The Fire.

“Did you know it was Beavis and Butthead who burned up our house?” He said, “I’ve heard a lot of crazy fire stories, but never that one.” So, I guess I better get this story down, its a good’n. Retired Fireman Brian was there that night of the fire, a neighbor we bumped into a couple of days ago. Judith and I were out walking on the former golf course, now the “dog park” we call it, a great place for the community to stroll about, we bumped into our across-the-street neighbor, Brian who happens to have been the Fire Captain in attendance at our house fire in 1997.<><><><><><>

<><><><>A couple of posts ago I wrote about a color trial proof that was given to me by the folks at Ad Design—in the story I invoked the famous aphorism of Playwright Anton Chekov—Mention a pistol in Act One, and by Act Three it has to go off. This trial proof is now appearing in act 3. It was from the early days of computer designing; a dye sublimation print, the only reliable way of matching what the monitor showed you with actual printing. The paper is drenched in waxy dye. Flammable? Like a phosphorous match. Well, I mentioned a dye-sub proof of an ad for the Beavis & Butthead show on MTV that was given to me by the folks at Ad Design when I toured their offices with my father way back when my son Eli was just the age of those characters. He and his friend Dave Gross were at the very age of Beavis and Butthead and acted the part as only middle schoolers can, miming and repeating those characters lines. In fact, if you were to walk by any middle school classroom in 1997, you were likely to hear the horrible laugh of those two characters ad infinitum. Drove everyone crazy. “Heh, heh, heh, he said dill hole.”

My father Leon, had loaned the ad shop a ton of money, and the guy-in-charge being solicitous of Leon, gave me the printout. “Eli will love this!” Of course it hung prominently in his bedroom. Well it so happened, Eli also had one of those “Italian restaurant candles”, the kind stuck in a Chiati bottle. He’d been melting wax onto the bottle for weeks. Very romantic? Maybe, but very middle-school-boy to melt piles of wax onto a bottle. A cool looking thing. I should have taken that thing away, but with teens, you pick your battles.

Eli also had one of those pole lamps with a halogen bulb, the kind you could buy at Yardbirds Hardware, in those days for $9.95. Very tippy, very hot. When the forensic inspector came to figure out where and how the fire had started, he strung red strings tracing the “alligatoring” of the wood, those checkering designs you see as wood burns. All lines went to the spot where the Beavis and Butthead printout had hung. The forensic guy had seen a ton of havoc caused by those “tourchier” pole lamps, but never a Beavis & Butthead printout. It happened it was a windy evening, the window was open, caught the lamp, swinging it into the print, flash! went the print and on Eli’s desk was his Chianti bottle and plenty of accelerant to get things roaring. We’d gone to get some missing homework down the valley and came up the driveway to see flames shooting out of the windows. The firetrucks followed us up the driveway. While it was still burning I wanted to run to save something, anything! The Sheriff stopped me (in fact, radio-ed in for back-up) but Brian, the fire captain said I could run in for 30 seconds to grab something on the first floor. I ran in and grabbed my Kuaqutil mask and stood with it in the driveway with Eli and Amelia. I was stunned, but knowing in that moment I had just turned the page in a new chapter in my life. This disaster was certainly a compass point, “A sea-mount to lay a course by…” (TS Eliot).

I stood in the drive holding this mask. I had bought it in 1962 attending the World’s Fair in Seattle, sending $5 a month, cost a fortune for a 12 year old, $75! Signed by the carver, Joe Seaweed.

