By Fred Owens
Acceptance. It depends on what you mean by accept. Trump says he might not accept the results of the election. Trump is very clever with words. "Not accept" could mean anything. "Not accept" could mean he will not make a graceful concession speech. Or it could mean he will lead an armed rebellion against the government. It is hard to figure out Trump's meaning. It is not worth the trouble to figure out his meaning. In my personal life I avoid contact with people who speak so ambiguously.
Accusations. By my rough count, Donald Trump has been accused of sexual malfeasance about twice as often as Bill Clinton, making Trump the worse of the two. None of the accusations are of recent origin, say within the past five years. Because they are getting too old? Clinton and Trump, Trump and Clinton -- these names will be linked in perpetuity.
Experience. Hillary Clinton rightly claims her thirty years of experience. But I wanted a fresh start and I would never have selected her to lead the Democratic party or to be President. I will vote for her, being part of that very large group of voters who utterly reject Donald Trump.
Rigged Elections. Democracy was invented in ancient Greece. The first election was held in 424 B.C. That is also when people began stealing votes and faking the results. It's been a rough go ever since. We steal votes, they steal votes. Speaking as a Democrat, we ought to steal as many votes as the Republicans steal just to keep it even. I am not being cynical when I say this. It's just human nature.
Election Forecast. Boy, there is not too much to predict anymore. It sort of looks like Hillary will take it. When all is said and done I wish her the best and I wish our country the best.
John Stark, a retired journalist from Bellingham, Washington, had this to say on his Facebook page:
"I'm 66 years old. During my time on earth, presidents have come and gone. Truman was president when I was born. I can dimly remember seeing Eisenhower on TV, and the Kennedy-Nixon debates. I remember our teacher crying when Kennedy was shot. LBJ. Nixon. Ford. Carter. Reagan. Bush. Clinton. Another Bush. Obama. I've had good years, bad years, normal years. None of that seemed to correlate with who was president or what the president said or did."
Or to put it another way --- This election is not the end of the world, nor is it the dawn of a new day, the Republic will survive. Personally, I find it very easy to control my excitement. That's why I am putting in a short story this week, which you might like.
This story is comparable to Herzog by Saul Bellow. It starts out seeming to be self-reflective, but there's a lot of people in this story besides "Fred Owens" The story takes place in LaConner in 2003. The Title is
Fred Owens hadn’t changed since that time, thirty years ago. He still gave people the benefit of the doubt. “If a guy says he’s from Philadelphia or if he says he’s from Venus – maybe he is or maybe he isn’t. It doesn’t matter to me. People don’t owe me an explanation, and I wish people didn’t want an explanation from me,” he thought.
But there’s a limit. That episode out in the desert – it was too crazy. He didn’t want to ever be around anything like that again. He never went back there and never made any inquiries about Paul or Richard or Rattlesnake.
What he decided, Susan and him, after they got out of jail and went to Fred’s sister’s house in Venice Beach, was to get married. “Let’s be normal,” he said. “Let’s do what everybody else does.” Susan agreed. They got married. They had two children. They lived in a house and had jobs. They lived like everybody else, and it almost fit, and they had almost put their old crazy life back on the shelf where it belonged
Fred rarely re-visited that episode in his life because it didn’t make any sense. And he never talked about it to any one. A few times he tried to talk about it to friends who seemed sympathetic, but it was just too crazy for them to understand. He only wrote that account of it to unravel some of the knots, as if peace of mind might come just from knowing. He had no hope of understanding it.
In June, 2003, Fred had been living in LaConner, Washington for quite a few years. It was a small town on Swinomish Channel, where the tide flowed into Skagit Bay, and from Skagit Bay through Deception Pass to Puget Sound and then to the wide Pacific Ocean. LaConner had been a quiet fishing village with shuttered stores and dogs sleeping in the street when he first found it in the 1970s. The scenery was beautiful and the rent was cheap. He located there with other artists and hippies and took work as he found it in the rural economy. But the small tourist business that Fred tolerated had burgeoned in the 1980s and 1990s until there was a boutique crammed into every nook and cranny and no place to park. “It’s not fun here anymore,” he complained, along with many others. “This is not what I expected.” LaConner had become an expensive place to live. A wealthy leisure class took over the town -- “people who have it good and expect it to be perfect,” Fred wrote in a letter to the town’s newspaper.
