Another Habitation for Jackals
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, hath not old custom made this life more sweet than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods more free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we not the penalty of Adam…
—Shakespeare, As You Like It
I tend to wander, and I have never been properly diagnosed. This always causes problems at operas or sporting events or funerals – anywhere you’re expected to sit still or any occasion with assigned seating. I usually end up separated from my party and the source of angst for those who expected me to be back from the bathroom already. What they don't realize is that I picked up smoking simply for another excuse to get up and move.
My best friend, Harrison, had been trying to get me to go to watch a University of California football game for years. I told him no – no because I hate shaved, naked, painted chests and large trombones and sloppy blondes unless I am equally sloppy – and I have found out through empirical data-tracking that it is impossible for me to reach the inebriation level of a blacked-out sorority co-ed. I simply fall asleep while they proceed to woohoo my eardrums into malice reserves. It’s not for me.
“I got a new plan,” Harrison told me. “Tightwad Hill.”
The Big Game between Cal and Stanford has been going on for 112 years. During this time, the world has seen more than it wants to admit or remember, but traditions like those that college football preserves serve as reminders that some things can be left alone in their wildness. Cultivation is not a prerequisite for humanity, and sometimes truths like that need to be said out loud. This is one reason that if I have children, I hope they will read Gilead, if only for this one insight: “Even the wilderness, the very habitation of jackals, is the Lord’s.” College football rivalries remind us that it is all right to be raucous and bewildered, and they do this out loud, even when the student bodies are from Cal and Stanford. Even academics need to let their hair down.
I’d never been to a college football game before. This is not because I’m not a fan. I’ve had whole seasons of my life spent on obsession with it. My mind associates college football with French toast and my dad, cinnamon and support – all the mornings before my flag football games when pops made sure he was up before me so that the first thing I saw was sizzling bacon and his stoned smile. So every time I hear a fight song or a rally cry, I feel warm and full. And even though my life has become very maniacal in its demands, I still find time to watch College Football Live. Brent Musberger and Keith Jackson are like patron saints in the halls of my head. But beer is not sold at most college athletic events, and that is wrong. So I do not go.
“This is exactly your scene, man. We bring our own cheap ass beer, and we sit in a forest and watch the game for free. It’s perfect. And all the lame-Os are in the game, and the real savants with style are at the Hill. Saturday. You there?”
I was there.
I’ve never ridden on a Bay Area Rapid Transit train without a few beers. I don’t think I suffer from any sort of anxiety condition, as many on my mother’s side seem to, but when I am on one of those trains with the squealing halts and the electric third rail and the garbled electronified human voice straight out of a Gaddis dialogue—all of these mixed with my complete lack of knowledge as to where that and this smell is coming from, coupled with the likely forecast of mugging—this makes me need a drink, and even though there are signs warning against food and beverage and promising fines, I think I have a condition, a pre-existing need to sneak in some malt.
On the way to meet up with Harrison and his girlfriend, Danielle, I poured four beers into a large hiking water bottle and began to read the new book of short stories that one of my old professors had recently published. The stories were really good and full of heart and sickness, and I was becoming equal parts impressed and wet-eyed. Beer always makes me sneeze. By the time I got off at Ashby, I was very happy, and I felt ready to spend a day with people I truly loved on a hill.
“You made it! I thought you might back out due to some bullshit principle or something,” he laughed as he grabbed my hand and shoulder. I hugged Danielle. I really loved these people.
“You ready for a free game? It’s like anaaarchy, but it’s great!”
“I’m ready. I know the Berkeley anarchy type.”
The walk was pleasant. Harrison walked behind Danielle so he could open her backpack, out of which he pulled the two green bottles that had got us through junior high.
“A Mick’s for you, and a Mick’s for me. It’s kind of a long walk from here. Just enough time to drink a forty.”
I really loved this idea.
