Down By The River

Lots of footprints, but no trash. Are you looking, Dolores Park frequenters?
A stranger's running shoes were neatly laid out under the bed.

The bed was comfortable. Firm. The house was old, the wallpaper was old. The support beams were probably redwood and originally unfinished, they jutted out of the ceiling and walls. Someone had painted the beams, which is a shame. The bed frame was four post, wood, an antique. Incongruously the comforter was a hypoallergenic cotton instead of the down that would have fit the mise en scene.

I lay still breathing quietly listening to the sounds of night-time outside of the city: owls, insects, leaves rustling. I could hear people shouting, drunk people. My friends. I contemplated my existence.

I was now 39 years and 12 days old. Happy belated birthday.

My friends had taken it upon themselves to rent a cabin in Guerneville, California for the occasion.

Things had gone... pear shaped.


Everything had been arranged ahead of time and I stayed out of the mix.

Sometimes you learn that there are things you just don't want to know, especially if you are a neurotic meddler in details. I had trained myself to be the embodiment of laissez faire.

There were last minute snags: AGF had arranged to borrow the car of a couple for whom she was dog sitting, a 1990s Saturn SUV.

At 9:30 AGF, the Saturn and Sadie, the boxer she was dog-sitting, picked me up.

"Everything in this car is stock!" remarked The Kombucha Man later on that day, when we finally reached our destination.

First, however, the check oil light needed to be dealt with.

A list of items needed to be ticked off: oil, check.

Pick up Mersey, the mastermind behind this outing. Check.

I eyed the radio.

The women complained about being forced to listen to NPR for hours on prior road trips.

Sadie panted, turned a circle in place and lay back down next to Mersey.

"Happy birthday me," I muttered and tuned in KQED. Car Talk With Click & Clack.

Minutes later that was kiboshed by AGF as I feebly tried to explain that the passenger controls the radio.

She spun past several good songs on the radio (The Band, Fleetwood Mac) before we settled on 80s Pop.

I regretted not bringing my headphones.

Meat for BBQ: check.

I spent too long inside Drewes Brothers, behind the world's most indecisive customer - a man in his thirties on the phone with his wife or girlfriend clearly ordering up items for an upcoming feast? Seder, perhaps? Brisket was ordered.

I picked up a tri-tip, bacon and some sausages.

Back in the car.

Siri barked out directions to get to the Golden Gate, eventually I gave in and let the phone lead us (I had wanted to go down Dolores, Siri took us down Guerrero - six of one, half a dozen of the other).

I made a furtive attempt to tune back into NPR before giving up entirely. Mersey and AGF were chatting away.

Even after almost a month into an alcohol-free cleanse with no end in sight I hadn't got used to being up in the mornings. I tuned out.

I forced myself to stop looking at the world through the bottom of a rocks glass the weekend before starting my current job. Things had gotten out of hand. I needed a break.

The Kombucha Man was defiant: "You'll have a proper shot with us next weekend at the River."

"I don't think I will."

"Just one?" Kombucha Man was bargaining.

"Not one," I held firm.

Will power or temptation?

At 10:30AM on Saturday, April 12 it was anyone's game.


"Check it out," I said looking out the window interrupting Mersey and AGF chatting. "It's the Hutchinson Company Quarry from Dirty Harry!"

The elevator was visible tucked in between strip malls and outlet stores. It reminded me of Shinto shrines tucked in between glass and steel skyscrapers in Tokyo - a small piece of the past preserved like a stone jutting out as artificial flowers of human progress spring up out of the dirt.

The women shrugged. I think AGF may have even said "I don't think I've seen that one."

I tried to pretend I didn't hear that, but I may have said "'s on Netflix, I think."

Haven't seen Dirty Harry? Who was I hanging out with?

We were driving around Santa Rosa when I realised I hadn't had anything for breakfast and AGF realised that she needed to pee. I spotted a Wendy's, mentioned "Frosty" and Mersey was on-board: "Oh, I used to love dipping my French fries in my Frosty."

We may not have Dirty Harry, but at least we have Frostys and French fries.

1500 calories later, breakfast: check.

We went to the Marin County Mart to get doggie treats, I stayed in the car (defiantly listening to NPR) as the women shopped.