Fred complained and he hated complaining. He tried over and over again to love the LaConner the way it had become, “but I can’t get over how it used to be,” he told his friends. “I might like it here if I could just forget the past.”
Fred and his old hippie and artist pals were relegated to a hangout on a side street, off the main tourist street and out of sight, a place called Café Culture, which Gretchen ran on an under-the-table cash basis. Gretchen mainly kept the place going because she could meet her buddies there at five o’clock and begin the real work of the day – getting drunk. But in the morning, Fred enjoyed the coffee crowd, reading the newspaper and talking with his pals. “What a bunch of nobodies we are,” he said, more than once.
It wasn’t any better at home. His second marriage was falling apart. His two grown children stayed in touch, but they didn’t like coming to LaConner anymore. The kids loved him, but they couldn’t stand their stepmother, and LaConner was just too much of a fake artsy place. “I don’t know why you keep living here,” his daughter told him, “all you do is complain about it.”
Still it was June in the Skagit Valley with all that extra northern daylight and the weather was beautiful and the lavender hedge by Fred’s front door was in bloom and Fred still had moments of complete pleasure. One day, he decided to visit Bill Skubi, an old friend on Whidbey Island.
Skubi! – what a name! Skubi was proud, in a kind, ironic way, of his middle class upbringing in a Seattle suburb. When Skubi married, he and his wife bought an historic home in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. He drove an older Chevy Suburban. He had been a journalist, but he got smart and became a plumber instead, and that way he made steady money and everything seemed right. As a journalist he had to be concerned about political problems, but as a plumber he just smiled after the day’s work was done.
Fred had been out of touch with Skubi, except for an occasional email, but he heard from another friend that Skubi had had a heart attack – at the age of fifty.
He didn’t come to see Skubi right away, in fact, it was months, but then it seemed like it was time for a visit to Coupeville. That fine morning in June, he set out for Skubi’s house without calling ahead.
Skubi was glad to see Fred at the door. They sat outside on a picnic table that Skubi had built, joined by Skubi’s lovely wife, Ann, and they invited him to stay for dinner. They barbecued hamburgers, and enjoyed the view of the Keystone Ferry Landing and the deep salt water. The house was sited as it should be -- tucked under the trees a bit -- lacking the arrogance which makes most "view property" an obscene phrase.
They didn’t talk about Skubi’s fragile condition, but Fred noticed the fear and sorrow in Skubi’s voice. Skubi wasn’t going to be working as a plumber anymore. His life was about getting help and managing his condition.
“I guess I shouldn’t envy someone’s prosperity,” Fred thought, looking over that perfect domestic scene. “Why do I feel sorry for myself?” he thought. “Why do I criticize my life and beat myself up? I wish I had such a nice home like Skubi, and a tender, sensitive wife – and his stability and the respect of the community. Why do I wish that? You get all that, and then you get a heart attack”
Fred struggled to make sense of things. Things needed to be explained. Things needed to happen for a reason.
Back in LaConner the next day, Fred paused to look up and down Caledonia Street, where he and his wife lived in yellow ranch house. He enjoyed watching the cars go back and forth. It was a small town and he often recognized the people in the cars. Looking to the left, he could see the masts of sailboats cruising up and down Swinomish Channel.
In 1998, they bought the house in part because it was across the street from the home of Guy Anderson, the famous artist. Guy was pretty old by this time. He didn’t live at the house anymore. He was under nursing care at a friend’s house on Maple Street.
“You see, a house is defined by the one across the street,” Fred explained to his pals at Café Culture. “What I see, every morning when I leave the house, is an object of beauty. Guy’s house is an aesthetic masterpiece, and that is my view.”
Fred had never spoken to Guy Anderson, yet he had seen him many times in years past, walking around town. “I could have introduced myself,” Fred thought. “Everybody says he’s a friendly fellow, but I was too shy – he’s too great of an artist and I wouldn’t know what to say.”
