Toward a Theory of Nonfiction
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS
Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One RYAN VAN METER
"I like reading work that tips me into a world already in motion, and enjoy creating that effect in my own work.... [T]his kind of storytelling technique also underscores the 'truth' of literary nonfiction by creating the sense that there's been a life going on before the opening moment of the essay."
I Was There
MY BOYFRIEND STEPPED ON the parking brake of the U-Haul, switched off the engine, and the weight of our stuff pushed from behind as we sat on the severe slope of Lyon Street, pointing down. All of us—boyfriend, dog, me—felt the relief of journey's end, but just as quickly, as I unlatched my seatbelt, the gravity of our new place tugged hard. I realized I didn't want to move from my cushion. Too much movement, it seemed, and the parking brake would uncatch under the strain of that terrible street angle and the mass of all we'd carried across two time zones, sending all of it and us into the buzzing intersection below, a line of cars and the stout trees of Golden Gate Park.
But once my feet hit the pavement, and I stood and marveled at the pitch of the view with the fog arriving as easily as a clich, our steep hill felt reassuring. Yes, we were in San Francisco, where turquoise houses perched on improbably sloping hills and where fog rolled across vast parks like the hippies used to, and I'd find out soon, sometimes still did. I'd never stood there before but it was somehow familiar.
Because of the slope, unloading the truck meant trudging up its ramp to the bed deck and then walking down and pulling our stuff up out of it—something like rescuing a fallen sofa from a cave. I hated standing inside the truck at that angle, always thinking of that parking brake—had it been tested at this slope, with this amount of stuff? Shouldn't we have told the woman at the U-Haul counter we planned to park the truck on a steep hill right after driving over a mountain range? As much planning as we'd done, there was still so much I hadn't thought of, and there was the sudden sense that I needed to move very carefully inside the facts. After my boyfriend wrangled a chair from the heap, the whole truck shimmying in the struggle, he paused to scratch his beard and discuss our unloading strategy again. I wanted to shake him for making us stand in there and talk, and would have, if such movement wouldn't also have killed us.
Later, as I heaved crates of records and kitchen junk into our new place on that first San Franciscan afternoon, over the crest at the top of the block came a tour bus. Double-decker and softly blue, it was vaguely designed like the streetcars from Rice-a-Roni commercials, but with an open top and all-road tires. The bus floated down and parked behind our gaping truck. The voice of the guide mumbled out of the speakers and into the faces of the tourists sitting under the sun. Everyone looked to their right, to a house on the other side of the street. Even so, I felt part of their scrutiny—the moment of us heaving my giant desk across the street forever connected in their memory with whatever important thing had happened there. On our block of our street. The bus hissed, rolled, and floated on, turning at Oak Street and disappearing around the corner.
We emptied and returned the truck, unpacked boxes, filled dresser drawers with folded squares of t-shirts and tight balls of socks. Arranged furniture, plugged dozens of cords into power strips and shoved the jumbles behind cabinets. And each day as we worked, setting everything in order, standing in the middles of rooms with hands on hips wondering where some bookshelf might be placed or look better, the tour bus tinkled down the street and stopped halfway down. Then a couple of other times a day, groups on foot marched down the hill, clumps of out-of-towners with cameras wound around necks. They stopped in front of our house and nodded when their guide pointed across the street—to a house that was not the house where the tour bus aimed its attention.
Then I started noticing people tramping down the hill, without tour group or bus, just people with companions and camera. Younger or older, usually in pairs, often gripping a guidebook. All day they came from Haight Street to climb the stairs of one of those two porches. Some sat on a top step's lip, others stood proud and leaned over a railing. Many stood next to a door, next to house numbers tacked on in gold. Sometimes they held up a two-fingered peace sign. The friend on the sidewalk fussed with the camera, an eye in the viewfinder, framing a smiling face. Half of them stopped at 112 Lyon Street, a dusky lavender house with a bright belt of white panels cinching its middle and a pristine round balcony off the second floor. That was the tour bus house. Further down the hill, closer to the park and directly across the street from my apartment was 122 Lyon, where the tour groups on foot and the other half of the trampers stopped to climb the cement stairs of a stone-colored house with a wrought-iron railing, white trim, and a big black door.
"God, what happened on Lyon?" I asked my boyfriend as we ate takeout from containers balanced in our laps. "Who was murdered here?"
Later our landlord stopped in, a former tenant of our apartment herself, and she told us about our house and neighborhood, about how Jimi Hendrix stayed somewhere nearby back in those days, and how on our block, right up there (and she pointed to 112, where the tour bus had idled), Janis Joplin had once lived.