We walked and talked slowly as streams of college students screamed past. I wished, or at least a small part of me wished, that I had years like these people were having. I spent Friday nights in Love Lounge at Point Loma Nazarene University reading Heidegger and Nietzsche and Saturday nights sitting by the San Diego Bay in my truck secretly drinking rum. My college years were very dry. But here were these kids ranting about nothing, smiling about everything, and smacking so much ass and wildly drunk at eleven a.m. and ready to be drunk until Monday morning, without any care of public urination or original sin or Being or Time or Greek participles. It was enviable. I wanted to go back and try again.
But then again, maybe I was selling these kids short. They were from very prestigious academic universities, and what was this, really, but the Ass Festival revisited. Maybe they knew their Zarathustra more than I was giving them credit for. Consider what Zarathustra and the old man talk about at the Ass Festival.
Z: He who said “God is spirit” took the biggest step and leap towards unbelief yet taken on earth: such a saying is not easily corrected!
OM: My old heart leaps and bounds to know that there is still something left on earth to worship!
Later on, Zarathustra continues his sermon: “A little brave nonsense, some divine service and ass festival, some joyful old Zarathustra fool, a blustering wind to blow your souls bright.”
Maybe these students knew the wisdom for which Nietzsche was fighting. Maybe they had indeed reevaluated all values. But here they were, worshiping a game and a feigned hatred, wallowing in the joy of booze and flipping off brain cells and parking signs. It was blustering and fantastic to pretend to be a part of their wind – to simply imagine.
“Harry, how many times have you been here?” “Last year was my first time. You can’t see the whole field – there are trees and shit that get in the way, but hell, who gives a shit about the game anyway?”
“Not me. I got a twelve-er minus four in my backpack. Should we stop and get more?” I knew what I cared about.
“Nope,” Danielle said. “I know you boys and how you get if we run out of beer. I got a twelve-er and a bottle of Ancient Age. You should be fine.”
I loved her at least as much as he did at this moment.
When we neared the hill there was a canon to be heard. Large blasts and human cries filled our ears. I thought how odd it was that we use canons as celebratory devices. I wondered what an old admiral might think about this, and that made me think of Admiral Nelson Rum and sophomoric rotgut mornings, and my beer tasted awful for the next few sips. As we got around the far end of Memorial Stadium and around the ticketed crowd, past the chain linked fence and up into the trees, we began to hear a chant.
Hey, you know the story. You tell the whole damn world this is Bear Territory!
Take off that reeeeeeeeed shirt! Take off that reeeeeeeeeeed shirt!
These were the two rules of the hill. You must recognize the fact that this is Bear Territory and you may not wear anything red, which of course, is the color of the rival Stanford Cardinal. And it is also important to remember that they are not the “Cardinal” like catholic authority, or “Cardinals” like the bird, they are the “Cardinal” as in Cardinal Red, and their mascot is, appropriately enough, a tree. I was rooting for the Bears on these grounds alone, but I would feel rude rooting for a team in whose territory I was not in, so the battle lines were clearly drawn. I would tell the world, damn it.
I’ve never been good at knowing when I am drunk enough or too drunk, and by the time I am one of those two things, my mind has already turned off my memory so that it’s sincerely impossible for me to learn from my foolishness. However, I have discovered that when I seem to see Whitman in the eyes of old men and feel guilty for stepping on grass, it is usually time for me to drink some water. I have yet to put this knowledge to action, and why should I? Maybe one day I’ll be right. If it happened to Ginsberg, then why not me?
As we walked into the first cove of trees and spectators of Tightwad Hill, I did see an old man, bearded, looking completely out of place and content. Harrison caught me looking at him and he grabbed my arm.
“No No No. Not yet.”
We found a clearing where we could see most of the action in the middle of the field. All the spots where the end zones were visible were filled foxholes, probably since the night before. Harrison told me many people camp out on the Hill the night before the Big Game.
“I can’t believe none of this is policed,” I said. “I mean, this is great and all, but you don’t find many places where this many drunk kids can gather.”
“It’s self-policing,” he said. “It’s all the best parts of socialist pamphlets.”
Danielle went off to find a bathroom or a peopleless tree, and Harrison and I clanged beers together and judged our neighbors. To our right there was a group of college kids who had just come from the cover shoot of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, and this was not surprising. Many beautiful young men and women go to Cal. What was odd, and what caught our eye, was the one young guy sitting with them, but in the back, off of the blanket, and without a beer in his hand. He was gawky, slight, a bit askew in the face, and in clothes that spoke to indifference.
