Chapter 6 (Continued from Bob Stanley)
So for a couple weeks in 1987 I had this job canvassing door to door for CalPirg. One day my supervisor was driving me and some other canvassers to our dropoff spots. She was a girl my age who was home for the summer from Macalester College. She asked us to say where we envisioned ourselves in five years. I sunk down as low as possible in the backseat. Another canvasser volunteered to start the round of answers. My stomach began to hurt.
The future to me had always been vague, millennial. I hadn’t ever envisioned anything specific happening but had occasionally daydreamed about enormous, shattering transformations, figuring eventually I’d somehow stumble from the lonely prison of virginity to acrobatically sex-drenched romantic love, from lazy self-absorption to saintly buddhistic enlightenment, and from the scribbling of impotent notebook ramblings to the mastering of some kind of volcanic artistic inspiration like the visionary fugue state that seized my hero Jack Kerouac throughout the three-week period in which he pounded out On the Road. I didn’t include any of these notions in my answer. I don’t remember what I said. I think I mumbled something about how I hoped I would still be alive. The Macalester coed looked at me in the rearview mirror, I guess waiting for more.
“Okay,” she finally said, cheerfully.
Later that day I was wandering around my assigned turf, a neighborhood in the town of Lompoc. I was terrible at getting contributions from people, but the day in Lompoc was worse than usual. Near the end of my shift I knocked on a door and a thin guy with aviator glasses answered. I began reciting the official CalPirg spiel in my customary hesitant monotone.
“Hello, my name’s Josh, and I’m with CalPirg. We’re in your neighborhood today talking to people about our urgent work advocating for the people of Calif—”
“Hey, let me ask you something,” the guy said.
“Okay,” I said.
“How would you like to experience something a thousand times better than any acid trip?”
I always liked Tom Burgmeier, an unassuming lefty specialist who held up his end of the deal for otherwise ineffective Boston Red Sox pitching staffs in the early 1980s. He had a somewhat rough first campaign for the Red Sox, in 1978, posting a 4.40 ERA, but then as the Red Sox began to sink toward irrelevancy he posted ERAs of 2.74, 2.00, 2.87, and 2.29, respectively, impressive numbers especially considering he earned them while laboring in Fenway, commonly considered a left-handed pitcher’s worst nightmare.
I think in some ways I wish I was Tom Burgmeier. He always seemed so competent, so useful, even when—or especially when—the rest of his team seemed adrift in the aftermath of an unredeemable shipwreck. Again and again he’d trot in briskly from the bullpen to relieve a sweaty, imploding Steve Renko or Chuck Rainey, hold off the opposition for an inning and a third or so, then hand things over to Mark Clear or Bob Stanley, who would then cough up a couple more runs, rendering a late-inning rally by the still-fearsome Boston offense useless. The world was doomed, but it wasn’t Tom Burgmeier’s fault. He knew what he was doing. He knew where he was going.
The thin guy with the aviator glasses was staring at me, waiting for an answer. I looked down at my CalPirg clipboard, at my watch. I looked back up at the guy.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Why not?”
He ushered me into his house. He pointed to a pile of shoes by the door. I noticed then that he was barefoot. I kicked off my sneakers and followed him into an adjoining room. A thin Asian woman was there. She was barefoot, too. There were a lot of Buddha statues and candles on the mantle.
“I was like you,” the guy said. In those days people were always starting off their stories to me by saying “I was like you.”
“I was into drugs, booze, anything I could get my hands on,” the guy continued. “Always looking for the biggest buzz, the highest high. Well, let me tell you, there is no higher high than what you’re about to experience.”
“Please,” the Asian woman said, motioning toward a plain brown mat she’d just spread onto the floor. I kneeled down, then they kneeled down onto fancier, more colorful mats on either side of me. They both closed their eyes. Incense was burning. They started chanting.
“Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. . . .”
I joined in, keeping my eyes half-open. The three of us chanted for a few minutes, then they stopped.
“Nam—,” I said, still going. “Oh.”
“Wow, huh?” the guy said. He was smiling now. He put on his glasses and looked at me.
