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A "Bloomsday" Journey Through Petaluma

"Bloomsday" - June 16, 1904 - is the fictional setting of James Joyce's Homeric novel Ulysses. Spend the day with me as I roam Petaluma seeking out the voices and faces Joyce would have recognized.

 "We may now imbibe freely of the contents of bottles and forthright books" Morris L. Ernst, Co-Founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. December 11, 1933.

 10:30am

Sitting with my girlfriend Judy in Aqus Cafe on 2nd and H near the canal. Listening to the morning customers talking about their day ahead or life behind.

"...and then he next thing you know, you got giant spiders attacking you," says a man in a baseball cap to a laughing woman with long blonde hair and sunglasses holding her bangs back.

Petaluma and Dublin have nothing in common except somewhere in this town on this day, a reader is thumbing his way through James Joyce's novel Ulysses.

"Bloomsday" is the celebration of a single day in the life of a fictional man named Leopold Bloom, a working man going through his life 107 years ago today.

"Bloomsday" is not a holiday for any but the Joycean among us, yet it should be a universal day of thanks. An American holiday with almost the weight of that other great day approaching on June 19th, which will mark the 148th anniversary of President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Nobody would ever compare the two anniversaries for their weight, but it is fair to say that when Joyce wrote Ulysses, he freed literature from the bonds of Victorian comformity and censorship which left the world thinking it was something it was not.

"...at some point one needs to consider that our minds may or may not really record what we really think. There are filters everywhere," says the same man with the baseball cap to the blonde who now looks at him with concern.

I will be snooping, eaves-dropping and celebrating the life of Petalumans while I celebrate the life of Bloom and the novel that re-wrote Western letters. Feel free to comment, yell, blog and seek me out ... though I warn you I may end up at several of this town's splendid watering-holes, so you may have to join me for a Guinness or two in the process.

For it should also be noted that though Ulysses was published by Sylvia Beach in Paris in 1920, it was banned from publication in the United States until 1933 ... the same year the United States elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt and repealed prohibition. So drink, politics and Ulysses go hand-in-hand and it would be borderline sacriligeous to deny their contribution on a day such as this.

2:20pm

A woman drink's Nana Mae's organic juice as I write about Bloom. She sits alone with her computer and dyed-white spiked hair, with a fresh 20-something face that reminds me of the face I saw this morning when I looked at Judy sleeping.

Joyce wrote of Bloom's wife Molly that her attitude towards men could be summarized "... like a stallion driving it up into you because that's all they want out of you ..." and it hits me square the feelings women must have towards the men they love.

Couples in this cafe who look at each other, versus couples who stare away from the other's eyes and the people - like this woman - alone, but for a computer or work or novel that gives them the connection to humanity they crave.

Even though Joyce's last chapter in Ulysses is a celebration of a Molly's sexuality in her youth and the comparison to her married dullness of life ... with the famous last lines "... and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes" ...

Joyce understood the nature of the repressions that humanity, much less womanhood feels through their life. Judy leaves me with a kiss and off to work she goes. I look at the hats and beards and men wearing suspenders while girls wear fedora hats on this warm late spring day. I pack my things up and begin my trek out towards the village, moving west down 1st Street among the renovated warehouses.

The sky is crystal and the morning warm as it turns past noon. It will be another beautiful day. Lunchers sit outside Luma restaurant with glasses of wine. Summer is here. School is over for the kids and the teachers who parent them between September and June. Now adults drink wine at noon outside a neighborhood eatery and I can't help but imagine that they are all teachers - celebrating the beginning of Summer vacation with more glee then even their students can feel.

"I told him I was not available and he told me that was the only time that worked for him," says a woman in a short skirt and summer hat to another woman in a light pastel blouse.

I keep moving, the site of D Street in the distance and the canal intermittently visible between the buildings and docks. Men unload a truck into one of the buildings. The uneven broken pavement with remnant train tracks that once brought wheat and produce to be shipped up the canal to San Francisco make it necessary to concentrate on the road I walk. I don't want to slip on such a nice day.

Yuppied gentrification blended with working docks and a mechanics yard, and eventually a feed store for dogs and horses, et al. This town ... so dog friendly. A town almost built for dogs that allows people so long as they're properly leashed and someone cleans up after them. I remember my own dog from my childhood.

