About ‘Condition Oakland’
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TRACK 4 – CHAPTER 16: THE ELSE
We pack up everything and we are loading the van, out back. Mark and I put our amps in the back, light cigarettes, and lean against the van.
“Good show,” I say.
“Yeah, good show. I think this is going to be a really big summer for the D.W.S.”
Sidney walks out the back door, rolling his bass amp.
Charlin comes over and hugs Mark. They start a private conversation. I watch them for a second, and then turn back to Sidney and Lane. I am feeling good, satisfied.
“What are we going to do with ourselves for the next three months?”
“Practice, play out, and have fun. What else is there?”
“Uh, what else is there? Let’s see… girls… Uh, films.”
“Music… I mean, other than ours.”
We’re all laughing by this point.
“Watching Sidney try to draw band logos.”
“Hey it looks like it’s going to rain, we should head out.”
“Rain,” Sidney says, still listing.
“Agreed. Meet you at Courtesy?” Mark had driven his car this night.
“Actually, I think I’m going to go home tonight. But you guys should still go.” What he means is he wants to go hang out with Charlin.
“Yeah, OK. See you.”
We drive through the half dead city night, seeing the decay contrasting the new growth, the city seeming confused about what is being done to it, but not thinking of it for more than a moment. More concerned with how the ideas in the music we listen to acts as a panacea for all the problems the world could ever imagine. The rain is going, painting the windshield clear, and we’re breathing it in. Singing along maybe, sure. But more being the music, floating like liquid breaking the rules, or flowing like air trapped too long in a room when the door is finally opened and it knows, knows, now it can go anywhere.
Courtesy Diner this night is quiet, even with the jukebox too loud. We are all seemingly in contemplative moods, thinking about the show, the possibilities of the summer, the freedom we face. We are all excited, but it is the self-containing type of excitement that can last as long as you’re willing to sit with it, coddle it. And we are in no hurry to get away from this feeling.
“Sidney, did you see Mr. Sanders?”
“At the show.”
“He was there?”
“Yeah, I sort of invited him. Only I forgot about it until tonight, when I saw him. He was sitting at the bar.”
“Awesome.” Sidney had him for class, too. A different period than I did, though.
“Yeah, he said he liked us. But he said you were awful. He said,” I mock Mr. Sanders voice, “’Kick that Sidney fellow out, and then maybe you’ll get somewhere.’”
They laugh and I join them.
“Hey, we need to do something for the Conclave. I had an idea tonight.”
“We need to start chalking the city.”
“Yeah. Like, sidewalks, buildings, streets… Like, our favorite quotes in random places where people will see them. Or like secret messages or something.”
“What kind of quotes?”
“I don’t know, something to make people think, or feel good for a second.”
“OK. I’m free tomorrow, we’ll do it up.”
I am sitting at home after I get back from Courtesy Diner that night, and I pull Mr. Sanders’ letter out of my bag. It’s a really good letter. I sit there smoking a clove, reading it to myself, like one of Salinger’s children. I have never really gotten a letter like this before, so I read it over a few times, savoring it. It reads:
Dear Mr. Davis,
I’m old, Tim. (Great way to start a letter, huh?) I have always enjoyed my job, always enjoyed teaching my students and learning from them, too. But it’s been a long time since I’ve changed my mind in a major way, or thought something new that made me feel as young as I once felt. But you have made me feel new again and have challenged me so much in our time together. Both in class and outside. You are a good student, the best kind in fact, because you are more concerned with your own education than you are with pleasing teachers or getting good grades. I have heard stories in the teacher’s lounge of Tim Davis reading the Beats in his math class or Henry Miller in Religion. Don’t think I don’t know you, Tim. I used to be the same way. But I don’t claim to understand you. I don’t think it would be fair to your complexity to say that I did. And I know there is far too much that has changed in the world since I was your age. But I believe we share something that has deeper roots than the surface issues of the day. I believe you and I are kindred spirits in the quest for knowledge, the quest for truth, and the desire for real life, whatever that may be.