I felt all right, nothing amazing. Saying the same thing over and over does get kind of hypnotic. But mostly I just felt compelled to give the guy a positive response. I always wanted to tell people what I thought they wanted to hear, like the time I was hitchhiking and assured the enthusiastic Born Again Christian who’d picked me up that I would in the very near future be declaring Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.
“Wow,” I said to the guy in the aviator glasses. We were all still kneeling there on our mats.
“That was really . . . really something,” I said.
Tom Burgmeier was born August 2, 1943, in St. Paul, Minnesota (home of Macalester College). He signed his first pro contract in 1962, when he was 18. I suppose when I first obtained the 1978 card at the top of this page I may have read that information and vaguely envisioned a similar future for myself, a future which resembled my baseball-crazy present. But more likely I neither read that information nor foresaw myself signing a pro contract at 18. I didn’t really dream of being a baseball player when I grew up, because I never really thought I’d grow up. I’ve always held this evasive attitude toward the future, and I am always surprised when I notice that weeks, months, years have gone by. This may explain my stunned expression in photographs.
My childhood was not very structured. My mother believed that children should be given as much freedom as possible. I had countless hours to myself to do whatever I wanted. And even when I went to school my days meandered to a significant extent in the direction of my choosing, my multiage classroom founded on the free-school idea that children grow best when given the opportunity to learn (and not learn) whatever and whenever they wanted.
I don’t think many children growing up now have days that resemble my childhood days. Today the norm for a child seems to be that any spare moment outside school is to be clogged with structured activities, scheduled play dates and soccer practice and music lessons and courses designed to improve scores on standardized tests. Not much time for daydreaming. Not much time for wandering around or staring at baseball cards or just making shit up out of thin air.
There have been times when I’ve wondered if I would have been better off with more structure. Maybe the structure could have helped me learn early on to envision life unfolding in plannable five-year chunks of goal-attainment. The structure wouldn’t have gotten me to the major leagues, because I didn’t have any talent, but maybe I could have approached grownup life the way Tom Burgmeier approached baseball, with clear eyes and a firm sense of my place in the world, a sense of who I was and where I was going.
After thanking the Asian woman and assuring the guy in the aviator glasses that he’d changed my life I got my clipboard and put my sneakers back on and walked out into the Lompoc evening. But before leaving the porch I mounted a half-assed attempt to get a contribution to CalPirg from the guy. He was leaning in his doorway. He waved a hand around like he was shooing a bug.
“We’ve moved beyond all that,” he said.
I spent the rest of my shift wandering through Lompoc chanting. It really was kind of pleasantly trance-inducing. I didn’t knock on any more doors and when the day was done I was through with CalPirg. A few days later I got a job at a gas station, just like I had the previous summer after quitting Greenpeace.
A couple years earlier, during my senior year at boarding school, I’d told my mother I’d applied to Macalester College. The catalog made the place sound pretty good, a small liberal arts college full of intellectually adventurous young people expanding their minds in every direction. On some level I wanted to go there, but on another level I didn’t want to go anywhere. I didn’t want to do anything that would make the present turn into the future. I got what had to have been a tepid letter of recommendation from my JV basketball coach, filled out the application, wrote my essay, packed everything into an envelope, then just let it sit there for a few days and then a few weeks, and then I guess at some point long after the deadline for application had passed I threw the thing in the trash. But I told my mom I applied there and to a few other places that I can’t recall (Macalester was my “first choice” while the other places I didn’t apply to were my “fallbacks”). In fact the only place I actually applied to was Boston University. It doesn’t really make sense that I applied to any school, but maybe I’d made an exception for BU because it was a short walk from Fenway Park. This exception almost sabotaged my attempt to make time stand still, as BU accepted me. But soon after getting the acceptance letter I was expelled from the boarding school for smoking pot. That summer I was 17. I got my GED and worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 18. I worked at a gas station. The next summer I was 19.
I worked at a gas station. I wore a blue Chevron shirt. The Santa Barbara sky was the color of my shirt every single day. I quit with a few weeks left in the summer. No longer employed, I went jogging on a nearby beach barefoot every morning with the dog who’d met me at the beginning of the summer at the bus station, Luna. Every afternoon I hung out at a secluded beach, barefoot, meditating on rocks and reading books with the word Zen in the title. By the end of the summer I resembled the natives:
I was barefoot and tan.
(continued in Dock Ellis)