When I first wrote this, some people who read it thought it was aubiographical. I could maybe wish it was. This much I have in common with Sara: a cool father who used to work on the railroad and has said and done things very much like these, and those dogs. Otherwise, Sara and I are very different. Sara's better.
Nobody ever called me a yardbird either, but I did wear those Army surplus shirts!
| Sara's up on the hill digging
terraces. Below, the curving lines of tract houses and the highway: above,
the cow pasture. Ste's ten, she's barefoot and yellow from the sun, yellow
as the sandstone of the hillside and yellow as the long grass. The dogs
have come along. They follow her everywhere, though they have business of
their own. The old one, an industrial dog, sniffs out the scent of
the trucks on the highway. The young recidivist dog digs up gophers and
swallows them whole, but only because he has at last been convinced of the
consequences of going after Pedersen's dairy cows.
Sara's terraces are a whole world. They have a history, a folklore, a biology. She worries about ideology -- in books the fairy stories always happen in kingdoms. She wants to have the dragons from the books and her father's socialism too.
Now her father is at the door of their flat-roofed house gesturing with his hands, moving them up and behind his shoulders with the thumbs out. This is railroader sign language, one of the many private ways he has of communicating. He picks up catch phrases from everywhere: bits of other languages, argot from tbe railroad yard and the jazz clubs and the Party. He's telling her it's time to go. Today they're going to the railroad yard to pick up his pay.
The dogs race her down tbe hill and beat her across the street as she slides down on her bottom, holding the spade high before her. She climbs up and slithers into the pickup truck, older than she is and beginning to seem more massive and rounder than vehicles are supposed to. This is when the fins have begun to disappear from the cars on the road. The cab of the truck smells of rust and decayed rubber, for Sara pleasant smells because they go with the clashing of metal pulling metal along the roadbed and the lurch around the mysterious hillsides.
Sara's father takes them on the freeway part of the way. Sara rides in tense wonder as they go on and on and nothing is revealed. When the old truck coasts down the exit ramp it is as if the question of life is answered. The hills still loom almost featureless but around the back of them small surprises lie waiting to become knowledge. Such things as an old barn with a Bull Durham sign painted on it, a sudden green place, a cottage surrounded by tall juicy trees and bright grass, with a horseshoe driveway and roses or even snapdragons, a fence of prickly pears. A quonset hut, a half-cylinder of metal from which emanates the unbearable sound of wire being drawn out. An oil refinery with its eccentric buildings ana tiny ladders, among them the "cat-cracker" that pours out bright flames when you drive by it at night.
The railroad yard is in Port Costa, a foreign country of docks and factories. It smells like Saa's father's work clothes, like oil and heated steel. The railroad men move around the yard slowly, deliberately, without anxiety: they've got their railroad watches in their pockets, accurate to the second, to take care of the time, along with the timetable in the dispatchers office. The cars roll back and forth, coupling and uncoupling with squeaks and squweaks and noises like small explosions.
For Sara the yard is a magical place she alone of all children has been allowed to visit. At time it is as if because she has seen this place, she has special knowledge and competence. She has something to say about it, as if she herself brings forth the wonderful produce of the railroad yard, as if she herself can pull the heavy pin that holds the cars, and run as fast as the train like the brakmen do, guide the long train like the engineers do.
Her father is at the pay window getting his money. At first Sara stands behind his elbow, then she moves around the yellow room. The men that pass greet her father: "Hey, John. 'Lo, John."
They all know him because he has been working for the local board, filling in for the griever, the man who collects the union dues and represents the men when they go to the company for their rights. Sara's father isn't a pushy man, but an opinionated one. If he never opened his mouth they'd still know he was a Red.
"John," a man says softly so Sara can just hear him, "A man was around the yard yesterday asking about you. A G-man." He smiles. Or snarls. "Nobody spoke to him that I know of but I thought you should know."
Sara' s father laughs. The agents have been around before.
"This your daughter, then. She's gotten bigger."' Sara's seen this man before, at the union lodge, a narrow room upstairs in a shabby block in Oakland. She mostly remembers the office for the wheeled chairs and the cups of paper clips and rubber bands, and the ornate framed paper on the wail, saving "Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen." The man is older than her father and totally pink except for his clothes which are denim, black from the yard.
"Yep. that's my girl, the yardbird," Sara's father says, because she is wearing an Army surplus shirt and worn green jeans.
As the truck lurches back towards home Sara tries to read the words in the little stiff blue rule books her father keeps in the glove compartrnent. They are shaped differently from other books, narrow enough for a jeans pocket. The words are so strange and the type is so small that Sara can't make headway against the motion of the truck. Her father is singing in a voice pitched high and tight, a silly song:
"Three's for the Comintern, and two's for the opposites interpenetrating, oh! And one's for the workers unity that ever more shall be, oh"
This is just a silly song called "Red Fly the Banners" and it's a parody, but Sara takes it very seriously and adds up Marx and Engels and Lenin to get the Four Great Teachers in the next verse, but she can't decide if the fourth is supposed to be Maxim Gorky or Berthold Brecht.
