Acid rock, Bluegrass, Computer genius, Computers, Genoa Restaurant, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Langston, Portland, Portland Zoo, Puddle City, Reed College, Rock Band, Steve Jobs, Traffic accident, Volkswagen bug, White Eagle
By Tamim Ansary
I went to Reed College around the same time as Steve Jobs and recently, after a reading I did in which I mentioned this fact, someone asked me what Jobs was like. I had no idea. If I ever crossed paths with him, I was not aware of it. He was just some punk freshman, I was a mighty senior. There was a computer genius on campus at that time, but his name wasn’t Steve Jobs. It was Peter Langston.
We didn’t know exactly what computer geniuses did, because computer didn’t really exist yet, at least not in everyday life. For most of us back then, the word computer brought to mind pointy-headed Poindexters with big foreheads doing shadowy work for the military-industrial complex. Langston amazed us, in part, because he didn’t fit that mold. Looking back, I suppose he must have been working on inventing a language people could use to talk to machines about anything in the universe using only two words, zero and one: a worthy project to be sure, but not one that I or anyone I knew really cared about. Computers were maybe #148 on the list of things we considered important, a list on which there were only 147 items.
If Langston enjoyed legendary status among us–and he did–it wasn’t for his computer skills but for his music. He played incendiary lead guitar for Portland’s most kick-ass acid rock band, the Portland Zoo. His reputed prowess with computers only added a surreal fillip to his glamour: like if Jimi Hendrix happened to have also been a nuclear physicist.
Langston remains indelibly etched in my memory, however, for one particular reason. Early in my senior year, he and his band were playing at Reed, and I was there, and on that night, at that event, I fell in love.
Actually, it was the second time I had fallen in love that week; but both times were with the same girl. The first time she was sitting on a deck reading aloud to a group of people, and I was hanging about on the outskirts, longing to approach her but feeling too shy. Now a few nights later, here she was again, at this dance, sitting on a table, playing with a curl of her super short hair. The room was huge and humid and crowded and pulsing with rhythm. People were bumping against people. Flesh was brushing against flesh. The Zoo was burning down the house. Langston was on fire, and every time one of his guitar solos came soaring out of the musical thunder, the skies opened up and hundreds of us went briefly to heaven. And here was that girl.
I was still too shy to do anything but stare from a distance, and yet I left the dance elated this time, and this was indeed when it all began with Lily. One week later we were a couple and it was great and the year was bathed in light, and then I graduated, and she transferred to another college, and we were no longer an item and my heart was broken. But when I thought about Lily, which I did a lot, it was Peter Langston who provided the soundtrack to my nostalgia
Flash forward two years. Lily was still gone. I was still heartbroken. But I had a life. I worked as a waiter at the Genoa, a new northern Italian restaurant, which would later became such a monument to great cuisine that the city would declare the building it was in a historic landmark—I kid you not.
The Genoa ended up, like so many other high-end eateries, a conventional Chez Panisse clone. But in those first days, it was like no other restaurant anywhere, a total-immersion aesthetic experience run by a bunch of recent Reed College graduates or dropouts and managed by a philosophy professor who, having not gotten tenure at Reed, decided to give academia the finger in favor of this restaurant thing.
One day, in that period, I was driving to work, minding my own business and thinking about the White Eagle, a live music bar, which I often haunted, in part because Puddle City played there. Puddle City was an electric bluegrass band fronted by the legendary Peter Langston who mostly played electric mandolin now but made that little instrument as glamorous as Clapton’s guitar. I was driving east on Burnside, approaching 21st Street, when I noticed a car at the cross street, waiting for the light. I was close enough to see that the driver was a teenage girl. The light was red for her, but even so she was inching forward. It almost looked like she was considering gunning across four lanes of rush hour traffic before the clump of traffic I was part of reached the intersection. I didn’t slow down, though, because who would be crazy enough to try a thing like that? I mean, her light was red.
Then I was standing on the sidewalk, surrounded by a considerable commotion. Lots of people were milling about, chattering and buzzing. Something had happened and I wanted to know what it was. I kept asking, “What’s going on? What’s everyone looking at? Was there an accident?” No one would answer me. I couldn’t understand why. It was a simple question, and given the hubbub a perfectly natural one to ask.
At that moment, I saw a Volkswagen bug crumpled against the pole that held aloft the sign for the Standard Gas Station at that corner. The pole was leaning at a 45 degree angle now. The VW looked quite a lot like mine. In fact, given that my bug was hand-painted in the manner of a Jackson Pollock painting and this one was as well, it had to be mine. No other car looked like that. But who had driven my car into the pole? Who had stolen my car and done this thing?