By 1998, it was too late for that anyway. Guy Anderson was dying. The house was empty. “But I can take something from his yard as a memento,” Fred decided. One afternoon, he crossed the street, opened the gate and walked into Anderson’s yard. There were items lying about such as an artist might collect – pieces of driftwood and broken pottery. It felt like a privilege to be there. Fred took an unhurried look around and picked up a small wood box. That was his remembrance.
When Anderson died later that year, the house was put up for sale by his estate. Fred imagined a wonderful new owner taking over the place. “It will be too expensive for an artist to buy,” Fred thought, “although that would be the best. Realistically, it will have to be somebody with plenty of money – like a gay architect from Seattle, yes!”
Fred imagined this gay architect moving in across the street, enhancing Anderson’s creative legacy, a flamboyant man who would organize Sunday brunches at which champagne was served. “Wouldn’t that be fun,” Fred thought.
As a way to set the tone for whoever might buy the place, Fred planted what he called “gay attractors” in his front yard – lavender and pansies. “Get it?” he told his pals at the café. “The lavender and pansies set up a vibration that will attract the right new owner.” His friends scoffed.
But, to Fred’s disappointment, the gay attractors didn’t work. Brenda Falcone bought the place. She was a wealthy divorced woman from Seattle who sold real estate and dabbled in the arts. “A wannabe, how disgusting,” he thought. Worse, Brenda was hardly in town for three weeks before she began sending disapproving glances Fred’s way. “I hate it when people look down on me. I mean, I should be looking down on her. I’ve lived in this town half my life. I’m twice the artist she will ever be.”
Brenda had a much nicer car and a lot more money. “Caledonia Street is ruined now, the yuppies are taking over,” he moaned.
But Fred was trapped because he wanted to have it both ways. He grew up in a privileged suburb and developed a fine sense of status. “I’m a snob. In my bones I’m a snob. When I was a teenager, I had a whole drawer just for my sweaters,” he thought.
And yet his adult life had been a renunciation of that status – a series of low-paying job that sufficed to cover the rent on a series of substandard houses. Even the house on Caledonia, which he actually owned, was in South LaConner, the low-status part of town.
Fred wanted to be a man of the people, and to be one with the wretched of the earth, but he knew that Brenda and he were cut from the same cloth. Toiling in the fields had not erased his early advantages. What Fred really wanted was a lifetime pass, some kind of card in his wallet perhaps, that he could use to go back and forth between the camps. “God, I hate that,” he thought, “I’m spoiled, immature, and I want everything.”
In the spring of that year, Fred quit his job as a nursing aide at Skagit Valley Hospital. The nursing work had gotten him stressed and depressed. Besides that, the work was very repetitive – mainly cleaning up shit. Cleaning up shit hardly bothered Fred at all, but it wasn’t very interesting either. The worst part of his job was the way his friends reacted. “They act like there’s something wrong with me to be willing to take such a lowly job,” he complained. “That really pisses me off. So I clean up shit – it’s honest work.”
In the world of health care, nursing aides get used up like paper towels. They got one last wipe out of Fred, and then he was out the door.
When Fred quit, he was given unemployment benefits. The people at the employment agency thought his reason for quitting was valid – that he had gotten very depressed because everybody died. “At least they understood me,” he said.
Unemployment checks were bad for Fred’s psyche, especially because he had gotten depressed. “I’m on the welfare wagon now,” he said. “I get barely enough to live on, and my initiative is completely gone.”
That summer, while collecting his weekly unemployment check, Fred composed bombastic emails to his friend, Arch, a school teacher in North Carolina. Fred and Arch had gone to college together.
Fred wrote, “As a consequence of becoming fully enlightened, I am not able to participate in politics for the moment. I had this vision -- which I hesitate to report because it trivializes the genuine efforts of so many good people -- it even trivializes my own efforts, past and future.
