Autumn and I are walking on Ocean Beach at sunset. Autumn’s long red hair is lit up like an Irish setter’s in the last rays of sun. This beach, with its long, low waves, makes me think of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking.” Oh, miracle of wild beach at the edge of the city, at the edge of the continent! The Pacific rolls and crashes, its great green breakers gathering, their edges curling with milk-foam.
We roll up our pant legs and wade in up to our ankles; then the tide surges unexpectedly and we’re up to our knees. The cold makes the bones in my feet ache. West, the horizon stretches to infinity: shifting fog and sifted light. North, I make out the silhouette of a pair of lovers strolling in the deepening twilight.
Autumn wades in farther, and I hang back to give him his privacy. He reaches into his pockets for the stones and sand dollars he has brought, and begins tossing them out, one by one, returning them to the waves. He is saying goodbye to the city, at least for now, goodbye to its beauty and wildness and sadness. Even here, among so many people, he’s lonely. He’s grieved for friends lost to AIDS, watched other friends running and running after what they think they want: money and sex and peak experiences. He’s going on retreat for a while, to meditate and listen for a voice that will tell him what to do next. Go back to the Midwest? Or return here and find a place among the decimated army of lovers that is the gay male community?
I poke around on shore, looking for pristine sand dollars — Ocean Beach is generous, profligate even; my mantel at home and my car’s dashboard are lined with her gifts — but this evening I find only broken ones. I hop about on chilled feet. Autumn looks to be in a trance, staring at the sparkling light on the waves, his lips moving. I’m not close enough to hear his words above the roar of the surf.
I’ve brought along my own pocketful of sorrows. This week, at my job, I talked to a woman who’d been raped; she kept her face averted all through the counseling session before her HIV test, and was mad because I wouldn’t let her smoke. I talked to a fifteen-year-old girl who shot speed and lived in Golden Gate Park. I talked to a whole tribe of young people like her, impressively filthy in their ripped leather jackets, spiked hair, pierced noses, lips, chins, tongues, eyebrows — and arms. Each place a needle had been driven into their bodies was the physical mark of an invisible malaise. I talked to one bouncy woman who winked and called herself a “sex therapist.” She was studying to be a legal secretary, she said, because “you can’t be a sex therapist forever,” although she was now in her forties and had been doing sex work since she was twelve. I talked to a man who drank a case of beer a day and looked like a ghost in his disappearing body. When I mentioned the dangers of hepatitis, he snapped, “It don’t matter anyway. I know I’ll end up in the morgue with my name on a toe tag. Like father, like son.”
All of that exists just a few miles away from this raw, breathtaking beauty that defies naming: just light, and shades of blue, and the clean salt loneliness of the vast ocean.
Autumn turns and is outlined in gold by the sun. He sloshes toward me through the cold water and takes my arm.
“You look positively Byronic,” I tell him — and he does: the picture of a Romantic poet, his beautiful hair flowing.
“Not Wildeian?” he teases.
I’ve been thinking about the poetry in the literary magazine I read during my lunch hour today. How sad most of the poems were. Has poetry always been a melancholy art, or is this a reflection of our times? Perhaps poets are the designated mourners for the dying wilderness; perhaps it is our job to stand at the edge of the world and shout, “Look! Look! It’s getting late; the sun is falling into the water. Hold it! Freeze it! Look!”
But this is definitely a Romantic idea of poetry — and I never cared much for the Romantics. What’s fashionable now is the poetry of complaint, the poetry of victimhood, turning wounds into art, like the piercings on a young punk’s body. Sometimes I get tired of it. Sometimes I get tired of myself and all my friends, tired of how preoccupied we all are with our own private dramas, tired of suffering itself. When I get like this I come to the ocean.
How amazing, this moment of evening when all the radiance of the sun seemingly becomes concentrated in a single spot: an orange ball on the horizon. When I was a child, I would try to chase and catch the sinking sun. I remember cornering it at last in a neighbor’s casement window.
Autumn and I turn our backs on the ocean and head up toward the dunes and the stubby, wind-bent cypresses.
“I still have all those things to burn,” Autumn says.
“Look,” I say, “someone’s built a fire over there.”
We trudge over, sneakers in hand, to a little dug-out fire pit nestled near the dunes, tended by a slender man with a salt-and-pepper beard. He wears tie-dyed shorts and has a tattoo of a ship on one leg. A red-faced, touristy-looking man is also standing by the fire, smoking a cigarette. A shopping cart full of bottles and cans is parked nearby.
“Evening!” the bearded man greets us. “Warm yourself if you want. I’m Ben.”
We thank him and stand next to the blaze, drying our pant legs and holding out our hands in the universal gesture of warmth-seeking. We’ve walked in on the middle of a conversation; the tourist is talking about San Diego and asking Ben questions.
“I make my living collecting bottles and cans,” Ben says, nodding to his shopping cart. “Come down here every Friday night to get away from the madness.”
“You’ve got quite a view here,” the tourist says, gesturing at the changing sky, the gleaming expanse of sand, the long horizon.
“I’ve got no complaints,” Ben says with a smile as he arranges his things for the night: a tent, and two sleeping bags. “One’s extra,” he says, “in case someone comes by and needs a place to crash for the night.” He spreads out a blanket for me to sit on, and shows us the walking stick he has just carved out of red manzanita, rubbed until it glows.