Though it had been at least fifteen years and possibly more since I had put on a Janis song, there was a time when her Greatest Hits CD was among my most cherished music. In high school, I liked her music's old-fashionedness, and liked too that listening to her old songs made me look a little weird, nostalgic. Among the kids at my school, it wasn't popular and neither was I. Her music beckoned from the past and had meant rebellion, wildness, and ease to me—which was the opposite of what I felt on my own, in the present tense of high school. My parents' record collection had many other high school favorites—the Carpenters, the Mamas and the Papas, the Doors, the Supremes—but Janis was mine, discovered somehow on my own and purchased on compact disc with birthday money so I could listen to her in my bedroom, behind my shut door, as opposed to vinyl, which had to be played on the turntable in the basement.
"Me and Bobby McGee," track number five, was my favorite, a celebration song in which the volume knob was turned to the hilt of what was allowed in our house, six on a dial of ten. On tiptoes, in front of the mirror screwed to the back of my door, I sang, danced, swung my head like a censer, my tone-deaf notes drowning Janis's while I secretly wished for a restless man of my own named Bobby to take me off somewhere, anywhere, away. As I saw him, Bobby had a dark beard and a darker voice, a white t-shirt and almost-gone blue jeans. That I had imagined Luke Duke from earlier childhood Friday nights spent watching The Dukes of Hazzard wouldn't occur to me until later.
Another, bigger revelation about Bobby came from my high school best friend Angie, who like me had been cheated in life by being born a couple of decades late. On my bedroom floor, she pointed to the songwriter's name on the liner notes. Kris Kristofferson, a name I recognized from country music, the music I considered at the time to be the most awful of all music, possibly because while growing up in Missouri the last thing I needed more of was "country."
"Bobby," Angie said, hand over her heart, eyes pointed out the window, "is really a woman." This truth was crushing, but because displaying any of my heartache about that bait-and-switch would be yet another revelation, one about me that wouldn't break open for another ten years, I shrugged and said, "That's so weird."
As terrible as the news about Bobby was, there was something heartening to it, because more than just connecting with her music in the deeply serious way that no one else in history had ever done, I was also kindred to Janis: we both needed secret saving by a handsome hero, Bobby McGee, as in Robert and not Roberta or anything else dreamed up by Mr. Kristofferson. Much later, it would make perfect sense that my closeted high school self would fall in love with an imagined male version of an actually female character—I was always having to translate my fantasies: squinting my girlfriends into boyfriends or veiling tortured crushes on a rare straight friend as brotherly affinity or swapping the cheerleader on the running back's arm with me. I was trying to seem plausible as myself, for my pretend desires to be believable, for my true ones to be invisible. No wonder I desired rescue.
"Piece of My Heart," the first track on the disc, was my mournful song, played during grief or frustration. The morning, for example, that Angie and her family left for a ten-day summer vacation, or the afternoon the cast list was posted for the school production of Winnie-the-Pooh, and I was not to star as Christopher Robin (or anyone else) even though I looked and talked exactly like him. This song was set between four and five on the dial while a burning stick of incense unwound a rope of smoke toward the ceiling. I then lay across my neutral carpet, miniblinds squeezed shut, overhead light off. With the song on repeat, Janis rose up and faded down every three minutes as piece after piece of our hearts was taken, slowly in the dark, and I felt myself disappear, until my mother stood at the end of the hall and called, "Supper!" In one song I was taken away to another life somewhere else and in the other, I was just taken away.
So I should probably have been more embarrassed by how thrilled I was that Janis had at one time lived on my block. But this fact became part of my standard "How is San Francisco?" answer, part of the way I made sense of my new city, familiar as it felt when I arrived, until a local friend trumped me by revealing that the Symbionese Liberation Army once holed up in his apartment. "So Patty Hearst was held hostage in my closet," he shrugged. "Someone famous once lived everywhere in San Francisco."
And even if it felt adolescent to fawn over Janis again, I still stomped up the hill to take a picture of the lavender house, 112. That the tour bus continued to swing by, day in, day out, seemed proof that she'd lived in that one, so I sent it to Angie. But as more and more young people continued to smile for photos at 122 Lyon, I was bothered that I didn't know where she really lived.
