“Through revisiting those terrifying moments—the betrayals and abandonment, lies and abuse—in poem after poem, book after book, I’ve forged a new perspective on myself, and on those who did me harm. Through that process, other voices come out in my work from time to time. It’s not forgiveness they bring to the page (that’s one emotion I haven’t managed yet), but empathy and understanding.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—June 2019—I first moved to Sacramento at eight-years-old, when my father got remarried to a woman who lived on 56th, near M Street. I left for good at 28, going first to Missoula, Montana to get my MFA, then to Greece, where I’ve lived for almost 40 years.
In my first ten years in Sacramento, I moved at least a dozen times, sometimes to foster families and children’s homes in other parts of the city, but mostly to places farther away—Hanna Boys’ Center in Sonoma, The San Francisco Boys’ Home, a foster family in Fresno, another in Portland, Job Corps in Pleasanton, etc.
I mention these details for two reasons: first, because last March I spent two weeks in my former hometown (if I can call it that), giving poetry readings at the Sacramento Poetry Center, Sac State, Davis and Solano Junior College, part of a larger reading tour that took me to Oregon and Washington as well. I hadn’t set foot in the city for over ten years and hadn’t spent more than a couple days there since I left in 1978. With a lot of spare time between readings, I visited the three or four people there I still know, took long walks along the American River, which was near the house I was staying in, sought out old haunts and neighborhoods I used to live in, and wandered through the mid- and downtown areas, taking pictures for my companion back in Greece. My second reason for thinking of those early years is that on my walk downtown I decided to go see if the Greyhound Bus Depot on 7th and L, a place central to my childhood years, was still there. I fully expected it to have been torn down long ago—like so many other locations from my California past. Little did I know that such curiosity would open up old wounds.
The first hint that that part of my past may not have been completely erased came as I turned from K St. and walked on 8th toward L. There, towering above me, were two huge signs painted on the edifice of the seven-story Hotel Berry—exactly as I remember them from my youth, almost as if my own memory had conjured them up. On the upper part of that edifice was a sign for the hotel itself and directly beneath it, an advertisement for “Original Mac’s Restaurant.” More than the name of that restaurant and the list of all that it offers, covering almost four floors of that hotel’s exterior wall, I remembered its painted caricature of a chef. But not just any chef: beneath the usual toque blanche was a face with the large ears, coiffed hair and moustache of Clark Gable, as handsome and self-satisfied as he was when I was eight.
Turning down the alley between K and L, the same alley (but from the opposite side) where the Greyhound buses used to pull into the depot and, with a loud hiss of their air brakes, stop beneath mammoth steel girders with their dangling fuel hoses and electrical cables, I was astonished again. The rafters were still there! As was the rest of the depot! True, it was obviously no longer a bus station, but all the structural elements remained. The girders, sans hoses and cables, had been freshly painted, an almost bright matte-grey. The cavernous area beneath that roof, where buses would arrive and depart, collect and disperse their passengers, swallow and disgorge cart-loads of baggage and freight, was now a parking lot filled with tight rows of cars, pickups and vans. The bright metal doors through which passengers came and went were still at their posts, now with heavy locks and thick brown paper covering the windows. The door to the dispatcher’s office was also in its place, as were the two wide doors to the baggage area, all tightly locked, their windows papered over.
Outside, down L and up 7th, the shell of that place so important to my childhood was also like it always had been. I couldn’t see through any of the windows, or enter any of the doors, even if I wanted to, but that was indeed the bus station I’d been to countless times from eight to 18.
Calling that depot important is a huge understatement. My father was a Greyhound bus driver. I would frequently go there with my stepmother to pick him up when he returned from a run. Often, he’d disappear for two or three days at a time, taking a charter filled with gamblers to Lake Tahoe or Reno, or traveling to a city so far away, he had to wait a day or two to drive back. My happiest moments at the depot were seeing him step out of the dispatcher’s office and walk toward our car, in his grey uniform and hat, his metal logbook tucked under his arm, a smile on his face (and mine).
