creek, and the sap in the vines rising, and I feel love for strangers, even The Shrub, feel loving kindness, so I breathe the spring air, knowing that the love I'm feeling is real, and the "so" is such a big word, means volition, means cause and effect, means by the force of my argument to change the effect and be the cause, because I'm bound by my lifestyle, and I can only be unbound by joy and compassion, and the leaves turn, and the rain falls, and the creek fills, and the homeless...

Bob will be home soon...I'd better check the cake, the cake, God, the cake, and after that, what?


What Happened Next

What happened next was to defy anything Jubal had ever expected, and as usual, he was completely unprepared. Fat chance Jubal was going to lie in bed, cuddling with Toby, watching Kill Bill Part II on the tube. The kitchen was buzzing with flies, and there was a stench, which he recognized as something decomposing.

A touch of awareness kicked in as Jubal entered the room. This was not the kitchen as he remembered it. What are these flies doing here? How did they get in the house? The door to the back porch was open, and it was dark out there. Louder fly noise from that direction.

He walked over and flipped on the light. Nada. Flies. Lots of them coming through a tear in the screen door. Must be something dead under the porch.

Flashlight. One in the car. Better get that before I go any further. Toby called from the front room, "Jubal, what are you doing?"

"I'm going out to the garage."

"Bring back a bottle of wine, if you're going out there," she said.

"Right-O," he signaled, but the wine would have to wait.

Jubal's curiosity was cruising. Even his tabby's interest had peaked, and he rubbed his body against Jubal's leg, his trusty sidekick. Jubal got his light, and the two followed their noses and the buzzing.

The house was built over a hundred years ago, built of redwood. Many of the old houses in Berkeley were built to celebrate the resurrection of the town after the 1906 fire and earthquake. The town grew out of its ashes like a Phoenix. Mythical bird. Jubal didn't expect to find one rotting under his porch.

He spoke to the tabby. "Scratch, is that the rotting corpse of a mythical bird or not?" Scratch looked and sniffed. "It's not a peacock or an ostrich or a dodo—those are real birds, although the dodo is now extinct—no, this is not a real bird, this is a Phoenix, and a Phoenix is a mythical bird. A bird of the imagination. A bird in the dimension of pure qualities. It's a bird that arises once in an eon, and is supposed to rise from its own ashes. Only, this bird is rotting."

Scratch looked at Jubal and back at the Phoenix, seeming to say, "Yes, I have a nose, and this thing is rank."

Jubal went on. "It's fouling up my house. What goes here?" There was a wooden chair by the step, and he used that to prop open the screen door. Then, he turned on the ceiling fan in the kitchen and waved his arms at the flies. "Out, out," he said, excitedly.

He had been looking for his fourth mystical beast in the game Five Great Karmas. He had Psyche's Anthill in the garden, and he had a Griffin in the garage. Toby had slain all but the last Basilisk. And now, a Phoenix! Rare. Not easily encountered. Harder to contain, but possible—there were ways. High-test asbestosteel lining inside a porcelain sarcophagus. Three months in the making once it's ordered from McHammermil. Jubal had always expected to get a sighting before he would order one. This was different. A body in the summer heat would turn to compost fast. So, now what? he wondered. And how did a Phoenix become mortal?

The flies seemed to understand his gesticulations. Only a couple remained, buzzing by the sink. Jubal was totally buzzed himself, projecting his next move. Thrown off balance. Expecting new activity ahead.

"Jubal," Toby called, "don't forget the wine!"