by RIP RENSE
Nov. 4, 2006
driving to SF the way I relish Regis and Kelly, cold soup, Dick
Cheney, blood-blisters. I-5 is an exercise in anti-existence. Enslave
yourself to a machine for five hours. The shortest distance between two
points is a cup of coffee and loud music.
I drove up on a Saturday
with the nihilistic intention of driving back Sunday night. I had to attend
a recording session in The City to research liner notes for an album. I
didn’t want to fly, because I know how much the Bush administration has done
to protect me from admirers of Mohammad Atta.
I managed the trip up
okay, not even stopping to um, “dine” on my Subway turkey sub that tasted a
lot like a turkey sandwich would taste if it was made out of turkey-flavored
paper. With tomato-flavored paper, and lettuce-flavored paper, and
bread-flavored paper. And not quite enough mayonnaise to mortar a garden
I also enjoyed all the
sightseeing that I-5 affords, which is to say, the cow concentration camp at Kettleman City, and the pre-fab truck stop instant “town” of Santa Nella.
Imagine naming a conglomeration of cheap motels, toilets and fast-food
joints after a saint, and you more or less get key insight into capitalism.
My reservation was at
a stately old hotel in Berkeley called the Durant, where I had stayed
several years earlier. I like it because it has an ancient, clunky elevator
and historical black-and-white photos of Cal student ghosts on the walls. I
figure if I get lucky, I might disappear into one of them. You know, like
Jack in "The Shining."
I got off the freeway and
zipped down College Ave. for the mile or so to the Durant. Except I didn’t.
College was overcrowded. The line of cars in
front had no visible end, like the images in a mirror set in front of
another mirror. Had I stumbled on to. . .infinity? I sat in one place,
engine off, for fifteen elephantine minutes, then did a U-turn and went in
many directions that had nothing to do with the Hotel Durant.
Football! The game where
thousands of people watch men either throw a ball or run with it, while
other men jump on them and grunt a lot. Once in a while, one of them dies.
No one had mentioned,
when I made my hotel reservation, that there was a Cal football game. No one
had mentioned that the post-game streets would have much in common with Dom
Deluise’s intestines after Thanksgiving.
An hour after
arriving in Berkeley, I double-parked at the Durant. I had to
double-park because the parking lot had been converted into facilities
for a virgin sacrifice. A thundering cornucopia of sweating limbs and bobbing
heads pulsed to a tribal bass-beat amplified by technology Einstein would
have admired. I paused for a moment, looking for the virgin, but they’d
obviously already killed and eaten her.
No one had further
the hotel had been rented out to Dennis Rodman. Well, okay, I never saw
Rodman, but the noise was loud enough to bother his neighbors in Manhattan
“Where ya goin’?”
These poetic words were
spoken---that is, shouted; that is, roared; that is, King-Konged---in my
face by a bull-necked young fellow in a tight polo shirt that said
“Security.” To tell you the truth, he was not my idea of safety and comfort.
I checked his lips for signs of blood, and resorted to sign language. I
pointed to my suitcases, then to the hotel.
“Oh, you’re a guest?”
I nodded and he moved
aside to let me “in.”
|I have a vague memory of standing, stupefied
and unknowing, inside of a “Shop ‘n’ Crap” or whatever it was
called, somewhere near Kerman, around midnight.
Of course, there was no
“in” at the inn. I heard the voice of W.C. Fields in my head, from
“Mississippi”---I carved my way through a wall of human flesh. Every
square foot was taken up with feet and middle-aged football booster squares, and what I
have now reached the age to call “young people.”
All were doing what
humans do in the 21st century when they decide it is time to be “happy.”
They decorate their livers with blotches and pockmarks by ingesting titanic
amounts of alcohol, then they sweat, snort, shout, laugh, urinate (sometimes
out of plain sight), and generally “celebrate.” Because Cal lost the game, I
assume this group was associated with the visiting team, but I won’t swear
to it. Fans often show joy by burning their downtowns.
I negotiated my way to
a perky desk clerk, and stood about five feet away. She yelled at me, but I could not hear her.
I yelled back, but she could not hear me. I leaned forward, cupped my mouth,
and hollered that I had a room there. I probably could have hollered, “Would
you like one of the small dogs crawling out my ears?”and it would have made
no difference. She nodded, looked at my driver’s license, “ran” my credit
card, gave me a “key” ---I mean, an electronic card, which did not
work---and told me to park a block away in a parking garage, and that the
hotel would reimburse the $20 fee.
Then she gave me a
circular band of paper printed with the logo of Lite Beer, and told me to
“wear this on your wrist at all times.” I nodded soberly. I’d seen
I was given a room on the
sixth (top) floor, in order to put some distance between me and the
All-American good clean college fun below. I decided to lie on the
bed for an hour or two and recuperate from the drive before meeting an old
pal for dinner. I flopped down, and---
“Da da da da-da da-da
daaaaaa, da da da da-da da-daaaaaaaaa. . .”
Yes, it was the Michigan
Fight Song! Being played by a marching band. Well, probably not a marching
band, because it was too crowded to march in the downstairs lobby, where the
band was accompanying Satan as he boiled a vat of fresh babies for the
football boosters. Drums, trumpets, trombones. If there was a glockenspiel,
it was drowned out by the screaming babies.
I put my wristband on and
went for a little stroll.
