Well, it’s not as far south as New Zealand. But something that I got to do during this pandemic was visit the city of my alma mater, San Luis Obispo. I wanted to write about this sooner — this trip happened in mid-October — but this pandemic, lemme tell you, friend, it has done a number on my writing. It’s been hard to sit at the trusty ol’ laptop and bang these out. It’s not like in Singapore where I had my Monday morning ritual. Walk the dog, chat with the helpers walking my neighbors’ dogs, shower up only to start sweating the second I walk out the door, hike down to Baker & Cook, order my eggs benedict or tartine and then wax travellouge at you all.
Yeah, it’s not like that now, is it?
I mean, sure the big difference is that now I’m working, not gleefully dependent on the largesse of Uncle Phil Knight and my ex-wife’s job. And it’s not like I can easily travel outside the country, my US Passport being rendered largely worthless for the time being1oh, I’m so tired of all this WINNING and not being a mere two hour flight from the older places of the world doesn’t help either. So, when a friend of mine from school reached out to me to catch up, we decided that a reunion, covid-restrictions be damned, was in the works.
So mid-afternoon I found myself driving on unfamiliar roads, with a joy that only boldly going south into the unknown can bring. Which lasted about a half-hour, since Friday traffic was such that it was mostly stop-and-go down I-5 for long stretches of the very flat, and very large San Joaquin Valley. And it’s not like I didn’t know where I was going, as I know San Luis Obispo county like the back of my hand.
Okay, fine, you caught me. I’m being dramatic2perish the… you know what I’m going to say here..
But still, as night fell on the foothills to the west of the Central Valley, and as I turned off the last unfamiliar road onto Highway 41, nostalgia flooded over me. The phrase ‘redolent with memories’ immediately came to mind, the name of a poem from one of my best friends during my time in SLO. I remembered the last time I drove down 41, screaming home from a visit to my dear friend Kelly in Fresno, trying to make my late shift at that shitty hot springs (no, not Sycamore Hot Springs, the other one on Avila Beach Drive. The one with the RV park.) I smiled a sad smile passing by James Dean’s corner as I turned on 46.
I was coming home.
It’s a strange feeling – I haven’t lived in San Luis Obispo since before the year 2000. The circumstances of my departure were acrimonious at best. A failed bid to stay in town followed a failed bid to relocate to DC. The situation with my roommates deteriorated into open hostility as once close friendships dissolved into petty bickering. I couldn’t admit it then, but I had developed a crush on my straight best friend, and he took it… poorly. I cried the entire drive back up to Petaluma, tail between my legs.
And yet, here I was getting on 101 on Paso Robles, excitement and familiarity growing with every mile marker. There’s where I drove up to go wine tasting my junior year. Remembering the time it snowed just north of town on a beautiful, crisp December morning. Holy crap, I said aloud to myself, that’s the masonic temple in Atascadero where we would have our rituals for SigEp: Sigma Phi Epsilon, my old fraternity. I would spend three years as a pledge and then brother of the fraternity; only to surrender my membership and ask that my name be taken off the rolls. I no longer wished to be counted in their number when the inevitable reckoning came due. The president of the frat was too stunned to be angry or really say anything. I just walked into his room, gave him my pin and told him that I could no longer stay, and would you please strike me from the rolls.
Of course, the real reason I left was I was terrified of my brothers. My two years of living in the house taught me one thing — fear, abject fear. Fear of being discovered as queer as I sat in my darkened room, daring not to cry or sob as I wrote “I am bi” for the first time.
It was then, thinking about the unbound fuckery and foul dealings of my former brothers3SigEp Tau would be — finally — disbanded in 2011 after reports of alcohol abuse and repeated sexual assaults came to light and came to be too much for the university to ignore. that I realized what this trip meant to me. San Luis4never “San Louie”, the name is Spanish, not Jersey. is where I came into myself, came into my identity. Where I first fought through fear and won. And so, I hit the gas and continued on points south.
The friend I mentioned before, Erin, is one of my oldest friends. We were meeting at/staying with our mutual friend Hallie. Erin and Hallie I both met through our dear friend Chris, who now lives on the east coast. And Chris, if you read this, this is not an aside, you were missed my dear friend. Chris I know from the fraternity, strangely enough. We pledged together, and our friendship is one of the best things I received from my time in the fraternity. Chris was actually I think the second person I came out to.
His response? “Cool, so you have twice the chance to strike out?” Chris, I adore you, you fucking dork.
Anyway, Hallie lives a bit south of San Luis Obispo. I decided then, as I was gunning it down 101 south of Atascadero, that though Hallie and Erin were waiting for me, literally drinks in hand, that I had to pull off the freeway and drive through town.
It’s slightly surprising to me just how well I still know San Luis Obispo. Not wanting to do the straight path down Monterey, I opted to exit on California, which immediately put me next to the Campus Bottle, the inestimable neighborhood bottle shop for fraternity row. California Blvd., as I mentioned before, was home for two years, and I passed 280 California with a smile and a laugh as I saw new letters on the front where the dreaded ΣΦΕ used to loom like a herald of insidious welcome. California is still apparently fraternity row, where I spent two years in a haze, so I wasted no time taking the left on Foothill, past the off-campus housing where a score of memories assaulted me. Eric and Amanda and our drama came to mind, and a hundred stupid parties, but a memory of me on Melissa’s couch eating her bowl of blue M&Ms blotted those out right quick. Another left on Santa Rosa, and memories of food came unbidden. The Carl’s Jr up near campus. Kona Canoes from Kona’s in the next shopping center. Sitting with Russ eating Chilli Pepper’s. But more than anything, late night drunken runs to Tio Alberto’s – I won’t miss it, but it still makes me smile.
