when i was about 23 or 24 my mother pointed out an ad in the local paper about how weather forecasters anticipated a very hot and dry summer. fire season was supposed to be bad. the central california university city, san luis obispo, was hiring extra seasonal firefighters. the city would provide the training. all that was needed was a relatively strong body and a commitment to stay for the fire season.
i thought, i can do that. i'm not a physical chap. i'm uncoordinated as fuck. i am not strong, either, but i am, in the words of the muppet grover said, i am wily. so i borrowed my brother's early 90s ford festiva, took my only suit, and headed south for an interview with the SLO fire department.
i learned two critical things on that journey. i was not cut for firefighting, and that my suit no longer fit me. i bought the suit for my brother's wedding a couple years earlier. we thought we were so grown up, my brother and me. he's getting married. i was accepted to the local university. i had a job as a custodian on campus and i was reading as much poetry as my eyeballs and mind could handle, which in those days was a lot, and writing as much as my crappy handwriting could muster. in short, i was busy.
but the firefighting job appealed to my romantic interior. i was reading the poet philip levine and levine championed the working fella. indeed in a poem levine describes his son doing the firefighting work i set out to do. gary snyder, too, spent some seriously significant time on a fire lookout, thinking, writing, in solitude. i'm no levine or snyder but fighting fires in central california would only maximize the kind of experience that could only help add to the internal CV of the poet.
lo! it were not be. i got to paso robles when the ford festiva decided to overheat and blow up on me. quite by surprise i managed to get the vehicle to the side of the road. i looked at the steam coming from the hood, and the display panel, in utter incomprehension. the car blew up! on me! now i was stranded. i got out of the car, kicked it hard, then started walking toward the nearest exit ramp a few hundred yards away.
i don't remember much what came next. i remember passing a passel of cows in a field who looked up in either confusion or greeting when i passed. i found a payphone [yep, no cell phones, or internet even], called my parents, then called a tow truck. the tow truck driver found a mechanic and a motel for me. the car got to the mechanic who promptly set to work repairing my brother's vehicle while i walked to the motel and set up camp for three days while the repairs went underway.
i was alone. i paced the motel room. i watched MTV and watched the video 'smells like teen spirit' by nirvana, upon which i thought, finally the music channel got punk rock right. i got a couple of beers from an AM/PM gas station and dinner at a carl's jr. but being a lifelong vegetarian finding something without meat limited my dining options.
and yet, i had a great time. i was young and dumb and not worried by much. i had a little money in my bank account that could handle the motel room. the repairs would cost me an arm and a let but lucky for me i just got a grant for school. my tuition was paid for but the rest of my money would go for the repairs. i was broke. but i was happy.
i was happy because i knew little else at the time but hardship and travail. that was life. what i remember most of that time is the generosity of strangers. when i was walking on the side of the road several cars pulled over and offered me their help. the mechanic was a gruff but good man who had a good-natured laugh, especially when i told him i was about to interview for a position as a seasonal firefighter. what i most vividly remember was my walk from the motel to the mechanic's garage to pick up my brother's car. i had to walk on the freeway to get there. the walk on the freeway was only for a couple hundred yards to the garage. there was no other way to get there. but when i was on the freeway a car driven by a young man, about my age, slowed down. the driver had a concerned look on his face. his girlfriend/wife/partner in the passenger seat also had the same look. i gestured i was okay to them. i don't remember what happened next. i do remember their expressions of concern.
such exchanges happened several times during my adventures heading to SLO. i was fine, okay, even. but the people i encountered were strangers to me, and worried over my circumstances. i remember this when i see what is happening in the world today. some people are mean, venal and hateful. many more are kind and wish to render assistance to their fellow human beings.
as for the cows that i passed a couple times in paso robles they were curious but i suspect they didn't give a shit what happened to me. indeed, i watched them as they watched me. both the cows and me regarded each other in mutual incomprehension. i watched them as they watched me as if, if i can grant myself the license to think what a cow is thinking, they were saying, there goes that goofy dude doing what he thinks is the most important thing in the world, again.