I had bought the house in ’92—could have easily been a tear-down, you could smell the dry-rot from the driveway. The real estate agent who has since become a dear friend, Sharron Daeley, brought me to the place. In my first job in California, I had worked just up the street at camp for kids; I’d ride my bike past the place thinking what a perfect location, the views must be transcendent from up there. That was 1974. 18 years later I was going to buy it. “Wouldn’t you love this place?” I said to Sharron. Sharron who is a very polite, well-spoken woman, who would never say something like, “No fucking way,” did in fact say exactly that. “This place is nothing but problems,” “But, Sharron they will be my problems.” I was re-building my life after a heart-crushing divorce of power-struggles. The nascent asshole who could do hard-ass business, fresh from “The Defeat of the Israeli Army” could make something very great with this property, and I did. The ground floor basement had 7′ ceilings and what I came to call a “sofa museum”, a rat infested, smell-o-rama (2/20-yard dumpsters of rotten sofas trundled down my new driveway). My pal and painting contractor, Andy Giddings and I used a pair of paint sprayers to “hose-down the place” in that ubiquitous condo-color “Swiss Coffee.” He took the upstairs, I took down, and as I said “Ve haf marched into ze Sudetenland, ve haf crushed Poland.” 40 gallons of paint and the living space was miraculously bright. Rice matting to cover the crummy 60’s era-viny and I called it good-to-go. I went to work putting in a new foundation with an old friend Lance who said when I complained about the expense of those dumpsters, said, “Each one of those dumpsters reduced the selling price by $30,000… each! Be grateful!” The crumbling old foundation had exactly one piece of rebar and a bunch of scrap metal dug up around the property—It was built during the war with the great scarcity of metal. I didn’t have much dough to throw at the house, so a lot of sweat equity was ladled on, but I did hire a house-raising crew to lift the place toward a gesture of level & plumb. They lifted the structure about 4 inches, but to make what would become my studio, we dug down four feet giving me over nine feet of height for my studio when it was complete.

74 Tamal Road, fall ’93.

In the driveway while the fire-folks went to work, getting things damped down in short order—it was September, the dry time when everyone is worried about wildfire—so they worked quickly. I was stunned, knowing a new chapter in my life had opened. Maybe its not so bad…well the roof was shingled with wood shingles so the top floor of the house went POOF! Not much left there and the first floor was a mess of water, burnt spots, the kitchen cabinets ruined. Yes, so bad. The kids went to their Mom’s house a couple of miles down the Valley. I camped out in my studio, amazingly untouched, where all my Art was; I had a futon. Next morning I went to my friend Judy’s for a shower. The poet Michael Hannon was visiting and after I’d showered, read me the Buddha’s Fire Sermon—this version said basically—”We are already ashes…” What a perfect thing to hear.

I went back down to my studio where a guy sitting at my desk, introduced himself, handing me his card, an attorney, “I’m an ambulance chaser, sorry about your fire, the insurance company will try their best to screw you, I can get you 30-50% more for your claim.” While up in the driveway, the insurance company was gathering, already starting to assess the situation—a construction crew to stabilize the structure, the adjuster from Allstate, all ready to get to work. So I had, down in the studio, the lawyer looking for his jackpot, and the insurance guys up on the drive looking to minimize. Time for me to get to work. I called my Uncle Jules who’d spent his life in the insurance game. I explained the situation. He said, “The lawyer will get 30 to 50% more, but guess what? That’s HIS cut.” So I went back up to the driveway to the Allstate guys and said to the adjuster, “I don’t want anything more than I’m entitled to, but I do expect everything I am entitled to.” I showed him the card the lawyer gave me…”Oh, boy THAT guy.” “We’re not allowed to say anything with him sitting down there, we’ll go for coffee and come back.” I thanked the lawyer for his help, him still sitting in my studio, he had been a great ante-up in this game, and it was a game. It was getting to be a little bit fun. Uncle Jules was very soothing, I faxed him my policy and he was able to tell me what to expect; I had full coverage for the rebuilding, compensation for temporary housing, and a ton of dough for “contents.” Maybe this would be more than a little bit of fun.

September 30, 1997, I had the thought, “maybe not so bad.” No, it was bad.

The lawyer kept calling, and I’m afraid I was a bit dissembling, pumping him for information and by the time he stopped calling, I had made a solid plan with my adjuster; what I expected in return for letting go of my ambulance chaser. That saved Allstate a bunch of dough, some of which “I expect to be put into the reconstruction.” It was. That tag-team deal really worked out. The adjuster was totally on my side and provided a reconstruction crew (one of Allstates “Preferred providers”) headed by Franz Gorski, a real hard-ass, macho to the max, who approved of the foundation work I’d done. Back in ’92, I had done my homework on that, having it engineered and approved by the bldg dept. 15 foot-deep piers with baskets of of rebar tied into a slab that itself was a foot thick, then up the walls with 18″ glue lam beams across the top of my studio all tied together by rebar in what’s known as a moment frame….