Driving down Santa Rosa towards the center of town, I felt a shift in my thinking. California runs into campus, and the neighborhoods there are mostly students and student services. What really dawned on me was that my best memories of San Luis are separate from Cal Poly. I love that I was lucky enough to get a good education and that CP was able to bring me to this town, but the city & the school are separate, both in function and my memory. As I drove down Santa Rosa, half-forgotten thoughts and feelings surrounded me like legion. Driving across town to my graduation. Sunday afternoons at Santa Rosa Park. Conversations in cars, an old boyfriend’s house off Broad St. It became a wonder to me that I could even see the road as I turned on Monterey, so thick the memories came.
Standing in line to see Star Wars at the Fremont, coming out of that same theatre disturbed from seeing Seven, the building crescendo of where hope meets hype at hearing the Lucasfilm fanfare and Star Wars’ opening note5and then the two hour letdown that followed.. I turned left again on Osos and drove in a haze past where Osos St. Subs used to be, remembering nights out playing pool and sneaking pitchers of beer, and then to Woodstocks Pizza and Firestone Grill, so many nights after work at Ernest & Allen.
Russ told me just a few months ago that Ernie, my old boss and one-time friend and confidant in all things e-commerce, had passed away. It had been years since we last spoke, but I mourned the man with a nod of my head and a single tear, and headed towards points south on Osos, where I knew overwhelming memories lurked.
I stopped the car at 1626 Osos St. I couldn’t drive any more, such were the tears that filled my eyes. At 1626 was freedom, salvation, a break from fear, my first. It was where I moved when I left the fraternity. It was my first place of my own, an adorable one-bedroom in a converted Victorian-era schoolhouse, a shithole, but my shithole. It was there, my friends, where I started A Few Different Words, hosted on a shitty linux box I pieced together with spare parts. I called it Catch-22. My primary desktop was a PowerMac clone6gods, remember those? that I called Fahrenheit-451. On those machines, I truly found the internet – connected with some of my first online friends, and wrote to the world under the name Jason Black of the process of coming out as bi in my old project, “blackbook”.
Memories of my WOW group7Week of Welcome, not World of Warcraft – WoW would not be released for another 7 years serenading my drunken ass for my 21st birthday. Falling in love with being myself and enjoying the quiet of a night in watching anime and finding respite from the damage I had been doing to myself for the previous two years. Seeing my neighbor’s poster of Strangers in Paradise and immediately wanting to know more about Francine and Katchoo. Immersing myself in work and enjoying it8well, the job at Ernest & Allen, I also worked at that aforementioned hot springs and JAY-SUS.
In short, 1626 Osos St. is where I found myself.
But I knew there was one other location I had to stop at in town. On South Street, heading back towards Higuera and Madonna, is a small duplex where one of my best friends used to live. Back then, in the heady days of 1997, Allura and I were as thick as thieves, spending our time being silly on the internet and dreaming of new ways to make websites and write the next great work of fiction. It was there, on a beastly hot August day where I first said the words “I’m bi.” to someone else. There, too, I stopped to wipe my eyes.
Round and round they swirl. Memories, words, images, feelings. New Years 2000 at the Madonna Inn, having a laugh with Alex Madonna and Ernie, meeting Courtney Cox and David Arquette9gods, that was a weird night. Karaoke at the shitty dive on Buchon and High. Golf with Amanda at Laguna Lake before her and her roommates surprised me for my birthday with fondue and girl talk. Watching Friday with Kelly for the first time. Watching Office Space and the Matrix and Austin Powers with co-workers and friends. Hiking up Bishop’s Peak. Doing 120 down Highway 1 after Star Wars and talking my way out of a ticket by not spoiling it for the Morro Bay cop that pulled me over. Nights at Tortilla Flats for 80s night10read: LGBT night and cuddle puddles after in the Big Gay House on Coral. Late nights at Disco Denny’s and weekend brunch at Lousia’s with my cousin Jeanine. Farmer’s Market Thursday nights down Higuera. Days at the beach, nights on porches with friends. Blowing a flat at 11pm coming off work at the shitty hot springs on 101. Watching Garbage, and Sugar Ray and George Clinton at the Rec Center. Pissing off Steve Miller mid-concert. The servers flicking water into glasses at F. McClintocks. Nights at Sycamore Hot Springs. Mornings riding to campus. Working 8 hours at breakneck speeds then playing video games until 3am. The big blowout with Jesse. My breakdown when I realized I was leaving San Luis Obispo. Sarah McLaughlin playing at Kelly’s big sister’s apartment in Avila beach. Laughter, love, sex, pain, embarrassment, frustration, loss, anger, fear, fear, fear… victory.
Kissing Jeremiah at Lure’s birthday party.
Hugging Allura tight and saying good bye as she moved to DC.
Walking into Mustang Stadium in my cap and gown.
Standing downtown at seventeen years old and wanting to cry at the feeling of being lost for the first time in my life. And then again, almost thirty years later, coming back to the same place and realizing what I obviously didn’t know then.
I wasn’t lost. I was just about to find myself.