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On Eleventh Street

About a year after I divorced my first husband, I met Jack.  I was working in what was called a "fern bar" in Chico.  La Salles was designed after Henry Africa's in San Francisco.  Henry Africa revolutionized the bar business with flowers and ferns and swanky wallpaper.  It was not your windowless bar with gloomy lighting and cigarette butts crushed out on the floor.  A fern bar was a beautiful place to get drunk in. 

My friend, Maureen, got me the job.  Before that, I was making candles.  As I bent over to pour the wax, the boss would pinch me on the butt.  I decided it was time to move on to slinging booze for a living.  A step up.  La Salles was the happening place in town. 

One night, I walked into La Salles for my shift.  A bartender I hadn't met yet was standing behind the bar drawing on a cocktail napkin.  He had jet black hair that fell over his forehead, a mustache, (didn't every man have a mustache in the 1970's?), and incredible concentration.  He didn't look up as I walked by; he kept his focus on the napkin.  I stopped a little way down from him, at the waitress station.  I could see the napkin: a perfect rendering of an elderly man who was sitting at the bar.  A shiver went through me.  The drawing was that good.

Jack was thirty-three when I met him, and I was twenty-two.  He had worked as a graphic artist in San Francisco for many years and hated his job, so he had moved up to Chico to get his Master's Degree in fine art.  I was studying for my Master's in English, with an emphasis in creative writing. 

At La Salles, I would eventually graduate to cocktail waitressing, but I had to learn the drinks.  I knew beer, box wine, martinis, and Vodka Oj.  So it would be a few weeks before I could get out onto the floor.  I worked behind the bar with Jack, as his "bar back."  At some point during our shift, Jack would ask, "Want to split a beer?" "Sure," I'd say.  At two a.m., we'd split a beer and clean the place up, then ride our bikes home through the summer-warm Chico streets, empty except for us and the moon and stars.

Then came the night when I rode with him to his house on Eleventh Street.  Jack was my second lover.  The only other sexual experience I'd had was with my husband.  As I said before, this was the 1970's, and I had been raised Catholic.  To go to bed with Jack--and he was in his thirties, an older man, yikes!--was quite the taboo adventure.  I was nervous.  However, the sky did not fall on our heads in Jack's bed, hell did not open up and drag me under into a burning lake.  Instead, we sat on the bed and Jack played the guitar. He sang, "He went to Paris looking for answers to questions that bothered him so..." I was just learning the guitar, and Jack would teach me many songs. 

I woke up feeling quite satisfied with myself for entering this mysterious land of unmarried sex.  I checked my chest for a Scarlet Letter.  Nothing there.  Jack made us breakfast, and we sat out on his wide front porch, joined by his roommates Bob and Steve.  My friend Maureen showed up in her old green 1954 Chevy to see how I was doing on this momentous post-sexual morning.  We all worked at La Salles, and it was like a family.  We ate breakfast and talked and joked.  We were young, free--men and women who could be friends in a way we couldn't when sex was a closed door, making such a division between us.  This is what I thought, anyway, at the time.  Still, I wanted Jack to be in love with me.  We'd had sex; we had to be in love.  So I wasn't quite liberated, not by a long mile.

But we were in love, the painter and the poet.  It was true.  We spent the next year in each other's constant companionship.  I moved in with Jack on Eleventh Street.  There, we had many adventures, but the one that stands out is when we made a movie.

Jack brought out his camera one autumn day. "Let's make a movie." 

"What will it be about?" I asked.

"I don't know," Jack said.  "What's a good subject?"

"How about death?"  (Remember, I was studying poetry.)


So our first film consisted of various ways of dying.  We filmed each other in the throes of last agony: Jack died in a war on the front lawn; I died eating a bowl of poisoned porridge in the kitchen; Jack died by electrocuting himself on a backyard fence wire; I died from boredom, yawning and holding a huge encyclopedia in my lap, then falling over onto the living room floor.  Jack died of frost, wrapped in a blanket on the back porch steps, quivering among a pile of cotton balls.  I died of love with one long stemmed rose clamped between my teeth.

I have laughed a lot in my life.  But I have never laughed like that.  We just cracked up for an entire day.  Each time we showed this movie to ourselves or our friends, we laughed so hard, we almost died of laughter.

On Eleventh Street, Jack began painting portraits of me.  My favorite painting took place in this field in nearby Bidwell Park.  In a field of cream-colored weeds.  I stood there, dressed in a flowered sundress and a wide brimmed straw hat.  The light of an April dusk, soft golds and creams and sable browns, a pale blue sky.  The best light of day.  It was so quiet in the field.  And Jack looking, painting with that amazing concentration.

He once drew a charcoal picture of me lying nude on the couch.  He framed it, a gift for my birthday.  On the back he wrote about how much love it took to draw it, instead of lying there with me.

We made a book together called Lifelines.  The book became part of his Master's Degree project.  It was a series of lithographs and poems.  Each lithograph showed a character connected to some sort of line: a laughing man, hands tied behind his back, hanging from a rope that has broken; a parachutist; a pole vaulter; an ice skater etching the lines for infinity; a boy flying a bat kite; a boy on a swing; an American Indian walking a tightrope; a business man talking on the phone (this is when phones had cords); a man pulling on a tug-of-war rope, a terrible grimace on his face.  The last lithograph in the book was a self-portrait: Jack drawing a line across the page to his pencil.  The poem I wrote to this one was called, "Life Line."

By making this book, we made each other's dream come true.

What happened to our love? 

Stay tuned...

6 Comment count
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I'm hooked!

Susan, all I want to do is fast-forward to your next post. Your writing, as always, is enchanting.

-Max Sindell, Red Room

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Thank you very much.  Your comment encourages and inspires me.

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Susan, you're worse than Dallas! I want more!

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Hi Jennifer

More coming up, pipin' hot, girl!

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a Fern Bar in Chico

"fern bar" in Chico.  La Salles

aHA! THAT might be where I've seen your face before...can't remember names/can't remember my OWN name half the time, but rarely forget a face...

Used to ride up to Chico with a bunch of friends on a big old green schoolbus "The Green Machine"...we went on a bus trek almost every weekend for no other reason than it was a good excuse for a bunch of us to take a trek on the bus, and Chico was JUST far enough away to make it seem like we'd been somewhere...the alternate destination was almost always Santa Cruz then Monterey...but most of us favoured Chico...don't remember why...something in the air, maybe? 

 Gosh, haven't been up that way in almost 30 years...wow, how time...


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Hi Gayle

Chico is a special place.  Freedom and relaxation in the air there.  Riding bicycles in the park or all over the small town.  And in the 1970's, it was so quiet, too.  Of course, it has grown into a much bigger town now.

I worked at La Salles from 1974 until 1981, off and on.  So yes, we might have met up during one of those years.