The thing is, you never do know where the road is going to take you. Our intended destinations rarely turn out to be our destiny’s true intent. What we need most to see, to hear, to feel in our hearts, is given to us. It is laid out at our feet, if you look for it. If you trust the road.
I thought it was Litquake. This was Saturday October 4th. I believed I was coming into the City for Litquake. I was reading from Serpent Box at the San Francisco Public Library at an event titled Off The Richter Scale with several other authors and I was prepared for this. I chose my passage well – a dream sequence from the novel where a key character confronts his imminent death through six minutes of surreal and disturbing imagery filled with pathos and dread and a demon embodied in a statue made of glass.
Reading this excerpt aloud to the Litquake audience left me with a sad, soul-sick feeling. And in that moment, in that room, I began to understand the true meaning of what I wrote more than five years ago. Our demons are ourselves, twisted by fear and doubt. And we must pay attention to our dreams, all of them. Not just those that come to us in our sleep - dreams, visions and that which unfolds before our eyes as we live and breathe. As I concluded my reading, I could feel the shift of my tectonic self.
What I did not know, what I could not know, was that the scene outside of the library would leave me even sadder and sicker then the scene I recreated with my voice within. What I saw in Larkin street filled me with a different kind of dread, a dread more troubling, more heart-breaking than the fiction I concocted when I wrote that dark dream of fear and confusion just after 9/11.
Outside the library an annual event was beginning to unfold. Civic Center Plaza, City Hall, the courthouse and several adjacent streets were cordoned off and hundreds of young, scantily dressed girls and visibly intoxicated boys were streaming in toward multiple sound stages emitting gut-churning charges of thumping techno beats. LoveFest, is what they call it. A Bacchanal ritual of pot-smoking, X-dropping, booze-swilling hedonism marked by the bastardized fashion motifs of Blade Runner, Brittany Spears and a Burning Man gone awry. ‘LoveFest’ is a mash-up of raves, house parties and Mardi Gras that is all fest and no love. And it made me want to weep.
I had little choice but to wade through the crowd in order to get up to Van Ness for the post-reading book signing. And I thought, no big deal. I’m a veteran of sixty Grateful Dead shows and four New Paltz Spring Fests. I can handle this. I’ve done my share of drinking, smoking and tripping. This will be interesting, I thought. So into the sea of humanity I plunged. Nothing could prepare me for what I saw and felt.
LoveFest is bleak and hollow and very sad, a self-indulgent, narcissistic symptom of a culture steeped in wanton excess, in body parts apart from bodies, the abstraction of the female form from the female soul, a shameless culture of mind-altering look-at-me’s bent on voyeurism , chemical alteration and physical denial. These youth, these children, some of them clearly no older than twelve, but most between sixteen and twenty - drinking, smoking, tripping, gyrating, puking, humping, vogue-ing, posing -so lost, so numb, so out of touch with the world and themselves. The vibe was terrifying. The air was suffused with a sort of carnal panic. It was High School Musical meets Lord of the Flies. There was no warmth, no peace and love, none of the playful esprit du corps you feel at other San Francisco gatherings. It felt dead. I stood in the midst of a teenage wasteland where the pierced and the tattooed gathered to gawk and convulse in pink feather boas and g-strings.
Up Polk street I ran, as far as I could go. I got out of that madness searching for somewhere I could use to reset myself, to ground myself again. I stood in an alley watching three junkies shooting up and I saw a sign. Ocean Aquarium, it read. Tropical fish. Freshwater only. A tiny little hole in the wall. It beckoned me. And I followed.
Imagine a darkened room, roughly the size of an average two-car garage with a labyrinth of walls constructed entirely of small aquariums, so lush with living iridescent plant-life that each tank glows and emits a soft emerald light so that the whole dark space is lit by ambient pools that cast flickering reflections on a wet concrete floor. The store is empty. I hear the low hum of air pumps and soft bubbling water. I walk through the maze and peer into each little tank, where I see fish of wonderful shape and coloration, many I have never seen before, most of them rare and quite small, guppy-like, schooling, flickering, completely at home in their self-contained little ponds. Hundreds of such tanks. Hand-written signs bearing Latin names. No sound other than bubbles and vibrations. Thousands of little fishes of violet, crimson, indigo, jade, living within these fecund, perfectly miniature worlds, each like some fairy realm, so alive, so marvelous and lovingly cared for, each a tiny slice of Amazonia, some African rift lake, a Mekong tributary. My heart swelled and all that darkness, all that dread, all that alien coldness I had brought in from the street, slipped away from me like some robe of sin. This was what I came for. The road brought me.
Later on I went to the signing at Books Inc. and I stood there waiting for someone to pick up my book, my view of the world, and the road. Some did. I signed the copies there at the table, eight of them, the way I sign all my anonymous dedications. Fear not, I wrote, only believe.
I believe the road is my road, and mine alone. When I walk out that door each day I have faith I will see something, just one thing, that I did not expect to see but which was placed in my path expressly for my soul. I went to LitQuake to read what I wrote about that faith to those who would listen. I lost a little of that faith at LoveFest, but I found it again in a magic little room surrounded by miracles.
Playlist for this Blog: Sins of My Father/ Tom Waits, Tales of Brave Ulysses/Cream, The Only Living Boy in New York/Simon & Garfunkel, Down to the Waterline/Dire Straits.
Read more about the road and other pathways at serpentbox.com
Causes Vincent Carrella Supports