When I first began to write, the concept of a blog was a whisper in the universe that had not even turned into a thought. There were no personal computers in those days; I can remember sitting at some huge, clanking IBM at one of my office jobs and dreaming of someday having some marvelous machine that would instantly let me write down everything I thought just as it came to me, in an electrical flash, and which would then allow me follow this process of initial inspiration with innumerable revisions and additions, allowing a work to blossom instantly before my eeyes like a flower in a Russian fairy tale. But when I first saw a real computer in the 80s, at a San Francisco writer's conference to which I'd gone because Tillie Olsen was speaking, I looked at it with disdain and informed the eager salesman that "I'd never be able to create on one of those machines!"
Dahlberg, probably, wrote by hand. Or maybe he dictated to one of his wives, gifting them with the benison of his words. I met two of his wives: the last, who became his official widow, was a tiny Irish woman, Julia, with whom I spent a strange, vodka-soaked weekend in Santa Barbara long after Dahlberg himself had died; she had a tiny pug dog who regarded me with bulging eyes and snuffed into my bedroom every morning to make sure I was awake, and a large, pretty house which I am assuming she deserved. The University of Texas had paid her for his papers and she would have had a good old age had she not been addicted to the vodka. When I pointed this out to her, she put me out on no uncertain terms; we were sitting at one of the California missions, and she said with tears in her eyes that she was only drinking that weekend because I had made her nervous. The other wife I met, a much earlier, stronger one, was Rlene, who was still a tall blonde goddess even into middle age, a little toughened by cigarettes and strife but literate and gorgeous in such short white shorts that people lost their breath at the sight of her amazing legs. I can imagine either of them -- or both of them, perhaps simultaneously, sitting at his feet (figuratively) and scrawling notes. No typewriters for him!
But if it had not been for the typewriter and the steno pad, I probably would never have been able to earn my own living in my pre-college years. Clack clack clack, in factories and offices. I had failed as a waitress; I didn't have the gift of balance, which I am now convinced is related the innate problem in my eyes, of which I never had an inkling until I was much, much older. But when I was 16-year-old runaway living by my wits (of which I had very few at the time), it didn't even occur to me that there might be a reason for my irreconcilable clumsiness, or that since I fell all the time and tripped over large objects even when they were right in front of me, waiting on table might not be the best means with which to sustain myself. It seemed to me that it might be fun: offering as it did a bit of exercise and human interaction. But on the day of my first real challenge, in a Howard Johnson's on Broadway and 46th Street, I became an instant failure, crashing a tray of crystal ashtrays to the floor with a resonance that shook the establishment to its core. Hard physical work was not an option for a woman in the 50s, and the other alternative, taking care of children, offered too many glimpses into my own childhood to appeal to me at the time. I was too squeamish, too finickly, too weak in the knees and the wrists, and too unfamiliar with children who were actually nice to me.
So. I was starving. (Not such a bad thing, except that my diet consisted of candy bars and cheap wine offered by my friends, who preferred alcohol to food). Until suddenly my parents in a spate of goodwill (or was it guilt?) sent me to secretarial school even though I refused to live in their house ever again.
"She has to live, somehow," they agreed, unable to cope with the possibility of having my blood on their hands. So I went to my uncle Edward's secretarial school and learned to take shorthand and become a very fast, accurate typist, both of which skills have aided me in writing and my late career as an online teacher of writing. It had other benefits. When I lived in a communal situation in India, amongst people whose spirituality allowed them the privilege of interfering completely with one another's lives, I was able to keep a huge journal filled with tiny illegible squiggles which turned out to be Speedwriting, and which no one there could understand but me. So all elements have their uses in a righteous life. More or less, anyway.
After I was able to maintain a steady job which offered me a weekly envelope full of cash and small change, allowing me to eat real meals and sleep in a reasonably comfortable bed, I found,,at last, a tiny haven in a small, cold apartment, and then eventually a larger haven in a larger, slightly warmer apartment. These needs cared for, I decided to return to college. It wasn't easy; I worked all the time, took drugs to stay awake, took drugs to sleep, and had few friends. But I renewed my love of reading, and since I could now type at 125 words a minute on an IBM without turning a hair, I was able to do my schoolwork neatly and without a tremendous amount of trouble.
