An Open Window In The Memory Palace

It’s the turn around spot.

The turn around spot

E. F. Jones was a young black man who was driving to Wisconsin to visit his ailing father in law. He picked up Steve Wolf and me hitchhiking in Berkeley, California and took us to Rock Springs, Wyoming, a one thousand mile ride, by far the longest single hitchhiking ride of my life. We were at the edge of a small town in Nevada when we saw teenagers cruising in an endless string of cars, turning around at a Dairy Queen on the edge of town and cruising back through town again going the opposite way, where they would turn around at the other end of town and do it again and again and again. I had never seen that phenomenon before, but E.F Jones knew exactly what was going on, and schooled us on turn around spots. If I had lived there I would have just kept on going, driving toward the distant horizon.

The other turn around spot

I have an asphalt piano – It only plays road tunes.

Roadside piano

My friend Liz liked to repeat this line in the early 1970’s. I have no idea if she made up this line or if she actually had an asphalt piano. Probably not. She accompanied me to Boulder Colorado one summer when I was 19, where I met up with Sallie, a friend of hers, someone I had met peripherally in France the previous year, who caused me a tremendous amount of trouble and heartbreak in the ensuing couple of years. Like many of the women I met at Stanford, her father was incredibly wealthy and was the CEO of his own Oil Company, which at the time meant nothing to me, but should have. His great grandfather had made a fortune in the opium trade in China in the 19th century, but that was no longer mentioned. Liz later married a man who amassed the world’s largest private collection of tanks, armored cars, antique defense mechanisms and Scud missiles which he housed on their 500 acre ranch in Portola Valley, California. 

When he died at age 59, his personal collection of mechanical war and death agents, large enough to supply a small and dangerous rouge nation, sold for 10 million dollars at auction.

Rommel’s Panzar tank division in action • Egypt, 1942

Your arm’s too short to box with God!

Fred said this to me, commenting on his recovery from substance abuse and the help and admonitions he had received from the Almighty on his road to redemption. I met up with Fred after not seeing him for a couple of decades at the Palo Alto dump, where I was unloading a truckload of debris from one of my many projects remodelling my home. Fred’s parents were Yaqui Indians from Northern Mexico and Fred was one of the most naturally gifted athletes I ever knew. I had spent hundreds of hours roller skating with him around the arched, Romanesque corridors of the Stanford quad at night when the students were gone and the ultra smooth polished stone pavement was like a quarter mile unfrozen ice rink, high lit by the magnificent metallic glittering mosaic facade of the Memorial Church, lavishly illustrated with God, Jesus, Mary, disciples and the angels in Heaven serenely watching us glide past them.

Fred could twirl a dozen high speed pirouette spins while whirling in place like a dervish cyclone. His other passions were video taping live local sports with his professional grade video camera and playing tennis. He was good enough to be semi-professional, but got waylaid by racism and substance abuse. He always signed himself up on the chalk waiting boards on the edge of the courts as “Tex.” I was happy to learn that he did not continue his boxing match with God.

Stanford Church and quad

He would climb a tree for a dishonest dime and leave an honest dollar lying on the ground.

Lucky Farr said this to me, commenting on the poor moral character of one of his neighbors in Buckhannon, West Virginia. Lucky was one of the more prosperous inhabitants of Upshur County, though I never learned exactly how he made a living. He always had mason jars of moonshine hidden behind haybales in his barn which he would offer surreptitious sips of to me and my friend Tommy when he was showing us his cows and pigs and the women folk were in the house sewing quilts and drinking sweetened iced tea.

How much time does it take you to get to church? All of the time you have and five minutes more!

This was my father’s weekly lament as we always arrived at church during the middle of the first hymn after the service had already started, walking in as the congregation was standing and singing, loudly praising God. My father was an organized and punctual man, my mother less so, and with four children in tow, any prompt, time oriented scheduling was mostly wishful thinking.

Saint Mark’s Cathedral • Venice

Guess how many dicks I smoked this weekend?