“But I was watching CNN. There was George Bush speaking at the podium, in an outdoor setting with the sky in the background. I switched to C-SPAN. There was Fidel Castro, speaking at the podium, in an outdoor setting with the sky in the background. I couldn't tell them apart. Man-at-podium-who-runs-country. One has a beard, one does not.
“It's not funny, but it is funny. I will get back to politics when I recover the ability to make a distinction between George Bush and Fidel Castro.”
Still, politics had an appeal to Fred – the entertainment value and a chance to observe human folly. Fred had received an invitation to a meeting of the Peace & Reconciliation Network in the town of Langley on Whidbey Island, to be held on the evening of Tuesday, June 29 at Neil’s Clover Patch Café. The invitation said:
“The Whidbey Peace and Reconciliation Network invites you to a relaxing evening of conversation with your neighbors. We believe that community spirit can be nurtured through good conversation – and great pie and coffee! All points of view are most welcome as we discuss the question: Given the world situation, what do you regard as beautiful and worth preserving on Whidbey Island and, what are you willing to do to preserve it? We will use a process called the Conversation Café…”
Fred liked the Conversation Café format of small group (6-8 people) discussion, because he felt awkward speaking in larger groups. With the smaller group, he got more chances to talk, and if he knew he had a chance to talk, he was more likely to listen as well.
Langley is a small town on south Whidbey Island – even cuter than LaConner -- with lots of arts and crafts and many long-distance commuters to Seattle via the ferry at Mukilteo. There were no farmers, no Indians, no Hispanics – it was a liberal town, Democratic.
Fred didn’t go to Langley to make fun of these people, or to characterize them. He made the 90-minute drive from LaConner to join with them and to see if they finally got their act together and had their heads on straight. But he was disappointed – they still felt guilty.
But guilty of what? A competent group with mastery of social and technical skills that assured a high standard of living, yet in the context of this group discussion they expressed doubt, uncertainty, and insecurity. George Bush ran the country and they did not. Bush spearheaded the war on Iraq, which they opposed. They have lost environmental battles with developers on Whidbey Island because they too much needed their own exquisite taste. They were affluent, but powerless.
During the meeting, Fred heard someone say “I feel guilty.” Fred was acutely sensitive to New Age psychological talk. “It’s really a problem out here on the West Coast,” he thought. “People talk about feelings and they don’t want to be judgmental and it’s all relative – they always say crap like that,” he noted. But what really bothered him was the clichés, like “I feel guilty.”
Fred was more old-fashioned. He was from the Midwest. He wasn’t sensitive, he was sentimental. He didn’t get depressed, he got became melancholy. Fred admired his own emotional makeup and felt that other people did not quite appreciate him properly about that.
He sent an email to Arch, writing in his usual didactic tone: Why do people say “I feel guilty”? Why don’t they say “I am guilty”? If you feel guilty because you are guilty, that means you are doing something you shouldn’t do, and you should stop doing it. If you feel guilty, but you are not guilty, then you need to visit the Head Doctor, or take some Clarification Pills, because you should not actually feel guilty unless you are guilty.
Do you feel guilty because of what somebody else did? Then you have your emotions on backward. You might feel sad because of what somebody else did, or disappointed, or angry, but you cannot actually feel guilty about what somebody else did.
In most instances, people say “I feel guilty” because they don’t actually want to take any responsibility – it’s a clever way to avoid saying “I am guilty.” It’s a clever way to avoid making a judgment – either you are guilty or you are not. Did you or did you not do this thing? And was doing this thing right or wrong?
If you reach the conclusion of “I am guilty” then you better stop doing it. That is the point of the exercise – to stop doing it.
“That’s it,” Fred thought. “I have nailed it. I have placed guilt in its proper place. It’s a useful mechanism if you don’t over do it.”
He was frustrated. When he came up with a conclusive understanding of the proper use of guilt – or something like that – he wanted to go out on the road and stop traffic. “The whole world needs the hear this. I just know it,” he wanted to shout.
At least he was used to shouting in the wind. At least he had accepted diminished expectations.
