On our walk the other day, Marcia and I were talking about teaching and I was put in mind of the one guitar lesson I had in my life.
I took up the guitar in 1970 at the age of twenty-one when I found myself itinerant and on foot and unable to bring a piano with me. I bought a nylon-string guitar with a very fat neck for seven dollars in a mercado in Guadalajara and carried this guitar around America and Canada for a couple years, teaching myself to play.
Returning to California in 1972 I got a room in Santa Cruz in a former motel retrofitted to be a boarding house and continued my self-directed guitar playing, though in my travels I’d met other guitarists and tried their guitars and was painfully aware that my guitar was not a good one and the monstrous neck, among other things, was an impediment to my playing well.
I dreamed of one day accruing enough cash to get a better guitar. In the meantime, I went to visit my folks in the Bay Area and accompanied them to a gathering at the house of their friends who had a troubled sixteen-year-old son known to be an excellent guitarist. When he made a brief appearance to get some food, I told him I was teaching myself to play the guitar and he invited me to come play guitars with him in the bedroom he shared with a half-dozen excellent guitars.
He handed me a beautiful slender-necked guitar and asked me to play something. I played a simple song I’d composed and he played along on another of his guitars and made the song sound marvelous. Then he played a gorgeous jazzy song he’d composed made of dozens of chords I’d never dreamed of making, and I raved about the song and his playing.
Pleased by my praise he said, “Here’s a chord that
will change your life.”
He played the chord and held his fingers in that
position for me to imitate.
When I had successfully played the chord, he said,
“You can use this same fingering anywhere on the neck and make wonderful chords.”
I tried the fingering up and down and all around the neck, and he was right; wonderful chords abounded.
When I returned to Santa Cruz, my guitar playing improved by leaps and bounds and I wrote dozens of new songs.
A few months later I bought a slender-necked steel string Ovation for fifty bucks, started a trio, and ere long we were the weekend band at Positively Front Street, a pub near the municipal wharf.
Which is all to say, a good teacher can change your life.
Marcia and I just finished making our second batch of lemon marmalade this year, the big beautiful Meyer lemons we used coming from our two prolific lemon trees.
This is the first time we’ve had enough lemons to make marmalade since I planted our two lemon trees ten years ago. Why did our trees take so long to grow enough lemons for us to make marmalade?
Because I was arrogant and profoundly stupid when it came to growing lemon trees here. And thereby hangs this tale.
When we moved here to Skunk Hollow, the current name for our two acres carved out of a redwood forest a mile inland from the town of Mendocino, the forest still extant all around us, I was told by every local gardener I talked to who had ever tried to garden in close proximity to redwood trees that I would be foolish to plant my lemon trees in the ground, that they would be choked to death by the water-hungry redwood roots; and I was given the same advice about growing vegetables in this ground.
For some reason I thought I could do what no one else had ever done, and so I planted two lemon trees in a patch of ground on the south-facing sunny side of our house, making sure to plant them in big deep holes from which I removed an enormous amount of redwood roots.
And lo and verily, the little trees did grow into healthy-looking green lemon trees, and I foolishly thought I had succeeded where no one else in the history of the world ever had.
After the trees had been in the ground for three years and were four-feet tall, I thought they should be making blossoms by now as had all the other lemon trees I’d planted in my life in Santa Cruz and Sacramento and Berkeley, but these lemon trees did not make blossoms.
So I fed the little trees blossom-encouraging food, and carefully dug out redwood roots all around them while being careful not to damage the lemon tree roots, though such roots were not plentiful or robust.
And lo and verily in Year Four each of the two trees, growing about ten feet apart, made blossoms, which is to say each tree made one blossom, and these blossoms soon wilted and died and fell away.
In Year Five, each tree made two blossoms, and one of these four blossoms was pollinated by a honeybee who somehow found the lonely little flower, and a tiny lemon formed, which is how all lemons begin their lives.
But this tiny lemon, which I named Tiny, did not grow much and remained tiny all her days, and when I harvested her several months later, she was barely yellow and smaller than a thimble and of juice she had none.
