Note: This essay first appeared in the literary magazine Black Lamb.
When I lived and worked as a country innkeeper at Wilbur Hot Springs, California, from September 1980 to September 1982, I ate well. Mostly vegetarian, with a lot of brown rice, yogurt, tofu and other soy products in all different shapes and consistencies, fruit in season, veggies from the garden, cheese made from our own goats’ milk, lots of granola, and very little alcohol.
At Wilbur Hot Springs I also became a musician, stretching my repertoire from Burl Ives folksongs to the sophistication of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers & Co., as I entertained a lounge full of guests on weekend nights with my guitar and serviceable baritone voice.
And another thing: at Wilbur I learned how to manage a staff and run a business, and I took pride in the success of that business, knowing it was partly my success.
But this essay is not about my two years at Wilbur Hot Springs, during which I ate well, became an entertainer on the rise, and managed a successful business. No, this article is about the following year, September 1982 to September 1983, which I spent in and around Palo Alto, California, during which I managed a small business into the ground, tried and failed to perform American standards to deaf audiences, and ate garbage.
Actually, my Year of Eating Dangerously didn’t start out all that bad. Almost as soon as I arrived in Palo Alto (which had been my stomping grounds before Wilbur), I landed a gig at Savoir Fare, a brand new restaurant, playing dinner music for $50 a night, five nights a week, plus tips and a free dinner. Good dinners, too: steaks, salads, dishes with French names.
I also landed a day job, five days a week, managing a small bookstore called Kepler’s of Los Altos for $500 a month. I had worked there before, when the store was owned by Kepler’s Books and Magazines of Menlo Park, the most successful bookstore on the San Francisco Peninsula. By September 1982, the smaller store had been sold off and was going through rough times, threatened by a predatory Crown Books around the corner on El Camino Real and a predatory Tower Books and Records in the shopping center across El Camino. But Kepler’s of Los Altos still had its name, still served some loyal customers, and still functioned in the same shopping center as before, which also featured a fine deli and a health food store. So I started off the year with a good lunch every day, as well as a good dinner. I had to pay for my lunches, but a sandwich was only $1.50 back then.
Off to such a good start, I decided I needed to buy some clothes, so I went to Value Village, a classy thrift store in Redwood City, where I bought twenty dollars worth of tweeds and dark slacks (for country club gigs, say), jackass pants and loud shirts (for luau parties, say), and casual business wear for my day job.
I also found a home, sharing a condo with a woman named Irene. Irene and I were friends only. Nothing intimate: separate bedrooms, separate bathrooms, separate shelves in the refrigerator. We shared the kitchen but did not share food. I ate my breakfasts there: granola with yogurt and fruit. Good, healthy food, at least at first.
Irene, meanwhile, ate her starchy breakfasts and heat-lamp lunches in the cafeteria of the senior retirement center where she was an administrator. For dinner she browsed the happy hour scene. She knew which bars had the potstickers, which the Swedish meat balls, which the nachos, and which the deep-fat-fried zucchini. If she wanted to splurge and get away from the bar crowd and the fried food, Irene took advantage of the salad bar at The Sizzler. A little roughage never hurts, and you could find a bit of protein there if you really looked for it.
I was scornful of Irene’s diet, at first.
Maybe it was Irene who greased the slippery slope to junk food addiction, her and her happy hour hors d’oeuvres. Of course I would never have cruised the cocktail circuit if the gig at the Savoir Fare had lasted. But, like many a brand new restaurant, the Savoir Fare went broke in a hurry. I hoped my music didn’t contribute to its demise, but it was clear I was expendable. They cut me back to two nights a week, for tips only, and then they shut their doors.
Poor Savoir Fare, and poor me; $50 a night poorer, and no more free dinners. I had two choices, and I alternated between them: cook like a bachelor, which meant frozen pot pies and TV dinners, plus a salad consisting of iceberg lettuce doused in Wishbone Italian dressing; or barhop, which meant a drink or two to wash down whatever I had picked out of the hot serving dishes. I got adept at loading a tiny plate high with munchies, carrying my meal around the room, cocktail napkins under my arm and a drink in my other hand. I felt right at home, mingling and cracking jokes with others whose dreams had not yet come true.
My music career wasn’t technically over yet, even if it had suffered a major setback. I still played gigs around town—or towns, plural, the Mid-Peninsula cities blending along El Camino Real from strip mall to strip mall. At a few of these gigs I was paid real money, although I never again earned $50 for a night’s work. Mostly I got free drinks at bars, or more often free coffee and pastry at coffee shops. That didn’t make for much of a dinner, but that’s what I ate on nights when I was lucky enough to play for tips. By the way, back in the early 1980s there was no rule of etiquette saying tips had to be paper money. I often ended up counting out quarters, dimes, and nickels, then spent them in a bar on the way home from the gig.
My steadiest gig, during this year of eating dangerously, was as the weekend evening entertainer for Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Palo Alto, where I competed with an espre-ssssss-o machine and a Ms. Pacman’s doodleoodleooodle as I labored to sell American standards to the deaf generation. Tips from teenagers amounted to zilch-plus. But I got all the free ice cream I wanted, plus coffee, plus cookies. I spent the spare change on a drink on the way home. I parked and schlepped all my music equipment from the car to Irene’s condo, then spent a couple of hours practicing my guitar before bed, to wear off the alcohol, caffeine, and sugar enough to fall asleep.
