In 1994, after a year living the semi-bohemian dream in San Francisco, I embarked upon a Jack Kerouac/Henry Miller/Tom Waits romanticized wandering dropout adventure. I’d committed myself to being a novelist—this in Simi Valley, where I’d randomly moved after graduating from Big Bear High School in 1989, falling in with the suburban antiestablishment art crowd while attending community college and waiting tables on the graveyard shift at Denny’s—and this is what novelists did. I envisioned myself roaming the country, taking menial jobs, writing enthralling and transformative prose, meeting strange and beautiful and damaged women, drinking. I don’t recall exactly what sparked the trip, aside from the usual alienation and inability to connect, but I do remember walking in Golden Gate Park, late at night, a cool, calming moon up through the tall and stoic cypresses, feeling somehow at peace and understanding that it was now necessary to see more of the country (with adult eyes and freedoms, anyway). In other words, I hadn’t been able to find a girlfriend.
So my first stop was to go and see Mom! Actually, she no longer lived in Big Bear: the massive 1992 earthquakes centered there and in nearby Landers (6.2 and 7.3 on the Richter scale, respectively) had unleashed a terror which she felt helpless to fight, and she was now living in Leadville, Colorado, a bleak little ex-mining town high up in the Rockies. At an elevation of just under 11,000 feet, it was the highest town in the Lower 48, once among the largest cities in the Old West, graced by the likes of Doc Holiday and Oscar Wilde during its prospecting boomtown heyday. I’d never spent time in Colorado, and of course Mom eagerly wanted me to visit, so it seemed like as good a place as any to start off with. More selfishly, I wanted to learn more about Paul, as I’d surely end up in Alabama at some point, and all the information I had was the memorial card with the names of his “survived by” family members. I planned to try and track down Paul’s family (ah, the days before Google, Facebook, the Internet) and learn more about his murder. We didn’t even know if his killer had ever been brought to justice. At the time, in general I was getting more curious about our early years and Mom’s life before I was around. My knowledge of Paul was extremely limited, and even the Sunshine Years were mostly blank.
Mom now lived with Trina and John Rohnert, her partner since shortly after I left home (she refuses to get married again: three strikes and you’re out!). John used to drive trucks and buses for rock ’n’ roll bands in the eighties—the Rolling Stones, Ozzy Osbourne, Tom Petty, Great White, among many others—and he also drove for Geordie Hormel, founder of the renowned Village Recorder in L.A. John, in fact, has his own trove of seventies stories, but that was before we knew him. There in Leadville, John was going back to school to study environmental technology and produce music, his own and a friend’s over in Sedona, Arizona, where I’d last seen them prior to their move to Colorado: after Mom’s breakdown in Big Bear in 1992, Geordie let her and John stay with him at his Wrigley Mansion in Phoenix; they then moved to Strawberry, Arizona, for a short period before settling on the Colorado Rockies.
I wasn’t long off the Greyhound in Leadville when I pushed Mom to tell me more about our past. She was willing to talk about all I wanted to know but, as always, she didn’t like dredging up all that miserable history. Not all of these stories, some more loaded than others, were told during my stay in Leadville, but the seeds of the broader stories were planted then. In addition, Mom has a seemingly bottomless reservoir of interesting stories, and she’s great for casually dropping pieces of new information when you mention something that jogs her memory. Unlike Dad, who loved to tell a good yarn, and surely embellished at will, Mom is a more reluctant storyteller and, if anything, downplays the facts. And she’s always had a strong memory. I’d trust her memory more than my own, even when it comes to shared adult experiences.
To begin with, I learned that I was unplanned because Paul was supposed to be sterile. During his time in prison in the late 1960s—prison? yes, prison, for armed robbery, where he also made some of the friends who’d later lure him away from family responsibilities—Paul had “agreed” to undergo some prison-coordinated experiments. In exchange, he would get out early. His supposed resulting sterility was a side-effect—or was it? I also learned that Mom and Paul were quite the hippies back in 1970, and in hostile territory. After getting married in Connecticut, they made a detour on their way to Alabama: in Greenwich Village Paul scored five thousand hits of Purple Double Dome and Blue Cheer LSD. Good acid, Mom explained, was difficult to get in the South. The new young couple then settled in Cottonwood, a small backcountry town in southern Alabama, where Paul’s brother had a small construction concern. Mom painted the floors of their place in red and black swirling patterns. They had rainbow curtains in the living room and zebra stripe countertops in the kitchen. They went to, and participated in, back road car races. They partied, loved, dropped acid, explored inner landscapes psychedelic. Not long after their supply of acid was depleted, Mom found out the impossible had happened: she was pregnant. She wasn’t sure if she’d done acid after conception (it was close), so she was worried that her baby would turn out deformed, like the TV news stories were reporting. Later, in August of 1971, after her car caught fire at the laundromat, inducing labor, and a Good Samaritan at the local pool hall drove the now carless young couple to the nearest hospital in Dothan, Mom was supremely relieved to see that I was a healthy baby boy.