Berkeley was overrun
with other spawn of Beelzebub. Great hordes of them congregated on
sidewalks, hooting, shrieking, making noises entirely intelligible to
capuchin monkeys and aardvarks. Many of them had machines that pulsed with
bass-beats written by, or at least played by, other machines. Some of them
showed their teeth to one another and made strange cries that once had been
English. Others showed their teeth in return, and for a moment a herd of
about twenty nearly erupted in a ritual killing.
This, I deduced, is the
much-ballyhooed “free speech” that made Berkeley famous. Well, maybe not. I
seem to recall that Mario Savio spoke in sentences.
I met my pal for dinner.
We tried to solve current behavioral problems of the masses, but failed.
By about 10 p.m., I was
back at the Durant. The um, “party,” I had been told, would be over by 9,
but it was still going, although now down to fat middle-aged people in
the latter stages of alcohol poisoning, one of whom bashed into me as I
walked to the elevator. By midnight, the lobby was quiet, but my room was
stuffier than Barbara Bush, so I opened the window.
A scintillating, Lewis
Carroll view of San Francisco came in, all twinkly and Oz-like---along with every sound being made by
every animal within a half mile. Floor six was a lightning rod for racket.
And racket there was, for now not only were Satan’s Little Helpers still
roaming the streets, but they had been joined by “grinders.”
For those who do not know
what grinders are, I envy you. This is a subculture of mostly males between
20 and 35 obsessed with trying to make a piece of wood with wheels on the
bottom do things it was never intended to do. Like flip in the air three
times, then slide down a stair banister, rider aboard.
Such feats are actually
accomplished, no fewer than one in fifty tries.
In the entire history of
humankind, this just might be the stupidest expenditure of time
Crash. Clang. Bang.
Shriek. Laugh. Screech. Scrape. Bang. Laugh. Clang. Shriek.
|I did not see any
gnomes camped by the side of the highway, probably thanks to the coffee, but
I knew they were out there.
I lapsed into tortured
“try to sleep” mode, a purgatory of sweat, leg-twitching, hypnogogic
hallucinations of oh, volcanoes, earthquakes, terrorist attacks,
Architectural Digest, Oprah
At 3 a.m., I gave up and
watched the tube. The Jack La Lanne Power Juicer Infomercial! It was as
bucolic as Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. Jack and Elaine La Lanne, combined
ages of 523, what a team! The logic of it all was so certain, irrefutable. Put
veggies in, juice comes out! Even that woman “host” with the horse
dentures---cute as a button! I watched every minute.
“Sideways” got me through
the rest of Walpurgisnacht.
The next morning, I went
to Ethiopia. It was right down the street, in the parking garage. Right
behind the glass window where an attendant asked me to pay a $40 ransom for
my car. Okay, he might have been from Egypt, or Morocco, or Reseda, but he
was definitely not from this country. I explained that the hotel said the
price was twenty bucks.
“I don’t care hotel,” he
After a few minutes of
essentially widening our respective cultural and possibly evolutionary gaps,
I told the Ethiopian that I didn’t care him, either. Of course, I
said this using only the best American vulgarities, so as to more
effectively bridge the language barrier.
My suitcase and I
returned to the Durant, where I told the manager that I was upset. Of
course, I had already mentioned this to him when I checked out, but he had
seemed preoccupied. Perhaps his navel piercing was itching. Oh, he
had automatically deducted twenty bucks for parking, as promised, but didn’t
so much as say, “tough luck, jackass” for my night of no sleep, let alone
"thank you for your patronage." He did allow
me to go free, which at the moment seemed sufficient reward.
This time, though, I
sought to convey my frame of mind more specifically. And while I
did not employ crudities, I turned my eyeballs into Svengali’s and my voice
into a tone that, if harnessed, would have reduced the Durant to fine, cold ash.
By the time I finished,
Manager pulled $20 out of his own wallet and thrust it at me. My
What was left of myself
and I went to the recording session, which was as magnificent as my notes
later proved illegible.
I headed home at 6 p.m..
Like Dracula, I must rest in native soil after a long night of no sleep. I
figured five hours on the 5 at night wouldn’t be so bad. At least I wouldn’t
have to actually see Kettleman City and Santa Nella. But. . .
The 5 was not available
to me. The Bay Bridge was partly closed for construction, which I figured
had also been arranged by the Ethiopian parking attendant. Cars were backed
up like Neocons in line for Fox interviews. So I had to take the 101 down to
the 152 (the Pacheco Pass, sometimes known as “Blood Alley”) to the 5. This
added an hour.
I have a vague memory of
standing, stupefied and unknowing, inside of a “Shop ‘n’ Crap” or whatever
it was called, somewhere near Kerman, around midnight. I recall walking
around the same donut display over and over, trying to decide between
death-by-cruller or death-by-twist, until a nervous security guard said, “Can I help
you, sir?” prompting me to grab a cup of coffee and hit the road again. This
added another hour.
I did not see any
gnomes camped by the side of the highway, probably thanks to the coffee,
but I knew they were out there. I had seen them before, when I once drove to
Phoenix and back in 24 hours. They sat around little fires, with pointy
beards, grinning, beckoning. . .
Just as I was about
sail triumphantly, and nearly awake, back into Law Sangeles,
Caltrans closed the 5 just north of Valencia. There must have been four
or five cigar butts that needed sweeping up.
Ever been in a traffic
jam at 1 a.m. after 7 hours on the road and a night of no sleep? I’d rather watch all of Bush’s
State of the Union speeches back-to-back. With William Kristol. Naked.
At 2 a.m., I stood at my
door. It took a moment to figure out how the knob worked. When I dumped my
stuff on the counter, I noticed the name at the top of my bill from the
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