Archive for October, 2008

The Gravity of Should

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

I dropped out of college thirty-eight years ago at the age of nineteen. 1969. My fear of being drafted and sent to Vietnam was erased overnight by a blessed medical deferment for rheumatoid arthritis. My parents were crushed by my decision to leave school. My father was a doctor, my mother a lawyer. They had expected me to follow in one or the other of their footsteps, or at the very least become a college professor.

I began my career as a writer in the first grade. Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up—and people of my parents’ generation were always asking children that question—I would answer, “A writer and a baseball player.” When my spinal condition forced me to abandon baseball in high school and I took up acting, my answer became, “A playwright actor.”

When I dropped out of college and announced my intention to pursue a literary career, my parents reacted as if I’d lost my mind. My mother quickly came to the conclusion I had chosen the wrong college and that my cure lay in starting anew at another university. My father diagnosed my condition as depression to be treated with psychotherapy and anti-depressants. And I soon realized that if I was ever going to find my own way in life, I’d better get out of Dodge.

So I loaded my backpack and hit the road.

&

1971. September. Dusk. Rain about to fall. I was hiking along the road that traced the border between Vermont and New Hampshire—my destination Canada. I chose this road because I liked what it did on the map, sewing, as it were, the two states together.

I hadn’t spoken to my parents in almost a year. I was planning to call them a few weeks hence from a tavern in Montreal on my twenty-first birthday—drinking my first beer as an official American adult.

This road through dense forest—most of the leaves just beginning their change from green to burgundy—was not much traveled by anyone inclined to pick up a scruffy young guy with a battered backpack. And so at day’s end, I found myself fourteen miles from the nearest village and seven miles from the nearest campground.

When I left college and stepped away from the financial support of my parents, it never occurred to me that roaming would become my way of life. I assumed I would settle in a hospitable town, find a job, make friends, and get down to writing. But whenever I endeavored to do that, I would—in fulfillment of my father’s diagnosis—become depressed and lose all hope of finding my own way. Only when I took to the road again did my despair give way to happiness, and after two years of vagabonding—making my living as a laborer on farms, a dishwasher in towns—I was content to keep on roaming.

The rain began to fall, so I declared aloud that if I didn’t get a ride in the next ten minutes, I would step off the highway into the woods, find a relatively level space to pitch my tent, and hunker down for the rainy night. I had a bag of nuts and raisins, an apple, an orange, and a good hunk of cheese. I had a little propane stove on which to boil water, a brass teakettle, bags of black tea, and a flask of peach brandy to transform my tea into a sleepy time dessert.

Suddenly a car appeared—a big new car—with a middle-aged woman in the passenger seat frowning out at me as they rolled on by.

I watched the car disappear.

The trees surrendered their nascent colors to the dying light.

I was about to leave the road and enter the woods, when the big new car returned and stopped beside me—the driver’s window sinking down to reveal a deeply worried man.

“Where are you going?” he asked, choking on his words.

“To the campground,” I said, bringing forth a map from my hip pocket. “Little Woods, I think it’s called.”

“Yes,” said the man, glancing at the woman beside him. “Little Woods. I’ll turn around. We’ll take you there.”

They were obviously uncomfortable about giving me a ride—both of them rigid with fear—and as I settled into their plush backseat, I wondered why they had stopped for me.

“Thank you so much,” I said, glad to be out of the rain. “Not much traffic on this road.”

“No,” said the woman.

The rain gathered force and drummed hard on the car.

“I chose this road,” I said, hoping to break the ice by revealing my whimsy, “because I like the way it crosses back and forth so many times between New Hampshire and Vermont. You don’t find many roads like this.”

“Our son…” the woman began.

“Don’t,” said the man, cutting her off. “Please don’t, Agnes.”

“Why not?” she asked, beginning to weep. “Maybe he’s seen him. Maybe…”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s impossible.”

A flash of lightning.

Their son, I imagined, was a runaway—a young man who left home rather than be crushed by the weight of propriety—the gravity of should.

“I want to tell him, John,” said Agnes, beseeching him. “It’s important to me.”

“Why him?”

“He’s…Jeffrey is probably hitchhiking, too. He’ll understand what Jeff…”

“Oh for God’s sake,” said John, gritting his teeth. “Just get it over with.”