It was like that when he worked at the hospital. He kept notes. “I’m going to write a book called ‘What’s wrong with the hospital and how to fix it,’” he told people. But he knew he would never write anything about it. “What’s the point of having these brilliant insights?” he wondered. “Nobody cares.”
But, in this case of the hospital, at least, his ego was under control. He knew that it couldn’t be fixed. He knew that everybody who worked there felt just like him – frustrated. There was no one to blame – not even Mrs. Bilski.
The paradigm for Fred was his experience in 1972, when he worked as a psychiatric aide at Rockland State Hospital, just outside of New York City, and across the Hudson River from Westchester County. Fred worked there for nine months, in Cottage Four, with chronically schizophrenic teenage boys. It was thirty years ago and he still remembered their faces.
He had been terribly angry at how poorly these boys were cared for – how so much money the state spent for their care and how most of it was siphoned off into administrative expenses, and he used to rage at Mrs. Bilski, the R.N. who ran the unit – storming into her office and accusing her of malfeasance.
Mrs. Bilski always responded to Fred’s tirades with complete calm, which was even more frustrating to Fred, because it was so patronizing. Eventually he gave up trying to find the bastard who was in charge – the one person who was to blame -- but he remembered Mrs. Bilski’s face, the way she wore her ginger brown hair in a bun, her middle-aged crow’s feet, and her uninteresting figure. She just didn’t let things bother her. She didn’t try to fix anything, but in 1972, Fred was years away from learning about that “That was thirty years ago….Eddy and James and Demetrius and those others kids would be in their forties by now. I’ll bet they are still there, in another part of the hospital, in an adult unit, and still locked in their 5-year-old minds, as if no time had passed at all,” he thought.
The next day Fred wrote in his journal: “Wednesday, June 30, 2003, 6:30 a.m. Still hot. I finished reading King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard….”
Haggard’s book of African adventure had a lot of meaning to Fred, reminding him of his own journey to Africa in 1997 and 1998. He had seen the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe which Fred believed was the site of King’s Solomon’s mines. And he had found his own African jewel – her name was Zodwa. He had married her and brought her back to America.
Six years later it was hard for him to avoid the conclusion that he had made a disastrous mistake in taking an African wife. She was failing to become the least bit civilized. “Civilized” was a word he had no fear of using, at least in his own mind.
Zodwa was exhausting his financial and emotional resources. Fred was hanging on this marriage by a thread and feeling very stupid for having wed her in the first place. But, at least, by reading Haggard’s book, he was reassured that he had undertaken a very dangerous mission himself in going to Africa, and that he had wrongly but courageously given into an impulse to love a woman who was wildly inappropriate.
Fred’s journal began in 1976 when he began scribbling notes on odd pieces of paper, making some drawings and careful calligraphies, but it built slowly. The journal kept up through the 1990s, through years of midlife torment, and Fred usually enjoyed his daily morning sessions with pen and paper. But he knew the worth of it. “It’s ninety percent self pity and whining,” he thought.
By 2000, journal writing had become a mass cultural phenomenon. “Everybody has a journal now, and they’re all walking around with that important look as if they had done something therapeutic for themselves,” Fred commented. “It’s the damn Baby Boom again. They’re all writing journals now.”
He felt crowded, metaphysically. He realized there was now a large gang in the same room where he wrote his journal. “Fuck it,” he said. “I’ll find something else.” He stopped writing his journal and began sending bombastic emails to Arch in North Carolina. He sent emails to female friends detailing his emotional fragility. “But I have to be careful with that. If I send them too much drama, these women will accuse me of dumping on them,” he knew.
Fred’s drawing was getting much better. No one was watching and that helped. He drew plants, trees, flowers and houses. “Those are easy,” he realized. He started to get a little stronger, going up in a progression to animals, then people, then people’s faces, and then their noses. By 2003, he could draw anything, even the nose. “The human face is the hardest to draw, and the nose is the scariest part, because you can fake the eyes and the mouth in a two-dimensional way, but noses are like sculptures, and they have to come out of the page in three dimensions,” he theorized. “Noses are the most important part of the face.”