I would like to say that it was then that I began my journal, but it wasn't. It was much earlier, when I was still crashhing in other people's apartments and had nothing to write on but a small portable Royal typewriter that lived in a case and had sticky keys that took hours to push. The thing is, it never got stolen. The sheer miraculousness of this has never occured to me until now.
When I got my own place, far from Greenwich Village and the Lower East side, where most of my friends still lived, and I was working and beginning to live a rather ordinary life by their standards (as most of them paid regular visits to jail, the abortionist's, or the loony bin), I bought a rumbling, spitting and malicious old monster that sat on my desk , and when turned on buzzed and clacked like a revving locomotive. Didn't bother me at all; hell, I was now eighteen. I had lived through hangovers and homelessness. I had lived through suicide attempts and getting beaten up, badly, first by my father,then by my boyfriend. I had even survivedrandom propositions which were so repellent and scuzzy that despite being bitterly cold and hungry I could only turn them down, gaining a shred of self-respect through the discover that, despite such hardships I still couldn't bring myself to sell, not necessarily my body -- but my privacy.
I still didn't understand that; I still hadn't solved the rebus of my own nature, nurtured in an orphanage and through a lonely childhood with two alien elders who seemed always angry or disssatisfied, no matter what I did. Now my adversaries were more evident, and more understandable: men. They were everywhere. They climbed through my windows in the middle of the night to rape me. (On at least one occasion I literally disarmed them by running down into the street with tears streaming down my face and acting innocent and scared). They knelt in my doorway and prayed -- in Hebrew, for heaven's sake, and once in Greek! -- that I would consent to open it, and myself, to their ministrations. Like hell, I replied (within myself -- I was still too timid to reject anyone verbally, out loud) -- and turned the key. But my self respect and my craving for privacy had begun to grow, and once sprouted, like seeds, just kept on growing.
And that was when I began what became my journal. Typing in the middle of the night first on the shabby Royal portable, balanced on my lap in the darkness because the electricity had been turned off in my friend's apartment for non-payment of the bill -- I can still remember the lights of the 14th Street tower shining into the dark windows -- and piles of dishes in the sink waiting for someone to wash them. I wrote about myself and what I saw. I wrote about two little girls dancing in the waterless fountain in the middle of Washington Square Park. I wrote about the colors of the sky and what it was like to sit in a doorway begging for change so I could sleep for a while at the flea flicks on Third Avenue while dark old movies flickered around me and I was thank God ignored by the rest of the street people who crowded in to get warm or out of the rain as I had. I wrote some stories as well, and began a novel after I fell in love with a wild eyed artist and drug dealer who came to see me about once a month, turned me on to wondrous drugs, and dragged me through the city wilderness to observe everything: people screaming and pushing in transvestite bars; the twilit wail of jazz clubs in which I first heard Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane; folks who later became famous like Wavy Gravy, David Amram. Allen Ginsberg . But in the times between his visits I had nothing to do but study and eat too much and listen to music and keep my journal, talking to myself, to the spirits, to my ancestors real and imagined, biological and adopted. And cry. I cried a lot in those days. Which is perhaps why, now, I almost never cry.
Soon the pile of papers on my desk became enormous. Disheveled. I had to do something with them somehow; they were getting mixed up with my papers for school on cranial abnormalities in the Pleistocene era and the artwork of Australian aborigines in Arnheim Land; they were filled with confessions and scenes that were totally inappropriate for school; I didn't want anyone to see them. (And no one did). And one day in a cut-rate stationery store I found the perfect vehicle for them; two huge boxes, speckled gray and black with orange spines as wide as my hand, and the logo, LETTERS, printed across those spines. Perfect containers, homes for my crumbling pages. A stash for the fruits of the rumbling and smelly IBM.
That was in 1959. Almost fifty years have passed and I still have them.
The odd thing is that I did not treasure them. I offered them no protection. In the early 60s, after my mother died, I went off to Europe with some money I had inherited and left my apartment with a friend whose life was even wilder than mine. While she lived in the apartment a so-called vandal came crawling through the window and pillaged the place. I came home seven months later to find most of my treasures vanished: only two old chairs I had taken out of my mother's house, a small bench upholstered in purple, a wall hanging and a few other things were still there. But the LETTERS boxes weren't touched. I have since lost almost everything else; . I have almost nothing from that period; a piece or two of jewelry. Maybe a photograph.
But the box of LETTERS sits atop my Oakland bookshelf, crammed with everything I wrote during those years.
To Be Continued