And this is what Agnes told me as we rolled along the country road in their new car—the last of day giving way to the first of night.

“Our son left home eleven months ago. He’s eighteen now. Jeffrey. Jeffrey Adams. He’s about your height and he wasn’t so skinny as you are, but I suppose now he might be. He has blond hair and he wears glasses, black frames. His grades were going down and we thought he might be smoking marijuana. He’d always gotten straight A’s and suddenly he got a B in Chemistry and a C in Math, and he started staying out later than he was supposed to and hanging out with…with hippy kids. So we grounded him. We explained he needed to keep his grades up so he could get into college or otherwise he’d get drafted and go to Vietnam, and he said if that happened he would just go to Canada. As if that was the easiest thing in the world to do. Just go to Canada and never come home. So we took him to a psychologist, but it didn’t help. He said he wasn’t smoking marijuana, but his grades kept going down. So John told him if he didn’t make more of an effort we would send him to a military academy and when John said that…”

“Enough,” said John, striking the dashboard with his fist.

“Let me finish,” cried Agnes. “Why won’t you ever let me finish?”

“I hit him,” said John, glaring at me in the rearview mirror. “Okay? I slapped his face and told him he was a quitter and a coward and a cop out. Because he is.”

A moment later, we came to the Little Woods campground—a half-dozen picnic tables scattered here and there in sparse woods. John parked beside the dilapidated outhouse and kept the engine running.

“Thanks again,” I said, opening the door. “If I run into Jeffrey, I’ll tell him you were looking for him.”

I’m not looking for him,” said John, gripping the steering wheel. “Coward. Traitor.”

Agnes got out of the car, opened an umbrella, and followed me to my campsite. She held my flashlight for me while I put on my rain poncho and set up my tent.

When I had my backpack stowed inside my tent, she said, “We…I want to give you some money.”

John beeped his horn. Agnes flinched.

“Thank you,” I said, trying to think of something to say that might help her. “You’re very kind. I was down to my last dollar.”

She handed me an envelope containing a twenty-dollar bill she’d been saving for someone who reminded her of her son.

“He loves you,” I said as her hand touched mine. “But the system has gone wrong. The bad guys have taken over. Jeffrey doesn’t want to be part of the killing machine. That’s why he left. Not because he doesn’t love you.”

Agnes nodded solemnly. The rain came down. John beeped his horn again and again and again.

She said, “He’ll hit me for doing this, but I don’t care. I had to do something for our child.”

 

The Double

Saturday, October 18th, 2008

              

        I still find it hard to fathom that there are men walking the earth who resemble me so exactly that even their close friends can’t tell us apart. But ever since I was a teenager, and until quite recently (I’m approaching sixty), I have had several remarkable experiences of being taken for someone I am not. These were not incidents of mistaken identity at a distance. No, these were encounters with people—complete strangers—who saw me up close, studied me, spoke to me, and swore that I was the person they thought I was—a person they knew intimately. And when I told them I was Todd, and not Mike or Paul or Huey or Jason, they thought I was either joking or lying. Furthermore, they told me I possessed this other person’s voice and physical mannerisms to such an uncanny degree, that if I was not the person they believed me to be, I must be his identical twin—or his ghost.

            I was a junior in high school—1966—when I was first mistaken so completely for someone else. I was coming out of Discount Records in Menlo Park, California, when an immaculate two-door 1956 Chevrolet, black top, gray bottom, pulled up beside me, and the driver rolled down his window to say, “Hey, Mike. Listen to this. Something doesn’t sound right.” Then he gunned his engine. “See what I mean? Carburetor?”

“I don’t know who you are,” I said, shrugging politely. “And I don’t know anything about cars.”

“Mike?” he said, incredulously. “You’re not Mike?”

“I’m sorry. No.”

“Wow. You look just like him. Clothes and everything. And you sound like him, too.”

My outfit—blue jeans and T-shirt and high-top tennis shoes—was not particularly original in that era, and so I thought no more about this encounter until a week later when I came out of a guitar shop in Redwood City, and another 1956 Chevy, baby blue bottom, white top, white wall tires, pulled up beside me.

“Mike,” said the driver. “Can I come by a little later? Fucker’s missing. Listen.” And then he revved his engine, too.

“I’m not Mike,” I said, shaking my head. “Apparently I look like him, but I’m not him.”