But something else held him back from drawing human faces – an old injunction against creating false images. This amounted to a superstition on his part because he was raised in the Catholic Church which gloried in the representation of all images, from plants all the way up to God himself. It was only Protestants and Jews that forbad certain types of images. Fred had somehow imbibed that superstition from those religious traditions, but he didn’t know why. “Maybe it’s just a matter of respect,” he surmised. “Maybe I just have a proper respect for the power of images.”
This was not something he ever talked about. He has not reluctant share to his views about images, but he failed to make sense of it whenever he tried to explain his attitude to a willing listener. “I’m not a very good talker,” he confessed to himself. “There’s a number of ideas, in art, in politics, in human relations, which I feel very strongly about, but I don’t have the words to say them.”
That was frustrating. And, often enough, he thought of what to say in a conversation, but only an hour later, after he was going home, driving the car – then the words came to him. “Now I have it!” he shouted inside the car. “That’s just what I should have said.”
Talking with other men was a competitive matter, Fred knew. “I can never hold forth,” he sighed. “I end up sitting with the women.”
He tried explaining this to Robert Kiam over at the cafe. “I’m not a very good talker,” he told Robert. “A lot of time when all the guys are arguing I can’t get a word in edgewise. It just goes too fast for me.”
Robert nodded sagely. Robert wouldn’t let Fred talk very much either, except in the beginning of a conversation, when he put on his best listening expression. It was like letting Fred be the warm-up act for Robert’s star performance once the conversation really got started.
Fred often wished that Robert would just go away. “I get so tired of him,” he thought. “I don’t know why everybody else likes him.”
Robert was a drunk. He was moody, intense, and usually depressed. He had rotten parents a long time ago – and he milked that story for all the sympathy he could gain from various friends around town. People always wanted to help Robert, like giving him small jobs and inquiring after his health.
Robert had a kind of brooding presence at the cafe. “I wouldn’t mind so much, if he just wouldn’t take up so much room,” Fred thought.
“Maybe it’s his stomach,” Fred considered. Robert had a big gut, but it wasn’t flabby, it wasn’t down low like pregnant woman. Robert’s belly was round and very strong. “I can’t push Robert away, he has too much inertia,” Fred realized.
Older now, Fred was better at letting things go – like being pissed off at Robert. He left the cafe and walked the short half a block to the water’s edge.
LaConner is situated on the east bank of Swinomish Channel. The saltwater sloshes through twice a day, coming in, going out, coming in and going out. The tide rises and falls and rises and falls again.
Only experienced fishermen and tugboat pilots understood the pattern of the channel’s movement –how it was influenced by changes in barometric pressure, the phase of the moon, and the amount of water coming out of the Skagit River at any given time.
All Fred understood is that the water in Swinomish Channel never stopped moving, except at flood tide. “Sure, it stops moving at flood tide and at the bottom of ebb tide, but that doesn’t really count. The water is just pausing before it changes direction,” he observed.
Fred sat on a creosoted log on the banks of the channel. This was in a little spot he called Dunlap Park, after the Dunlap Towing Company, which owned this small parcel of land between the LaConner Town Hall and the channel. It was no more than a narrow strip of blackberries that sloped downhill to the seaweed growing at the water’s edge.
But Fred liked it here because it was a neglected, quiet place. The rest of LaConner was too tidy and spiffed up for the tourists.
He sat down and watched the water. “It’s always moving,” he thought, with wonder, but that made him uncomfortable at the same time. His secret wish was that he could come up to the channel and find the water still and calm. “Can’t we just turn it off for a few weeks?” he cried to the Universe. Fred knew where that longing came from – Lake Michigan.
After almost 25 years in the Skagit Valley, Fred was still not well adjusted to moving water. He grew up near Lake Michigan. It was one mile from his childhood home to the beach on that body of vast, still, fresh water -- waters that never moved, except in very deep, very slow glacial currents – too slow for a human being to observe.
The wind might whip up whitecaps on the surface of Lake Michigan. In winter, the lake was covered with soft ice cakes shaped like lily pads, but the water was always still, always right where it had been the day before, “like it’s supposed to be,” Fred admitted.
