The Caldecott Tunnel bores through the hills separating Oakland from Concord, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill, three little boom-towns in 1971 on their way to being the San Francisco Bay Area's fastest-sprouting white-flight suburbs. I worked as a computer programmer in Martinez, another town close by but far less booming, and I shared a rented house with a young family in Concord for several months in 1971 and 1972.
Suburbs at Flickr Commons (2009), by Andy Callahan
During which time, in October of 1971 to be exact,
a couple of good friends from law school and I -- whose birthdays were on three
consecutive days -- had our thirtieth birthday celebrations together, five
years out. With friends and lovers we whooped it up on a beautiful late Indian
summer afternoon on a San Francisco
pier, with a string quartet, fine wines, champagne, and a tank of helium.
As I left, the party was dissolving into evening. Blissfully and utterly
smashed, I aimed my old Chevy sedan at Concord
through the Caldecott Tunnel.
As I approached the tunnel's Oakland entrance I realized I couldn't resolve its multiple, slowly moving images, but I really didn't care. Then I crashed into a concrete wall at the tunnel's entrance, destroying the car and very nearly myself. But characteristically I was lucky, and subsequently I found myself uninjured and resuming my life in Concord with Mark the landscape contractor, his wife Paula, and their baby boy, John.
Mark and Paula had been sweethearts in high school
and married two or three years after graduating. In 1972 Baby John was a
year old. Papa Mark owned a landscaping business and Paula kept
house. Like everyone in Concord
aged twenty to twenty-five, Mark and Paula partied a lot and smoked
grass. Probably less typically, my housemates practiced Scientology,
popped little white Benzedrine tablets for fun and profit, and dabbled in
wife-swapping. I say "profit" not because Mark was a dealer -- almost
every doper dealt some -- but because speed tabs were Mark's bottom-line
currency for paying his landscaping employees.
I'd stopped programming computers, and I paid my
share of the rent by gardening for Mark. And I'm here to testify that
bennies made it fun to crawl around planting bushes and flowers at
service stations. But as time passed, I
realized that however workable speed-for-wages was in terms of getting the
gardening done, Mark's habit wasn't working for his business as a whole.
What with the construction boom underway in Concord in 1972, Mark could have made good money just contracting one job and completing it, then contracting another and completing it, and so on, mixing in the bread-and-butter maintenance jobs. But no, Mark always had to be juggling at least three balls at once -- estimating, completing, and maintaining enough different jobs so he wouldn't be dead-heading between estimate sites and work sites; so as not to be wasting time between keeping appointments with prospective customers and getting equipment rentals onto work sites and returned, or between personal visits to home and other visits to his dope connections and numerous friends.
Such is speed that frequently a juggled ball or two
Howsoever, immobilized after wrecking my car, I
started building mobiles and hanging them from my bedroom ceiling. More
interestingly, Mark and Paula and I started stoning out on bennies, grass, and
red wine, nude at night in the light-dimmed living room. The unclothed
part was new to me. Moreover, I'd lusted for Paula from the first time I
saw her. Although my attraction to Paula never became blatant in our
evening stoner sessions, I knew Mark was hyper-aware of it. But to all
appearances, Mark was oblivious to my lust for Paula. In time, I realized
why that must have been. On one subject, and one subject only, Mark could
be counted on to give Paula a hard time -- her failing to enter sufficiently
into the spirit and practice of their wife-swapping.
It was Paula's pretty, hardheaded fidelity to her
concept of traditional Christian values that prevented her from joining equally
enthusiastically with Mark in their wife-swapping soirees. Nonetheless, I
wasn't surprised when Paula appeared in my room by my bedside before light one
morning and said Mark had told her to come have sex with me. I said, 'But do you want to?' Paula left without a word. A while
later she came back, saying, '...this isn't just because Mark
told me to do it....I do want to, you know, I really do....'
That was the only time Paula and I slept together, and late in the spring of 1972, I found transportation and started a trek which ended with me living in Oakland. But not before a quiet evening in Concord when the family and I were eating supper at the dinner table.
Baby John was gurgling and struggling in his high chair while Mark talked about some of my Mexican co-workers who were dissatisfied with so many bennies instead of dinero for their labors. One of the Mexicans had mentioned it to him, and Mark had told him that if he didn't like it, he could quit -- Concord had plenty of unemployed Mexicans willing to take his place.
Low-Rider at Flickr Commons (2008), by Steve Kay
'You know, Paula, I just can't give a damn about those guys,' Mark said. 'Compared to my family responsibilities, those guys are nothing. You, me, and Baby John are all that matters.' The man was almost radiant. 'Nothing comes before putting food on the table and having a good place for the three of us to live. We're a family, and, f*ck anybody who tries to interfere with me taking care of my family.'