Eli and I after pouring the slab, moment-framed, connected to that overhead beam. Eli was super helpful, agile, dancing on a grid of rebar embedded in that slab to pound home guides. Early Spring ’93. That kid could swing a hammer with authority at age 10.
A moment frame is a special type of frame that uses rigid connections between each of its constituent members. This configuration is able to resist lateral and overturning forces because of the bending moment and shear strength that is inherent in its members and the connecting joints. Moment refers to the incident of stress.
Left, see a line of rebar tied to 18″ diameter cages 15′ deep. Fall 1992.

When I moved in in 1992, that’s what I did. This is earthquake country. It was my studio and I cared little about the living spaces above—not much glamor above the ground floor, or as my partner David Salgado called it Atlas holding up a “stinky-pot”. Now, Gorski and his partner Jim were licking their chops to make this a “real” home they called it.. Sharron Daeley had said, “Just make the entryway, the master bath (now, in a corrective, called The Primary Bath) and the kitchen nice and you’ll have value.” I called him Count Gorski, a swaggering get-er-done guy, hugely energetic, who on the day after Thanksgiving, me not expecting anyone to work the Black Friday, found him redrawing the plans putting the entrance on the North side of the house, moving it from the east-facing where it had been; he was right and the entrance opened to a wide split level stairway—entrance accomplished. “Count” Gorski represented himself as descended from Polish aristocracy; had the signet ring to prove it. Maybe he was Count Gorski…My son, Noah meeting him, said “Man that guy has a bad case of testosterone poisoning.” As I’m writing this (December 2022) I looked up Gorski to find in 2012 he had been in armed standoff with the Sheriff’s Dept. as he was being evicted from his home in the great “downturn.” He had leveraged his property in some scheme to rise to his proper position in the Nobility of Alamo. Sheesh! But I was glad he was on my side. A very able contractor.

The sad North side before the fire c. 1992.
East and North sides. After the remodel of ’97-98. Those peaked roofs have a nice rhythm, thanks Lance.

My pal Lance Cerny who was in the Design/Build business, who had helped with the new foundation in ’92, drew me some preliminary plans so I could get county approval—the re-build would have to conform to the footprint of the original so as to avoid the delay of public design/review. It was Lance’s idea for the repeating peaked roof lines. OK…I’m OK with that same foot-print idea. Now, to get approval right away, I would submit my plans in person at the county offices. I sat in the office, “I’m sorry, you’ll have to come back next month,” said the receptionist. “No, I’m sorry, I’m sitting here til I get these plans approved. I will be the rats scratching in your walls, the smell you can’t source, that funny sound in your car, the glare off the ocean. I’m needing to be back in my home ASAP, I have two adolescent kids who will surely run amok unless I get them back into their home. I need these plans approved!—it’s a re-build for God’s sake.” (I really said this, making myself comfortable in the bldg. dept. office.)

While waiting, I also went up to my supervisor’s office, to see if he could be helpful expediting my permit. He had touted himself as the “Environmental” candidate, and after all, hadn’t I been a supporter? Hadn’t I donated my graphic design services for his campaign? I got nothing but runaround, and after I was back in my house a year later, I found out the $12,000 in Real Estate taxes I paid would have been forgiven because of my catastrophe. My “Supervisor” could have told me that, that was his job. Too late on that one, I was already back in the house. Thanks a bunch Steve Kinsey. I could have used the dough for my remodel; it continues to frost me whenever I see him around, 25 years later. I’ll have to Zen my way through that one (someday).

Back down to the building Dept. in our lovely Frank Lloyd Wright designed Civic Center, I sit, drawing plans inside of that truly inspirational space. I spent days mulling over the master bath, I wanted light and the retro glamor of a wall of glass bricks, going through many iterations of the limitations of the space. I’ve always loved glass bricks. It was a sculptural problem of things in space. Do I have a Master’s degree in sculpture? I do. As a long-time meditator (1967), in touch with an inner state, I was able to visualize the components, ranging and re-aranging, in my mind, like pieces of a puzzle to fit into a predetermined space. It was fun to lie in bed, before sleep and move the pieces around in my mind.

Bath, Check! Thanks, Sharron! She just put us on the case. BTW that line-up of mirrors on the back wall corresponds to the nodes of the Vedic Chakras—ABM…always be meditating!
Kitchen, Check! Again, Thanks, Sharron! Look through one room into the next and then outside. Eli and I had fun with that software virtual walk-through.