More darkly, there were the times he’d send me away, to a foster family or children’s home in some distant city. He’d take me to the station and put me directly on a bus with some driver he knew. Other times he’d buy my ticket, slip a $5 bill into my hand, then walk off, leaving me to fend for myself, sometimes an hour or two, until my bus was ready to board. And when I returned for a visit or (supposedly) for good, he’d either meet me at the station or leave instructions with the dispatcher to give me money for a cab.
For four decades now, in my effort to understand why my father would send me away and beckon me back so often, I’ve written poem after poem about riding a Greyhound, feeling the terror of his rejection, the yearning and apprehension of returning yet again to him and my stepmother and that house on 56th. That depot on 7th and L, and Greyhound buses in general, have taken on the status of myth in my imagination. If my father were a god (albeit a deeply flawed one), that station would have been the temple where I worshipped him and was sacrificed by him. I returned to that place of sacrifice time and again in my writing, sometimes finding my father there and furiously cross- examining him—Why? Why?—before he’d turn and walk away. Other times I’d imagine him driving his bus, and be overwhelmed by longing, wanting so much to be riding with him, in his lap, or at least in the seat behind him, the only passenger. Still other times I’d imagine myself alone, headed once more to some unknown family or institution. Or I’d see myself returning, hoping this time, through some miraculous change of heart, he’d become a real father and his wife a real mother.
Walking around that shell of a depot, so many memories welled up, so many images from poems I’d written. I could hear the dispatchers calling out arrivals and departures. Could see the baggage workers pushing their big squeaky trollies piled high with suitcases, duffel bags, and boxes. Drivers standing by the big open door of their Scenicruisers, punching passengers’ tickets as they boarded. I remembered too what it was like inside, in minute detail. I didn’t need to go in to remember. The interior of that bus station has been seared into my memory by the intensity of my experiences there and reified by my many poems that reenter that shrine to love and loss.
First Journey Alone
For an hour and twenty minutes
he’s been watching a couple
lifting and setting down a suitcase,
two sailors flirting with passers-by,
a woman with crying baby in one arm,
daughter with half-eaten sandwich
in the other. For a moment he thought
how they’re family, all in this
together. Then indifference set in.
He’s nothing to them and they’re nothing
to him, just faces sliding
across glass when the big doors open.
The whole depot slides with them—
tall racks of magazines
in the gift shop, dusty shelves
of model Greyhounds and dolls
with outstretched arms,
bright pinball machines, a spinning wheel
that tells fortunes and stamps pennies
with The Lord’s Prayer, even the drivers
in the diner’s corner booth, their hushed talk
of a Porsche that hit the Tahoe Express
when the dispatcher announces from the rafters
San this, El that.
He steps up into the cool dark
of a Scenicruiser, finds a seat
in the back, watches the last passengers board.
When a stranger sits beside him,
squeezes his arm and asks his name,
the boy looks down
at workers tossing luggage like lost souls
into the Greyhound’s underbelly. Leaving the city,
it’s the symmetry of orchards he glares at,
smudge-pot flames dancing on the cool
tinted glass. Rows of oil rigs
pump out the slowly
descending night—and now this man’s
pressing his thigh,
asking where he’s from,
where he’s headed.
The dead were laid out
along the side of the road
in drifts of snow—he saw them
as the drivers kept telling and retelling
their story. Indifference wavered
as he placed a napkin over his fork and spoon,
stroked the bodies lying there,
imagined the bus he’s now on
plummeting the full length of a slope,
passengers falling into each other’s arms—
But this is his story,
so the boy, alone,
clings to a fistful of stamped pennies
and never forgives those who trespass against him.
Those journeys depot to depot, home to home, were some of the most devastating times in my life, filled as they were with loss, uncertainty, and fear. The Greyhounds I traveled on and the stations I waited in became, in a way, the crucible through which my sense of self was formed, a large part of it at least.
