Flying down Durant with Doug
The scene is this – It’s midnight, give or take, a Friday or Saturday, I don’t remember. We leave our room on the sixth floor of the Durant Hotel. Before dark there is an in-your-face, up-close perfect view of UC Berkeley’s campanile from our room’s window. But now it’s dark. We’ve been to a disability Halloween party earlier, a room packed with wheelchairs and similar mobility devices. My friend Bob and I are the only ones there, out of maybe 20 folks, walking. But Doug and I have been back to the room a while and as one day begins to morph into the next Doug says, “Bud. Blondies.” And out the door we go, down the elevator, through the lobby, down a ramp and then straight down Durant Ave, me at something between a trot and a gallop, trying my best to keep up with Doug in his motorized chair, punching it down the middle of the street toward Telegraph – and Blondies Pizza.
Telegraph is packed when we get there in the midnight hour, a plethora of amazing characters, kitties and cats, Springsteen people, Lou Reed people, Patti Smith people. Motorhead people. We cruise and pant our way through the open door of Blondies, order a couple of slices of pepperoni and bring them over to a built-in counter up against the front wall, the large window space wide open to the street, and there we sit – in power chair and on stool – slurping down the gooey good stuff. Maybe 45 minutes later I have carried Doug from his chair into the hotel bed, attached and turned on the evening air pump/respirator thing that’s a life-saving must every night, and said goodnight, the room dark, the night dark, the campanile peak lit up in the dark.
This is my first time at Blondies, but it won’t be my last. Over the year’s I return again and again. In time, through some internal process I consider spiritual, it becomes a sacred place. This is my first and only time sleeping in the Durant Hotel, though not my only time sleeping in a Berkeley room with Doug. Or one or another motel in Oakland. Or Washington, DC. Or on his parent’s floor in West LA, where he lived. The assisting as best I can, the carrying onto airplanes, in and out of taxis and airport vans, so many times in and out of a bed. Always the bedtime lung-assisting device. The requirement of a lifetime of polio.
One night, crashing at Judy Heumann’s Berkeley house, after a day of the good disability fight, time spent at the Berkeley CIL (Center For Independent Living) on Telegraph, BARTing over to a rally at San Francisco’s City Hall plaza, Ed Robert’s from the podium, hundreds of people cheering him on, him yelling “Throw the bums out.” Was I drinking then, a drunk, trying to keep up with freedom fighters with their chairs and walkers, canes, and in Ed’s case, iron lung? Back at Judy’s at some point in the night I wake to go to the bathroom or find something to drink in the kitchen fridge, and on the way back to the front-room mattress hear a voice, it’s Ed’s from inside the lung, and he says he needs to go the bathroom and needs my help, meaning I am to reach in and take his penis and hold it into a plastic bottle-like thing until he is done, which is another first for me and thank God I’m sober enough to do it. In fact, you are the first to hear about it.
Earlier, time is fuzzy back then (this is ’77 probably), I’m on a bus traveling through West LA to the Westside Center For Independent Living to meet up with my friend Bob Zimmerman – with whom I am crashing on the floor of his Venice Beach apartment – and be introduced to Dr. Doug Martin, double PH.D. Executive Director and founder of this CIL, the first in LA and maybe the second in the state, maybe the country. I become a volunteer soon thereafter, stuff envelopes, sit between this one deaf and that one blind. At night I drink Coors and Olympia, smoke pot.
After a time Doug asks if maybe I wouldn’t like to help him out as an attendant, don’t worry he says, I can handle it, and I say yes and so begins many years of infrequently attending to Doug and many plane rides to Oakland and Sacramento and SF and once even to Washington DC to lobby directly for the ADA – years away. In fact Doug works out some scam of sorts – entirely ethical of course – whereby the state of California pays round-trip airfare from Boston to LA or Oakland and back so I can serve as his attendant at one or another state conference, and be paid by the hour. One morning I go with him to a political meeting in LA and shake the hand of City Councilor Grey Davis, years away from his Governorship. At that same meeting I also get to shake the hand of Cesar Chavez. Yes I do. On yet another cross-country mission of mercy and best-friendship I am rewarded – as if I needed anymore reward than time with Doug – with a one and a half hour conversation in the back of an east-bound cross-country flight with Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Hold the fear, just a dab of loathing. I was sober by then – ’84 – and politely declined the nips he was snaking from the stewardess, one after another.
I have always – always – considered that $2 bus ride from Venice to West LA to meet my friend Bob’s boss – Doug Martin – one of the most fortuitous of my life. The beginning of all my adventures with Doug, who – believe me – was one crazy mofo. Bar none. Like following the Grateful Dead all over California, all the way to Bermuda, in his chair. His promise he was taking me to Nation’s in Oakland to meet large black women with meat cleavers. Sitting in a bar in Westwood, close by UCLA, cracking up at the wild tales of a day in the life being yowled out by his pal “the punk Madonna”. The phone ringing in my Somerville apartment, a familiar voice 3000 miles away saying only this – “Thompson Twins”. I would not have had many of the most electric times I have had in my life. Or met the people I was lucky enough to meet. Doug passed away in 2003, the result of an electrical failure in that very same breathing equipment I so many times set up and, by the grace of God, managed to get right every time. Ed Roberts passed in ’95. Last I heard, Judy continues to fight the good fight. Take a minute and Google them – your day will be brighter.
The next time I was in the East Bay, after Doug had died, I went to Blondies one afternoon and while the people I was with chatted and laughed and ate pepperoni, I had a silent ceremony of thanks for Doug and his life and the fact I got to share in some of it. Blondies eventually closed a couple of years ago.
I can still see, you know, Doug flyin’ down Durant late one night, maybe it was early one morning. Living it up. Living life. Living large.
Was there one journey you took that changed much in your life? Maybe everything? Someone you met almost inadvertently, whose life you cannot imagine not sharing now. Something so casual – so serendipitous? Do you have that story? Please leave a comment, I’ll collect comments and pass them on to one and all in another post. Thanks for being a subscriber. Many thanks.