"Daddy. " she asks suddenly, remembering the thing she was thinking about in the morning when she was leafing through the books and the museum souvenir folios in the bookshelf, "why is it that in my class at school almost all the kids who draw real well or write stories are girls and with grownups it's almost only men who write books and make pictures?"
Her father doesn't pause. "Because in capitalism men control thee economic system and they tend to keep women out of work that gets paid for or valued in any way. But you can write or draw or whatever you want, anyway, many women do."
Sara has never thought before that people would get paid for writing or drawing. Where do they get paid? At a window, like the railroad yard. or a place like the unemployment office where she has stood long hours with her mother?
"I m writing a book," she says. "There's a king in it but he's a good king and he's going to quit being a king and join the Soviet of People and Magical Beings."
"Really?" her father says. "He'll just retire, like that? It would be nice if the bourgeoisie would step down in our country. Usually it takes some struggle.
This year Sara and her friends have been creating a sparkling infrastructure of the new order. This is the new order that is supposed to transcend order, at least coercive order, and to put behind them the need for armed struggle. She's up to her nose in meetings: defense committees arising from confrontations with the police, schemes to provide health care and school lunches for the children of Oakland tenants' committees, the food conspirncy. Crates of golden melons seem highly significiant when they cost half what they do in the stores and the labor of distribution is provided by willing hands. There always seems to be plenty of extras and she and her friends hand them around the neighborhood.
Many of Sara's friends grew up in quite privileged homes out they seem willing to relinquish those privileges here in the Berkeley Flats where these students live crowded into tiny stucco housses up against the houses of poor families. Here and now it seems to Sara as if some kind of unity is developing. It seems to Sara she can see so clearly and so far, and she knows this is only because the moment is clear: but after this moment? Surely the clarity will seep into the future, at least a little bit. You can't go truly backwards. The world was never the same after the English factory children marched through their dirty streets chanting and singing for shorter working hours for themselves and the right to read books.
Sara's thinking of these spontaneous movements because of a letter her father has written to the Alameda County Central Labor Council about the war in Viet Nam. He told them, "the kids are right, but we've got the muscle. why don't we back them up?" Her father admitted bitterly it would probably never be read in a meeting, but just filed away. Sara doesn't think much of letters anyway. She thinks of Catalonia in 1936, the red and black flags flying from the taxicabs. Her father says successful revolutions are defeated by becoming institutionalized. She says revolutions don't have to become institutionalized. He says freedom only exists in the wide-open times that sway wildly between decadence and revolution. Sara says her generation has learned the lessons of his though she knows few of her friends are aware of his generation having done anything but execute the Rosenberqs.
Sara's father visits her on the weekend with a bag of groceries. They go the the cafe "Mediterraneum" and argue heatedly. Sara has been reading the classics of theory but she quotes Mao on "practice" which she says is food conspiracies and seizing the street. He dismisses every form of organization he has ever participated in but says you can't underestimate theory. She has been collecting signatures to out a new Party on the California ballot, called the Peace and Freedom Party, which Sara says will function within the State in order to dismantle it. He laughs, recalling a slogan, "to learn the tools of the fascists and use them against them," but he not only signs a petition but he takes one and carries it around to his friends. Still arguing, they carry the old folding spade to People's Park to plant trees.
This time a new world does seen to be coming from the ashes, or at least the vacant lots, of the old. Sara helps to lay paving stones for a path, and her father pushes tiny flowering shrubs around in a wheelbarrow. The air echoes with celebratory greetings. The rutted dirt takes on form and a covering of bright grass. At the end of the day Sara and her father take up where they have left off in their argument. He goes so far as to comment on the florid clothes Sara and her friends wear, calling it cultural terrorism to dress this way when you hope to organize the community.
The people of Peoples' Park have no such things as the right of condemnation or eminent domain. When the University reclaims the flowered ground to use it as a parking lot, the National Guard rings the block with rifles to protect this property from unauthorized use. Sara goes down to the new steel fence erected to keep her off the grass she planted and she weaves florist's daisies into the mesh. For weeks the lines of youth in bright costume and youth in uniform face each other through the steel. On the day in May when the lines are broken, the police have thrown up barricades and Sara's father can't get near the action. When the tear gas cannisters start flying, she is standing next to people she's never seen before.
Early in the morning the driest hills
have enough dew on them to make the grass as wet as rain. Here's an old
school bus painted over from its broad back to its round nose with bright
colors -- a scene of sea life and a sprawling tree and the words "Earth,
Love Her or Lose Her." It's taking Sara and her father to Vandenberg
Air Force Base so they can block traffic.