State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
By the time we arrive in the late afternoon, honey-colored autumn sunlight is slanting into the Santa Barbara Courthouse’s grand arched breezeway, painting the flagstones and lengthening the shadows there. We hustle across Anacapa with our own little sparkle grenade (our daughter, that is) and her longtime friend and fellow ballerina, and under the courthouse archway they spot someone from their group. There is a spontaneous piercing yelp of the sort that in another setting would cause one to spit coffee. The girls fly away from us to join their friend, and my lovely life partner and I, reduced again to the familiar status of chopped liver, exchange glances.
It’s a pre-high school dance family photo shoot and the courthouse, normally reserved for the handcuffed, is abuzz with excited innocence. Everywhere we look, tomorrow’s attorneys, account managers, software engineers, astronauts, and vascular surgeons are milling about uncertainly, suddenly shouting greetings and waving crazily, like uncontainable kids, then crossing arms and looking around with self-conscious expressions. Our collective future is a maddeningly lovely thing to watch. Both exalted and made uncomfortable by this ceremonial evening, unsure of how to stand, what to say, where to look, these vibrant teens in the final throes of genuine carelessness are throwing off unmediated energy like nobody’s business. Etch these moments in platinum.
Don’s House! Santa Barbara High School’s 2016 Homecoming dance, the ostensible object of all this fuss, is bobbling up there in the evening’s immediate future, a couple hours away. Somewhere beyond that, the World at Large waits patiently with its hugely complicated embrace; the old story. None of us here on the courthouse lawn can wholly grasp that bird’s eye view of the kiddies’ future, nor our own, for that matter. But for some of us, tonight will mark a beginning.
So, yeah. Some of the kids and their emotionally ragged folks have convened here at the courthouse to do the paparazzi thing, snatch a photographic scrap of all this glory. Our unlikely sons and daughters are loping furtively about in their uncomfortable finery as they stand, like uncertain foals, at whatever cusp this is. The energy of the scene varies from moment to moment and is as unpredictable as one would expect a hormone squall to be. Periodically the kids seem to settle into the scene, seem momentarily to sense something other than pure adrenal chaos, like a confident little echo from the future; that unimaginable but real future where tonight’s unrestrained roman candles live as becalmed men and women with careers and documentation and car payments. If we can just stop the Brownian Motion of these jittery little lovebirds for the couple seconds it takes to capture them in still life this evening, we’ll later have some evidence that this night, these twilight moments at the courthouse one October day in 2016, really happened; that they, and we, were younger once, and the world was an unfixed canvas.
What’s it All About, Alfie?
Many of the young ladies this evening are wearing those seamless tube-like dresses that appear to have been painted on by automotive robots. The stunned guys, in their puffy pleated trousers and blousy button-down shirts, do not cut such aerodynamic figures. And while the gals are now jumping and shoving and madly howling with a kind of audibly panicked hilarity, and doing that timeless high school girl “hand to ear for a secret” thing, the guys are sanguine in their sculpted hair. One hand irremovably fastened in a pleated trouser pocket, they cruise about the courthouse lawn with the mesmerized solemnity of deep sea fish, their goggle-eyed expressions likewise born of extreme subsurface pressures. They stiffly greet each other on passing and do not high-five. Removing the one jammed hand from the pleated pocket isn’t really in the cards. Every young man intuitively knows that the only thing more damning than pleats is the framing device of two idiotically swinging arms in blousy sleeves and no hands in pockets.
Several minutes later our whole friend-group of six girls have arrived and finished their jumping and hugging and heart-stopping shrieks. They’re beautiful young women. Ours is the cut-up. We raised her that way and continue to thank our lucky stars. All the gals in this little group of six are wits and livewires, but ours can’t seem to keep her hands still for long enough to appear in a photo without her arms blurring, her happy happy radiant face a reflection of my dad’s; the warming, happy magic of the Double Helix. Now the girls visibly begin to settle themselves and turn to us with a simple wordless acknowledgement; they are ready for their close-ups.