“Hmm,” I said.
“What’ya think?” Harrison asked.
“I think he needs a beer.”
We watched for a few minutes more. The group joked and high-fived and fist-pounded and he tried to laugh too, but nobody looked his way. I walked over and tapped him on the shoulder and spoke with brazenness so that these chumps would know that I thought they were chumps.
“Hey, man. My friend and I have way too much beer and were wondering if you wanted to come over there with us and help us drink it. And we are real good about looking people in the eye.” He laughed and got up in unison.
“Sure, man. Sounds good.”
Turns out he was a physics major. I asked him what major all his “friends” were, and he said, “Kinesiology.” The study of vanity. The study of “do a lap.”
He was a really nice guy and perked up when I told him I had just watched a show on Einstein the night before. He beamed big and talked over my head for a few minutes, but not in a privileged tone, rather in a way that showed he really loved what he knew, and it made him feel good to be able to talk about it. I understood this feeling and was glad to watch him, because I was honestly using my eyes much more than my ears.
“So, what were you doing with those kids? You seem much too mellow to put up with that crowd.”
“They’re okay. My brother is in a frat with one of those guys, and he was supposed to be here too, but he got way too hammered last night apparently, so he’s in his dorm. I got the invite from him, but I don’t really hang out with those guys too much.”
“Tell me one of the jokes they were all laughing at so hard before I came over and talked to you.”
“I don’t know that you would call them jokes, so much. Most of the laughing is talking about what they can’t remember. It gets old pretty quick.”
He wanted to teach physics at a community college. He didn’t want all the research pressure of a big university. He simply wanted a paycheck and an office and time to read about what he wanted to know. He didn’t want to produce anything, and I respected this. By halftime, he said he had to go, and he shook hands with the three of us and said thanks for the beers. He only had two.
During halftime, a shirtless man with sit-ups in his near future ran around with a jug of booze and a spigot, pouring the swill down the throats of any willing party. We were quite willing. He yelled “Whoo” with great gusto, and I thought he might be well served by a red foam nose, but then I recalled the rules and quickly realized this was not a good idea.
We walked around a bit. I saw a lunch pail with a “Union For Life” sticker on the side. My dad was a union man so I decided to speak to this guy about unions.
“Hey, how’s it going?” He instantly turned and cheersed my beer can.
“Go, Cal! Woooo! You are a Bears fan, right?”
“Hell yeah. This is fucking Bear Territory!”
“Fucking right it is!”
“So, you a Union Man?” I asked.
“Fucking right I am! Born and Bred! Here, you seem like a good guy, sit down here and have a beer with me, you and your buddy – he’s a Bears fan too, right?”
“Fucking yes he is!”
The man told me about the importance of Unions, and I told him how my father was the shop steward of his local for thirty years. The man also told me how he’d been out of work for over a year – that metal work was really suffering in the recession, and that it was all that “Damn Obammy’s” doing. I didn’t think this to be the case, but this was no time for rhetoric or partisan folly. This man was hurt really deep by his unemployment. He had lost all sense of worth, and I was fine being next to that, no matter how wrong the rhyme and reason of it rang to me.
“You know, my family has been coming to the Big Game for three generations up here on the Hill. You now that? Three damn sets of Wallaces up here on this Hill. That’s a long time if you think about it.”
“This is my first time.”
“Well, goddamn me! Here, have one of my beers. Welcome, and Go Fucking Bears!”
He had a metal worker’s handshake that sobered me for a moment, and as we parted ways, Harrison shot me a smile and put a hand on my shoulder. Any soreness was quieted. Then I saw Whitman.
“Okay, fine. Go talk to him,” Harrison said. “Just don’t bring up Walt. That’s tired.”
“Okay, no Walt. But honestly, look at him. You see it too, right?”
The man was standing by himself, very still and borderline regal. I had to be careful not to startle him.
“Hey, sir. How’s it going?”