The Gorski crew framed the place out, adding things like the coffered ceiling in the kitchen, and the den, but it was Eli and I who did some of the real designing. He had a software program to make virtual walk throughs and the two of us struck on the idea that any room in the house would look into the next room, and then look out to the outside. The concept was a good one that gave an airiness and uplift.

This was all taking place in the winter of 97-98, a Niño year and we had 90 straight days of rain, some mudslides, but those were minor, what wasn’t minor were the two huge fir trees that went down and into my neighbor’s yard. He felt he’d arrived at an insurance jackpot all his own, (he did ask me, “You started started the fire, didn’t you?” “No, neighbor, if I’d started it it would have been from the ground up, not top down.”). He had been figuring the trees in his yard were worth about $160,000 and told me so. Gorski and Co. went over that morning and started cutting, to get the trees off his property. He called the cops, Trespassers! HE wanted the evidence for what he thought would be HIS big payday. We had a couple of shouting bouts over the fence. He really wanted his insurance jackpot. I needed this added tension like a second asshole (as my dad, Leon would say, who BTW, had called me one day to say “I’m in the hospital, got a transplant”. WHAT! “Yep, I had hemorrhoid surgery, fortunately, there were no shortage of donors.”) Not the brightest crayon in the box, that neighbor, and a likely candidate for the my father’s donor list. But the upshot was, I was left sleepless. I’d lost my folks the year before, had my monthly trips to Florida to deal with his estate (largely tied up with equipment leases), had started my new business, was still in the backwash of a divorce with joint custody, and the stress of the re-build. Sleepless! Oh! Did I mention a couple of ditzes smashed into me while waiting for a light? Twice! Sleepless. Did I mention I had a fistula from a tooth into my sinus, needing surgery? Cancer was suspected (that was my first experience of the words biopsy and, as well eventually, benign applied to me). I called my psychiatrist pal Sterling. “Should I be taking any of this personally? I mean this raft of catastrophes is feeling Job-like.” He said, “Just remember not to take any of this personally, No-one is testing you, and it sounds like the wind-up to a joke; watch for the punch-line…Haw Haw Haw” Sterling was so funny. It WAS pretty comic when you look at it through the backwards telescope. So, sleepless I was…oh well, I began to memorize poetry. What else could I do? I loved poetry, maybe that memorizing would bring sleep… Didn’t. But, when it came time to create a project for Burning Man, the next year, I had about 50 poems memorized. The Poetry Jukebox was born out of all that tension, trying to parse shit from Shinola. The first poem I memorized was Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning: Here’s the first section…I never really understood the poem until I’d memorized it.

  I

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.

My friend Lance who drew the “get me started plans” was from a completely opposite planet as Gorski, a gentle soul who had started the first “Men’s group” I’d ever heard of. Gorski was from planet RAGE! And, in fact, Googling him, I came to find out he had had an armed standoff with the Alameda Sheriff’s Department in 2012. Lance had made some bone-head mistakes on the plans; the hurried nature of things was not to his perfectionist “slow cook” style.

Gorski’s note on the plans, “idiot! He was not a big fan of Lance. But Lance really showed up for me…AND, we did get’er done.

It was time to choose the color-look of things, striving for some coherence, which bodes well for a quieter mind. The kids came with me on my many excursions to the purveyors of lighting, cabinets, tile, hardware, etc, etc. Green granite counters in the kitchen, rusty colored wood for the floors, blond wood for the cabinetry. The budget was running on empty so I said to Amelia, who had solid hardwood floors on her mind, “maybe we should get that laminate stuff—1/10 the cost of hardwood.” She said, “Oh, you know that laminate stuff is just a picture of wood, maybe we should just get pictures of doors and windows. Aren’t you the guy always talking about authentic this, authentic that?” Sheesh! You are killin’ me child! Then the “contents” appraiser showed up. We had a lot of valuable Art around, but that all got saved. Looking in my flamed, ruined closet there was a coat rack made of plumbing pipes, from which hung a thing which for all the world looked like a clot of burnt marshmallow. As the “contents” appraiser pealed apart that burnt marshmallow, the parts that lived in the thickest part of the suit coats were the labels. All that silk and wool—great insulators. As I have mentioned, Leon, my father, had developed great taste in clothes once his “Ship” had come in in the ’70’s, as I have said, he became the Jewish version of “Super Fly.” Flashy and expensive. I was intending to re-taylor to fit me, Leon had been gone for months but the clothes still carried his smell. I liked that. The appraiser is writing in his notebook… Nino Ceruti, Georgio Armani, Saks Fifth Avenue…etc. That appraisal came to over eight grand—just about the cost of “real” hardwood floors. Leon would call that a double-dipper—he wore the clothes, I got floors. Amelia was happy. Tripple-dipper!

