June Naylor, an immigration lawyer, picks me up at the San Antonio airport and drives me to a condo that she and her husband, also an immigration lawyer, don’t use much anymore. June and her husband are community activists and heavily involved in the arts; they are the “good guys” in the fight, I’d like to think, and they make this condo overlooking the city’s famous River Walk available to artists such as myself who come to San Antonio to “perform.” A pleasant, unpretentious woman in her fifties, June has been listed in The Best Lawyers in America for sixteen years running.
She shows me around the one-bedroom unit and tells me to please feel at home; the sheets and towels are fresh, and I’m welcome to the food left behind by the musicians who stayed here before me. Hundreds of books are at my disposal as well. She apologizes about the light in the kitchen being out, but she hasn’t had time to replace the bulb. Would I like a ride to the place I’ll be performing, so I’ll know where it is in the morning? I tell her I think I can find it easily enough; that I’d prefer to have a look around the town, where I had some exploits long ago. She tells me she has enrolled in my writing workshop tomorrow, part of the 2009 Annual Writing Conference, and though she’ll be slightly late due to an appointment, she’s looking forward to it. Then she leaves.
My benefactors are clearly Francophiles: Matisse and Signac prints on the walls, Jean Genet and Andre Gide prominent in the library, French jam in the fridge. Besides a sprinkle of marijuana on the table, the musicians have left me a bag of brown rice, a can of low-salt tomato soup, a tub of tahini, and a jar of reduced-fat peanut butter. In the cupboards I find a box of granola, two containers of salt, and a cardboard cylinder of vegetarian bouillon cubes. I don’t know much about painting, but I study the Matisse and the Signac and decide that I prefer Matisse.
At the big picture window I stare down upon the River Walk. The San Antonio River has been diverted so that it runs through the downtown area as a curvy blue canal adorned with bridges and terraces. From the artificial shore a great commercial citadel has been built up, chockablock with eateries, boutiques, gift shops, and tour guides proclaiming that in 1821 a fur trapper drank too much malt liquor and puked off that balcony, so Davy Crockett had to shoot him between the eyes.
The room feels cool, so I turn the thermostat up to seventy-eight. It’s at least a hundred degrees outside — too hot to go out for long. I comb through the shelves of books, which appear to have been installed here all at once in the 1970s. The library reminds me of my father’s — there’s a similar emphasis on history: Europe after 1915. The Medici years. The novels of Gore Vidal. Various earnest “postwar” treatments. (Hard to do postwar treatments anymore since we’re always at war.) The memoirs of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. A biography of the Italian hero Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Suddenly drowsy, I am reminded of when I lived in Mexico and would housesit for other American expatriates while they returned to the States to renew visas, take vacations, or have medical procedures. Living in rooms where nothing belonged to me, I had to be mindful of plants and pets, of where I sat and slept, and of anything that might get mussed or broken. In those days, before I found the stability and purpose of marriage and a child, I was untethered, uncommitted, with no place to scuttle off to except a cheap hotel. I traveled light and lived on virtually nothing. Alone in someone else’s home, I’d wait idly for the sun to set so I could drink and then fall into bed. I longed to settle down but thought I was too old and unsuited for marriage. Within a year, though, fate would spring upon me a matrimonial surprise. Some might regard those rambling days as “romantic” or “free,” but I am relieved they are over. It often seemed their emptiness would never end.
I consider taking a nap, but that will poison the night’s sleep, so I go for a walk to find something to eat. The first time I came through San Antonio was as a boy, on a family station-wagon trip to see the Alamo; the fort was disappointingly small, especially for a kid who revered Davy Crockett. Later, when I was eighteen and bumming across the U.S., I was kicked off a freight train here. The railroad detective promised that if he found me on the train again, I was going to jail. I shouldered my forty-pound pack and walked across a ghetto whose residents were disarmingly friendly and helpful. On the Interstate ramp I stuck out my thumb and was promptly ticketed for hitchhiking, which was apparently illegal in San Antonio. Cold and tired, I threw my sleeping bag on the grass and crawled in, until another cop came by and cited me for sleeping on the freeway. All I wanted to do was get out of town. The authorities kept making sure I felt unwelcome, but they wouldn’t let me leave. Our mutual hatred only grew. I finally walked back across the ghetto and spent a third of my bankroll on a one-way bus ticket to New Orleans, where I ended up living on the streets for lack of funds, an outcome that might’ve been avoided had San Antonio law enforcement been less draconian.
But both San Antonio and I have grown up since then. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones. And I enjoy the poetic justice of my current situation: the city that once harried and reviled me has now invited me back and is offering to pay me to purportedly edify a handful of its citizens on the art of writing.