The guy shut off his engine, got out of his car, and confronted me. He was big, and he scared me. “What the fuck you talkin’ about, Mike?”

“I’m not Mike,” I said, holding up my hands in surrender. “And I don’t know anything about cars. Nothing.”

He squinted at me. “You trippin’?”

“No, I’m…not Mike. My name is Todd.”

He frowned deeply. “You’re not Mike DeCamilla? Sequoia High?”

“Todd Walton. Woodside High.”

His jaw dropped and he gazed at me open-mouthed for a long time, as if waiting for me to…become Mike.

“Somebody else with a car like yours, only a different color, thought I looked like Mike, too. Black top, gray bottom.”

“Saxon,” said the guy, nodding. “He told us about you. Mike and me and…we thought he was…fuck, man, you not only look like Mike, you sound like him. Exactly.”

In retrospect, I wish I had asked this guy to introduce me to Mike, but I was so intimidated by him, I didn’t think to ask. And the next person who thought I was Mike was the last person I would have asked to introduce me to Mike.

I was in Discount Records, a favorite hangout of mine in the early days of Folk Rock, a place away from our parents where three of us could cram into a listening booth and blast Buffalo Springfield until the clerk banged on the glass and told us to turn Bluebird down.

I was flipping through the Jazz records, looking for a new Herbie Hancock, when a young woman with bleached blond hair, heavy makeup, and big blue eyes brimming with tears, approached me and whispered, “Mike?”

I shook my head. “I’m not Mike. Some people think I’m Mike, but I’m not.”

“I knew you’d be here,” she said, her jaw quivering. “In the Jazz section. I knew it.”

“I’m not Mike,” I said, wanting to console her. “Is he…your boyfriend?”

She gaped at me, shocked. “How can you say that? How can you be so cruel?”

“Because I’m not Mike,” I said, smiling sadly. “I’m Todd. Do you see that guy at the counter buying a record? That’s my friend, Dave. And he will tell you that I am not Mike. You want to go ask him?”

Then she, too, squinted and frowned at me. “You look exactly like him,” she said, nodding. “But now I can see you’re not him. Sorry.”

Shortly thereafter I grew a mustache and was never taken for Mike again.


Nine years later—1975—I was living with my girlfriend in a garage in Eugene, Oregon. We were poor as church mice. I love that expression for all its implications. Anyway, one evening we decided to cut loose and go to a café and split a cup of cocoa. This is not fiction. In the year I lived in Eugene, my girlfriend and I went out twice, and going for that cup of cocoa was one of those times.

We entered the student-run café, ordered our cocoa, and sat at a small table, feeling quite decadent to be spending a dollar on cocoa when we might have more prudently spent it on groceries. But we were young and impetuous and wanted to have some fun. Business was slow, only a few tables occupied.

“That guy keeps looking at you,” said my girlfriend, glancing sidewise at a man sitting with a woman across the room from us.

I turned to look at the man, smiled at him, and then said to my girlfriend, “He seems harmless enough.”

“He’s weird,” she said, whispering harshly. “He’s staring at you.”

My girlfriend and I were not on the best of terms, our relationship doomed for the umpteenth time, this cocoa date a last-ditch effort to inject a tiny bit of levity into a life of poverty devoted, for my part, to the practice of learning how to write. And so I took her complaint as part of her ongoing assault.

“Just ignore him,” I said, sipping our cocoa. “Please?”

“Paul?” said the man, calling to me. “Paul.”

“Oh, great,” said my girlfriend, rolling her eyes. “Now he’s talking to you.”

I looked at the man again—early thirties, fine leather jacket, expensive shoes, black curly hair—only this time I didn’t smile, and the poor guy jumped in his seat as if I’d struck him. Then he turned to the woman he was with, a striking brunette, and looked at her with terror in his eyes.

“Let’s get out of here,” said my girlfriend. “This is totally freaking me out.”

“Can we finish our cocoa?” I was furious. “I can’t handle the garage right now.”

“We could go to the library,” she said, plaintively. “Look at art books. Read the paper. Play the card catalogue game.”

So we got up to go, and the man and woman jumped up and hurried over to us.

“Paul,” said the man, reaching out to me. “It’s Jeff. And Rachel. You know us, don’t you?”

