On one of my trips down to my family's cradle of civilization, South Pasadena, I looked through my grandmother's yearbooks. She was in high school in the 1920s, so it was fascinating to see what teenagers looked like back then, even though photographic styles hadn't changed much since the Civil War, and everyone tended to pose stiffly. Occasionally you could see one person in a group shot looking away from the camera, his or her mind on something in the distance, which allowed glints of personality to peek through.
I flipped through page after page of students in uniforms. There were rows of girls with the same plain hair and white linen collars and boys in neckties with their hair plastered to their heads. Then I saw him, a guy who stood out from the rest. He looked like the stoner of his day. His hair was totally mussed, his tie was loose, and his mouth was slightly slack. He was sitting dutifully for the camera, as if it hadn't yet occurred to him that he didn't really have to be anywhere he didn't want to be. I felt at once sorry for him and fascinated, since he looked quite bright and interesting — like a bohemian far away from France, living decades before the beatniks, hippies, or punks. Then I ran my finger across the page and found his name: William Burroughs.
Could it be the William Burroughs?? Holy shit! I read all I could about William S. Burroughs' past. He was born the same year as my grandmother, but nothing pointed to him ever living in South Pasadena. It seemed the farthest west he'd ever resided was New Mexico, during a period of his life where he bounced around from place to place trying to find a home. But that had to be him in the yearbook. Perhaps he was there just for a semester? To this day it is still a mystery to me.
I recently told this story to some friends I was out with for the night. We'd been talking about the significance of the number 23, and Burroughs' fascination with it. Apparently, in his mind all roads lead to 23, all things added up to 23, yada yada. We'd gone out to dinner and then to the Stray Bar in Bernal Heights (where, to my knowledge, the number 23 only reared itself in the nearby Muni line).
The stranger connection was with one of our companions for the night. Like Burroughs, he was a nonconformist who never quite fit in, and he may or may not have some sort of a disability. I'll call the guy Lenny. I had been considering letting him move into my place, as he was going to be homeless in less than a week. I sat with his friend at Stray and discussed the possibilities of renting Lenny my extra room.
First, a bit about Stray. It's cozy, with a pleasant red glow and a cute lil' room in the back for ping-pong. The name refers, at least in part, to the dog theme the place has going on; dogs are very welcome in the bar, and are usually in abundance. Still, I was put off by the sign on the door that firmly stated the rules — which included the admonition that all dogs must be on a leash, no dogs could sit on the leather furniture, and that dogs could not play with one another. I suppose I see the wisdom in these regulations, but they came across as pretty tightass. Either you dig dogs being dogs, or you don't.
On this night, we were the only people in the place, save for a couple in the back playing ping-pong. This was fine with me, because it facilitated conversation. I was going to have to let Lenny's friend know that his buddy wasn't a good fit for a roommate. I was going to have to tell the friend because Lenny had disappeared. He apparently has issues with relating to people. His friend thinks he has autism.
After spending dinner with Lenny, I too believe that he is "living on the spectrum," as they say. While the rest of us scooped up our leftovers and put them into containers, Lenny put his container on its side, scooted it over to the edge of his plate, and then pushed the food into it.
I really liked Lenny, though. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of ragtime music, which I think is pretty rad. He also told a cool story. He used to work at a bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, which William Burroughs came into all the time. (Lenny relayed the tale with his head down and from behind his big black sunglasses, which he wears even at night.) Apparently Burroughs would always head to the fiction section and buy the classics. He was in Lenny's store two days before he died.
"And do you know what street that store was on?" Lenny said. "23rd Avenue."
Lenny had worked at that bookstore for years, but was having no luck finding a similar job out here. He had been living in his friend's laundry room on assistance for two and a half years, but that was coming to an end because his friend was moving away. The idea that Lenny would suddenly jump up and find a job after he moved in with me seemed dubious. I could picture hearing ragtime ditties plucking out from under his door at all hours of the day and night. I could see him emerging from the bathroom after a shower in those dark sunglasses. It wasn't going to work.
Two men came into Stray with a sprightly dog. The Jack Russell jumped up onto a stool like it was going to order a drink. Suddenly I pictured a room full of sprightly dogs, jumping all over the leather and aggressively playing. I realized Stray's rules are there for a reason. Sometimes you have to put your foot down.
Lenny's friend seemed to resign himself to the idea that I wasn't going to take on his roommate. My refusal apparently meant that Lenny might have to live on the streets. Ten years ago I would have felt really bad and taken him in anyway, and worked hard to help him find a job, and given him food. But I am older now, and less of a bleeding heart. I know that I cannot save everyone.
I tried to come up with something having to do with the number 23 to tie the whole evening up in a bow and make myself feel better. I needed a sign that I had made the right decision. Two plus three is five, and there were five of us out at Stray. Not much of a revelation. Finally I decided that ending up at a place called Stray was ironic enough: Not everyone can find a home.