As I anticipated, the heat is merciless. I’m not interested in the shops and restaurants, or that pitifully diminutive Alamo surrounded by a tawdry sideshow of barkers and hawkers. All the stores seem to sell the same T-shirts, pop guns, coffee mugs, and ball caps. Thank goodness there are people to study. I watch them walk with heads down, and I wonder why animals move with grace but so few people do. These humans are too heavy, for one thing, but even if they weighed less, they would still appear lost, floundering contentedly along on a course set by others.
In the middle of the sidewalk lies a man, probably forty years old, asleep in the hot sun. He wears a soiled green shirt and a bushy gray beard. I step around him, feeling guilty and somehow responsible, but having no idea how to help. At the crowded McDonald’s I wait in line for two bacon cheeseburgers, converted from a frozen state by teenagers in polyester uniforms. My funds are limited, so I hope this will hold me for the day. I also buy an apple for 79 cents at an overpriced deli. On the way home I buy beer, a quart of milk, and a 100-watt environmentally friendly light bulb for $5.29.
That night I drink beer, listen to sports radio, jot down some notes on the graceless inhabitants of San Antonio, and change that light bulb in the kitchen. This would be the perfect chance to be a bad boy: to slip out, cut loose, galumph anonymously into a bar and wink at women or tuck a bill into a dancer’s g-string and otherwise get my middle-aged kicks. But a good part of my life has already been devoted to such hedonism, and I’ve nothing to show for it but a vivid acquaintance with the barrenness of debauchery.
So I read books, pulling down one after another and marveling at how much there is I don’t know. Every volume is imposing in size, and it’s difficult to imagine someone having had the diligence to compose the whole thing on a typewriter. In the Garibaldi bio I find attributed to him the line “War is the true life of man.” (I’ve since attempted to confirm this quote, but it doesn’t come up in a Google search, except when it’s attributed to an Argentine dictator. The line seems true to me anyway — at least, it would explain why there is always war.)
McDonald’s heavily engineered food sits like lead in my stomach. I look down from the wide picture window. In summer the River Walk traffic slows only during the early-morning hours, and right now its revelers bellow and chant as if they will never tire. I review the notes on my presentation for tomorrow. My subject is “Mining the Lost Years,” or how to take the dirty coal of your life — the breakups, breakdowns, poverty, sickness, death, misdeeds, indiscretions, shattered dreams, and other ringing failures — and compress it into diamonds.
I don’t sleep well. Nightmares one after the next crash over me, including one in which I meet the Hag of Dreams, whose face changes to kindness as she spins me back through my past in a flashing collage of crude childhood drawings. Seldom do I have such dreams in my own bed, but whenever I travel, the nightmares find me. Heavily engineered burgers are likely the source, combined perhaps with the role I am soon to play of pretending to know the secret to good writing.
The next morning I have brown rice and French jam for breakfast and then walk across town to the venue. This is a two-day event. Day one will consist of a grueling seven-hour workshop in which I will talk about various aspects of writing, and each participant will share a sample from a manuscript in progress, which we will discuss as a group. Day two will be a reading and Q and A session. Twelve people have signed up for the workshop. Each has paid a hundred dollars. I will make more in these two days than I have in three years from book sales. Hence I make my living mostly as a cook.
Even at the peak of my methamphetamine days, I would have had trouble talking for seven hours. I aim to please, however. A longing to please is both my weakness and my strength. It’s why I cook, why I write, why I take five years to get a sentence right, why I’m so goofily polite, why I reply to fan letters from prisoners. I hope you like this crab-and-mushroom omelet with fried leeks and Gruyère. I hope you like this sentence. I hope you like me. I think they do. I don’t know why they wouldn’t. I’m giving them everything I have.
I also want to be a good teacher and earn my pay, so I go to great lengths to get to know each member of my group. Zella Hernandez-Godoy, who loves literature and works for the foundation that hired me, seems to like me the most. (Her admiration might go beyond my skill with language.) Brandi seems bored and disappointed. Petula, who wants to be called Pet, knows my work well and has brought books for me to sign. Margot doesn’t seem to trust my maundering one-hour introduction, in which I recite a laundry list of my shortcomings — drug abuse, suicidal ideation, compulsive wandering, depression — as examples of what became centerpieces of stories or essays. She warms up to me, though, when I cite examples of other writers who’ve mined lost years, writers she likes, such as Caroline Knapp, author of Drinking: A Love Story.
Cora is quiet and has the most talent. She doesn’t seem to think the piece she reads has merit, but it’s quite good, and I tell her so: just a few paragraphs away from completion, in my opinion. But maybe she shouldn’t write about people whose experiences are so different from hers. This is what many beginning writers do: the young woman writing about the old man; the Midwestern college student writing about heroin addicts in Paris, when he’s never seen heroin or been to Paris. An older woman, Dinah, is grindingly proficient and bent on fully informing her readers about each aspect of her story — the Wikipedia effect, I call it. I tell her as gently as possible that we live in a world that’s drowning in facts. We don’t need any more facts; what we need is the facts sorted and refined into truths, which in my view should be the job of the writer.
