I just returned from Berkeley, California, where my son is in graduate school. What an amazing contrast to Ohio. I don’t even know where to begin. The blue sky, the weather, the hills, the city, the people, the politics.
A man walking down the street in a purple mini skirt with a matching Mohawk barely gets a second glance. A political protest marching in the middle of traffic down the main street is met with approving beep-beeps and waves. Folks living in the trees outside the football stadium peer out from the leafy branches and then go back into their tree houses. Four policemen sit on a bench watch and chat nonchalantly. They seem oddly relaxed and happy. What is wrong with this picture?
I gave a poetry reading in a book shop in Santa Cruz. I was wearing clothes for hiking when I arrived. So I went to the bathroom to gussy up a bit. A nude woman was in there, taking a bath in the sink. She looked a little worried when she first saw me, but then she spotted the bag of clothes I was carrying and suspected I might be a kindred soul. Somehow we started gabbing as she dressed, putting on layer after layer of thermal under-garments before finally covering them all in a large dress and a coat. She informed me that the book shop was a nice place to clean up and change. No one had yet bothered her when they found her in there. Then she asked me a few questions.
When I told her I was going to give a reading, she smiled wildly and said she had always loved poetry. She watched me slip on a pair of black pants and a black silk shirt. Ah, yes, now you look like a poet, she said approvingly, suggesting I tuck in the blouse. Then we both ambled out, me with a bag of books I hoped to sell, she with about four huge bags of assorted clothes and blankets.
I always feel a little nervous when I start a reading, and this one was no exception. After ten minutes of waiting, the empty chairs filled. I went up to the podium and began my reading as I usually do, opening with a poem called “Powerful Magic” that helps to center me. After reading it, I glanced out, just beyond the circle of chairs. The bag woman was standing there, smiling widely. She gave a wave, a nod and quick thumbs-up. I felt a wave of warmth every time I looked up at her. And each time she waved.