Today would have been the 37th birthday of my dog Squirt. Mr. Squirt, as he was known about town, lived a long and mostly healthy life to the ripe old age of 18 before departing for heavenly pubs. He was a canine of discerning tastes, preferring Guinness to any domestic brands of beer and never taking a drink until I'd thoroughly cleaned out his bowl.

I first read Ulysses in college and of course had an awful time of it. The so-called stream of consciousness prose that I was being told by my Modern European Literature professor represented a new English language, only drove me to wish Joyce had written his novel in the regular English.

I did not understand Ulysses though I would often pretend to be reading it with a Guinness next to me and Mr. Squirt's bowl full ... as a way of impressing my roommates (and any girls around) that I was in fact a bohemian intellectual in the making. I would make attempt after attempt - often times reading words while lost in thought to the point that I could go through several pages and not have a clue as to what I'd just read. And while I did eventually finish the novel for that class, I knew I'd not really read it … which haunted me no end for years.

7:45pm

"Let the lewd with faith and fervour worship"

The journey continues into the afternoon. As a writer and reporter, there is a symmetry between the world Joyce occupied and the one I participate in: we both attempt to chronicle the daily. Joyce’s mastery of the daily and the minute was the glory of Ulysses. I sit at McNears on Petaluma Boulevard with a Guinness at hand. Two guys to my right speak of the "strange women" they have known as they flirt with the buxom waitress, who knows that her tips will increase with every flirting smile. I’m not immune. I’ll tip well too.

The Dudes
"Life is good, bro!" says the one with the balding scalp.
"Yeah but the pressures on," says the one with more facial hair.
"I told her - ‘don't think I will go for that bull**** because I f***’n won't, you know what I mean?"
"Here she comes."
The girlfriend arrives. She wears a yellow summer dress with a black bra visible at her shoulders and just above her cleavage.
"Hey honey. How was work?"
"F*** my car and job both. Did you get me a drink?"
"One's on the way."

The warmer weather lends itself to an easier vibe and while Petaluma and the North Bay can be known for its gray, cool weather, there is a larger sense of freedom when the sun is warm and out.

The girlfriend goes to the bathroom.
"I don’t care what mood she’s in, I’m not taking any f***’n S**t anymore. That’s bull****!!!"
"Yeah but she’s bringing in the rent," say the one with the hair.
"I don’t need her, man. She dresses slutty anyway. What the f*** ... hey honey."
The girlfriend returns.

It is the simplest of novels to read once a person accepts that my old professor was wrong. It was not a new language at all, but the oldest of all human experiences possible - the things we all think and do during a day, and by the minute, while we go about our lives. Joyce being a master of human minutiae, recreated the inner workings of a normal man ... what a man sees, thinks, feels, tastes ... what goes through his head as he focuses on another objective. Joyce wrote about the process we are all experiencing at this very second we breathe.

I type words on a page trying to compose on essay on Ulysses, but in reality I am also noticing the color of the computer I write on and the yellow legal pad to my left and the picture of Joyce on the cover of my copy of his book. My mind is filled with memories of Mr. Squirt and his bowl of Guinness and my sacred friends from that time, talking baseball and Iran-Contra and Gary Hart blowing the chance to be president for a fling on "The Monkey Business." The posters on our wall and the Replacements singing about "last call," while the smell of closet-grown "sage" fills the room.

All this while I see my girlfriend on the phone talking to her sister last night. I think about the black tank-top with Scottish Clan motto she’s wearing, exposing a tattoo on her left shoulder with her clan‘s mantle. I’m remembering what she looks like naked and the lasagna she made last night and eating dinner while watching "Chinatown" …. All as I taste the Guinness I sip now.

The simultaneous swirlings of this essay in my head, with Joyce’s language and the thoughts he produced in Bloom ...

"... the photograph reminds you of the face. Otherwise you couldn't remember the face after fifteen years ... Rtststr! A rattle of pebbles. Wait. Stop. An obese gray rat toddled along side of the crypt, moving the pebbles. "One of those chaps would make short work of a fellow ... Ordinary meat for them. A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what's cheese? Corpse of milk? I read in that Voyages in China that the Chinese say a white man smells like a corpse. Cremation better. Priests dead against it..."

Life, death, sex, love, loss, bodily functions, fantasies, and ultimately the realities of a man making his way through his city on one specific day. In Leopold Bloom we were looking at the stream of consciousness everyone engages in, yet within a beautifully crafted context of one man's thoughts and the layers each person's life entails.