Year Six, no blossoms were made, despite copious food and water given to these trees. Year Seven, ditto.
And I finally admitted reality and dug up the two lemon trees and discovered they each had miniscule root masses, and by miniscule I mean barely any roots at all.
How had these trees survived for seven years? I don’t have a clue.
I had given up growing vegetables in the ground after five years of backbreaking labor three times a year clearing my vegetable patches of tonnages (no exaggeration) of redwood roots and resorted to big tubs, the results marvelous and provoking frequent grateful tears.
So I bought two 100-gallon tubs, filled them with soil and manure and compost and ashes and plant food, and therein planted the lemon trees And lo and verily after a year in the tubs they did blossom, and the bees and bumblebees and hummingbirds came to them, and it was good.
This is Year Three of those marvelous amazing lemon
trees living in their tubs free of redwood roots, and this year, despite a
troubling absence of honeybees, they produced over 200 big juicy delicious
sweet lemons from which we just made our second batch of fantastic organic
And guess who pollinated our lemon trees this year in the absence of honeybees? Hummingbirds!
If I had listened to the people who knew a thing or two about growing vegetables and lemon trees in close proximity to giant redwoods, we would have been making marmalade from our lemons years ago.
Moral: Listen to those who know the ways of the local nature gods.
Joan’s is the only stationery store in the town of Mercy on the far north coast of California, and if sales continue to decline as they have for the last few years, Joan’s won’t be open much longer.
“Why do you call this store Joan’s when you’re Turk?” asks Ramon Castañeda, eighteen, holding his phone out to record Turk’s reply.
“I don’t own Joan’s,” says Turk Arslan, sixty-nine, big and mostly bald, a former Mercy deputy sheriff. “I just work here four days a week. It’s called Joan’s because the woman who started it eighty-seven years ago was named Joan.”
“She dead now?” asks Ramon, a standout on the
Mercy High soccer team and devilishly handsome.
“Yes,” says Turk, chuckling. “She died forty years
ago. You can find her headstone in the town cemetery. Joan Mirzoyan. Pink
“Seriously?” says Ramon, half-frowning and half-smiling. “Sick.”
“Rudy Contreras owns Joan’s now,” says Turk, unsure if by sick Ramon means great or
horrible. “Rudy bought it from Maggy
Spencer who bought it from Jane Minasyan who is also buried in the town
cemetery just a few headstones away from Joan Mirzoyan.”
“Awesome,” says Ramon, who has to write a report about
Joan’s for his Social Studies class.
“I’ll check it out.”
“You may be interested to know,” says Turk, who started working at Joan’s a few months after he retired from law enforcement two years ago, “that Joan Mirzoyan opened the original Joan’s in her house on Manzanita Lane and ran the business out of her living room for ten years before moving to a storefront on Main Street where Joan’s was until twenty years ago when Maggy Spencer bought the business from Jane Minasyan and moved it here to Mill Street.”
“You just wrote my whole report,” says Ramon, turning off the audio recorder on his phone.
“Don’t you want to know why I work here?” asks Turk, giving Ramon an inquisitive look.
“Sure,” says Ramon, reactivating the audio recorder. “Why do you work here?”
“I’ve been shopping here ever since my sister and I moved to Mercy twelve years ago,” says Turk, looking around the spacious store. “I write lots of letters and this was the only place in town with a large selection of note cards and postcards and good pens and excellent paper and envelopes, so I came here all the time. Then when I retired from the sheriff’s department and the job here came open, I thought I’d give it a try, and I love it.”
“Epic,” says Ramon, squinting at Turk. “Hey do you remember when you busted me for speeding on Main Street?”
“I do,” says Turk, vividly recalling the terrifying moment when fifteen-year-old Ramon drove three blocks through the heart of town going seventy.
“I was an idiot,” says Ramon, grimly. “Coulda killed somebody.”
“You almost did,” says Turk, trembling as he remembers. “Helen Morningstar was just stepping into the crosswalk when you went by. You missed her by inches. And if you had hit her… well… thank God you didn’t.”
“If I had killed her,” says Ramon, bowing his head, “I wouldn’t want to be alive.”