From A Child’s 99
What if you took the wrong bus,
wound up headed for Portland or Elko,
would the same howling semis pass,
same billboards for Gillette and Oldsmobile,
would you slide to that same cone of light,
rest your head on that same smudge
of hair oil? When the bus pulls in
to another depot little more
than a gas station, dusty elms
propping up the failing light,
would it be the same baggage
being tossed and shoved?
same passengers boarding or getting off?
same out-of-state plates you count
no matter what state you’re in?…
My father wasn’t the only one who’d send me away. Some summers I’d go visit my mother in Reno, on a Greyhound of course. And of course, no matter how much I wanted to stay, she’d always send me back to Sacramento, on yet another bus. I was sent away as well by foster mothers and mother superiors. It took me many years to realize that, all the time I yearned for and came to hate my father, I was also desperately searching for my mother, any mother:
Cheek pressed to cold glass you watch orchards pass,
oil rigs like big clanking locusts,
shops, a bank, a gas station, lawns and houses,
fields of hay then fields of hops,
then orchards again. You watch and watch
till your anger and hurt are threshed to dust
drifting toward a vanishing point
you can’t quite see….
you watch insects rise toward passing beams
of light, surge of yes lifting from stagnate
pools, felt shimmer of wings
in a whorl of ecstasy—what dream keeps pulling
from caked oil, rotting treads, rags flung
to drainage sluices? Arms hung like tired wings,
hunched in a dark corner of the bus—
you’re the boy-gnat stunned senseless
by yet another mother pushing you away. You wish
the woman across the aisle were your mother, and don’t,
this pattern of uprooting not play, nor that voice
like no other, the clear, rich tone
of her beyond the rick-rattling layers
pulls into the terminal, rush of workers
hoisting squeegees, slack sponges, wiping away
the crust of bugs from windshield, bumper and grill.
Snaking hoses lowering from rafters.
Rucksacks, duffel bags, boxes and suitcases
tossed on a cart squealing all the way
to BAGGAGE. Now it’s only you on the bus
and the driver telling you to get your things,
time to go. I know you’d rather
be tossed to the lost and found or scraped to oblivion
than walk into yet another waiting room,
hands deep in pockets, holding back the surge
of expectation. But this depot is for merging,
not just for pulling apart, so boy-gnat
be joy-gnat—let your arms like wings
flare up—it could be her
bathed in light
the other side of glass.
I’d like to think I came through that childhood a relatively healthy, functioning adult, able to give and accept love, feel empathy and some semblance of wholeness. Approaching 70, I can say, on balance, I’ve had a fulfilling life (keeping Croseus’ lesson in mind, of course). But with so much upheaval in my early years, how? The short answer is that I got lucky. I managed to get an education, to learn from a few positive adult figures along the way, to put a great distance—geographically and psychologically—between myself and the people who did me the most damage, and, most importantly, to find writing. Lucky me, I managed to discover the power of poetry to explore one’s experience in depth. I’ve made the struggle with language an ally, using it to write the best poetry I can. Trusting imagination and my fierce desire to understand, I’ve stepped back, time and again, into the painful episodes of my youth, encountering over and over the relentless pounding of neglectful, dysfunctional, half-caring parental figures. Over time things changed.
From New Parents
…Suitcase packed with all he needs—
folded shorts, flowery shirt
and comic books—he’s ready
to meet his new parents,
Mother Odd, Father Even,
smoke spewing from the depths of their foundry
like bricked-in Fresno.
…With coon claws and Cheshire smiles
they’ll stroke him to sleep,
then slice deep into his heart
worn down already, pound his dreams
like tattered flags, pound the red-
veined gall, pound and cut and pound
till they get to his birth-anger,
lay a wreath for that wrath.
Then they’ll stitch him tight,
fix a sail over the arc of ribs,
a small raft of one boy,
face soft as hammered bronze.
…When he steps through the foundry doors
let earth be hard, hands
Mother Odd, Father Even,
you who make him new…
Let the world flow smoothly past.
Let dust bloom where he steps.
Let his comic book version of tomorrow
be pure as his flowery shirt, pure
as every second he stares out
at bright empty space, sure it all ends
with truth and justice….
Pound him there.
