Ever stood on a precipice? I did, in the summer of 1975 my first “real” vacation. There I stood with my good friend Charles Kibby after we stopped on our road trip up the Oregon Coast to Short Sand Beach, the first time I had seen a black sand beach. After a year of working in odd jobs (day care centers, mailing house, etc.) I got a job at Samuel French. I got an apartment. I saved money. I bought a ticket to the other side of America. I had never flown cross country.
The 1970s was full of risk taking in one way or the other. And while air travel was not all that unsafe, as a single Black woman I now realize that I had little sense of the possible dangers. I just did stuff. Come visit me in Eugene, said Chuck and so, funds in hand, that is what I did. But, before all that, I saw a) the Rockies when the pilot told us to look out the window b) the flat quilt-like stretches of mid-America (still a great deal of farmland) and c) dots of blue water as in many swimming pools as we flew over Southern California.
I had a whole paid week off and I was able to visit my friend before he left Oregon and moved to Alaska—he was going to work on the Alaska pipeline and make a shit load of money—and he did and wrote me the best letters, which I still have. But first, he was living in Eugene, Oregon, which sounded exotic, but when I got there it was simply a huge college town where there had been some agriculture or the timber industry, but there didn’t seem to be working people in those industries. It felt Southern, many houses with blonde children biking around, some hippies, some jocks—you could feel the drinking. But first San Francisco, then Amtrak from Oakland. There were steps to getting to where I needed to go.
Via my Poetry Project contacts, I had met Keith Abbott, a West Coast poet. I told him I was on my way to Oregon and he kindly offered me an overnight stay with his family in Oakland, his artist wife Lani, and their daughter Persephone. They were generous hosts for a day and a half while I waited for the train to Eugene. The extra hours in the Bay Area was serendipitous. That chance to stay in Oakland and see how this artist family lived was an unexpected delight.
The Abbott’s bungalow was filled with books and art work and many shrines, but they weren’t called shrines. As I recall much of the art was Eastern: Japanese, Chinese, some Indian miniatures (or that could be another Oakland home). It is as if the accumulation of objects and flora were always thus, but in California, the art looked East to Asia whereas in New York, the art looked West to Europe, to Africa.
Persephone was a gentle, quiet child at least while I was there. Her parents were large in personality, but in different ways. Keith was tall, good looking, just starting that spread towards middle age—he might have been 35, 36. Lani was pretty and chic in a very northern California way—the hair artfully messy; her jewelry beautifully made and unique. Only she could wear her bracelets. Persephone, so powerfully named, had parents of considerable artistic weight. I have always envied my friends raised by both parents as they seem to understand how to negotiate a range of egos without doing a great deal of physic work. Or maybe I just want to believe that. It seemed as if Persephone had her work cut out for her in a good way.
Every trip is a kind of education. A way of gaining knowledge that you might not have thought you needed, and one of the best was my walk about San Francisco with Lani Abbott. We walked through Chinatown where I bought ginger cookies. They were sweet and spicy in a way that I’ve not tasted since. When I returned to New York, I went to several Chinese bakeries, but never found those cookies. It must have been the delicacy of that one bakery in San Francisco.
Walking about with Lani was a lesson in learning how to present a place you love. I am a woman who loves to have my feet on the ground. Living in New York City for over a year had revealed this to me. Walking across 14th Street in New York City from say First Avenue to Eighth Avenue was a way to learn the many ways that New Yorkers lived and shopped and moved—there were Filipinos near First Avenue; there were homeless people outside of S. Klein’s, the falling down department store; there were many good-looking men around Seventh Avenue. There was that moment when the Salvation Army Building’s façade lit up casting a grim light on the showy and the sorrowful when I walked across after dark. Those walks cemented my relationship to Manhattan, to “the City.” These walks became sources for early poems that focused on place. I did not know how much walking would cement my relationship to New York City or inspire my poetry, but I quickly understood Lani’s relationship to San Francisco and I could see how that worked in my relationship to Manhattan.