A parade of yoga pants passed in front on me, some with strollers, some with puppies, some sporting plastic cups filled with green liquid - because chewing kale is so passé.

The women returned and we were off. I mentioned the yoga pants, Mersey replied "yeah I had friends visiting from Europe, they asked me if everyone was on their way to go work out."

Not everyone, I thought, feeling a little queasy from my double-cheeseburger, fries and Frosty.


Our party, AGF, Mersey, Sadie and myself, arrived last. We had been preceded by The Kombucha Man, Number Two, Number Two's housemates, husband and wife R and L and The Kombucha Man's neighbour Rita from Queens.

"Let's go get some drinks!" exclaimed The Kombucha man giving me a sidelong "you too, buddy" glance.

"I could use a coffee," I offered.

I wasn't quite road-weary but I felt the need to wander around "downtown" Guerneville.

"We still need to go to Safeway and get food and supplies," added AGF, "and actual dog food." Daisy-Mae whimpered and went back to toying with her expensive chew toy: marrow bone with leathered, dried ligaments still attached.


Guerneville is so named after its patron and founder, Swiss logging magnate George Guerne, who set up a sawmill in the town - earning the area the name "Stumptown."

Following Guerne's heyday the area became a popular resort for the Bay Area's wealthy until the 1960s where it experienced a decline until being rediscovered by the LGBT community in the 1970s.

Armistead Maupin has set several scenes in and around the Russian River, often with no shortage of knowing winks at the secretive Bohemian Grove club west of Guerneville in Monte Rio.

Guerneville, like the Castro neighbourhood of San Francisco, is a well known enclave for gay men (and certainly some women... but more men). Maupin may in part be responsible for having outed the region in his "Tales of the City" books, but like many items in the "culture" it's long been well known by those "in the know" for being friendly to gay tourism.

Bohemian Grove is another thing altogether: an old boys club of movers and shakers, the very rich and very very powerful comprising the club's membership. Here Oppenheimer and the chiefs of staff conceived of the Manhattan Project, and Nixon, Reagan and Cheney break bread.

Each year the membership produces a Grove Play - a full musical production scored and acted by the membership, a pageant of privilege that turns the noble notion of burlesque on its ear.

How much debauchery has the Russian River silently witnessed rolling along among the redwoods?

Something of this place, it's owls (of the winged sort and also Bohemian, the ever watchful owl being the club's avatar) and redwoods, is magical.

It's power, I was to discover, has to be making people act crazy. Act hella stupid.

Seaside Metal
We parked near the Safeway at the far end of the main drag in town and walked back up Highway 116.

This allowed us to get the general lay of the land. The main concentration of storefronts were between Mill and Church streets running north and south perpendicular to the river and 1st through 4th streets.

Mersey, a Fresno native, is a frequent visitor whereas the rest of us were visiting for the first time.

"I have to check out Seaside Metal," I announced. I remain convinced of the safety of eating Pacific bivalves regardless of recent incidents (the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster following earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March of 2011).

Thanks in no small part to Oppenheimer's ideations conceived at nearby Bohemian Grove there is no shortage of nuclear radiation in the Pacific. Still, numerous news "sources" of dubious credibility have been raising alarms for one reason or another about the dangers of even living on the Pacific coast, much less eating anything that came out of it.

I point at the Bikini Atoll, or what used to be the Bikini Atoll, as evidence supporting me being secure in partaking in the fruits de mer Pacific.

Others in our group remained unconvinced. Que sera.

Thanks, Oppenheimer.

Seaside Metal was not open until 5PM, however, so we would need to kill some time.

If I were drinking, this would be a no-brainer. However I wasn't, so I tried to stall as best as I could before the inevitable: the will of the drinkers winning.

We stopped in a toy store, then a candy store, then finally the Coffee Bazaar where the barista served me an iced coffee with a couple of extra ice-cubes made of frozen coffee (toddy brewed, perhaps?).

"Here's where the magic is," he said as he procured three cubes of frozen coffee from a reach-in freezer with a pair of metal tongs.

I like a barista who is proud of his work - no shortage of pride at the Coffee Bazaar.

Next door was a used book store that I perused looking for something to read poolside once we settled in at the lounge at R3 (Three R Hotel) - a gay bar with a bar-side pool (or a poolside bar?).

