One day I crossed the last item off my list of things-to-do, and then I was in trouble because what to do now? I didn’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I knew what a guy is supposed to do after finishing his to-do list, even though the knowledge was purely theoretical in my case, because it had never happened before and has never happened since: one is supposed to relax and have fun. Right?
Right. But what is “fun?” I remembered what activities were technically classified under that heading, but as a hardscrabble, middle-aged, freelance writer, I had trouble grasping what was so “fun” about them anymore.
Take jumping in and out of a swimming pool while shrieking. Kids can do this for fourteen hours on end. Hell, I used to be able to do it myself long ago. But what does it accomplish?
Or consider going to the movies. There you are, sitting in a big dark room for a couple of hours watching some rich guys in pleated skirts pretending to be Roman gladiators. Is this what people mean when they talk about “fun”? How is this different from what people mean when they talk about “despair”?
It’s not that I never experience euphoria anymore. I experience it every time I beat a killer deadline with seconds to spare. Man, that’s a great feeling! But it only lasts maybe twenty seconds tops; and you can’t achieve it without a killer deadline to beat, so what do you do in the Sahara Desert of an entire afternoon with a to-do list that has gone tragically blank?
I asked my nine-year-old Elina. She said, “You go for ice cream.”
I figured it could do no harm. I decided to take her to the Saint Francis Soda Shop. Hearsay said the place was good. I knew roughly where it was located. I had driven past it long ago. We went down to that neighborhood, parked where we could, and walked hand in hand through the summer afternoon. Local guys were hanging out on the street in their undershirts. Salsa music was booming from open second-story windows. We reached the corner in question and found a haircutting place.
“It’s on the next block,” Elina announced
I knew she was wrong. I knew it was gone. But I knew she would have to discover this for herself. “Next block,” she kept saying and I let her drag me seven blocks, knowing the whole time that our quest was pointless.
Mark Twain once said our problem isn’t all the things we don’t know. It’s all the things we do know that are wrong. At the end of the eighth block we found it. We stepped through the doors and there in the heart of San Francisco’s Hispanic ghetto was a soda fountain like rural towns used to have in the storied fifties, only this was not a retro re-creation of the fifties like Mel’s Diner, not one of those places with a boorish loudness that keeps screaming at you FIFTIES! FIFTIES! You can tell that if an actual person from the real Fifties were transported into one of those places, they would not experience it as the Fifties. They’d experience it as the glittering Future, straight out of some sci-fi visionary’s overheated imagination. For one thing, no place in the actual Fifties had every conceivable Fifties artifact packed into one location in stylized extreme. In real life, we’re always surrounded by a hodge podge. None of us have any idea what artifacts will scream THE OUGHTS! THE OUGHTS! a half-century from now. We can’t taste the flavor of our own time; it’s too pervasive and too constant.
St. Francis wasn’t trying to be of another age: it simply was. A clipping on the wall next to the front door said this shop had opened in 1919. “Outside its doors, the world has been torn down and rebuilt twice. Inside,” the clipping noted, “time stands sweetly still. It was remodeled in 1949, and nothing’s changed since then.”
But here’s the thing. The clipping itself was yellow and tattering. It was a column by Bill Mandel, who wrote for the Examiner long ago when I first came to town. Mandel was looking back from his long-ago modern day to an even more distant past. Here I was, thirty years later, looking at a column written back when I was working as a flunky at a weekly newspaper and living on Valencia Street with a bunch of roommates, one of whom would someday be my wife, though I had no inkling of it at the time. And this child by my side was already present in potentia back then, but who would have guessed? My own life had been torn down and rebuilt many times since Mandel wrote that column.
We grabbed a couple of counter stools and gave the soda jerk our orders. He brought us milkshakes and we started drinking. It hit me suddenly that this perhaps might be what people meant when they talked about fun—not just the shake, but the whole package: the thick sweetness in my mouth and throat, the summer day, this timeless fountain, and me with my vigorous, flourishing, lovable, enthusiastic nine-year-old daughter slurping at her drink–it was easy to imagine blinking and twenty-five more years had passed, and Elina was a grown woman of 34, here with HER child, remembering that long ago day when her Daddy brought her to the Saint Francis and maybe on the way in she would have noticed that Bill Mandel column. I wanted her to relish the experience in the moment instead of just in retrospect. I said, “Elina, someday you will remember this moment.”
She gave me back a gleaming smile and said, “I know.”
And then, very briefly, the two of us were in that twilit zone, the place you can never actually reach. We were sitting there in the way it used to be.
Tamim Ansary’s new memoir Road Trips will be available from Kajakai Press on September 25. It’s about an Afghan American in the late sixties and early seventies, trying his best to turn on, tune in, and drop out of a society he’s not a part of. Illustrated by Elina Ansary.
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