by Mike Taibbi
Studio City, CA, December 26th — Really, Studio City! That’s the name of the town where I’m living for awhile until I find a permanent place. There’s an In-N-Out Burger nearby, I’m in shouting distance of the entrance ramps to a couple of freeways, and none of the cars you see on those freeways seem to have any rust. They’re California cars.
And I’m now a California guy. I never thought it would happen. Never — in the many times my job took me to the west coast — thought the words ‘man, I could live out here!’ I was raised in New York and, except for a stretch living in London in the ‘70s and a fellowship year in Chicago, I’d spent my working life in two cities, Boston and New York. Mostly New York. I had that northeast bias… ‘I like the change of seasons, Boston’s triple-deckers and New York’s incomparable skyline, the history and cultural mythology of our older cities and towns — our rootedness…’
My colleagues and friends who extolled the pleasures and benefits of California life had a point — I mean, there’s nothing wrong with year-round boating, golf and tennis, for someone who likes all of that. But my counter was always that, despite that upside, California just never felt right to me. Even during assignments lasting months, when I had a chance to get into a routine and sample the way life could be, it just never felt like — well, like home.
* * * *
Things change. Nothing remains as it was. Careers take turns. Friends leave — leave town, or leave the land of the living. Relationships end, or at least ‘go in another direction.’ None of these are new notions, except that they’re newly powerful for anyone compelled to react to all those truths when they arrive at about the same time. Without getting too specific — in fact the details don’t really matter, I’m hardly the first person to change course after a long fetch in one direction — I reacted to the altered circumstances in my life by trading the East Coast for the west. I’m holding onto my house on the East End — friends and family will use it in the off-season and I’ll rent it out summers — but that’s really just hedging my West Coast bet.
When I was out here about a month, though — and maybe it’s a trick of the mind more than anything else – I started buying in. Woke up to a friend calling early, wanting to know if I finally had a day off and could I get moving and meet him for a round of golf at this remote course he favored up in the Santa Rosita mountains. Almost said, jeez, it’s late December, almost Christmas already, golf? But instead rubbed my eyes, fully awake suddenly, awake in California, and said ‘I’m all over it. 8:30?’
I won’t pretend it’s been easy. Transitions on this scale, at this stage of a life that’s been thoroughly filled, never are. You move a lot — a boat, a car, the furnishings you care about, the files and records that matter — but you leave an awful lot behind, for good, and that’s hard work too. It’s over now, that part done; now it’s getting used to it all.
One aspect of it that’s impossible to predict with any precision is how much of your past will come back for a visit. Some of it’s comical, worth no more than a laugh and a small patch of frustration. At the Department of Motor Vehicles it was easy enough (if a bit unsettling) to get the boat and car registered in California; but when I applied for a driver’s license the computer hit the brakes: two out of state suspensions. One stop traced back to Biddeford, Maine, a speeding ticket from 1978 that was paid and the ticket dismissed: the dismissal, I learned after six phone calls, simply never made it from the paper archives to the current computer data base.
A nice woman in Biddeford called me back after making the trip to the archives warehouse to retrieve the 33-year old record which she said, with some satisfaction, wasn’t all that hard to find. While I was on hold, she pecked away at her desktop keyboard for a minute or two. Finished, she said that probably within two business days the national database would be updated.
The other stop, from Massachusetts, was for another speeding ticket that I’d paid at about the same time (I remember being a bit heavy-footed in those days); but I’d never paid the $50 license-reinstatement fee. Debit card time, problem solved. After passing a written test I was issued a temporary California driver’s license to carry until my official photo license was processed. They used a hole-punch on my New York license, right above the organ donor icon, to signify that it was no longer valid as official ID, and my days as a New Yorker — no, my years…decades…were over. I could say I was from New York…could even say Noo Yawk…but I was a California guy now.
* * * *
Back in October, on a cold and rainy Sunday, I’d gotten to the boat before 4 in the morning. There was an ebb tide to catch out of Gardiners Bay if I wanted a fair ride east to Block Island for a last visit with friends there, and perhaps another stop or two, before the boat was hauled for the move to California. I’d returned from a reporting assignment in Libya the day before but Block was easy, six or seven hours at most, and I’d been certain for weeks that I really couldn’t make the move west without a last short cruise in what had been my home waters for more than three decades, on a boat I’d had for 23 years.