I was thinking about what you said about the invisible fence, and how we are controlled and repressed in ways that we can’t fully understand. I believe you are right about that much, but I think the problem is such that it is hard to pinpoint the exact core of it. Let me try and explain to you what I believe we are discussing here with an image, something I observed the other night.
I was out walking, as I usually do after dinner, enjoying the weather and some quiet, simple exercise. I was looking at the houses I passed, breathing deeply and intentionally, and then I saw something that, although it was nothing entirely unusual, stuck out to me because of my mindset.
I saw in one house there was a person sitting in the dark in front of a television. This, to be sure, is nothing out of the ordinary. But in another room in that same house there was another person sitting in the dark in front of a television, I’m assuming the husband or wife of the first person. I just stood there for a minute watching the flickering light, thinking and feeling, everything there was to feel, including fear. It was such a simple image, but caused me severe distress. It hit me in the same way your words hit me that day after school. Two people, receiving their “entertainment” for the evening, alone. Cut off from each other as much as two people drifting in separate seas.
You are right, Tim. Something is wrong in the world and it needs to be corrected if we are to continue existing, especially in any meaningful way. However, the problem is so subtle that it is not even apparent to most people. You may try and tell them about this image and most people would see nothing wrong with it, or wouldn’t even want to think about it, which is even more distressing. People don’t want to think. And I can’t say I blame them, because, as I’ve learned from studying artists and their creations, and my own life, thinking too much can lead to unhappiness and even insanity. But if you don’t think at all, you are led to a different and, I believe, worse kind of unhappiness and insanity.
I suppose some of them are happy, in some way. It’s hard to say. How would you define happiness? Some would say happiness is comfort. I would disagree, strongly. I would say happiness is knowing the world as it really is, and still loving it.
So what are we to do? Tim, I can’t tell you what the solution to this problem is, because I don’t know it. But I believe you are in a position to do something about it. You are young, and very intelligent, and creative. You have resources I never had at your age. And you have the insight that I feel is needed to combat such a complex and pervasive problem. You are a part of the experiment, as Kurt Vonnegut Jr. called it, “…The Great American Experiment, which is an experiment not only with liberty but with rootlessness, mobility, and impossibly tough-minded loneliness.” It is up to you, and other people who are not afraid to think, where this experiment takes us all. Live well, Tim.
I wish I could say that I kept in touch with Mr. Sanders over the summer, went to dinner at his house, talked about books and all that, but I never got around to writing him, never went to his home. The fact that I didn’t write reflects how I am feeling these days. I am almost afraid for myself. Mr. Sanders says it’s up to me to do something, but I don’t know what to do. I am just as lost and confused as anyone else. I’m just a kid, excited about summer, and the band, and Avery. I want to keep in touch with him, but I can’t for some reason. So I just don’t respond, shirking another feeling of responsibility I guess, and the letter ends up in my box in the closet, with other things I cherish but have forgotten in some way.
The next day, Sidney, Lane, and I carry out the plan for the Conclave. We buy a pack of chalk, the good shit, too, and go out chalking. I draw a TV and write on the screen, “Find something better to do.” I like that one a lot. And then we do our favorite quotes and such. I chalk a quote on a wall, from the introduction to the Hobbit, which says: “We have been raised to honor all the wrong explorers; Thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.”
Sidney writes, “Don’t read this.”
Mark does “If there’s something inside that you wanna say, you can say it out loud it’ll be OK,” from the Beta band song, Dry the Rain.
We spend the whole day chalking and talking to people, explaining what it is “for” when they ask. To make people happy, we say. To make people think. To make people feel.
My mom tells me I have to get a job, but I don’t want to get a job.
“You have to get a job,” she says.
“But I don’t want to get a job,” I say.