“Sir is for horses,” he grinned.
“Ha, right. Sorry. Just wondered if you wanted a beer. It’s damn hot today.”
“I’m all set on that front,” he said as he patted his breast and pulled out a flask. “You like Johnny Walker, son?”
“Son is for sailors,” I said, “but I love scotch.”
His name was Ralph, and that seemed brilliant to me. Everything about the man was such. He was a professor of anthropology at Cal and had been that for thirty-five years.
“I’ve been to every Big Game since I came here from Indiana. Never missed one and never bought a ticket. There’s not a place like this in all of creation.”
“This is my first one.”
“You think you might come back then?”
“Like a damn pilgrimage, Ralph.”
“Well, just you remember, when you are here, you are at a place unlike any other place that there is.” He handed me his flask.
“But isn’t that true of anywhere we are at?” I asked with true wonder.
“Yes, but no. Not like this. Here youth can be youth, and age can be age, and it’s proof, God’s honest proof, that nothing, nothing is mutually exclusive.”
Harrison asked me what we talked about when I regrouped with him and Danielle. I said I wasn’t sure yet. And that was true.
As an undergraduate, I took my first loss of God really hard. Two of the older professors in the Theology Department saw this in me and my writing at the time and decided to take me in. One befriended me, and we would meet weekly and talk about the Apocrypha, his failed marriages, his son who still stole from him on a regular basis, the misogyny of the Apostle Paul, and our shared hatred of the university’s lack of integrity when it came to spiritual matters. He was a man who knew pain more than pleasure, and he was a great friend. He made me promise him that once he died I would have him cremated and then spread his ashes in equal parts around the Administrative Building where the president resided and Rhor Religion where he had taught Greek New Testament for forty years. When I asked him why, he gave me that dry smile and said, “So I can haunt those bastards for the rest of time.”
The other was a very different sort of man. A friend described him as “Peace Personified,” and that was true. He was missing a thumb, and he liked to joke that he was bad at hitchhiking and bowling. But he was great at being a human. He would walk down the hallways singing little tunes to himself, and whenever he saw me reading in the corner somewhere, he would say, “Careful, or they’re going to make you start paying rent!” He had been happily married for thirty years and successful in never giving his opinion on any troublesome philosophical dilemma. We were all convinced he was a Process Theologian, which is blasphemous in most Christian circles, but he would never budge. One day, he asked me what I was interested in. I said I was deep into Camus at the moment. He offered to give me an independent study class on Existentialism since the small department didn’t have enough options “for a student who can’t help but be serious about thinking.”
For four months all I read was Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and by the middle of it, I hated Dr. Prince. I was losing my mind in all the garbled rhetoric and subordinate and secondary discourses. I had also taken up drinking again after a long sober stretch where I reread the Bible and prayed to the God of my youth every morning and night. Then Nietzsche. Those wounds have been healed in one way or another since those college days, and I‘ve lost God plenty since. But at Tightwad Hill, I was so thankful for it all.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is mutually exclusive… The old man’s words were gnawing at me, and I couldn’t figure it out. I came home and picked up Zarathustra and turned to one of the last sections called “The Intoxicated Song” and read this:
“My assembled friends,” said the ugliest man, “What do you think? For the sake of this day – I am content for the first time to have lived my whole life. And it is not enough that I testify only this much. It is worthwhile to live on earth: one day, one festival with Zarathustra has taught me to love the earth. ‘Was that – life?’ I will say to death. “Very well! Once more!’”
And that, I hope, will one day also be true.
Zac Walsh holds a BA in Philosophy and Theology and a MA in Literature. He is the former Editor at Large of the Arroyo Literary Review and winner of the R.V. Williams Prize for Fiction. His work has been published by The Platte Valley Review, Cimarron Review, Alligator Juniper, The Oklahoma Review, Gulf Stream, Big Lucks, Specter Magazine, The Whistling Fire, Snail Mail Review, The DuPage Valley Review, Unmanned Press, South Florida Arts, Ontologica, and Two Cups Press, and in the anthology Blood on the Floor, among others. He teaches English at Chabot College.