Jun 19, 2020

Today is Earl’s birthday—and in honor of the occasion, I’m posting a vignette I wrote for A Patchwork Memoir:

I hate shopping for men—I never know what to get—and shopping for Earl is no exception. For his last birthday, he mentioned he needed a turkey platter, so that’s what I bought, but this year he’s no help at all, insisting he doesn’t need anything. Whatever I choose, it’s got to be something special, since he’s turning seventy-five—pressure, pressure. Well, he’s covered one wall of his small basement, floor to ceiling, with snapshots—but they’re all of cars and, almost incidentally, people. So why not buy him an album for the nature photos we take when we’re out together? I consider.

I’m squatting on the floor of Radston’s Stationers with albums of various dimensions, trying to figure out which one best accommodates both vertical and horizontal compositions. I didn’t think to bring any of my photos, so I experiment with different layouts using a 4”x 6” picture frame from the shelf. I finally choose a handsome old-fashioned album with paper guaranteed not to yellow. At home I fill it with all my latest pictures—the spiraling staircase of the Pigeon Point lighthouse, that crazy shingled house in Miramar Beach with a wooden angel on the roof, those bizarre rock formations on an unnamed beach that looked like something from an alien world. Then I search among my collection of greeting cards. “People jumped up and down the day you were born. Of course, the earth’s crust was still cooling back then.”

Earl arrives in a very blue jacket—he’s taken to wearing western shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons and string ties. He told me to dress up and, since I’m always looking for an excuse to wear glitz, I’ve got on a blouse with a yoke of sequins. He opens his present in the cab of his truck. “You must have ESP!” he says, delightedly. “I was just thinking about putting together a ‘Beautiful California’ album—of your photos and the ones I’ve taken over the years at Tahoe and Yosemite…”

He won’t tell me where we’re going to dinner, though. “Is it somewhere we’ve been before?” I ask when we’re underway, hoping to pry a clue out of him. He tries to throw me off track by taking a round-about route, but pretty soon I guess it’s the Santa Fe Bar and Grill—the “crawdad” restaurant.

(And here I should explain that Earl refused to take me to the Santa Fe Bar and Grill last Christmas Eve because the year before they served him a lobster without claws. I was so disappointed I decided to call the restaurant and demand an explanation but didn’t need to because Igor, my Alexander Technique teacher, provided one first. “If I tell you why your lobster didn’t have claws, will you take me back to the Santa Fe Bar and Grill?” I’d asked Earl. “It better be good,” he’d warned. “Because western lobsters don’t have claws!” I’d said smugly. But it turned out the Bar and Grill wasn’t open that Christmas Eve anyway. And now Earl insists on calling our native arthropods “crawdads.”)

Though it’s one of the swankest eating spots in Berkeley, the Santa Fe Bar and Grill is located along a seamy stretch of University Ave., between a Jay Vee liquor store and what looks like a condemned motel. Once the Berkeley train station, it’s now a pale sandstone color, inside and out, with tall paintings of people on trains, and a grand piano and pianist in the center. We’re seated at a window table looking out on a garden—squat palms and over-sized jungle plants screen out the traffic and ramshackle neighborhood.

“When Kevin and Billy (his stepsons) were kids,” he waxes nostalgic, “Irene and I would pack them and all our camping gear in the MG and go camping at Tahoe. This was back in the days when sleeping bags were really bulky—like army surplus-type stuff—so when we hiked, I’d wind their bags around them and tie them at the waist with string. Kevin was always complaining, so we gave him the Indian name ‘Walking Tongue.’ Billy couldn’t sit still, so he was ‘Wiggly Willie.’”

After Earl and Moira were divorced, he remarried on the rebound—Irene, who was a pianist. She was zealous about a succession of causes, Earl has told me more than once, and he could always tell what their Thursday night fight would be about by the most recent book she had on her nightstand. She would take him to task as though he were personally responsible for the latest social ill to spark her indignation. (He generally retreated to the garage and tinkered with his MG.) Though their marriage only lasted eight years—Irene eventually went off to join a commune—I’ve always thought Billy and Kevin were lucky to have had Earl, if only for a while, as a stepfather.

“My family never went camping,” I say, “but my dad used to take Doug and me to stay at a cabin up in the northern wilderness of Minnesota. It was so wild back then, they were still discovering new lakes—as if 10,000 weren’t enough! One time we hiked through the woods, following red bands someone had painted on the trees to mark the trail, to one of them. I was disappointed it was so small, I remember, and that it didn’t look all that unspoiled—someone had left a rowboat on the shore, though how they managed to drag it through the woods, I couldn’t imagine. Sometimes we’d go fishing at dawn, and Dad would fry up some crappies for breakfast—or if we got lucky, a bass or northern pike.”

When the waiter comes to take our order, I’m still trying to decide. “Why is the duck always the best-sounding thing on the menu?” I grump. I like meat or fish with fruit—Café Select’s blueberry pork chops, Skates’ mahi-mahi with pineapple salsa…and duck usually comes with an orange sauce. Out of deference to the duckling I had as a child, however, I won’t eat its kind. They don’t have crappies or pike on the menu—no surprise—so I settle on the bass, out of nostalgia for those long-ago times, when I still had a father—of sorts.