We stand them before a verdant, vaguely prehistoric giant-leafed bush by the garden steps and begin snapping pictures. By now the other girls’ parents have ambled over from their various parking spaces to join us and we’ve greeted each other with bemused eyebrows, knowing glances and wrinkling noses, as if to say “Aw, isn’t this something?” It’s freaking madness, is what it is. I can still pretty vividly remember my own high school prom. My date, a year older than me, had been asked to dance by a kid in her class whose investigative journalist dad had been blown up by the mob in his car a couple months before (true story), and I’d been incapacitated by insane and fairly unreasonable jealousy during their miserable little time on the parquet. And now, quite within memory of that, in walks this tower of legs and attitude, my own daughter. What in G*d’s Name is This All About?®
Mr. President! Oh, Mr. President!
We parents jostle around each other like the White House Press Corps and take innumerable snapshots of our girls, again in that spirit of projectile irony that, it’s hoped, will keep the macabre truth at arms length for a little while longer. One of us sheepishly allows that the dress her daughter is wearing was purchased on daddy’s watch. There is laughter. Hoo boy! Yeah, leave it to a knucklehead dad. I look over and imagine I see on Judie’s face a quicksilver expression of horror as she fleetingly imagines what sort of dress I might have allowed our lil’ angel to buy.
But this group of cool, smart, funny girls all look tasteful and fab and self-respecting, and Judie and I are reminded how pleased as punch we are that our kiddo runs with these ladies, and we two exchange glances, again. There are lots and lots of exchanged glances between the parents, between the couples, between passing strangers on the lawn who have to share (via silent exchanged glance) just how tickled they are by the proceedings, and the strangeness of it all. This whole pre-Homecoming picture-taking ceremony at the courthouse is more crammed with weighty exchanged glances than a Days of Our Lives marathon.
When we march the girls over to the south courhouse steps for a final round of electronic memory-capture, they strike several poses – here a Monkees album cover, there a sort of palm-bedecked police lineup – and a couple minutes later the photo session is over. We raise our cameras to take one more, and the girls brush past us and out of frame. The parents smile nervously and exchange glances.
Unlikely Outcome of the Trojan War
Now in approaching dusk, all the girls spread out on the property and begin to visibly revel. They meander and clump and separate in groups. They swirl about the walled courthouse lawn like sandpipers at the surf line, erupting with bursts of barking laughter so sudden and jarring one flinches on hearing it. These kids! Our freaking kids! I caravanned across the southwest desert to California with a ragtag group of friends some 30 years ago. My wife approached me in a bar around the time of the Trojan War, and now this! I didn’t have the spiritual equipment at that time to even vaguely envision this freaky scene. What is this madness? My little girl…not to get all Mike Douglas about it, but where has the time gone? Where did all this come from? Those dumb questions. Look at these…people. Sons, daughters. We’re their parents. THEIR PARENTS!
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (Look Carefully)
Ahead of these giddy Homecoming kids, behind a curtain of increasing translucence; Life. There is so much up ahead there, of course. A riotous pageant, a rollercoaster without brakes. The narrative becomes more colorful and piercing with each backward glance as one advances through it. The trick of course is to feel the present moment as piercingly as you will tomorrow’s remembrance of it; a tall order, but it can be done. But how to tell the kids?! How to shout – like the guy in the Delmore Schwartz story, but happier; “It’s all ahead of you!! Everything is ahead of you! Look carefully!” But you can’t shout at this crowd, it’ll just sound like noise, or like the muted bugle of Charlie Brown’s folks yammering away offscreen. And anyway, the kids are doing their own wild shouting now, and it’s freaking grand.
Our gals are getting a ride to the Paradise Cafe, where a hunky waiter will sweetly serve them a free dessert, to the girls’ blushing delight. What a priceless life this can be. When we’re summoned in an hour or so we’ll head back downtown, the girls will pile in, and we’ll take them to the dance at the high school. After the dance? Any day now, “maturity” will rush in with its gift of Womanhood and all the political accessories that come with that; the gender tango, the culture wars, the in-built patriarchal inequalities that continue to define even the most enlightened society, for some reason. The girls are walking into a bit of a shit storm, and girding for that will cost them some gaiety, as will the rigorous workaday miracles of life and love. It’s all good. And anyway that’ll be then. This is now.
The girls stride off in their 21st Century ball gowns, gabbing and gesturing, crossing the courthouse lawn while I stare. The newly-minted young adults run up the stone steps in their hazard-heels, graceless as ponies on roller skates. They’re wind-blown and waving arms for balance and laughing their asses off. Don’t go changin’, sweetie. Don’t go changin’.