Three Fifty-Four

This is another image from my trip a few days ago—to the railroad yard in old downtown Charlottesville. This is a retaining wall that faces the tracks—there are some bushes and small trees above the wall and a shabby side street a few yards beyond. I liked the image itself the minute I spotted it—there was just something compelling about the number that I couldn’t figure out.

What the number 354 in this particular instance refers to—why it was put there—I don’t know. It could be a street gang tag. I did a little research on street gangs in Charlottesville and couldn’t find anything that 354 would apply to.

Googleing the number brought up the London bus route 354 schedule—Ravensbourne – Beckenham – Birkbeck – Anerley – Penge.

I found websites for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local 354 in Utah and the Tulsa Stage Employees local 354.

I also learned about something called, “The Chronography of 354, also known as the Calendar of 354…a 4th century illuminated manuscript, which was produced in 354 AD for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentius…the work contains the earliest reference to the celebration of Christmas as a holiday or feast.” (Wikipedia)

Here’s the link if you want to read more about this manuscript:

Maybe that’s what the graffiti is about.

Maybe somewhere in the old downtown part of Charlottesville there lives a huge fan of 4th century illuminated manuscripts who just wanted to share his passion with the world! Someone who—with a little bit of spray paint—before the inevitable erosion of time—took a few moments of his life to say, “Hey—I was here and this is what was important to me.”

While doing the above research for this piece it dawned on me what it was that grabbed me about this number. I went up into my attic and found a shoe box of personal papers from a very long time ago—not as far back as the 4th century mind you—but a while nevertheless.

It was a bunch of stuff from my undergraduate years—probably the most important and meaningful period in my life. Pictures, little souvenirs, journals, letters—I found myself flooded with memories and feelings I thought were long vanished.

I hadn’t looked at that stuff in decades but it is astonishing how quickly your heart and mind can slip back to a time when you were someone else and the world was a much different place. Sitting there in the silence of things put away and things forgotten—I read and remembered.

In the fall semester of 1966 I was an undergrad. student at the University of Northern Colorado. The previous semester I had been involved with a beautiful young woman—an anthropology dept. graduate assistant—who unfortunately lost her position and left to live in California. She and I were by no means, “two ships that pass in the night” but two ships who found each other, traveled together for a while sharing life’s sweetness, beauty and promise then separated, bound for different destinies. We loved each other—but loved more—all the unknown, unseen and untasted life that lie ahead.

Kara (not her real name) had wanted to live in the Sunset Strip section of Los Angles for some years and hang out at places like The Whiskey-A-Go-Go. She found a place to stay only a few blocks from where Eric Clapton would live 7 years later while working on his album 461 Ocean Boulevard. For 6 or 7 months in 1966 Kara lived at 354 Sunset Boulevard. Actually the address was 354 and a half. She was living with 2 other girls in an apartment over a garage.

Kara and the other girls were go-go dancers at the Whiskey (they called it “The Whisk”) and were working there in May of 1966 when Jim Morrison and The Doors were hired as house band for the Whiskey.

From day one Morrison was a problem for the club managers. In a letter dated early June of 1966 Kara wrote to me:

“Jim can be a really cool guy but can also be a total asshole. For example he’s almost never on time. Last night Ray and John had to go down the street to that skuzzy little flophouse on Sagamore and literally carry and drag him back to the club. After the guys hauled him through the kitchen entrance, Herbie (the bouncer) picked up Jim and carried him like a rag doll to the stage.

Ray stood him up in front of the mike but he kept falling down. Robbie talked to Phil (Tanzini) about letting Jim sing sitting on the edge of the stage. They tried that but Jim slid off the stage and puked on Arthur’s (another bouncer) pant leg.”

In another letter dated late June Kara wrote:

“Jim showed up at our place again about 3 A.M. wanting to crash here—I heard they threw him out of the Sagamore flop house after he took a dump in the night clerk’s hat while he was in the john.

So Jim comes banging and yelling up the stairs—drunk and high as hell—but knocks politely on the door. Jeanie lets him in and he almost falls through the door with this skanky bimbo he’s got with him. Jim’s got no pants on—just his jockey shorts—and the bimbo has his pants around her neck like a big scarf. I’m sitting across the room and I see Jim lean over and say something to Jeanie who steps back suddenly and punches him (not slap—punches) him in the face. Jeanie’s screaming at him, “Get the fuck out you piece of shit and take this nasty bitch with you…”

Jim’s nose is bleeding and he stumbles back through the door—I hear him fall down the stairs—the bimbo is yelling something at him. Jeanie told me later he wanted to use our bathroom to have sex with the skank and invited her to join them.”

In late August I got my last letter from Kara:

…Phil finally fired Jim and the band after he sang that Oedipal song, “The End.” I heard the band got a cool record deal with Electra so they won’t be missing any meals. I mean yeah—they got a pretty unique sound—but I can’t imagine they’ll last very long. Either they’ll run out of material or Morrison will kill himself—if he doesn’t end up in prison. I give them one, maybe two albums and “The Doors” will be closed.”

A few months later Kara found a teaching position at a community college and got into a UCLA doctoral program. A friend—who also knew Kara from when she was here at UNC—was in California a few years later and looked her up. She completed her Ph.D in anthropology and was teaching at the Fresno campus of the California University system. I think she was married and at that time had a baby on the way—that would have been 1970 or 71.

It occurred to me as I put down the letters, she was the perfect girl for me for that time in my life and I am the better person for having known and loved her. I sat there a bit dazed and drained for a few minutes remembering how focused and rich that period in my life had been.

I very carefully put the letters back into their envelopes and closed them, pressing the torn parts of the envelopes together. I put the letters back into the box—being careful to place them neatly so they wouldn’t get creased. I guess I was returning them to a very private, personal archive—one—important as it is—that I know I’ll never look into again.

One day my son or some member of his family will be cleaning out the old man’s house—find that box—glance at the contents then toss it into the trash. And I’m OK with that. People, their stuff, their lives, their memories and all the things they did and didn’t do—eventually all end up in the same place.

But until then—it’s a comfort in some sad, goofy way—to know that it’s up there in that place of things put aside. I’m the only one who knows it’s there—and that’s OK.

While I did not make any sort of statement with spray-paint, maybe that box of letters, papers and memories is—nevertheless—my way of quietly saying,

“Hey—I was here and this is what was important to me.”

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