“My name is not Paul,” I said, instantly convinced the guy truly believed I was someone he knew—someone named Paul. “My name is Todd.”

“Why?” he asked, searching my face. “Why did you change your name? So we couldn’t find you?”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, looking first at him and then at Rachel, “but I didn’t change my name. I thought about it, but I never did. I’m Todd, not Paul.”

And Rachel said, “That’s exactly what Paul would say. You are Paul, aren’t you? The way your hands move when you talk. Your eyes. You’re Paul.”

I shoved my hands in my pockets. “I am not Paul.” I turned to my girlfriend. “Would you confirm that, please?”

“He’s not Paul,” she said, sneering at me. “He’s definitely Todd.”

But Jeff and Rachel were still not convinced. So we stood there for a short infinity while they struggled to accept the apparently unbelievable proposition that I was not Paul.

Finally, Jeff said, “I’m Jeff Kovacs. We lived together, Paul and Rachel and Andrea and Colin and Fritz and Sarah and I. In Ithaca. New York. You…Paul disappeared five years ago. No word since. You, Paul…it destroyed us. And if you’re not Paul, you’re his identical twin.”

“When was Paul born?” I asked, bringing forth my driver’s license. “I was born in 1949. I’m twenty-six.” I handed Jeff my license. The photo, in which I resembled a mafia hit man, was two years old.

“Oh,” said Jeff, looking from the license to me. “You’re not Paul. I’m so sorry.”

Rachel took the license and looked from the mug shot to me. “Even so, you could be Paul.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Jeff, bowing his head. “Seeing you is like seeing him again.”

 

In 1979, I was visiting my sister in Los Angeles. She lived at the end of one of those narrow little canyon roads in the hills behind UCLA, and just down the hill from her place was an outdoor sculpture studio adjacent to a lovely Spanish hacienda—red-tile roof, turquoise window frames, bougainvillea climbing the white walls. The large stone sculptures were the work of the woman who lived there, Anna Mahler, the oft-married daughter of the famous composer Gustav Mahler. My sister said that Anna enjoyed her neighbors visiting her sculptures, so I went down to have a look.

As I was engrossed in looking at the sculptures, Anna, a handsome woman of seventy-five, came out of her house, gave me a startled look, and said, “My father. You look exactly like my father when he was a young man.”

 

On a funnier note, some years later (circa 1985), I was walking down a dimly-lit hallway in a Sacramento restaurant en route to the men’s room, when a woman came toward me, stopped suddenly, and gasped, “Oh my God, you’re Huey Lewis. Oh my God. I am such a huge fan. Oh my God. It’s you.”

“I hate to disappoint you,” I said, feeling oddly flattered, “but I’m not Huey Lewis.”

“I totally understand,” she said, placing her hands together and bowing to me. “You must get hassled to death. Could I get your autograph?”

“I’m not Huey Lewis,” I said, shaking my head. “Bad lighting.”

“I won’t tell anybody,” she said, coming closer. “May I kiss your hand? The Power of Love is my favorite song in the whole world.”

“That’s great,” I said, allowing her to kiss the back of my hand. “But I’m really not Huey Lewis. Truly.”

“I understand,” she said, turning my hand over and kissing my palm. “But this is the chance of a lifetime for me.”

“I’m not Huey Lewis,” I said, pulling my hand away and darting into the men’s room.

When I came out of the john, the woman was waiting for me, and she had another woman with her. And this other woman emphatically shook her head and said, “That’s not Huey Lewis. That’s Elliot Gould.”

 Most recently, whilst pondering the peaches in Corners of the Mouth, Mendocino’s finest grocery store, a woman with long white hair sashayed up to me, smiled mischievously, and gave me a very friendly hug. “Jason,” she said, with mock indignation. “When did you get back from India? Why didn’t you call me?”

“I’m not Jason,” I said, looking into her eyes. “And I’ve never been to India, and I’m pretty sure you and I’ve never met.”

She took a step back, held her breath for a long moment, and said, “I’m sorry. I thought you were Jason. You look just like him. You even have his body.”

“Well,” I said, selecting my peach, “I apparently look like lots of people. Or lots of people look like me.”

“Now that,” she said, pointing at me and laughing, “is exactly what Jason would say.”

 

Todd Walton only looks in the mirror when he shaves and right before he brushes his teeth. His web site is underthetablebooks.com