“Life is full of close calls,” says Turk, putting a hand on Ramon’s shoulder. “I was a cop in Fresno for thirty years before we moved here, and every day was one close call after another.”
On a sunny Thursday morning in April, Rudy Contreras, the owner of Joan’s, enters the store and wishes for the umpteenth time he’d never bought the business or the old two-story building the store occupies. A short rotund man who wears expensive three-piece suits and goes to his barber once a week to maintain his impressive silver pompadour, Rudy owns several other buildings and businesses in Mercy, all of them vastly more profitable than Joan’s.
When Turk is done selling a customer a birthday
card, Rudy approaches the counter and says to Turk, “How’s business?”
“So-so today,” says Turk, who likes Rudy despite disagreeing with him about much of their inventory. “I’ve had two more people ask about custom framing today, and two more people wanting higher quality oil paints than what we carry. So I’m wondering if you’ve given any more thought to…”
“I’m closing the business and selling the building,” says Rudy, interrupting. “Sorry to break it to you so abruptly, Turk, but I just came from my accountant and he says this is unsustainable.”
“Sorry to hear that,” says Turk, stunned by Rudy’s news. “How much are you asking?”
“Nine hundred thousand,” says Rudy, guessing that’s nine hundred thousand more than Turk has. “I’m selling cheap because the place is a fire trap and whoever buys it will have to do a compete rebuild before they can open anything new here. I’m essentially selling the lot.”
“When will you put it on the market?” asks Turk, about to cry.
“Two weeks,” says Rudy, looking around the store. “If you win the lottery before then, I’ll sell it to you for eight hundred thousand.”
“Shall we have a Going Out of Business sale?” asks Turk, unable to quell his tears.
“After the building sells,” says Rudy, turning to go. “We’ll keep things going until then.”
That afternoon Turk is standing behind the counter staring into space and wondering what he’ll do with his life after Joan’s closes, when the poet Helen Morningstar, Turk’s great pal, enters the store and it’s all Turk can do not to shout Helen! Rudy’s closing the store and selling the building.
A beautiful woman in her mid-fifties, Pomo on her
mother’s side, Latino on her father’s, Helen and Turk are both crazy about fine
stationery and both worship Ricardo Alvarez who plays piano every Thursday
evening at Big Goose, the pub Helen
owns with her husband Justin Oglethorpe.
“Got your call, Turk,” says Helen, breathlessly. “Came
as soon as I could.”
“Here they are,” says Turk, bringing forth a box
containing four large notebooks of exquisite writing paper from France. “Price
went up quite a bit since the last time I ordered these for you. Sorry about
“No problem,” says Helen, opening one of the
notebooks to caress a page. “Nothing in the world takes ink like this paper.”
Now she brings the notebook close to her face and
inhales the scent of the blessed parchment.
Alone again, Turk resumes grieving the death of Joan’s, and he’s just about to close up shop an hour early when two of his favorite customers come in, the siblings Tenaya and Tuolumne Larkin.
Tenaya is twenty-three and gorgeous, her long red hair in a ponytail, and Tuolumne is twenty-one, a dashing hunk, his long brown hair in a ponytail, too. They were raised on a homestead ten miles from Mercy and home-schooled by their parents Donovan and Cass, who themselves are the grandchildren of beatniks and hippies who settled near Mercy in the 1950s and 60s when land around here was practically free and half the houses in town were vacant – a far cry from the real estate madness of today.
Neither Tenaya nor Tuolumne ever watched a movie or used a computer until five years ago when they convinced their parents to let them go to Mercy High for a year, after which Tenaya spent three years in New York City studying art at The Cooper Union before returning to Mercy where she works as a waitress at Big Goose and creates exquisite handmade signs for local businesses. Tuolumne went to UCLA intending to become a filmmaker, found academia and city life stultifying, and after nine months in Los Angeles returned to Mercy and restarted his apprenticeship to Bertram Hawley, a master wood sculptor.
While Tenaya pays for several large sheets of poster
board and Tuolumne waits to buy a sketchpad and two fine-tipped black ink pens,
Turk smiles sadly at them and says, “You two wouldn’t want to go in with me and
buy Joan’s and this old building,
would you? We can get it for eight hundred thousand if we come up with the
money in the next two weeks. Otherwise… no more Joan’s.”