Each of my students has some worthwhile angle, character, or idea, which I try to tease out and encourage. As always when I run these workshops, I’m not sure I should willfully sustain the illusion that the process by which I create a story or an essay can be repeated or defined. Talking about writing as if it were some kind of identifiable, dissectible entity, like a frog on a lab tray, is approaching art from the wrong end. The last thing I want is to convince anyone of the existence, somewhere in an oracular mist, of some absolute principle to which only the artist has access. I have no such access. Yet, like a doctor paid for a consultation, I know what my patient wants. If I don’t at some point prescribe some kind of whiz-bang, cherry-flavored writing panacea, I will be regarded as remiss.
I also feel compelled to discuss a few sobering realities of my vocation: those ten or so years of rejection while you hone your craft; and how, even if you find success, there’s not much money in selling books or magazine pieces. There is, however, a boatload of cash to be made selling advice. Witness the speaker before you, whose books you have reservations about buying for ten or eleven dollars but whose advice you’ve dropped a C-note on without blinking. In other words, if you want to make money in the lit biz, hire yourself out as an advisor; if you want to try to sell your cherished life’s work to a publisher, develop a liking for living down by the railroad tracks and eating crackers and jack mackerel.
At the end of the day I go out for drinks with three of the participants: Zella, the one who likes me beyond my professional capacity; Margot, who changed her mind about me after I used examples of writers she admired; and Cora, to whom I’ve awarded a giddy new confidence. I enjoy talking more when my listeners aren’t furiously taking notes or expecting me at any moment to reveal a magic formula for success. Brandi, the one who was plainly bored and disappointed with me from the beginning — I believe she would’ve preferred to have a handsome actor or a polished salesman just outright lie to her — will give me a bad performance review because I wasn’t able to divulge the philosopher’s stone. Well, here you are, Brandi, though it’s a few years late and hardly feels like hundred-dollar advice: the secret to success in any field is hard work and luck, emphasis on the latter.
Zella, who wriggles with the joy of being alive, gives me a ride back to the condo on the River Walk and says she will pick me up in the morning and take me out to lunch after my reading and Q and A, if that’s OK. She is in her mid-thirties, with warm brown eyes and a mass of beautiful brown hair, a single long gray streak prominent. I like the fact that she hasn’t dyed that streak, and I think about sleeping with her, and though I am not going to sleep with her, the strong desire is a reminder that the lost years are never behind you; they are always waiting just around the corner.
I say, OK, Zella, mil gracias y hasta mañana.
Like my Mexican wife, who spoke no English when I brought her to the U.S. eight years ago, Zella is amused at my efforts to negotiate her native tongue. Soon I am up the elevator and “home,” shaky and discombobulated and ripe for a fresh batch of nightmares. I have two more beers, take notes on the day, and read the better part of a biography of lunatic billionaire Howard Hughes. Talk about lost years. I thought I had my share — especially if you count childhood and teenhood, and let’s throw in my twenties and thirties while we’re at it, or basically all of my life until I got married and stopped drifting. But Hughes hit the ground lost and was never found. He screwed up everything: marriages, friendships, airline companies. I don’t believe he had one minute of fun. One of the worst businessmen who ever lived, he was nonetheless stubborn, shrewd, and lucky. (There’s that luck for you again, Brandi.) If he really had syphilis, it would explain a lot.
The next day’s presentation is a breeze. I don’t have to be an expert or a guru anymore, just read an essay, answer a few questions, and make people laugh. The whole business takes no more than two hours, including a presentation by a contract lawyer who used to work as an editor for Simon & Schuster but left publishing for the big bucks in giving advice. She’s booked solid for the next year.
Afterward Zella and I ride to lunch in her beat-up Army-green Chrysler that barely runs. She drives us to the Liberty Bar. Once a real beatnik joint (she is surprised I have not heard of it), it’s now literally leaning on its foundation and will soon be relocated, like many other businesses that stand in the way of the expanding River Walk and its mighty flow of commercial dollars.
The Liberty Bar this Sunday afternoon is packed with laughing, festive young people — no beatniks in sight. Some researchers have proposed they are extinct. We order bottles of beer and calamari straight out of the deep fryer. Pet and Cora join us. I tell them the story of how I was kicked off the trains and ticketed twice and prevented from leaving San Antonio by people who wanted me to leave.
You should turn that one into a story, says Pet.
Good idea, I say.
You have enough lost years for ten books, Cora says.
Maybe I should’ve been homeless a bit longer, I say. I’d hate to run dry at book eleven.
