I just received a letter yesterday. There’s nothing like getting a letter. It carries more weight, more meaning, the envelope crackles, the stamps are colorful. I suppose I get a thrill from an inbox message but it’s not the same, is it? Unless it’s from your agent and the subject line reads something like “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”.
This particular friend hand-writes his letters which makes them extra special. He has great writing, regular and loopy and straight and from the heart. It could be copperplate for some cool computer font, but he’s had lots of practice and patience because he’s hand-lettered his own zine for many many years.
My handwriting has deteriorated to the point where it is beyond illegible. I think using a computer keyboard has wasted those particular muscles of mine or something. Or maybe I just can’t make myself care enough to form beautiful calligraphy or maybe my mind moves too fast? Yeah, that last one.
I type a letter back to him, but he writes his to me, usually on the back of some interesting flyer or piece of art. I’ve kept all of them. There’s a bundle, still in their envelopes, tied with brown string. The addresses change but the way he writes my name doesn’t.
What a wealth they contain. What memories they bring back. I am reminded of how I felt at particular times. I laugh at how situations I sweated over became ultimately unimportant and fleeting. I can tell what I wrote to him by what he writes back to me. Sometimes I kept a copy of my reply to him, like this one about my 9 month old son: Milo has 6 teeth. He is eating various mushy stuff. Sometimes he pets me like a dog.
We’ve been friends since we were teenagers; part of the same, tight, slightly incestuous punk scene in Oakland and Berkeley. We both had bad skin when we met. We were so achingly young.
Back then we’d sit against the wall outside some show, talking about life and art and nihilism and death in that immature, slightly pretentious way that only teenagers with a lot of self-importance, delusion, and angst can pull off. Let’s just say that we were oh-so-serious-about-it-all-and-shit, but still a friendship was forged. It’s lasted about 100 years so far. It’ll go on forever.
I don’t remember which of us started it off- this lifelong pen pal thing. It might have been me because I was in one place for a while, and he was walking back and forth across the United States in his size 13 sneakers with a backpack, jumping trains, traveling with no agenda, no preconceptions, no expectations, finding friends and the best, cheapest cup of coffee everywhere. And then he’d blow in to town (if the wind was moving in that direction) and show up somewhere where I happened to be like serendipity, and we’d go for a walk and a talk and I never knew where we were going to go or where we would end up. It might be the Berkeley canyons in the fog being shadowed by coyotes. It might be walking to El Cerrito over fields and chainlink fences. It might be down at the railyards or the lake or the Albany landfill. It was often at the place with the best, cheapest coffee and free refills taken with cream and many sugars. It was not the destination.And he showed me secret ways and paths that not even the deer knew about.
For years we wrote back and forth. Me, rooted in Berkeley, and him in Florida or Seattle, North Carolina, New York City, or some hut in a field in El Sobrante. And then one day I was the one who left. First to New York where he was for part of the year but all I knew was a PO box number and a cloudy instinct for which music show or art opening he might well go to, and you know what? We were driving in Brooklyn one day and my husband was looking far ahead of the steering wheel, distracted by the bustle and we almost ran him over at a crosswalk. He had the right of way. And he pounded on the hood of the car not seeing us past the windshield, and I leaped out yelling “Aaron!”. It had been about six years since I’d seen him, and I was married and I had a new baby and he looked exactly the same. Just writing that made me teary.
And then I moved even further- up to Nova Scotia which is off the beaten track but hard to walk to. In his letter he said he might see me more here because he has friends, and music partners here, and I am not surprised by his connection to this place because that’s how it is with us. Over-lapping, inter-acting, spinning in circles which sometimes intersect.
He told me once that when I left Berkeley it was never the same again.
But that Berkeley/Oakland, with him in it, and us at age 17 and 19 and 23 and 32 and 37, it still exists in some way, all golden and misty on the looping paths like Brigadoon or Never Land, and we can never find our way back there again, but we can still close our eyes and see it and smell the eucalyptus in the hot,dusty sun, and feel the warm tarmac against our backs, and taste flat beer as we pass the tall can back and forth. That won’t change.
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