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Excerpt from East

“I don't want to travel with a woman,” explained the beefy American from San Diego, turning me down. “You get hassled.” We stood in the narrow lobby of Istanbul's Hotel Güngör, in the city's ancient Sultan Ahmet District. Timeworn and jammed with longhaired backpackers, the Güngör served as a kind of Council Bluffs for the overland traffic to India - a place to scrutinize ticket prices, plot out routes, and forge alliances before setting off across Asia.

The Güngör fronted on a street close by the Topkapi Palace, now a museum. At the former palace, the hand of John the Baptist was said to be preserved. Certainly somebody's hand was. Touring the display, I eyed the relic in its glass case. The hand was wizened, brown, and smaller than my own, its fingers curled. The palace also held the Peacock Throne of India - or said it did.

In the covered bazaar, a few blocks off, I bargained for a coin bearing the face of Alexander the Great, dressed up as a god. Probably Alexander also got told he couldn't go east, as he staged his Macedonian fighters before crossing the Hellespont into Asia. But unlike Alexander, I lacked an army to deal with hassles. It was 1972, and I hated being told “no.”

Europe had been pretty safe, but the prospect of traveling beyond Istanbul all alone frightened me. And yet I wanted badly to go.

To make this trip to India was to keep a promise made in childhood. As far back as my memory stretches, the antique globe in my parents' living room entranced me with its mysterious names and hues. By today's standards, this globe was odd. On it, Oklahoma was marked “Indian Territory.” The Russian Empire stretched from the Arctic Ocean to Cape Bering. There was a Dalmatia, but no Finland or Poland. Dotted lines traced the routes of submarine telegraph cables. On my globe, as I secretly called it, oceans were not sky-blue, but milky green, like the shallow waters in a tropical harbor. Land was the creamy yellow of old parchment treasure maps.

In the living room, the entire family sat each evening - parents reading, children quarreling. At the furthest border of the gray wool nubby carpet, the globe poised on its ornate brass feet like a Jules Verne rocket on a Victorian launch pad. It glowed, as a moon might, with reflected light from the reading lamps. I reached for my globe, as if drawn by an irresistible lure. With a finger, I nudged it. Creakily, the sphere started to swivel on its canted axis. I pushed again, harder. The globe began to rotate more quickly.

Half-hidden in the corner, out of my sister's pestering reach and perhaps forgotten by my parents, I spun my private wheel of fortune. One hand braced the thimble-shaped nut at the globe's top, keeping it stable. With the other, I urged the sphere faster and faster, just as Superman in the comic book might whip the planet around in an effort to speed up time.

Soon the globe was hurtling round and round on its own without any further help from me at all. My fingertips rode its lacquered surface like a carousel, rising gently as each longitudinal seam slid under them. The raised yellow ribbon that marked the International Dateline glided by, a bigger bump.

But merely gliding became too passive. With a forefinger, I stabbed at sea and land on the little world that I had set in motion. There , I promised, I'll go there and there and there . And with a final thump, my finger came down hard on the largest yellow landmass, halting the globe's erratic whirl entirely.

I looked at the spot where my finger had landed. Asia! The matter was settled. I would go East.


Excerpt from Floating Point

We didn’t start out intending to set up housekeeping on a boat. It was June. We had had our own business, but it was closed. Our teenaged son was accepted at a new charter high school on the San Francisco Peninsula, across the Bay. We had lived eight years in our inland suburb, with its large lawns and neighborhood schools. But suddenly it seemed that everything we wanted or needed wasn’t there.

And then there was the commute.

The commute hadn’t always been awful. While my husband worked at an electronic startup in nearby Alameda, he had only to drive a short distance in the direction of the San Francisco Bay. Bursting out of the dark tube of the Orinda tunnel on the way to visit his office, I could feel humidity thicken in the air. Transfixed for a second in the hazy sea-brightness of the Berkeley side, I would snap back to alertness and carefully keep the Volvo within its designated lane—all the while sneaking glances at the long vista of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge, out to where the fog piled up over the sea, waiting to swoop back down over us in a silvery bundle. Breathing deep, I’d feel an indefinable longing.

Then I’d swing down a long swerve of elevated freeway, spurting by a silvery BART train whose tracks lay parallel in Rockridge. I’d cruise the curve past the Children’s Hospital where my son had his tonsils out, merge with another freeway, dodge the vehicles entering from the Bay Bridge, and then sail on down to central Oakland.