San Francisco was cold. Not to her or anyone who lived there, but to me. I was in California, wasn’t it supposed to be warm and sunny? Well Oakland was, but San Francisco was not. But a borrowed jacket can get you through any weather and so with extra covering, I joined Lani who took me to North Beach. She talked about poets, about who lived here and who had left. She showed me Coit Tower, which was quite impressive (was that tower in Vertigo). Then we wound our way through North Beach and just as we came near its heart, Lani started waving and then I realized she was waving at Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was opening a car door for Muriel Rukeyser, who was beaming. They saluted Lani and by extension, me. Most likely, they were about to go off to some literary shindig and it was great to see Muriel whom I met in New York City. She was so encouraging especially to young women poets. She tried to help me get housing at WestBeth (didn’t work out). Unlike many others in New York, she was unsurprised by young Black women poets. If anything, I think she thought there should be many more of us. It was the last time I saw her so full of life.
Ferlinghetti and Rukeyser’s car slowly drove off and Lani chatted about this corner and that store and as we walked down the hill towards Fisherman’s Wharf. She pointed out the jeweler who designed her wedding band; the place where Keith read his poetry; her favorite dress shop or bookstore (besides City Lights). It was as if every corner was marked by story and she had one for each of them. She made the chilly beauty of San Francisco, human, touchable: metal, fabrics, breath, music—all claimed in her talk and I listened as best I could and saw as much as I could.
Then we finally walked all the way down to Fisherman’s Wharf. We stopped at the then newish John Portman designed hotel for a drink and sandwiches. That walk was so indelible that 15 years later when I was in San Francisco and could feel nature calling, I was able to find the ladies’ room in that hotel! Lani Abbott loved, loved, loved San Francisco and her enthusiasm was contagious. Good way to enter the ethos, the atmosphere, the allure of the West Coast.
Eugene was a hippie college town and it was super White. One of Chuck and his housemate’s friend was Jewish. Indeed, this guy and I took a trip to Portland to see a movie: Woody Allen’s A Walk with Love and Death. Allen’s Russian movie someone coined it, was about politics, assassinations and in the background, pogroms. It was strange to see such a sad, but occasionally funny film in this huge almost empty movie theater in Portland. I also saw a former lover, who had moved back there. He had given up being a poet (good, he was totally mediocre) and was studying nursing. He seemed to have decided that he was more into men than women although he flirted with everybody—so who knew for sure. At least, he was where he wanted to be.
One Jewish friend. At least Chuck and his buddies had found somebody not WASPY. That was as exotic as Eugene could be. Even so, it was the only place I’ve ever actually hitchhiked. After being there a couple of days, I had to go for a walk because New Yorkers walk and getting in and out of cars all the time drove me a little batty. So, I walked a quarter mile to a grocery store past house after house of people who seemed to have won the Scandinavian genetic sweepstakes. They were pleasant and a bit startled as I walked by. On my way back to Chuck’s house, this guy drinking the local brew (am sure it was Olympia beer) stopped and said do you want a ride and we don’t see too many of you folk around here –I figured he was so honest he was harmless. I got in, he took me to the corner I requested and drove off to tell his friends he’d picked up a colored girl on the way to or from work. The hippie ethos worked in my favor that day and so did my intuition. A camping trip further up the Coast seemed like a perfect thing to do.
The best part of the vacation was that trip to Short Sand Beach. When Chuck and I stopped and got out of his van and walked a very short section of this earth—on a mountaintop and then looked down towards the Pacific-I got that mix of vertigo and wonder and utter gratitude for gravity. We are on a precipice. We look up sky. We look down ocean. Awe is rare and I was in awe. I could understand how humility enters your spirit, because the sky, the earth all that water, who was I, who was he? We did not speak. We slowly walked back, got in the van and drove towards our destination, truly grateful for gravity.