It was January of 1980, the beginning of a new decade. And I was 23. So I decided to try to be normal (I’ll try anything once). So I bought a new set of clothes, cut my hair, shaved my beard, and applied for a job as phone salesman at the Oakland Tribune.
The phone sales department was in a big, sterile room on the 9th floor of the Oakland Tribune building. There were about 30 of us working there. We sat at these long counters under fluorescent lights, with a chair and a phone at each station, and an endless series of phone numbers to dial (“Buy the first month and get the second month ABSOLUTELY FREE!!”). The foreman and her assistant sat at their desks at the front of the room, so the whole set-up felt sort of like you were in a classroom with the teacher at the desk up front. Anyways, one of my fellow workers was this young woman who sat at the counter across from me. She had thick, frizzed out black hair, saucy cat eyes, and curves in all the right places. I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. And would remain so for the next 13 years.
She sat with her back to me. So I would often study her out of the corner of my eyes. Looking for clues. She was cute in a girlish way. But with her tight jeans and blue denim jacket and the Camel filters she smoked during breaktime, she also emitted the unmistakable aura of the classic high school Bad Girl (think Joan Jett only sexier). And she had two small, but colorful, tattoos on her forearm, which was somewhat unusual for a woman in 1980. There was a definite wildness in her eyes, and a sense of adventure and even danger about her. But the thing that really intrigued me was the way she would stare out the window of the 9th floor in between making her phone calls, staring out at the blue sky and the clouds with this dreamy, faraway look in her eyes. Like she was dreaming of worlds far beyond the Oakland Tribune phone sales room . . .
We had these placemats at our stations that we could doodle on while we were making our phone calls. And at the end of the day, after she had left the room, I would sneak peaks at her doodles to see what — if anything — they revealed about this mysterious creature. I remember she would jot down bits of poetry and rock song lyrics. I particularly remember one: “Oh I used to be disgusted and now I try to be amused” — Elvis Costello. And I used to draw all these wild and off-beat Kliban-type cartoons on my placemat. In the hopes that she would notice them and realize how talented and wonderful I allegedly was.
It turned out she lived in Berkeley nearby where I lived. So we’d often be riding on the same bus together in the morning, commuting to downtown Oakland. She was usually on the bus before I got on, always sitting in the back of the bus where the action was, in typical Bad Girl repose. Anyways, one morning she spotted me sitting there by myself, recognized me as a fellow phone salesman, and — probably more out of boredom than anything — she walked down the aisle and introduced herself, sat down next to me, and we chatted away as we rode the bus together. We were immediately in sync on the level of conversational rapport. You know? Where the conversation flows naturally back and forth between the two of us (it often doesn’t with two people). And she laughed at all my jokes. Which I took as a sign that maybe we were on the same weird wavelength. And I remember — ironically enough — that it was the day after Valentine’s Day. Because she was carrying a big bouquet of flowers that this nut who lived on her block and who was madly obsessed with her, had given her for the holiday. She was bringing them to work to give to the foreman to brighten up our dreary workroom. The whole ride was incredibly exciting to me. I was a very lonely person. And I had been pretty much a complete failure with the women up to this point. So to suddenly be sitting next to one of the most beautiful women in town was a completely unexpected turn of events. I’m not the type to indulge in braggadocio. But you had better believe I was doing everything I could to convey the impression that I was a very witty and entertaining and interesting person who she would surely want to get to know better, and possibly have sex with at some future juncture.
Later, when I had gotten to know her a little better, I sneaked a peak at her diary to find out what — if anything — her first impression of me had been that day on the bus. She had written something like: “I met yet another artist today. I seem to be collecting artists lately. Like all the useless postcards that I collect and tie up with a ribbon and put them in a box and stash them in my attic never to look at again.”
Anyways, one Friday afternoon, after we had gotten our paychecks and were getting ready to head out the door to our weekends, she approached me and said: “Hey there’s this rock band that does Jimi Hendrix covers that’s playing at this club on Telegraph tonight. You feel like going out for a couple beers?”
So we rode on the elevator together down to the first floor. And went out the front door of the Oakland Tribune building to the sidewalk to catch the bus together. And from there on in it would be a weird and winding road for the next 13 years.