There I would exit, execute a few deft ballerina turns on city streets by the police station, and dive into a second tunnel. This tunnel dipped under the Oakland Estuary and emerged on Alameda Island. There was nothing like a couple of quick dives in and out of the friendly hobbit-hole underworlds of these two tunnels to nurse the day into gear. I loved to drive.

It was a quick and pleasant commute to a satisfying workplace. Our company had a research contract to build an electronic device to manage power flow for electric vehicles. The offices and lab were in a hangar at the old Alameda Naval Air Station, tucked in together with a consortium of other electric vehicle companies, all beside the Bay. The Navy hadn’t entirely left yet, but it was acknowledged that our business—and others like it—were to supplant the military presence once the base closed down. Through a bank of west-facing windows, we could watch the little-used runway that ran along the building, and beyond it, the light chop of gray waves. Far off, on clear days, I could see sails parading all the way out by Alcatraz and Angel Island.

The electric vehicle companies made wonderful neighbors. My son buzzed around on a forklift on the hangar floor. A neighbor taught him to drive an EV-1 electric sports car on the runway. Once I came out of the office to find him up thirty feet aloft on a scissors lift. Another time, he was running a milling machine, honing a metal piece under his father’s watchful eye. "Men and their tools..." I thought, without completing the sentence. It was all so clear: We were doing the environmentally right thing; the future of the earth was in our hands, and we were making a living at it.

Passing through the checkpoint at the Navy base’s entry gate, on the way to deliver a business plan I’d edited, I couldn’t help but savor the situation: Here was a uniformed military policeman waving me—a civilian—to go on past his guardpost. He raised his gloved hand with a half-salute that must have been developed for these confusing times. That old song, "If you’re going to San Francisco," blared on the car radio as I zipped on by. Here, in the belly of the beast, we were solving pollution problems that plagued the earth, using advanced technology. It was the Sixties all over again. And the good guys were winning.

Months passed in a scramble of designing, machining, and testing. Then our contract was fulfilled. We had met our deadlines, but the state government, which had initially insisted on quotas to promote electric vehicle sales in California, backed off its demand. State deadlines for compliance were eased, leaving few motivations for change. Venture capital dried up. Suddenly there was no more money. The little companies which surrounded us at the hangar faltered, one by one, and with them, our market disappeared. The hangar, with its splendid view, felt suddenly too drafty. When the rains came, water stood in puddles on the floor. One day, we too gathered up our computers, oscilloscopes, and fax machine, loaded the drill press and dyno stand on a rented trailer, and took them home to stack in our garage.

"We’ll do something more, later," we promised ourselves, but the immediate need was to find work. And for my husband—the more readily employable of the two of us—that meant going to Silicon Valley, where the electronics jobs were.

Finding an engineering job wasn’t difficult for Lee, but the commute to and from it was hell. Sometimes it took him an hour and forty-five minutes to get home in the evening. There were near-accidents. Outside San Jose, where four lanes of indifferently-maintained, pocked, jammed freeway telescoped into two, traffic often ground to a halt. He could see the other commuters in their cars, grim-faced, on their cell phones, calling home: "Honey, I’ll be late, again."

The commute wasn’t the only problem. Having our own company, we found, had given us the excitement and sense of community our neighborhood lacked. The U-shaped court we lived on had not started out as a sterile place. Elderly neighbors told us of progressive dinners in the Fifties, when the houses were new. They recalled stopping for a course of food and a round of drinks at every house and finally pouring out of the last ranch house on the court into the New Year after the ball had dropped on Times Square and everyone on television had sung "Auld Lang Syne." They told of staggering the final few doors homeward, steering tipsily past the towering walnut trees left over from the orchards the neighborhood had been carved from, and of getting home in a fog of good will and high proof fumes. I think, in those days, moving out from the city was a great adventure, and people treated it as such.

But those days were long over. There were still pretty lawns and high test scores at the neighborhood school, but people on our court no longer indulged in any kind of public exuberance. Most didn’t even speak to one another. Once, we drove to nearby Danville to have a drink after an early dinner and found the town’s bar closed, at 8:00 p.m. I heard that local teenagers in nearby Moraga referred to their town as "Bore-aga." I could sympathize.

One day we did hear news of our neighbor a few doors down. It came in an official notice from the planning department. The neighbor’s house was to be remodeled to double its size. A hearing must be held to find out whether we—or the other neighbors we didn’t know—had any objection. We began to speculate about our equity. The neighborhood was going up. Watching our newest neighbor hosing down his green Suburban in his newly sealed and blackened driveway, or digging tiny holes to insert groundcover, wearing new black rubber boots with spotless red soles, we felt we were becoming elderly too fast. Our thoughts turned too often toward retirement. More and more we dreamed of leaving, breaking out.

