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A 92-Degree Day

August 22, 2009

“Look,” Mullins said — we were by that time crossing the very busy and wide intersection at Van Ness and Market Streets, a trolley clunking and wheezing  by us, cars speeding in all directions, like pinballs gone berserk — “I don’t know what it means. You understand me? I’m a writer, and if I don’t write, I don’t feel good. You know, I read somewhere Dylan said if he didn’t work he didn’t feel good.”

“Oh?” I said, in an uninflected tone befitting the sheer banality.

He went on. “I suspect it’s that way with a lot of writers. I mean, you can’t do much with it, can you? Maybe a job teaching in a two-bit college. A sinecure.”

He said the word contemptuously. We had reached the other side of the street in one piece, and I found I was dusting myself off, literally.  It was a brutally hot day for San Francisco. The illuminated, flashing thermometer on the side of the bank building read “92.” I mopped my brow, my dripping wet, uncharacteristically so for San Francisco, brow.

“God! There are too many damn writers in this town,” he said. “I bet you every fifth person we’ve passed today is some kind of writer. Or wants to be.” He turned to me. “Why is that?”

I had no answer. Instead I thought about my first sinecure.

It was 1967 and I was hired on the telephone, wham, bam, interview and job offer in under fifteen minutes, that’s how it was back then. My call came early in the morning, around 8:15 San Francisco time, but it was 10:15 out there in the Midwest. I had just completed my masters at San Francisco State, which at the time had one of the most respected English faculties in the country. And it was in San Francisco, damn it, the adopted home I had fallen in love with.

Well, I found myself in September of 1967 living in a new apartment on the middle floor of a three-story concrete apartment building in a godforsaken university town in the northern Midwest, a town whose main distinction was that barbed wire had been invented there. The mansion of the inventor had become a museum, dually honoring the man’s life and his greatest achievement.

It didn’t last very long, that first sinecure in the town with the barbed-wire museum. One year. Nine months, actually, and those nine months were the longest year of my life, and the winter the coldest.

After that, a short stint at a small college in Pennsylvania, in a not unpleasant town, and this one with a museum dedicated to Little League baseball. But I wasn’t cut out for two-bit sinecures, I guess, and I returned to San Francisco where I worked a succession of jobs over the years, some good, some bad, some awful. Eventually, though it took quite a number of years, I found my way back into teaching, and without leaving the Bay Area. In all that time I had never quit writing.

“I don’t know,” I told Mullins, finally, without inflection, as I mopped my brow again, a Sisyphean task, it seemed, especially in San Francisco.

by Don Skiles and Peter Cherches

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