Sexual Harassment brochure I designed

It was not until I designed and produced a Human Resources policy guidebook on Sexual Harassment for Advanced Micro Devices in 1999, that I realized that Rex was sexually harassing me with unwanted stories about his weekend sexploits. He was a junior graphic designer at Macarthur Design where I was working and was also a tremendously musically talented gay man from rural Idaho, where he had grown up as a closeted Mormon. He had moved to the Bay Area to find personal and sexual freedom. He had performed in musical theater for most of his life and had spent a couple of years more recently performing on cruise ships in the Caribbean. 

I saw him starring in a production of “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” in downtown San Jose, a musical banquet extravaganza in which the audience was served a wedding feast as a central the part of the live show. He was the brightest light in a talented cast and amazed me with his vocal prowess and his on stage charisma.His dream was to be hired as part of the cast of “Beach Blanket Babylon,” a long running San Francisco musical cabaret show featuring satiric topical songs and enormous hats. 

Rex queried me most Mondays if I would like to know how many dicks he had smoked over the weekend. He often rubbed his groin on the back of my chair as I was sitting in it and would make weird comments about the size of his “Big Johnson” if he was urinating next to me in the bathroom. Until I was tasked with producing a handbook on sexual harrasment, I just thought that he was being an inappropriate jerk. As he clearly had issues and personal problems, especially if he had forgotten to take his Xanax, I did not report him to our employer, not wanting to make his life any more difficult. He probably did not know what sexual harrasment was or that he was actively engaging in it.

Around the same time I was at a concert headlined by the Texas troubador Robert Earl Keen in Santa Cruz, California when I understood directly for the first time what women go through with sexual harassment. We were standing in front of the bandstand before the music started, with Marsha, a friend who looked very much like the actor Julianne Moore. I was astonished how many men came up to her wanting to talk, dance or even asking her to  “Be my girlfriend for the night,“ none of which she was remotely interested in. It was like watching moths flying to a flame, flies allured to honey, or hornets irrestibly attracted to a platter of meat. She must have been somewhat used to the unwanted attention, as she responded with grace and humor, but it was very unsettling for me to see strange men repeatedly make such chauvinistic pigs out of themselves.

Marsha in Good Humor dressed as an ice cream vendor on Halloween

The bastards stole my hose!

They stole my baby’s stroller!

Enough water to float your boat and a hose to fill the oceans • Photo by MMB

These domestic crimes were perpetrated against my friend Dean, my neighbor Mary, and my wife and myself. Dean had just bought a home in a sketchy area of east San Jose and had come home to find his hose stolen from his front yard. He was outraged that someone would steal his hose. He said that he could understand some one stealing his car or his wallet, but not his hose. Our next door neighbor and my wife and I both had babies under the age of a year at the same time and we both had our strollers stolen from our front door steps. I have had a series of hoses sitting in my front yard for over 30 years now and no one has ever taken any of them yet, so I feel 50% safer in my neighborhood than I would in Dean’s, where the plague of hose theft lives on in infamy.

A stroller fit for the Queen

Tell me a Sammy Crab and then put the cave on!

A giant crab dances to the Banana Slug String Band • Photo by MMB

Sammy Crab and Possum-Possum were two pretend friends that accompanied my real life best friend Steve Wolf and my self everywhere for a couple of summers when we were children, as we wandered the dirt roads, orchards, fields and forests of Heath, Massachusetts. living in an idyllic rural summer Eden where both of our families had vacation homes. When my son Jordan was four years old I resurrected Sammy Crab and Possum-Possum and told Jordan stories about them every night before bedtime, adding two new characters to the sleepy time dramas. The new animal pals were based on a plush toy kangaroo puppet that he slept with every night and were named “Boy-Kanga and Girl-Kanga.”  Boy-Kanga was an alter ego for Jordan and he became the ringleader of all of the fabulous crab and animal adventures.

When the stories were done and Boy-Kanga had saved the day, it was always time to “Put the cave on,” Jordan’s request to cover him with a dark, protective cocoon of blankets supported by pillows under the covers so that he could sleep safely and securely.

Kanga and Lamb Chop at rest • Photo by MMB

 The wandering Hobos added new branches to the tree of music.