And the ever-changing currents of Swinomish Channel were foreign and alien to him, after all this time. “I wish I could get used to it. I wish I could forget where I came from, and then LaConner would be my real home,” he thought.
In a town full of transplanted Midwesterners and East Coast people who seemed to embrace the local climate with total ferocity, Fred felt like the odd man out. The other immigrants were successful in their renunciation of the past, but not Fred. People moved here from New Jersey or Minnesota and wouldn’t dream of ever going back that way except to visit their families.
Fred knew that the other transplants were true converts to the Skagit Valley, and he was not. Fred maintained a sentimental attachment to the Midwest, “and they all know it,” he said. Everybody in LaConner knew he was tentative while they were all committed – that’s what Fred suspected. That he gave this away by some look on his face – or maybe it was because he said things like about how much he liked the Chicago White Sox and that he had no special interest in the Seattle Mariners. “It’s really stupid to say things like that. Why can’t I just lie a little bit and say how much I love the Mariners?” he lamented.
There Fred was on the creosote log, watching the water move and lamenting his fate. “I used to wallow in misery. Now I shake it off after five minutes – getting old is not so bad,” he thought.
Sea gulls flew overhead. Pleasure boats moved up and down the channel in a steady procession. The Indians kept their fishing boats on the other side of the channel. Fred watched them load and unload their boats – gill netters and purse seiners for catching salmon – a different tribe than his own, with a formal and legal distinction, and a clear boundary. LaConner was on the east side of the channel, a regular American town. Swinomish village was on the west side, since time immemorial, a sovereign nation. “Some sovereign nation,” Fred said at the cafe. “They don’t even have their own grocery store.”
Fred felt, after 25 years living across the channel from the tribe, that a bit of critical judgment was appropriate. “I’m not some wannabe. I’m not a tourist. I live here. Indians are good people and no better than the rest of us,” he said. “I don’t harbor romantic notions about them. I just like them.”
But he wouldn’t say too much about that at the cafe. That would invite a boring political argument – we’re guilty! we stole their land! The Native Americans are in close touch with nature and they live by the Great Spirit, and we are the destroyers! “Oh, give me a break. I’m tired of this,” he said.
No politics. It was the same with reading the newspaper at the cafe. “I practice remaining calm while reading the newspaper,” he proclaimed to his pals. “I read about violence, war, and the horrible cruelty of criminals. I read about the self-serving dishonesty of politicians. But if I feel my gorge rising, I pause and take a deep breath. I go to the Buddha, and I say this happened and that happened, and now I know this happened and that happened. I only observe. That’s the way Clyde would have done it.”
Clyde was the town drunk. Every village has an idiot and every small town has a town drunk. Clyde died in 1996 and more than 300 people came to his funeral. They had a party in his honor at the picnic shelter in Pioneer Park. Fred didn’t go. He appreciated Clyde, but in truth he couldn’t tolerate him. Clyde used to sit on the front porch of Jim and Janet’s house – their old house when they lived in town. He would sit there half the day, with his back pack and his jug of cheap wine, blowing smoke through his alcoholic wine-darkened cheeks, uttering Buddhist koans, speaking of profoundly inconsequential matters, a living legend, as legends go in a small town.
Clyde got his wine money sweeping the parking lot at the grocery store or raking leaves or people just gave it to him. He wrote poems on scraps of paper and gave them to people, like this one:
There are many Springs today ---
One is a new bird, another a warm stone.
One is a marsh hawk flying upside down,
And the last is the last fall
leaf that lived way up. Just landed.
Gretchen kept a copy of Clyde’s poems at the Café Culture piled in with all the other books and magazines. “It’s a good poem,” Fred knew. “But I’m only half a Buddhist. This drunk monk, Buddhist monk, mindless wandering mind. This Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg summit of the beginning of all things, and how it all comes back around, so you don’t need to leave, you can just sit there, and save yourself all that trouble – I know all that.”