There was another car nearby too, a low-slung, wide-bodied American sedan, parked oddly enough on the sidewalk. Its door was quite dented. Strange. A girl was standing next to it, looking ashamed and forlorn. A guy dressed like a cop was asking her questions. I thought maybe this was all part of a movie or an ad someone was shooting. I looked around for cameras but couldn’t spot any.
Then it all came together. There had been a traffic accident, and I’d been in it.
It hit me instantly that I had a crisis on my hands. I had been on my way to work! Now, I was going to be late! I couldn’t leave my fellow workers in the lurch. I had to let the restaurant know! The cop was strolling toward me, but I shook him off. I didn’t have time for him and his trivia. I had an urgent matter to attend to. I had to call the Genoa!
The philosophy professor answered the phone.
“Bill!” I blurted. “I’ve been in a car accident. I might be late. Someone will have to cover for me.”
“Don’t worry,” he said gently. “We’ll take care of it.”
As soon as I hung up, he turned to the rest of the staff and said “Someone better go get Tamim.” He was concerned (as I learned later) because this was the third time I had called in ten minutes and each time I had blurted out exactly the same words. Bill! I’ve been in a car accident. I might be late. Someone will have to cover for me. My buddy Jan DeWeese jumped in a car and headed my way.
Meanwhile the cop had finally gotten me to sit down next to him on the curb. He wanted me to tell him how far this car was from that car, and what color the lights were, and how fast was this car going, and how fast was that car going? He was treating me like I had witnessed a traffic accident or something. I was having trouble making him understand that I didn’t see it, I wasn’t there when it happened, I had only just arrived on scene. Then it hit me: oh my God! I was on my way to work. I was going to be late for work! I had to call the Genoa—right now!
It was then that someone tactfully suggested to the cop that might he might better answers if he questioned me later. The Good Samaritan drew this conclusion from the fact that a flap of my scalp was hanging down over my forehead and blood was pouring down my face. The cop reluctantly put his notebook away.
Jan drove me to the hospital. The waiting room was crowded with people, and a lot them looked in worse shape than me. Some were wincing, some were groaning, a few seemed ready to fall over. They were there when I arrived, they were all ahead of me, they’d probably been waiting a long time… But when the doctor came to the door. he surveyed the room and his gaze stopped on me. “You,” he beckoned. “You’re next.”
Huh? I was next? But I had just arrived. Maybe my wound looked worse than it felt–because in truth I didn’t feel too bad. And it couldn’t have been very serious because they didn’t put me under. The doctor just gave me some local anesthetic and set to work sewing my scalp back together. No air of crisis attended the treatment. There was no sense of hurry, no sense of urgency. Indeed, my doctor seemed to have all the time in the world. He was chatting me up cheerfully. He told me about his taste in music, named the bands he liked, let me know that he played a little piano himself. I mumbled that I had a mandolin but couldn’t even tune it. He chuckled at that. He was married, he said, but he and his wife didn’t have kids yet, so they went dancing quite a lot.
I started to wonder if this doctor had quite the commitment to the job you’d like to see from someone working on your bleeding head; but he did do his work efficiently, and when he was done and the nurse wiped me clean of blood, I had no trouble standing up. The doctor asked if I felt dizzy. I didn’t. He then assured me that my wound was nothing to worry about. Scalp wounds always looked worse than they were. This did raise a question in my mind: if he knew the wound wasn’t serious, why did take me ahead of all those other people in the waiting room?
At that moment, my doctor grew shy. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, half blushing “Hey,” he said awkwardly, “if it’s not too much trouble… I wonder…? Could I get your autograph?”
I shrugged. Sure, I said. No one had ever asked for my autograph before, but I figured he must have been to the Genoa at some point, and the Genoa was, as I’ve mentioned, an amazing restaurant. Also, all modesty aside, I was in fact a great waiter, the kind of waiter whose death would have saddened all the other waiters, to steal a phrase from Donald Barthelme. Apparently, a waiter could be a sort of minor celebrity if he was good enough. Who knew? In any case, I gladly took his pen and wrote my name in his notebook and handed it back to him.
He squinted at my signature. His face fell. “Tamim Ansary?”
“That’s your name? Tamim Ansary?”
“I thought you were Peter Langston,” he said.
That’s how I discovered that I bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the computer genius and guitar god who was playing music the night I fell in love with Lily. She looms large in one of several stories I tell in Road Trips, the book I was reading from the night that someone asked me if I knew Steve Jobs.