A weary hobo living the blues

Utah Phillips made this comment at a workshop on songs and song writing that I attended at the Strawberry Music Festival, a year before his death. He had been a self described hobo, and had travelled the width and breadth of the United States for free by hopping freight trains and finding odd jobs along the way. He said he had spent many nights in “Hobo Jungles,” singing songs around campfires with fellow wanderers. He told us that the word “Hobo” was a contraction of the words “Hoe Boys.” Hoe Boys were migrant agricultural workers with hoes on their shoulders looking for jobs after the Civil War and continuing into the years of the Great Depression following the stock market crash of 1929.

While Utah Phillips was named for a state, there are a number of musicians with the names of trees and plants who have also added to the branches of music: Pinetop Perkins, Cedar Walton, Woody Herman, Woody Guthrie, Cyrus Chestnut, Black Oak Arkansas, The Screaming Trees, Robert Plant, The Vejtables, Guns and Roses, The Black Eyed Peas, Orchestra Baobob,  Veviter, Helitropes, Cactus, The Kuzdu Kings, Savage Garden, The Wallflowers and The Gin Blossoms are a few of those.

Some musicians have had plants and animals named after them. Lady Gaga had 19 different types of ferns named after her, inspired by her music and extravagant costumes. Michael Jackson had an extinct hermit crab named after him and Mick Jagger had a trilobite named for him. Sting had a tropical frog named after him in honor of this efforts to save the rain forests. Frank Zappa had a spider named after him because the unique markings on its underside resembled his famous drooping moustache. Beyonce had a horse fly named after her as its abdomen has a dense patch of golden hair like her famous mane.

Rust never sleeps!

Sequence • Richard Serra • Photo by MMB

I first heard this statement on the relentless, never ending degrading action of water on iron in advertisements and billboards for the Rust-Oleum corporation’s products in the 1950’s. Rust-Oleum is a paint product that is combined with fish oil, which inhibits rusting and oxidation. Rust is an iron oxide, a usually reddish brown oxide formed by the reaction of iron and oxygen in the presence of water or moisture in the air. Given sufficient time, any iron mass, in the presence of water and oxygen, can eventually convert entirely to rust. The main catalyst for the rusting process is water. 

In music, literature, and art, rust is associated with images of faded glory, neglect, decay, and ruin. “Rust Never Sleeps “ was the title of a 1979 album by the singer and songwriter Neil Young. Rust is a commonly used metaphor for slow decay due to neglect.

The sculpture pictured in the photo is a small section of a very large piece entitled “Sequence” by Richard Serra which I photographed outdoors at the Cantor Art Museum at Stanford. It is made of Cor-Ten steel covered with a beautiful patina of rust. It was later moved indoors to MOMA in San Francisco, which for me killed the soaring grandeur of the piece as it was confined in a white room with a low ceiling. I was very happy when it was returned to an outdoor location back at Stanford several years later and the sky became an integral part of the sculptural experience once again.

Don’t you never kill no womens.  You might go around, and you might sometimes kill some mens, but don’t you kill no women or that liable to be the end of you.


I first heard this good advice from the folk singer and blues artist Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in a book on the history of the blues. He gave this counsel in a talk at Harvard University, where graduates maim and kill each other much more frequently with the somewhat more subtle tools of economic and social injustice and class warfare. Leadbelly knew what he was talking about, as he had been imprisoned in Louisiana for killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. While in prison, he was stabbed in the neck by another inmate. After his release he was imprisoned again in New York several years later for stabbing another man in a bar fight.

When I was a child I heard Pete Seeger perform several times in New York City. He sang “Frankie and Johnny” a sad ballad about a woman shooting and killing her unfaithful man, as well as “The Streets of Laredo,” an old West song about a cowboy shot and mortally wounded by another cowboy over a card game altercation in a saloon. My mother often sang these songs as we drove between New York and New England on our way to our country home and on our many cross country drives from coast to coast. 

Murder ballads are staples of folk and country music, many of them originating in England, Scotland and Scandinavia and changed and morphed after they crossed the Atlantic to America, to include stories of more recent crimes and killings. I have heard enough of these songs of the murderous deeds of men and women who were done wrong to fill a small jail with assassins, at Folk music festivals over the years. In spite of Leadbelly’s advice, I have no plans to kill some mens and will not kill no womens neither.