“There’s a reggae festival this weekend,” he says. “Figure I can sell it there for ten dollars — can’t beat that price.”
“Hey, this stick is exactly the right size for me,” the tourist says, leaning on it. “For when I get old.” He laughs. The stick is curved and graceful. Manzanita trees always look as if they’re dancing to inaudible music.
Ben reaches into his shopping cart. “Hey, look what I found in the trash today: a bottle of Amstel, and two cans of Pale Ale. Thank you, whoever you are.”
He pops opens a can and pulls on it contentedly. The fire snaps: eucalyptus wood, strong and fragrant. Tangled flames, like witches’ hair, reach out, greedy for wind. That fifteen-year-old girl I talked to today had luxuriant hair in which the last gold of childhood was setting. She kept playing with it whenever she got uncomfortable — like when I asked about condoms, or when she told me her mother didn’t want her to come home.
“Is it OK if I burn some things in your fire?” Autumn asks Ben. “Nothing toxic.”
“Sure,” he says, his green eyes sparkling.
We climb the dunes to get the bag from my car.
“What’s all that?” the tourist asks when we return.
“Gifts from an old lover,” Autumn replies, squatting by the fire and feeding dried roses into the flames.
The tourist watches for a while, smoking, and then throws his cigarette butt into the fire. “Well, got to push off,” he says.
“Take care,” Ben says. “Nice meeting you.” Then he pulls out a harmonica and plays a few measures of something bluesy.
“That’s wonderful,” I say.
“I taught myself just last year. Nobody showed me; I just picked it up.”
Autumn draws a tangled skein of rope out of the bag and tosses it into the fire. It gives off a sweet smell as it burns. “Hemp,” he says, rocking back on his heels.
We all watch the bright coils catch and curl.
“Thanks for the fire and the music,” I say to Ben.
He shrugs. “They’re here to be shared. Listen, are you two going to stick around a few minutes? I need to go to the store.” He disappears over the darkening sand dunes.
Autumn roots around in the bag and produces some more mementos. “These are all the spells I’ve cast since I came to San Francisco. I didn’t want to say anything when the old guy was here — he might have thought I was doing something Satanic.”
A cotton fetish doll, more dried flowers, and cloth ribbons go into the flames.
“Those roses were from Carlos,” Autumn says.
They’d been twisted into a wreath, with a black armband, veteran of many funerals, hanging limply from one side.
“That guy Ben,” I say, “he seems completely free. No job —”
“No roof over his head when it rains, either,” points out Autumn, who has been unemployed this last year.
“He has his tent. He has the clouds, the mountains, the light through the fog, the whole Pacific Ocean whenever he wants it. He has music, and a beautiful fire.”
“And a bottle of Amstel and two cans of Pale Ale.”
“Right! And he seems completely content. Do you think he’s the happiest man on the beach, or do you suppose he ever gets lonely?”
Autumn shrugs. “Probably a little of both.”
The setting sun is a long candle over the dark water. I scan the dome of sky.
“When we see the first star,” I say, “it will officially be Shabbat.”
“He does have really clear eyes,” Autumn concedes. “When I worked at the shelter I saw a lot of homeless people, and so many of their eyes had that filmy look.”
“That’s from drugs. Or from being really sick and run-down.”
“Yeah. Look! Is that the first star, or is it a plane?”
Regardless, we link hands and begin to softly sing a niggun, a wordless melody, to welcome the Sabbath; Autumn and I have been singing together in ritual circles for several years now. The beach, disappearing into darkness around us, seems very vast, lit only by this small campfire. From the niggun we move to the bruchas, the blessings, one after the other, in whatever order we remember them: the chant for healing, the Barchu, the call to prayer, the Shema. We’ve performed them at Shabbat minyans, crowded on cushions on the floor of friends’ apartments, and at the big pagan celebrations of solstice and equinox, which take place here at Ocean Beach. The last one featured a huge bonfire, with much drumming and whooping and chanting. I would never have gone naked into the freezing surf if Autumn hadn’t peeled his clothes off first, looked at me mischievously, and said, “I double-dare you.”
He’s been so sad for so long now. Whenever we talk I have to confront his ocean of grief. I plant my feet sturdily in the ridiculous beauty of this world and offer him my hand, but he seems only to get sucked in deeper and deeper by the undertow. And the truth is, my own footing is none too secure.
He glances up at me from the fire, and a tear slips out of one eye. “I miss my old apartment already, and I’m not even moved out yet. Nothing turned out the way I thought it would. I’ve lost count of how many memorial services I’ve been to in the last five years.”
A soft whistle in the dark alerts us that Ben is back. He’s carrying a plastic grocery sack over one arm and balancing a few cut logs on his head. “Got to use your head for something!” he says.
“We’ll be heading off, then,” I say. Wanting to touch this possibly free, possibly happy man, I shake his hand, which is rough and dry. Out of nowhere, I think of Allen Ginsberg’s description of Walt Whitman: “Dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher.”
“Do you ever get lonely?” I ask impulsively, ignoring Autumn’s warning look.
“No,” Ben says, “somebody always comes along. People like fires.”