With all the tension in my life, I needed a break. Something I could rely on for that quick exit from the day-after-day was marijuana (like all drug experiences, it’s an “as-if” experience—”as-if” you are inspired, alcohol, “as-if” you are the life of the party, psychedelics “as-if” you are cosmically connected to the universe). So, on a Sunday, no work going on, the front room piled with a stack of sheet rock about to go up, I smoked a reefer and put my drawing pad and pencils, markers, etc on that four-foot high pile of rock & set about how to place the fireplace. I knew it would go best in a corner and not on one wall. I was going to Feng-Sui that baby. This is what I came up with. The “Moon window” came to me when I was shopping for windows, and in their remainder pile were three little square windows made to fit between wall studs. Am I aware of moon rise in any place I’ve lived? I am.

My cannabis inspired living room—ROOTS! baby. Yep, that’s a full moon rising into the Moon window. Above the mantle a painting by Ian Hubert—depicting a man carrying an anvil across a frozen, cracking river. QED.

All this time we were living at “Rancho Porno.” Because of the state of the house on Tamal Road in 1992 we had called it El Rancho Deluxe. Not very deluxe with that couch museum; a whole casement window had fallen to the ground one evening, the floors covered in cheap rice-matting. We still call it Rancho Deluxe, or “The D”. I don’t remember who coined the term Rancho Porno, but the house Allstate had rented for us looked like the set for a 70’s era porn movie. Boogie Nights was out to wide acclaim, set in the San Fernando Valley Porn industry—the house had all the earmarks of 70’s remodel-ry: Plastic stained glass windows, fake plank floors (Amelia!), extra long shag carpets (burnt orange) and avocado colored appliances, etc. So, Rancho Porno it was, with plenty of space—six bedrooms, nephew Jake moved in too. It was a one-house ghetto in the most expensive Bayarea neighborhood of Ross. We were glad to have it and made my exhausting commutes to SF to my new business, a breeze. A perfect spot to land for the re-build. My bedroom window looked right out into the flight path for SFO, so I could continue to memorize my poems, sleepless, watching plane after plane blinking its way home. They were a great punctuation as line after line went into my mind. Sonnet 29 coming in for a landing, Captain:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Those days of supreme tension were my PhD in worldly wisdom, realizing the quiet person working away on the studio needed that doctorate to feel like a person “in full.” As I built my house, I was building a soul. Who knew, that’s what the fire would bring, Thanks Beavis & Butthead. Thanks Allstate. Thanks are due to my deeply forbearing children, thanks Leon’s good taste in clothes, thank you poetic mind, on and on it goes. Thanks “Count” Gorski, thanks Lance Cerny, thanks Andy, thanks Sharron Daeley. I became a great shining mound of gratitude, and most of all, I had in the back of my mind that house might serve as a love offering, a perfect nest-twig proffered to capture the heart of someone great. Turned out to be the case, meeting Judith in the fall of ’99 having settled into the house on Tamal Road.

In the first Thanksgiving after the re-build, ’98, the night before the holiday, I had a dream of Leon standing on the threshold of that fine entry way. He was standing, framed in the darkness behind him, his hands in a palms-up gesture of welcome, the wind at his back blowing glowing white curtains, all around him and into the house. Whatever anyone believes about anything, I am sure to my core, that there is a well of deep consciousness, ready to offer the gifts of the imagination—just do the NEXT thing, instructions are always on the way, listen carefully, and do it! Coming in for a landing mi Capitàn…

The front door to 74 Tamal Road circa 2022. Thanks Count Gorski, thanks Sharron Daeley, and thanks Leon for my ghostly welcome home. Welcome home, Judith.

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