The group around the table Saturday night in Escondido included four friends I’ve known for over 40 years. We managed to eat an enormous dinner without a pause in the conversation.
While we were gathered to acknowledge seventieth birthdays, the celebration was about friendship. Coming from different places around the state, and the world, we had all come of age together, in Pasadena, in the late ‘60s. Los Angeles, in those days, was a forgiving place to be in your twenties and a full-fledged member of the working poor. Dinners out cost $3. I bought my first house for $19,000. After the down payment, my mortgage was $134/month, and I had a garage in the back with two attached apartments that earned a total of $200/month in rent, bringing my monthly income to $1,100. In terms of discretionary income, it was the wealthiest time of my life.
In 1974, my then-husband, Ron, and I drove from Pasadena to the east coast and back in a rambling, five-week road trip. To fund the adventure, we first drove the thirteen hours north to Humboldt County and cleaned out my parents’ barn and garage. Returning to Pasadena, we placed an ad in the Star-News: “Heirs liquidating Northern California estate.” The dealers were at our door at 4 a.m. We sold everything and grossed over $500.
That night, August 8, 1974, Nixon resigned his Presidency. We watched it on a 17-inch black and white television from Sears. (A year later, our house was burglarized eight times in six months and the tv, which sat prominently on an old icebox, was never taken.)
We cleaned up the yard, whooped over the denouement of Watergate, and left the next morning for America. First stop, Vegas. We budgeted $1 each to play the 5-cent slots, won $3 and took off.
A month later we ran out of money during a monsoon in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. From a storm-battered pay phone, we called Ron’s brother in Tulsa, collect.
“We only have $3.40.” He offered to wire us enough to get back to Los Angeles. We agreed that $75 would be more than enough. It was.
We had taken with us our one credit card, Shell gas. At the end of the trip, it had a balance of $300 -- very high, but then, gas had shot to 53 cents a gallon in the OPEC crisis.
In Meridian, Mississippi – a name that was still dripping with blood from the civil rights murders ten years earlier – we pulled into a decrepit Shell station with a sign advertising gas at 31 cents a gallon.
“Is that right?” Ron asked.
“You dreamin’?” the owner said. “I just don’t change the sign no more.”
When the owner approached our car closer – and carefully, we were also traveling with a German shepherd – he glanced at our license plates, and decided to show us some southern hospitality.
“Car needs a cleanin’,” he said. “I’ll get my boy.”
He shouted and an aging black man walked out of the garage office, grabbed some soiled rags and a spray bottle, and tackled the grime. He avoided eye contact with both of us.
“Get your missus out of the car,” the owner said to Ron. To me, he said, “You need a coke?”
I was thirsty, but I didn’t want a coke. Do you have anything else I said, and he said he had all kinds of coke: grape, strawberry, lime, root beer.
“Oh,” I said, “Coke is generic for soda?”
“How much is the car wash?” Ron asked quickly. “Can we put it on the Shell card?”
“Cash,” the owner said. “Give him whatever you want. Two bits.”
The car had been hand-scrubbed outside and thoroughly cleaned inside, even while the German shepherd was ominously alert.
Twenty years later, a few weeks after moving back to the ranch in Humboldt County, I was in the back room of Nilsen's Feed Store, buying Round-Up to kill the nettles on the ranch, when a Dickensian dairyman from Loleta interrupted and said, “You don’t want to use that. It’ll burn your skin, poison you. Get a Mexican to do it. You don’t even have to pay ‘em if you don’t want to, they can’t do nothin’ about it.”
I share that unpleasant story to balance the scales with Meridian, Mississippi. For years, I had recounted the story of the gas station owner as my single-moment proof of southern racism – only to be bluntly reminded that the evils of being human are not safely confined by geography or history.
No one at the birthday party over the long weekend mentioned Monday’s holiday or the civil rights events and struggle it honors – a movement in which, to various degrees, we had all participated; it was a passionate commitment that became the foundation, the first coat, of our lifetime bonding.
In the midst of last weekend's eating and drinking and laughing and loving, the era would not be foremost in my mind if not for a Facebook posting of my daughter-in-law, Lauren.
She had taken a photograph of a worksheet from my grandson Carson’s second-grade class at Link Elementary School in New City, New York.
His assignment, printed at the top, said, “I Have A Dream…” and the instructions read: Draw a picture of a dream you have that would make our world a better place. Write about your dream.
Accompanying a graphic novel series of panels he had illustrated and labeled, "Help each other be stronger," was his narrative:
“My dream is no fights, no guns, no wars and no more hurting each other.”