Tenaya and Tuolumne exchange wide-eyed looks and
Tenaya says, “We were just talking
about that. Right before we walked in.”
“I told her about how you want to offer custom framing,” says Tuolumne, grinning at Turk, “and that got us fantasizing about what else we’d do if we owned Joan’s. This is amazing.”
is the key word here,” says Turk, wistfully. “I could come up with fifty thousand,
“Oh we’ve got the money,” says Tuolumne, nodding
assuredly. “From our grandmother. The question is can we make this business
profitable? We don’t want to throw our inheritance down the drain, so to
“You wouldn’t be,” says Turk, shaking his head. “The
building is worth at least a million, and if we bring it up to code it’ll be
worth twice that. You know there are two big apartments upstairs we could rent out
once they’re made habitable, and there’s a huge storage area up there that
could be converted into something. Or two somethings.”
Tenaya and Tuolumne exchange even wider-eyed looks
and Tenaya says, “We’ll talk to our parents. My gut feeling, however, is we can
Tuolumne and Tenaya’s father Donovan is fifty-two, a renowned maker of dulcimers. Tall and lanky with long brown hair he habitually wears in three braids of various lengths, Donovan is also renowned for telling stories composed entirely of non-sequiturs. Their mother Cass, forty-five, is a shapely redhead who usually wears her long hair in a single braid. A singer songwriter, her instrument the zither, Cass handles the business of selling Donovan’s dulcimers and also sells honey, beeswax candles, rabbit-pelt berets, and slender leather belts.
Their ten-acre homestead surrounded by a vast
redwood forest boasts a spectacular half-acre garden, two big greenhouses, three
houses, two barns, three workshops, and a quarter-acre pond teeming with tasty
trout. They grow almost all the food they and Tuolumne and Tenaya and Cass’s
parents need, and they also have a big flock of chickens for eggs, seventeen
beehives, and every year raise a pig to butcher and freeze.
When Donovan was seven, his mother Alice divorced
Donovan’s father Kyle and moved to Los Angeles where she married a man who
owned a chain of car washes. When Alice died three years ago, she left a million
dollars to Donovan and a half-million each to Tuolumne and Tenaya, and this is
the money they would use to buy Joan’s
and the Joan’s building if that is
what they decide to do.
So a few days after Turk broached the possibility of buying the Joan’s building with Tuolumne and Tenaya, Cass and Donovan come to town and meet with their kids and Turk in Joan’s to consider the idea.
“I love this store,” says Donovan, who has a profoundly deep voice that carries far even when he speaks quietly. “Where is everybody?”
“Business has not been great lately,” says Turk,
apologetically. “Most people nowadays buy what we have to offer online.”
“Tragic,” says Cass, gazing tragically at Turk.
“The end of community. The end of the actual. The final fraying of the
collective fabric. No wonder things are the way they are now.”
“Yet people long for the actual,” says Donovan, gesturing
expansively. “They long for three-dimensional connection. We sell my dulcimers
on the Interweb, it’s true, but why not sell them here? Why limit our concept
of store to stationery and art
supplies? Why not make this a general
store in the sense of an eclectic depository for myriad objet d’ soul?”
“A sofa here,” says Cass, moving to a sunny corner
at the front of the store adjacent to a rack of notecards. “A place to sit and
read poetry with one of the store kitties on your lap.” She beams at Turk. “We’ll
sell books of poetry. Songbooks. Scarves and slender leather belts and
rabbit-pelt berets. And stationery, of course. The foundation of connection.”
money in poetry and rabbit-pelt berets,” says Tuolumne, winking at Turk. “So
you like it, huh Mom?”
“Love,” says Cass, smiling out on the sunny day.
“I’m madly in love. We’ll give concerts here and poetry readings and…”
“Oh buy the place,” says Donovan, taking a large sketchpad off a shelf. “And I’ll buy this sketchpad and a box of envelopes. What’s not to love?”