Lee and I had both loved to travel when we were young, but our jobs as adults had forced us to scale back. I worked as a writer, Lee as an electronics engineer. Where once we had circled the globe on a shoestring, more recently we had been pulled into a tighter orbit, like small asteroids snagged by powerful gravitational fields. For years, we had circled San Francisco and Silicon Valley, pausing to live awhile at various points along the loop. We had sampled Berkeley, Oakland, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Burlingame, and San Francisco itself. For awhile, we’d even tried moving further out into the Santa Cruz Mountains, where our son was born, but the commute had proved too terrible, and we had moved back to the Bay Area.

We had opted to whirl around the rim, rather than settle amid the bright lights of crowded city centers. I had come to think of our progression of moves as centrifugal travel. As we roved, the force of our desire to explore new places had offset the centripetal pull of the urban centers, keeping us, like the U.S.S.R.’s Sputnik, firmly in aloft and in orbit.

Lately, though, we had stopped rolling. Lee and I had fetched up at this house in the outlying suburbs because local schools were said to be excellent. However, the high school was not working out. We had wanted a workshop setting for our son, an intimate educational environment where ideas could be tried out and validated. But the reality was proving more of an impersonal assembly line, which stamped students identically with delivered information and charted progress using test scores, GPAs, and college placements as production figures. Hardly anyone seemed to care about what students learned or thought or even who they actually were. Our son was not happy there.

The school situation was a bust. Our company, with its mercifully short commute, was gone. Perhaps it was time to travel on.

WHEN we finally replanted our own lawn and sealed and blackened our own driveway, it was to attract a buyer. Someone whose dream was of green well-planted lawns, precisely dotted by Rainbird sprinklers and surrounded by moats of flawless ebony asphalt. Someone who drove a minivan and actually liked grouting up windows would buy our house. We would take the money and move somewhere better.

We wanted to move back to the Santa Cruz Mountains. We’d get a cabin in a clearing in the redwoods and live under the roar of wind in the trees. It was a comforting fantasy. But the mountain towns aren’t particularly close to anything. There was no question of finding work locally. Moving to the mountains would mean a long daily commute on a steep winding highway down to Silicon Valley. We would be trading a terrible freeway commute from an expensive suburb for a treacherous one from a rural hamlet. And the charter high school on the Peninsula would still be 50 miles away. Our son was not enthusiastic. It seemed a problem with no solution.

Then, at a conference, I met a woman who lived in two places. During the school week, the family packed themselves into a two-bedroom condominium in a wonderful school district. Come Friday, she and her husband and children journeyed a few miles home to a large house for the weekend. Maybe we could do something like that. Perhaps we could overcome our geographical dilemma by living in the mountains and camping out somewhere tinier, but closer to the city, jobs, and school—at least for a few nights a week.

But the financial outlook was daunting. Median housing prices near Silicon Valley, we read in the San Jose Mercury, were grazing the half-million mark. We didn’t have that. I browsed the Internet to look at condos, then gasped at the prices. I didn’t even want to speculate about how high rent might be.

One morning at breakfast, I spotted an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle classified section: "35 foot boat, $15,000."

"Why commute, when you can live aboard?" the ad read. Why indeed? My husband moved the cereal box off the paper and shifted his bowl, so we could examine the ad, and the idea, more closely.

We had lived in places all around the Bay, but until now, it had not occurred to us to try living in the Bay itself. I fetched a roadmap from the nest of bills and mail on the kitchen counter and spread it out on the table. We looked closely at the map. Rimmed by towns and green parklands, the San Francisco Bay appeared as a blue and relatively blank place. It was smack in the middle of our loop of former domiciles. The Bay was near to everything.

We both paused to sip our coffee. The notion of a boat on the Bay continued to perk. Our motivation would not be romantic, of course. This was to be a cost-cutting measure. Sleeping on a boat, we told ourselves, would save us so much rent. Gas would be less. Stress would be less. The commute would be a hop. We wouldn’t have to buy any additional furniture. Our son could have a stateroom to himself. And we would not actually take the boat anywhere. It would be for sleeping. A floating condo.

"What a bargain," we told each other. "What a way to beat the system!"

"I can tell my friends I live on a yacht," our son chimed in, happily agreeing on the general concept. It actually sounded classy.

Not that I cared, of course. Privately, I was thinking: And I can write about it.

© Shelley Buck 2010

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