Clyde wrote another poem that Fred really liked, about Paul Hansen’s dog, Nero, a huge black Newfoundland. Hansen was a misanthrope, a poet, and a Chinese scholar. Nero always rode in the front of the Hansen’s small pickup when Hansen came to town – those rare visits to Café Culture, because he couldn’t stand people anymore. But when Hansen came to town, Fred always liked hearing him laugh. Hansen laughed like a very loud donkey, you could hear him all over town. This was the poem that Clyde wrote about Hansen’s dog, Nero.
Me ride in car with Paul.
Me smell and watch.
Me listen well and sit in car.
Me be good dog and wait.
Me good big dog.
Me wait and rest.
“That one is good. I know a good poem when I see one,” Fred said. “It’s entirely accurate. That’s what Nero is like. And if you understand the dog, then you can understand everything, and the universe begins to make sense.
Jim Smith, who enabled Clyde in a big way because he admired losers, kept a portrait of Clyde in his studio, a wood cut print, and he kept all the clippings of Clyde’s life in a box -- kind of a shrine. This one had been in the newspaper:
Cars, vans and bicycles crowded into
every available parking spot in and around
Pioneer Park on Wednesday, March 20, for
a memorial potluck for the late Clyde Sanborn.
Sanborn, 47, was found dead Saturday
morning, March 15, on a sand spit near the
south end of the Swinomish Channel. He was
the victim of an apparent drowning accident.
Tears filled the eyes of many of the
hundreds of mourners, others laughed and
talked about pleasant memories of Clyde.
Artwork and poems, written by what locals
believe was the last "River Rat" in LaConner,
were on display.
One mourner brought several poems
written by Clyde. The cherished gifts, written
many years ago, were handwritten on yellowed
scraps of paper. They were given tearfully to
Clyde's mother, Gwen Hansen, who attended
the vigil with several family member from
Clyde, a poet and artist, was known
to always have had an interesting tidbit
to add to any conversation.
He once wrote: "One should always
carry a pen. One never knows when one
may run into a poem."
According to his close friend, Jim Smith,
the Skagit County Sheriff's office is trying
to determine Clyde's whereabouts in the
days prior to his death. A daily visitor to
town, he had not been seen around
recently. Anyone who may have seen or
spoke to him in the days preceeding his
death is asked to contact the Sheriff's
office at 336-9450.
“I’m just petty and selfish,” Fred thought. “There aren’t going to be 300 people coming to my funeral. Everybody liked Clyde, that was all. Being drunk all day didn’t have much to do with it.”
But Fred was tired of the bum life, the deadbeat poets and the stoned fish. He used to hang out with Clyde a lot in the early 80s, when Clyde had his cabin out by the Sand Spit. Clyde and Nearly Normal Jimmy had adjacent cabins – shacks, really. Jimmy had a yellow dog named Amigo, and Jimmy and Clyde lived the life from Cannery Row, going into town to get enough beer, the cheapest, and coming back out to the Sand Spit, a wonderful place to get drunk. It didn’t matter where you fell down, there were no rocks, or if there was a rock, it would be covered with soft velvet moss, you could lie down and see the stars – and be drunk enough to see the stars, because the clouds hid them from sober people.
But that was back in the 80s. More people were hanging out on the River back then, before all the yuppies came, when LaConner was quieter. Nearly Normal Jimmy had moved off the Sand Spit after the time he got so drunk that he climbed a utility pole and sat on the raised platform next to the transformer and some how touched something that electrocuted him and put him in the hospital.
Nearly Normal Jimmy got his picture in the paper for that escapade, and he was deeply ashamed and never came back to LaConner for many years. He quit drinking altogether, although he made up for that by smoking pot all the time. He didn’t really go away. He just found a cheap old farmhouse that some old farmer would let him live in for a little work. That was out on Fir Island, only ten miles from LaConner, but Jimmy never once came to town after that.
One by one, the River Rats disappeared and Clyde was the last one, officially, that is – the last one to be a poet about it, and he drowned, fittingly, it seemed. Clyde could handle a row boat drunk or sober, as good as anybody, and it was a mystery to his friends – a good end to his life, but still a mystery that he just fell out of his boat and drowned.
And they never found his bicycle either.