There was some weather in the forecast, a squall line that rumbled across my course with moderate vigor just as the day’s first light began to fill, but the boat was designed for big conditions and punched through it for an hour or so that required energy and vigilance from the helmsman but nothing more.
And then, in the gentler winds that followed, something strange happened. A bird flitted under the spray dodger in front of me and took a seat on the housetop, staring at me. Small thing, looked to my amateur eyes like a finch or a thrush of some sort, and seemed to lean against the mainsheet winch, as though exhausted. I kept looking at the bird, he looked at me; I imagined him saying, ‘Man oh man, that little storm kicked the hell outta me…mind if I rest for awhile?’
We were about seven miles west of the Block Island entrance channel, a bit out of the comfort range for so small an aviator, I thought. I waved at my visitor, said ‘welcome aboard, pal’ -— when you’re alone at sea you can do anything and say anything you want, have a conversation with a bird or a cloud or your shoe if you want, who’s to criticize? And he looked at me, looked at me, and stayed there. Ten minutes, maybe 15, so odd, until he finally flapped his wings as though ready to resume whatever his journey was.
Instead, to my considerable surprise, he jumped up and dove straight down through the companionway. I kept peering belowdecks, trying to catch sight of him as I worried he might fly into one of the ports and break his neck; but with the storm having passed, the sunrise in front of me made it hard to see clearly. I was about to turn on the autopilot and head below to investigate when I saw him again. He was perched on a couch pillow on the main salon’s port berth, and seemed to be staring up at a photograph. A photo of my old pug Scoop, who’d spent the happiest times of his 15 years on the boat, so much so that when he’d died a couple of years earlier it made perfect sense to hang a favorite photo of him in the prime spot on the salon bulkhead. If a boat can be enhanced by the spirit of any living thing, I wanted a terrific dog’s trusting and gentle nature to hold sway on my vessel.
And now Scoop’s photo seemed to be talking to my new visitor. The bird would cock his head, as though listening, but never left his perch on the couch pillow. He stayed there almost an hour; at first I thought there must have been something wrong with him, he must be injured or sick, it made no sense that a wild bird would behave that way.
But after a few minutes I stopped worrying about him. He seemed fine, comfortable. The boat was humming along now, an easy ride in a settled breeze, perfect conditions for someone with much to think about. So I thought, about it all. Lost love, fears about the future, friends gone too early. Mistakes and regrets, of course — who in a full life doesn’t have a collection of those? And remembered moments of triumph and exuberant pleasures too — who, who’s had a lucky life, doesn’t have some of those, too. So I thought about it all and, at the bell outside the entrance channel to Block’s Great Salt Pond, felt comfortably at peace with the course I’d chosen to take.
I was sure when I went below to get my VHF radio, so I could talk to the Harbormaster about an available mooring, that my winged visitor would spook immediately and fly out of there. But he didn’t. He stayed perched on his pillow, looked at me, looked up again at Scoop. I grabbed my cellphone, found the camera function, and only after I’d snapped off a picture did my visitor decide it was time to leave. I scrambled up the companionway steps to see if I could follow where he’d gone, and caught a split-second glimpse of a tiny creature streaking toward the sun.
* * * *
Later that afternoon, at the home of my Block Island friends Malcolm and Nancy Greenaway, I told the story about the bird and showed the cellphone snapshot to supplement the narrative. Nancy mentioned that a good friend was stopping over soon, Kim Gaffett, Block Island’s ‘First Warden’… essentially, the island’s elected mayor … and that Kim was a lifelong birder. When Kim came I told the story yet again, and showed her the photo.
“A red-eyed vireo,” she pronounced with certainty, after using the zoom function to take a closer look. “Yes, unusual given its migration patterns to be that far out, the storm might well have had something to do with it.” She offered no opinion about the bird’s other behavior, and frankly I felt a bit foolish reprising a tale that sounded equal parts mysticism and anthropomorphism. The conversation veered to other subjects, a gem of an afternoon on an island that, for the tourists, bills itself as “the last great place.”
It was Malcolm who brought us round to the central question, at least the question that was central in my life when I’d tossed off my lines a long twelve hours earlier. “So,” he began, an accomplished photographer who liked to consider his subjects from several angles, firing away all the while. “This big move. Are you ready for it? Really ready?”
I didn’t have an answer that was either profound or especially complicated. “Life is a journey,” I said. And, in that moment, believed it completely.
“Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” — William Jennings Bryan.