The Dudes and Girlfriend order another round.
"You said you hated her!"
"I’d party with her all night."
"Honey, don’t meddle." "No - I’d totally party with her ... you know ... ALL Night!"
Laughter.
"Your such a f***ing jerk. Just ask her out. Don’t be such a video-nerd!"
"Honey!"
"Girls don’t like timid guys."
"That explains you, right?"
"He’s an exception."
Laughter.

10:00pm

One day in the life of a fictional character and one day in the life of freedom of speech. Sitting now at on Kentucky Street about to have a bowl of clam chowder and several Guinness with my Judy and several friends, it is not lost that while we may be here to listen to The Highway Poets, the poet of Dublin made his day everyman’s day. Joyce hated Ireland. He hated his Catholic upbringing almost as much as the land from where he came and he wrote his greatest work while living in self-imposed exile in Paris.

He hated both because they both denied him the freedom he required to compose his art. It took Joyce seven years to finish Ulysses. His eye-sight deteriorated by glaucoma to such an extent that during his time creating the novel he nearly went blind. It was not published until his 40th birthday in 1922. And for his efforts he was hounded by morality critics who decided that the inner workings of a man's mind were too indecent for public consumption. In the United States - land of the Constitution and "freedom of speech" - Ulysses was banned entirely for it’s first eleven years of existence.

But finally - in the same year America elected Franklin Roosevelt and made drinking legal again - so too was Ulysses allowed to pour through the minds of American readers.

"The words which are criticized as dirty are old Saxon words known to almost all men and, I venture, to many women," wrote Judge John Woolsey of the US Southern District Court of New York on December 6, 1933. "I have not found anything I consider to be dirt for dirt's sake."

Woolsey went on to say that the novel did not meet the legal definition of "obscene" defined at the time as "tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts" and concluded that "nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."

"Ulysses may therefore be admitted into the United States," concluded Woolsey.

And from that moment when an American judge made the United States practice what it preached, Joyce's Ulysses altered American creativity. From the literature of William Faulkner and Henry Miller; to the art of Jackson Pollack; to the music of Miles Davis and Kurt Cobain, and the films of Orson Welles and Quintin Tarantino, all can link their art to the enduring genius of Joyce‘s novel about a nobody named Bloom on an otherwise meaningless day.

Yet the legacy of Joyce’s Ulysses as too hard to read for anyone but the well-learned, unfortunately persists. Unfortunate because Joyce wanted it read in pubs. He wanted the normal working person to see himself in the art, and embrace the celebration of an average day.

"In recording the dailiest day possible, Joyce teaches us much about the world: how to cope with grief and loss; how to tell a joke and how not to tell a joke; how to be frank about death in the age of its denial; how to walk and think at the same time; how to purge sex of possessiveness; how the way people eat food can tell us who they really are," notes University of Dublin professor Declan Kiberd.

Kiberd, who wrote the book Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living expanded on the view that Joyce wanted the average person to see themselves in Ulysses and not leave it as a book for the ivory towers.

"Joyce offers the stream-of-consciousness of an ordinary citizen as prelude to nothing more portentous than the drinking of a cup of tea," wrote Kiberd.

Joyce once said of Ulysses that he’d "put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality."

And Kiberd wrote that Joyce never took his "extraordinary celebration of the ordinary over-seriously."

"When a fan asked to kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses, Joyce laughed and said ‘no – that hand has done a lot of other things as well‘," wrote Kiberd.

Joyce would have wanted his book read in exactly the type of setting that we will watch a band tonight. He would have wanted all the people getting off their day jobs and burning steam and releasing the demons of their average life to have reveled in his work.

But he would have understood in this time and place that that was impossible. As impossible as in his own time. The irony of writing the deepest of psychological studies of the average man was that only academics and intellectuals and those who posed as such would ever attempt a work that was never meant for them.

So here my day ends ... with my girl and with a Guinness (or ten) and with my friends listening to good music and thinking about a fictional working man named Leopold Bloom. I hope this little snippet of a voyage has released the inner Bloom in all of us, if only for a moment. But whatever the case, Bloom and his world live on in a novel that defies time by being so intimately about time.

I think of Mr. Squirt and I think of Bloom ... and of course I think of Joyce ... with his salient point … that in fact there is no such thing as an "average day" or an "average life."