“Tim, I need you to get a job so you can help pay for the insurance on the van. You use that van more than I do so it’s only fair that you pay insurance.”
“OK. I’ll join Starfleet.”
“How come our society still uses money? I’ll be right back, I’m gonna go get some earl grey tea our of the food replicator. Hot.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Fine.”
If I am going to have to be employed, I am going to find some place good. I instantly think of all the coffee shops, music stores, and cool restaurants in the area. I try a few, but have a better idea suddenly. I remember a long time ago I had thought of a cool job that it would be easy for me to get and would be enriching even. I used to take classes at the Art Museum, when I was younger, and there were always teacher’s assistants. I know it would be interesting, because most of the classes you get to walk around the Art Museum and look at galleries, and then go back to the classrooms with your sketches, and do some kind of project. They always have great teachers, really creative and everything. So I go over there and fill out an application. They call me within the week and I am officially employed.
Over the summer, Mark, Lane, Sidney and I hang out almost every night. There are a lot of times we go out as a group, as The Conclave, and we usually go to eat at a new restaurant, then go to some kind of happening or event, sometimes a jazz concert, or a film, or a play. It’s all more fun when we do it as a group.
This summer especially, I’m barely sleeping. I often stay up through the night writing lyrics or just exploring the world, in my room. And I drink like a fish; A coffee fish.
Any time I’m not with the band, or alone, is spent with Avery. She and I do the coolest things as a couple: go to the History Museum, make collages, paint, take pictures. She is always inspiring me and making me think in new ways. It’s like they say, you have to surround yourself with people who challenge you, and that’s exactly what she does.
A few weeks into the summer, I go to see her band play again. I have only seen them twice, mainly because she tells me not to come. She doesn’t really like the band that much, and is thinking of quitting. But I go, and the night I am there to see them they aren’t so good. The guitarist keeps soloing at inappropriate times, the drummer is trying for fills that he just can’t pull off, and A looks bored with the whole thing.
There is actually such a long solo in one of the songs that she sits on the ground in front of the microphone stand and puts her head in her hands. This causes some trouble, and they start saying things to each other in the middle of the show. Avery and the guitarist, I don’t know his name, are arguing, but they are talking under their breath mostly, the audience in the dark.
“Why don’t you just go, then?” I hear the guitarist say.
And she does. She puts the microphone in its stand and walks offstage.
I follow her outside, and she is pretty pissed off, saying she’s done with the band, sick of the people in it. I try to comfort her, but I think she just wants to be angry for a while, so I let her.
“I can’t do this anymore. I don’t even like the music. I like the guys fine, but I can’t be connected with them musically. Does that make me a snob?”
“I don’t think so. No.”
“I just don’t want to waste anymore time with things I don’t want to do. I’m wasting myself.”
She ends up quitting the band, that night, and everyone involved is a little sore about it. But Avery gets over things like that quickly, so she is feeling fine practically the next day. We are sitting in a coffee shop.
“I still want to do music, in some way.”
“You should. You’re lyrics are great and your voice is amazing. You could start another band, I’m sure.”
“Actually, I’m thinking of doing some acoustic stuff, just me.”
I know she plays guitar, and have heard her a few times, and she is decent. Creative.
“That would be great,” I say. “I would go see you, and I’m sure other people would too. Are you going to start writing songs on your own?”
She gives me a sly smile.
“I already have. I have about seven songs finished, all new material.”
“Really? Why didn’t you tell me you were working on that?”
“I wanted it to be a secret for some reason. I wasn’t sure if I was going to let anyone hear them. But now that I’m not in a band, I want to start performing on my own.”
“I’m excited to hear your songs,” I say. And I am.
“I feel like I have to create music, in order to exist. It’s so much a part of me; I can’t imagine life without music. And not just listening to it, either. I mean, personally contributing something, creating art, filling a hole or a niche. And filling a hole in myself. I need to play music. I need to.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” I say. And I do.