I still believed I had a future as a semiprofessional musician, if only because I knew the lyrics, melodies, and Sears-Roebuck chord changes to hundreds of songs from the golden age of American popular music, which had to count for something.
Meanwhile, though, my day job at the bookstore was in serious peril. In addition to the Crown Books and the Tower Books and Records, we were at war with the landlord. This landlord (by which I don’t mean a greedy person who wanted to join a country club, but a corporation with no soul whatsoever) decided that Kepler’s Books of Los Altos must die, lease or no lease. The store wasn’t tithing enough, so the landlord hired goons to tear up our parking lot with boistrous jackhammers. The closest places our customers could park were closer to Crown Books or Tower Books and Records than they were to Kepler’s of Los Altos.
Managing a failing bookstore—no customers, all day long—while I was earning shit wages and virtually no spending cash as a musician was a two-pronged assault on my finances and my self-esteem. What does a self-disrespecting musician do when he’s going broke, fed up with his day job? Cut expenses, and eat crap. That’s why, come lunchtime, I quit buying sandwiches from the deli and the health food store and ambled across El Camino, then across San Antonio Road to the Sears shopping center, and saved 50¢ by eating at Burger King. It was comforting food: burger, fries, Coke. And it was lots to eat: “It takes two hands to handle a Whopper, ’cause the burgers are bigger at Burger King.” (I didn’t add that song to my repertoire.) I sometimes wondered why I became suddenly hungry again two hours later, but that was easy to fix with a Snickers bar from the deli. Oops, there went the 50¢.
By the time late summer 1983 arrived, my fancy pants from Value Village no longer fit me.
This decline happened gradually, although looking back on it with time-lapse memory my boredom and bad habits seem to have grown like weeds on steroids. The fact is, it took what at the time seemed like the longest year in my life for me to hit bottom. But come early August, 1983, here it was: bottom:
I wake up at about eight o’clock of a Wednesday morning, shower, dress in whatever is still clean and still fits, and load my amp, speakers, microphone stand, and guitar into the back of my ten-year-old second-hand Volvo, and drive from Irene’s condo to Kepler’s of Los Altos, stopping along the way to pick up a couple of doughnuts and a cup of coffee. I park wherever I can find a spot, on the other side of our shopping center, and walk to the store, open the store, and sit behind the cash register. Another clerk comes in, and we sit. We eat the two doughnuts and sit some more.
Midmorning I take a walk across El Camino to a branch of my bank, where there’s a coffee urn and a stack of miniature styrofoam cups. I wire myself together with more coffee, which tastes like yesterday’s.
About two p.m., I get my lunch break. I use two hands to handle my Whopper. I can’t finish my fries, but I sneak a refill on my Coke.
Late in the afternoon, when one clerk goes home and another comes on, I begin the process of changing the back room into a night club. The store has dwindled, and there are almost no books left in the back room; so the owner has moved in a bunch of lumpy thrift-store furniture, to turn this strip-mall bookstore with no parking lot into a community gathering spot. Nobody gathers, but on Wednesday evenings I try to lure in the world by offering my golden oldies. I put out a bowl of trail mix from the Lucky’s supermarket next to Tower Books and Records, set up my equipment, place a tip jar on a stool, and stand there singing and strumming and entertaining nobody till nine-thirty. By nine-thirty most of the trail mix is gone, thanks to me. Then I start lugging all my equipment back to my used Volvo, which has leaked oil on the parking asphalt but I don’t care, and by the time the car is packed, it’s ten o’clock and time to close the store.
Dinner time. I drive into the heart of Los Altos, park and lock, and walk into Mac’s Tea Room, one of the last piano bars on the Peninsula to hold out against disco and sports bars. I’m well known at Mac’s. I’m a star. Other customers greet me with smiles. Women want to sit next to me. The piano player urges me to the microphone, and I sing. They all applaud, and I’m invited, urged, to sing another. Do I get paid for this? No. In fact I throw dollar bills into the tip bowl, so I’m paying to give my songs away, and it’s worth every penny. Besides, by now Mac’s Tea Room and Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor are my only steady gigs. Only gigs period, lately.
Besides, when I’m singing at Mac’s I get free dinner. Dinner: bowl after bowl of free popcorn, as long as I keep buying drinks.
And I can hear that sweet siren’s song, encouraging me to keep buying drinks until I am flat broke.
I’m pleased to say this story has a happy ending. In mid-August, while I was sitting behind the register at the bookstore with nothing else to do, I read an article in Newsweek about small-press publishers in Santa Barbara. I had spent most of my adult life on the fringes of the publishing industry, I still believed in small businesses, and I had loved Santa Barbara for years. I had a good friend living there, who told me he would house me temporarily and help me find work. And Santa Barbara was populated by wealthy older people who might enjoy my music.
Within a month I was gone from Palo Alto and the Mid-Peninsula happy hours. Gone from Kepler’s of Los Altos, gone from Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor, gone from Mac’s Tea Room, gone from Irene’s condo, and gone from Burger King.
I was off to a new land, a friendly city, where I could make a whole new set of mistakes, perhaps, but a land where I would relearn to eat like a human being instead of a garbage disposal.
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