Through revisiting those terrifying moments—the betrayals and abandonment, lies and abuse—in poem after poem, book after book, I’ve forged a new perspective on myself, and on those who did me harm. Through that process, other voices come out in my work from time to time. It’s not forgiveness they bring to the page (that’s one emotion I haven’t managed yet), but empathy and understanding. Whether the speaker is a boy, an adult, or an ageless, disembodied presence, the narratives they convey can transmute painful emotions into something akin to love—not the kind of love that denies the trauma of childhood, but love that embraces it and, in brief instances, transcends it.
As you wake, the boy has just gone to sleep.
If he sits up and calls you, you should come, you’re his father.
But it’s okay, take your cap and logbook, your holster
and hole-punch. Take all the grey that’s a Greyhound uniform.
By now he’s heard your stories, so understands
why you prefer the depot, its dispatchers calling out
arrivals, departures. He sees you there,
smiling vaguely, punching tickets as your passengers board.
You’re Reno bound, though he likes to see you as Charon
taking souls to the underworld. Climbing Donner Pass,
every soul asleep, you’re Captain of this vessel.
No sleep for you, though sometimes, as the motor drones
and wipers flap and toggles glow across the dash,
your leg gets so numb you can barely feel the clutch,
and sometimes, crossing the Truckee River, your eyes
getting heavier and heavier, you wonder if he’s awake yet,
if he ever thinks of you. Can’t you see,
you’ve made him just like yourself, always dreaming of departures.
So go ahead, drift toward any snow-lined precipice.
He’ll be okay. Whether you make it to Sparks or not,
he’ll be standing on his bed, on one leg, his crumpled sheets
a lagoon of flamingos preening in first light.
By the time you turn into the Reno depot, they’ll be taking off,
dazzling the darkness of his room with their black underwings,
the soft pink of their breasts. As you collect the silver dollars
from each passenger’s eyes, they’ll be flying the River Styx,
calling and calling.
Two other images have stayed with me from that brief visit to the city center. On 7th Sreet, across from the alley between K and L, where the Greyhounds made that sharp turn into the station, there’s now a huge wall mural, at least as tall as the Hotel Berry, an image of a girl or young woman, all blue, her head and neck wrapped in a scarf of sorts. Mostly it’s her eyes you see, looking down from her great height at anyone entering that alley, as I did, from the opposite side. Her gaze is hard to define, calm perhaps, haughty, a bit melancholy. Besides its mysteriousness, what struck me about that image was that it had nothing to do with my past. Maybe Middle Eastern (Bedouin?), maybe ancient (a figure from mythology?), she seemed to have more to do with the Mediterranean world I now live in than with my early years in Sacramento. In my whimsy, I wanted her to be the spirit that now reigns over that shrine to my past.
The other image I encountered was even more disconnected from “my” Sacramento. Wanting to see the ultra-modern Convention Center that was built long after I left the city—smack in the middle of downtown—a place that I’d read about and heard praised by a couple local friends, I decided to walk a few blocks up J Street and take a look. Again, I didn’t go inside. Close to the main entrance, among two or three other, seemingly unrelated statues gracing the walkway, I was stopped in my tracks by this bronze figure:
I recognized the statue immediately: it’s the famous Artemision Bronze of Zeus (though some, like those exhibiting this rather coarse replica, claim it’s Poseidon). I’ve seen it many times in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. But what was the mighty king of the gods doing in downtown Sacramento? As I walked around this icon from the ancient world, taking it in from all sides, another question pushed through my bewilderment: from this vantage point, where is this god’s outstretched left arm pointing to? Maybe toward his home, I thought, and mine—not 56th Street, and not 7th and L, but back toward my little corner of the Mediterranean, my home for far longer than Sacramento ever was. Back to where history and myth are everyday presences; where, for me at least, the imagined, the remembered and the real intermingle; where—as I work away every day on poems and translations, stumbling between my native English and my acquired Greek—language is always a struggle. Back to where I belong.
Author’s Note: “Gnat” is from Approximately Paradise; “First Journey Alone,” “A Child’s 99” and “New Parents” are from Before Kodachrome. A more recent poem, “Departures,” appears here for the first time. Photos 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9 are by the author; Image 1 is courtesy of wallpaperup.com; and Image 7 courtesy of kygelberhund and transitbadges.com.
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