We were banished to the upper section because we had Sadie in tow. Smooth chested men in Spandex (some in heels) frolicked pool-side. A man and woman floated on inflated rafts in the pool, sipping cocktails. At some point, someone called The Kombucha Man "delicious."

He was flattered, but AGF was not particularly amused.

By the time I had my 4th charger (bitters and seltzer), everyone else had several drinks, the sun crested over the resort's high wall and the shadows grew longer and the wind began to chill.

It was 4PM, almost time for oysters.

The Kombucha Man's witbier.
Certainly it was time for a change of scenery (and perhaps to find a screen to check one of various games on that afternoon, with the Warriors and Sharks in the playoff hunt and the Giants first home games).

Everyone seemed to be holding up except Mersey, whose office job and disposition of late had made her drift further from her partying days of her misspent youth. So she wasn't used to putting them back quite as fast and furious as the rest of our motley crew.

In the back of my consciousness I knew this, and also in the back of my brain little alarms started to go off.

Mersey emerged from a wine bar somewhere along HW116, pronouncing "they have the best fucking pinot noir!"

Well with such a ringing (and loud) endorsement, I had I poke my head in and steal a sip (I'm not a monk, after all).

I chatted up the proprietor of the Whitetail Wine Shop as Mersey closed out her tab (con brio), and I entered to win a $300 bottle of wine that I wouldn't be able to drink any time soon if I was to stick with not drinking.

AGF, Number Two, Rita, R and L all went to Safeway for provisions.

Mersey had run into Seaside Metal to announce my visit. The twins, (chef) Mike Selvera and brother Tim, were both behind the long marble bar making preparations for the night's service.

Servers in starched black and white uniforms tended to our needs as Mersey began sliding off her chair.

The Kombucha Man and I eyed each other and kept her upright as I rushed through an impeccable cheese plate, salad of little gems lettuce and eventually the pièce de la résistance: the aforementioned maligned bivalves.

Everything was wonderful (but not cheap) and I look forward to taking my time, next time.

Apologies if we made a scene, Mike and Tim.

Amateurs, light weights. You know how that goes.

I paid, much to The Kombucha Man's consternation ("...damnit I was supposed to buy your oysters..."), and lighted out of there so we could get Mersey home and hopefully into a bed for a few hours while I started a fire and figured out what to cook for dinner.

Have an oyster or 12, it won't kill you. I hope.

"...The best laid plans..."

Whereas I though it was a good idea for Mersey to get some rest, the infinite wisdom that comes from having imbibed a few too many was telling Mersey's brain to tell her hands to find a couple Ritalin she had stashed away in her purse to "sober her up."

I won't deny having similar impulses myself, but they usually involve less socially acceptable methods of sobering up (in powder form) which is part of the reason I was taking an extended break from drinking.

I found myself in a vortex, bookended by the one year anniversary of losing my high school friend Emily just shy of her 37th birthday on February 1st and at the other end the second anniversary of losing a former lover, Keite, just weeks after turning 37.

I faked my way through it, played tough and tried to soldier on, but I was marching to the drum of a total oblivion: late nights, long hangovers, days bleeding together.

I allowed myself to fall into complete daze, I was underwater and I didn't want to come up for air. But I knew I would have to...

...Because really, what business does an adult have finishing a bottle of rye at 8AM on a Thursday after having been up all night doing god knows what with a new job starting the next Monday.

People were relying on me. Children who now knew me for their entire lives, loved me and called me "Uncle Chris" would be devastated if I slipped into oblivion. I had responsibilities.

"...And so it goes, and so it goes, and so it goes. Where it's going no one knows..."

Nick Lowe's warning rang in my ear that morning, and I decided that March 15th, 2014 would be it for a while.

I survived St Patrick's Day, I had survived my birthday and my birthday parties. By hook or by crook I would survive this.

"...So it goes and so it goes and so it goes..."

The other members of our party had gotten some groceries, sure, but also a stunning amount of booze.

The sky grew darker, and Number Two was getting touchy feeling. Mersey was bouncing off the walls and starting trouble. R and L tried to stay out of the way and eventually fashioned a bowl out of a cored apple since not one of the many stoners present remembered to bring proper cannabis apparatus.

The cored apple bowl is a fine example of that noblest of arts, système débrouillardise, otherwise known to some as "System D."