So Tenaya and Tuolumne buy Joan’s and the Joan’s building, Turk keeps his four-day-a-week job, and a new and exciting adventure ensues.
When Turk joined forces with Tenaya and Tuolumne, he had no idea they were both excellent and indefatigable carpenters. Nor did he expect their parents and grandparents would come to town every day to work on the Joan’s building, which they do, arriving in the wee hours of morning and working until the late afternoon six days a week.
Cass’s father Max, seventy-three, a master carpenter, explains to Turk one Thursday morning, “Yes, technically, Tenaya and Tulo own this place, but in truth we, their extended family, own it, too. They’re fourth generation hippy communists, you see, and this is how we do things.”
“And now we’ll have a pad in town,” says Louise, seventy-two, a massage therapist and beekeeper. “Is this groovy or what?”
“This is groovy,” says Turk, who previously eschewed the word groovy and now finds groovy an entirely appropriate and accurate descriptor for what’s going on here.
A moment after Louise and Max go upstairs to work on the apartments, Diana, Turk’s best friend and soul mate, dances into the store. A comely gal in her fifties, her graying auburn hair in a ponytail, Diana is a waitress at Big Goose and Turk’s main reason for getting up in the morning.
“Hey T,” says Diana, giving Turk a splendiferous hug. “Place is a veritable beehive of activity.”
“Three generations of hippy communists hard at work,” says Turk, never in a hurry to end a hug with Diana. “Rudy came by yesterday and said he must have been crazy to sell this place for so little.”
“Brokered by angels,” says Diana, kissing Turk’s
cheek. “We on for tonight?”
“Wild horses etcetera.” says Turk, blushing. “Meet
you at the Goose at six.”
“I’ll be there,” says Diana, dancing out the door.
Twenty minutes later, Tuolumne enters the store with his mother Cass, both of them wearing tool belts, work gloves, and mauve Donovan’s Dulcimers baseball hats. Tuolumne is carrying a pry bar, Cass a vacuum cleaner.
“Turk,” says Tuolumne, after Turk finishes selling
Jack Ziskin a box of purple ink pens and three Fred Astaire notecards. “We’ve reached
a major turning point in the renovation.”
“Do tell,” says Turk, giving Tuolumne his full
“We have come to the moment when we must close the
store for a few weeks,” says Tuolumne, looking at his mother for a
corroborative nod. “We need to bring lumber and sheet rock and all manner of
material through the front door, and we have to completely rebuild the inside
staircase. And while we’re at it we might as well renovate the ground floor, too,
replace the windows with the latest and greatest, install a much grander
entrance, rewire, sand the floors, repaint the walls, build new display cases,
and so forth.”
“And then the grand re-opening,” says Cass, her
eyes sparkling. “The rebirth of stationery.”
So Joan’s closes not for three weeks, but eleven weeks, and on a Friday afternoon in September, a party is held in the spectacular new store, a party to which the entire town is invited and to which most of the town comes.
At the height of the festivities, Tenaya rings a
big brass bell to quiet the crowd for Donovan to proclaim basso profundo, “Everybody please traipse outside for the unveiling
of our fabulous new sign.”
The hundreds of revelers obediently go outside and
watch Tuolumne pull on the rope attached to a big white tarp covering the large
new sign over the gigantic new glass front door – the crowd gasping and
cheering when they see the new sign does not say Joan’s but Turk’s, and
Turk gasps loudest of all.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon in late November, Turk’s is jammed with Christmas Hanukkah Solstice shoppers buying cards and calendars and scarves and notebooks and beeswax candles and pens and colored pencils and volumes of poetry and rabbit-pelt berets and slender leather belts. Tuolumne and his grandfather Max are manning the busy custom-framing counter while Tenaya and Cass are expertly operating the two new cash registers on either end of the magnificent wide-topped counter.
Turk and Diana are restocking the shelves with fast-selling
art supplies, and Diana stops what she’s doing to look at Turk for a moment.
“What?” he says, looking up from a box of tubes of
the finest oil paint and blushing as he always does when she gives him a look of
“Nothing,” she says, meaning everything. “Just looking at you.”