"Half of those people are wrong," I said. I started imagining myself in San Francisco during my Janis days—drunk on nostalgia and sentiment instead of anything else, goody-two-shoes that I was, in my oversized Beatles t-shirt, a five-dollar pair of Lennon lenses, and the Birkenstock sandals given to me for my birthday in June that I had requested right after Christmas. What if I had a photo taken of me standing on Janis's porch, surely flashing that peace sign to the camera, and had found out later, possibly decades later when I returned to that block of Lyon Street to live, that she hadn't ever lived there? That of all the apartments in all the houses in San Francisco, and in California, and even in the United States, I had come so very close to hers, closer than most people, but was in fact four houses off?
My boyfriend sat in our still-curtainless window and typed into his laptop. "Both addresses come up," he said. "She lived at 112 or she lived at 122."
But only one could be true. I stood beside his chair and hunched to look under the tree shading our side of Lyon. If curtains weren't hanging over there, at 122, I could have looked right in, and if it had been forty-three years earlier, the Summer of Love, and Janis was home and sitting in her window, and she had just moved in so she didn't have curtains either, we might have been looking at each other. Suddenly, even if the lavender house was lovelier, I wanted Janis's house to have really been 122. Instead of saying she lived on our block, I could boast she lived across the street.
But 112 Lyon Street was her address according to the blue tour bus. She also lived there according to onlyinsanfrancisco.com, the official visitors' site for San Francisco, which is maintained by the San Francisco California Visitors Bureau. And she lived there according to virtualtourist.com, goldengatebi.com ("bi" in this case being an abbreviation for "best inn"), shoestring-traveler.com, as well as San Francisco by Tom Downs, published by Lonely Planet in 2006, and Walking San Francisco, also by Tom Downs, out the following year from Wilderness Press, where he states that Janis's place "was on the second floor with the curved balcony off the front." Before we moved to the city, my boyfriend bought me a copy of San Francisco Secrets: Fascinating Facts about the City by the Bay. During our first trip to the city together, about a month before arriving in the truck, I cleared my throat and pointed to various sites to share essential scraps of trivia. "Did you know that the Golden Gate Bridge wasn't supposed to be that color?" I asked, out of breath, as we crossed it. "That's really the primer. It's called International Orange." This book of secrets was actually shaped like the bridge and also put Janis in number 112 in the year 1967, saying it was a one-room apartment shared with boyfriend Country Joe McDonald (instead of our Bobby McGee). Frommer's, a giant of travel book publishing, in its Irreverent Guide to San Francisco by Matthew Richard Poole, lists 112 as Janis's address, but in its San Francisco Day by Day: 24 Smart Ways to See the City, by Noelle Salmi, Janis lives down the hill, in the house right across from mine, at 122. I wondered then which I considered to be more accurate—a "smart" book or an "irreverent" one?
In either case, Janis also lived at 122 in Roadtripping USA: The Complete Coast-to-Coast Guide to America, Let's Go San Francisco, and Little Black Book of San Francisco, as well as on strollsanfrancisco.com, sanfrancisco cityhotel.com, haightshop.com, singlemindedwomen.com, in an article titled "The Hills—and Heels—of San Francisco," and on roundamerica .com, a Web site devoted to the 148-day trip by car that Bill and Barbara Windsor of Marietta, Georgia, took to more than 2500 towns in all fifty states. Though one of them was sick for most of their California stay, they both were still able to visit the "center of hippydom in the 60s," which included Janis's former apartment at 122 Lyon Street.
Scribbling down the various sources, I was suddenly the tourist out there tramping around, my finger pressing a spot on a map, trying to find my way to a landmark. In a notebook, I tallied the number of listings under a column for 112 and another for 122. In the absence of something definitive, I decided the truth, or mine anyway, would be determined by which address gathered more hash marks. But if one travel company as famous as Frommer's couldn't even get its own books published within a couple of years of each other to agree, what kind of truth would ever be definitive? So I kept looking.
Back in those incense and carpet-sulk days, I would have been among the writers posting to the fan forum of the official Janis Web site at janis joplin.com, if our family's Apple II GS could have connected to anything but an electrical socket. Like many of the writers of those posts, I used actually to mourn having missed the 60s, romanticized and clichd as my idea of them was. The fan forum divides its thousands of discussion topics into three categories: "Official Site Talk" (for questions asked frequently, as well as issues with usernames and links that lead nowhere), "I Was There," and "I Wasn't There." The former for firsthand memories of Janis performances, of backstage glimpses, hugs, shaken hands; the latter for fans who came around after Janis's passing, like me, for celebrating her music and celebrity posthumously. While the forum is open to any reader, more than six thousand members are registered.
Excerpted from Metawritings Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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