It is a hack, something that will "make do," put together with haste in order to solve a problem: no one brought a proper bowl. A pen, an apple, tin foil, et voilà!

I needed to convert the fire pit (above) into a cooking implement (below) using a purloined oven shelf (and eventually a carefully balanced cast iron paella pan).

As I fussed with the fire, I could hear a band from somewhere outside of my field of vision hacking their way through several covers: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Janice Joplin, The Band and eventually, when the sun had gone all the way down, an appropriately long cover of Neil Young's "Down By The River."

Ladies, if your man takes you down by the river, don't go. He intends to shoot you.

If he's Neil Young, he intends to do it slowly.

Mersey was now vibrating so fast I was worried that she would shift dimensions. Friction began to grown between factions and Number Two began humping my leg (this is all true).

It had been more than thirty years since crying and s'mores were part of my evening.

I left it to The Kombucha Man to keep Number Two from falling into the fire pit. I took a long, longing look at the bottle of Bulleit Bourbon looming on the kitchen table, grabbed AGF's noise cancelling headphones and let Jason Isbell sing that sweet sober stuff right into my ears:

"...I sobered up, I swore off that stuff forever this time..."

"...Where's that liquor cart, maybe we shouldn't start. But I can't for the life of my say why..."

Eventually I just gave up and lay under the covers, listening as drunks yelled at each other.

Is this how I've been spending my Saturday nights for the last couple of decades?


I didn't sleep, and I haven't been sleeping since I stopped drinking.

I'd been wearing my Up Band tracking my steps, my calories and my sleep. I was lucky if I got two hours a night.

The sun was out early so I poached a duck egg for each guest in simmering water with red wine vinegar and plenty of salt.

I put out my mise en place for my version of huevos rancheros (Mersey's idea) and realised that although we had a coffee maker, no one had the foresight to get coffee.

Mersey surfaced from slumber, probably still drunk, and promptly returned there not to wake up again until almost noon.

AGF came to life. Everyone else slept.

"AGF, let's get coffee."

"Yeah, I could use to get out of here for a minute," she said with the look of someone with a few things weighing her morning down.

We returned to the Coffee Bazaar, like going back to the scene of some kind of crime.

"Is there any way I can get like a half a gallon of coffee?"

The barista, an older man with blue and green dyed hair shrugged.

"Well, these larges are 22 ounces and if you get three then that's your 66 ounces."

I frowned. This was going to use more than my two hands when I added a double espresso for AGF and an ice coffee with a shot of espresso poured in.

"I'll take a half pound of your best bean, drip grind, a double espresso and an iced red-eye. And just in case, can I steal one of your coffee filters?"

"That's some drink," said the barista, referring to my iced red-eye.

"I'd add a different kind of shot, but I'm not drinking." I felt like I was one of "those" people. You know, vegans, people who claim gluten sensitivity, sauce-on-the-siders and worst of all... people in recovery.

The barista smiled and offered, "well, I got your double shot of espresso and I'll shave the shot off your red-eye. Hope you wake up," adding, "hon."

I smiled back and felt pretty.

Back at base camp coffee was made in short order and the victims of last night's self-inflicted damage slowly lined up and made themselves little poached egg tacos (except for Mersey, whose idea it had been, who merely groaned whenever anyone would ask after her).

"God what happened last night," she asked when she finally came to.

"You don't want to know," I grinned knowingly. "Anyone one want to go check out the river?"

"Me me me!" said Rita, who usually was a rambunctious one - this time relatively milquetoast.

We walked out into the sunlight, and stood under the same blue California skies as Oppenheimer and Cheney, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Armistead Maupin and the Pomo Nation who dubbed it Ceola, a "shady place."

I'm glad my friends arranged for me to stay in Guerneville, and I'm more glad that I met that day without a hangover.

So it goes, down by the river.

Thanks, pals!


Marin County Mart
2257 Larkspur Landing Cir
Larkspur, CA ‎

Coffee Bazaar
14045 Armstrong Woods Rd
Guerneville, CA

Triple R Hotel
16390 4th St
Guerneville, CA ‎

Whitetail Wine Bar
16230 Main Street
Guerneville, CA

Seaside Metal
16222 Main Street
Guerneville, CA


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