I also learned more about the Sunshine Years—I had almost no memory of Bob “Sunshine” Taylor, Mom’s companion and husband during the period when I was three to six years old. Like Mom and Billy, Bob was originally from the East Coast, the Boston area. After he and Mom started dating in 1974, we went on that impulsive cross-country trip to Florida, camping the whole way. Bob had already spent time in Florida, so he knew people there. (He actually boasted that he’d committed armed robbery back when he lived there.) The trip was so unplanned that Mom had to give her much-anticipated Led Zeppelin tickets to a fellow waitress at work. Mom’s 1964 Station Wagon was filled with her and me, Bob, two of Bob’s L.A. buddies, and a hitchhiker we picked up near the I-10 on-ramp in Santa Monica. The hitchhiker was on his way back to Chicago, but he soon was having so much fun that he decided to tag along with us to Florida instead. We camped along the Colorado River, the Rio Grande, the Gulf of Mexico, the Everglades. There was a lot of pot smoking among the adults, as was generally the case in the Sunshine Years. We ended up in Key West, where we camped on the beach for about three weeks, even weathering hurricane conditions at one point, when most of the campers’ tents were swept away. Unfortunately, we ran out of money in Key West, and Mom, Bob, and the others had to sell some blood to get enough gas money to get as far north as Miami Beach, where some fellow Key West campers had said they’d heard about short-term work at the circus. The rumors were true: the men were able to get work there at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus as cotton candy vendors, a job that paid on commission. Meanwhile, Mom and I were able to hang out behind the scenes, with the elephants and ostriches, the caged monkeys and tigers. A soap opera developed when a Russian acrobat became enamored with Mom and started hitting on her in highly overt ways. He thought he was a real Casanova, explained Mom. Sunshine got jealous and there was a tussle, wherein some cotton candy was lost. We moved on soon after, with barely enough money to get back to L.A. (a hippie grocery store clerk in Georgia lent a hand by sneaking out a case of potted meat for us). All except for the Chicago-bound hitchhiker: he stayed on with the circus.
It was during our first stint in Big Bear in 1975, Mom continued, where we moved the day after her gang rape in Venice, when the FBI finally caught up with Bob for his Army AWOL status. We were all sitting on cheap folding lawn chairs in a little one-room cabin out by the airport and playing a hand-drawn version of Monopoly when the FBI stormed the place with guns drawn, one agent even awkwardly climbing through a window. The Feds brought Bob down to the desert, where he was given a dishonorable discharge. It was while Bob was down the hill dealing with his charges that the San Bernardino County sheriffs were able to track us down and told Mom of Paul’s grim fate. After Bob returned, our money low and both he and Mom unable to get steady full-time work—employment was as scarce in ’75 as it would be in ’77, when we returned to Big Bear to make another go at it—we headed north to the Sierras.
There was a Topanga–Tahoe connection among the underground network of hippies, bikers, nomads, and free sprits (and surely a fleeing criminal or two), and Bob had heard of an off-the-grid camp next to several large, inhabitable caves about 10 miles from Tahoe—likely once hibernation homes for the California grizzlies—and that was where we landed. It was extremely mountainous terrain, with a good-sized river nearby for drinking, washing, bathing. We only stayed in the caves when the weather was bad, which wasn’t often, since it was September when we arrived. Otherwise, we camped under the High Sierra stars. This lasted about a month until Mom got her coffee shop job at Harrah’s and we saved up enough to move to South Lake; then, after she was promoted to the more lucrative Seafood Cove restaurant, we moved to a little condo in the Emerald Bay area of Tahoe about 12 miles away. Bob worked sporadically, spending as much time babysitting me as being employed as a short-order cook, his main job. I would go to Harrah’s often in ’76 and ’77, when I was five then six, and watch Mom on the slot machines, appalled that I couldn’t play with the shiny beeping toys myself. Though, on other visits to the casino, I was able to overcome my fear of the Rockettes, who did a Tahoe Harrah’s run while we were there. Initially I was terrified of their long legs, painted faces, and weird eyelashes, but I eventually warmed up to the long-term visitors, and was soon following them around, something of mascot, having a great time.
During those days, we routinely went on weekend camping trips to the natural splendors of the area: Death Valley, all around the Yosemite and Tahoe areas, the hot springs near Mammoth, and deep into Desolation Wilderness, which Mom still considers one of the most beautiful paces she’s ever seen. Then there was the story of the Station Wagon’s demise. One night Mom came home, taking the bus from Stateline, only to find her Station Wagon completely shot up. Mom was terrified, fearing the worst, and ran into our condo. But Sunshine was fine. Bob explained that he and some friends, surely good and loaded, had just started shooting up the car for fun. The old warrior, which had taken us cross-country three times, and up and down the length of California, not to mention numerous shorter road trips in the mountains and deserts, was nearly dead anyway—time to put the family Station Wagon out of its misery. Mom also clarified the reason we had left Tahoe: she had developed a gambling habit. It was so easy to spend those tips! And it didn’t help that Harrah’s at the time paid their employees in cash, along with a “bonus” of a couple of drink tickets. She just couldn’t control herself and the temptations were everywhere. That’s when we returned to Big Bear in 1977.