Zella laughs and crinkles her eyes at me. After lunch she drives me to her house in West San Antonio, a vast neighborhood very much like East LA, with more than its share of poverty and crime, and countless sidewalk memorials to those who’ve died young and often violently. Zella lives in a canary-yellow craftsman-style house whose porch is hung with bird cages and wooden chimes. Inside, there are stuffed Tweety Birds everywhere and a large cage full of live zebra finches: delightful, dainty birds I have never heard of before.
We sit on the porch in wicker chairs and drink iced tea amid the soothing marimba of the chimes and the cheerful chatter of the zebra finches and the clinking of ice cubes like ringing hotel-desk bells. Zella is happy to be living in a high-crime area and takes pleasure in the fact that her white friends are afraid to visit her. She is proud of her neighborhood, where vitality and art blossom from squalor and despair. This is where the real artists live, she says.
You won’t find many uptown, I agree.
Are you in a big hurry to get back home? she asks.
My flight leaves at four in the morning, I say.
Too bad, she says. You could probably get some good notes here in West San Antonio.
That afternoon Zella shows me the murals of her neighborhood: the eight stages of a Mexican American woman’s life; the musical heroes of San Antonio. The Jesus-and-angel mural is frequently visited by prostitutes and drug addicts, Zella tells me; they touch the wall and pray. It makes a difference, she says. I recollect my own difficult times and touch the wall, too. She talks about the artist who painted many of these murals, and who recently died. I learn that Zella had a relationship with him and also a child, which must be why she is so emotional. She talks about the artist with wet eyes. He even came to visit me in India, she says.
You lived in India?
Yes, and in Finland and Lebanon, too.
In the four hours I spend with Zella she makes many references to magic, spirit, and prayer. She drives me all over West San Antonio, where there has been an extended drought. No swimming or wading is allowed in the shrinking lakes. Times are so hard, women are coming out of their houses to make a little money on the street. There is more drug addiction, too. Zella shows me a park where the homeless refuse to sleep because it was once a graveyard. As we walk across the old burial ground, the brown grass crunches like pine needles under our shoes.
Our last stop is a store with icons, books, and jewelry in the window.
Do you know what a botánica is? she asks.
Brujas, she says, eyebrows raised. Witches.
But this botánica mostly sells “natural” products: candles, soap, incense, herbal remedies, charms, and the like. Zella introduces me to her friend behind the counter, Alizeth, who will be going off to Cal Berkeley in the fall on a creative-writing scholarship — a package of advice that, without the scholarship, might cost upwards of forty thousand a year. Alizeth says she is pleased to meet me and would’ve attended my workshop had she an extra hundred bucks. I tell her she didn’t miss much. Zella swats me across the shoulder in remonstration. I study the rows of bottled folk remedies, looking for one labeled “Best-Selling-Author Potion” to hand around at my next workshop.
The two women talk in concerned tones about the case of a San Antonio girl who was brought here illegally from Mexico but graduated valedictorian at sixteen and received a fifty-thousand-dollar scholarship to St. Mary’s University. A month ago she was pulled over for a minor traffic violation and immediately deported. My benefactor and workshop student June has been hired to represent her. Zella explains to me that this happens all the time: people who were brought here by their parents, grew up in the U.S., and have done nothing wrong are separated from their families and sent back to a country that is foreign to them, where they may not even speak the language.
Back out on the sidewalk in front of the botánica, a woman who resembles a gaunt figure from the underworld, track marks up her neck, approaches to ask if we will give her a dollar so she can get her sexuality back. Zella gives her a buck.
Best dollar line I’ve heard yet, I say.
I’ve heard better, says Zella.
June picks me up at two the next morning to give me a ride to the airport. The River Walk is still bustling with revelers. I thank her for going to all the trouble at such an odd hour, but she says it is nothing. She appreciates my coming out and putting on a good show. She picked up a few pointers and plans to write a memoir someday.
I ask about the valedictorian she is representing. Nothing really I can do for her, June says, even if the story goes national. The law is clear. She’ll be deported, probably return to the U.S. illegally, and lose all that she worked for. Everyone concerned is hoping for passage of the DREAM Act, which would grant conditional residency to any noncitizen under the age of thirty who hasn’t committed a crime and has graduated from high school. The DREAM Act has been on Congress’s plate for a long time, she says. If they could only pass it, our new president, Barack Obama, would surely sign it into law.
I watch the city go by and think about someone growing up in this country, working hard to win at its game, and then having it all taken away. My wife of eight years, a dentist who has only recently been naturalized, came to the U.S. legally but worked for a time illegally as a maid after she first arrived. (We needed the money.) She could easily have been deported for violating the provisions of her tourist visa, an outcome that would’ve dramatically changed both our lives in no good way I can imagine.
June asks if I am looking forward to seeing my family.
Very much so, I tell her, showing her the turquoise ring I bought for my wife and the San Antonio souvenir gadget I know my seven-year-old son will love.