Not long after, when Bob went on his permanent trip to the pawn shop, he left Mom and me in quite a predicament there in Big Bear. We were completely broke, carless, and the only way to get food stamps was down the hill in San Bernardino. And at the time Mom wasn’t on speaking terms with her parents, who deeply resented her move to California and wanted only to see her return to New England where she belonged, so borrowing from them wasn’t an option. This was a period where we did some dumpster diving behind the Safeway in the Village. It was amazing how much entirely edible food had been thrown away; this was before the authorities wised up and put locks or entire cement enclosures around their dumpsters. The most common items we could pilfer was food that could get damaged during shipping, like cans that had been crushed and too dented to sell (soup, fruit, beans, meat, veggies), or bottles that had broken and ruined entire cases of food (thank you Ragu!), or bread and produce that was expired and slightly bad, where you could cut away the moldy or bruised or rotten areas. Mom said I found all this to be great fun—we had to be sneaky about it, and I could pretend to be a cowboy robbing a general store, the proprietor a nasty, evil, heartless man with a handlebar moustache who was hording all the expired Wonder Bread. My favorite stop, however, wasn’t Safeway—it was the donut shop along the way. Whoa, look at all those donuts! But Mom would only allow a donut raid if we’d gotten enough proper food.
These were rich, fascinating stories, all the more so because they were completely unfamiliar. But there was another story, this one loaded in an entirely different way: Mom revealed that my father had been lovers with another man the last time she saw him. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1974, not long before we moved to California to start over, when Mom was twenty-two. She had already made one trip to Florida from Connecticut to try and fix her marriage to Paul—she simply could not accept that the love of her life was over; she believed he’d eventually come around and rejoin his family—leaving me with relatives and hitchhiking down with a junkie friend as escort/protector to track him down in Orlando, where she’d heard he was staying. That trip only met with disappointment, as she couldn’t locate him. Some months later, however, she was able reconnect with him via phone and, in her mind, Paul left room for doubt as to the permanence of their separation. He agreed to meet her. This time she took the bus down, again leaving me with the family. She went to the address that Paul gave her. On arrival, she learned that Paul was moving in with a guy; that is, they were actually moving in furniture when she showed up at the door. Mom was annoyed with how much attention Paul was paying to his new roommate when they had important things to discuss. Finally Paul had to spell it out for her. This wasn’t his roommate friend. This was his boyfriend. Mom was outraged. She had already been deeply wounded by the failure of their relationship, but this brought it to a whole new level. She was open-minded about different lifestyles—“live and let live” is very much something she believes in—but to have her husband and the father of her child go this route was simply too much for her. Mom wanted nothing to do with Paul after that. Certainly, this could have been some ruse for Paul to get Mom off his back, but she was doubtful. She felt like she knew him well enough to tell. He wouldn’t lie about something like that.
There’s Mom for you. Up in Leadville I felt like a dullard when compared to her: sure I’d done acid around the same age at the Denny’s where I worked in Simi Valley, but that seemed like a mere basket of fries with a side of ranch dressing compared to her Moons Over My Hammy. One night during this storytelling I first learned that she’d met Paul through one of his sisters in Waterbury, Connecticut—his sister had lived there. That, in fact, the Connecticut–Alabama connection had been enabled by the Vietnam War. Paul’s family was from Phenix City, Alabama, just across the Alabama–Georgia state line from Columbus, Georgia, near Fort Benning. Paul’s sister Sue had gone to a dance and met a man from Waterbury who was at Fort Benning for training before getting shipped off to Vietnam. They’d fallen in love, married, and Sue became pregnant. Her husband was then killed in Vietnam almost immediately upon arrival. Grief-stricken, and now with a newborn, Sue took up her father-in-law’s offer to stay with them in Waterbury. That’s when Paul, freshly out of prison for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon, violated his parole and drove up to see his sister Sue and her new daughter—Paul and Sue had been close. Paul then strolled into the Friendly’s Restaurant where Mom was working and saw something he liked.
Could it be that easy? I picked up the phone and called directory assistance in Waterbury and read off Sue’s name from the card. She was listed. I was connected and Sue answered. I told her my name, that she was probably my aunt. The line was silent. Then, oh my god. An awkward and confused conversation followed. It concluded with me saying I was heading out east and I’d like to meet her. Of course she was thrilled, looking forward. I was back on the Greyhound within days.