Follow Harriet on Twitter
How a murderer sleeps.
Marin County, California.
My sister lives in Fairfax California and my Father was there visiting her and her kids. I was in San Francisco for a poetry show, but decided to stay at the same hotel with my dad outside of the city so I could visit with the whole family as well. Dad got us two rooms at the Marriott Villas, which is a fancy term for decent coffee and $11 impotent bacon plates. At 8a.m. the morning after my show, my eyes shot open and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I checked my phone and saw a text from my dad who was staying 2 floors below me.
“I know it’s early but I can’t go back to sleep. Wanna go for a walk?” He asked.
“I can’t sleep either. Must be the starched pillows.” I replied.
“Meet you downstairs in 10, my special spoiled brat.” He wrote back.
My father Russ Tamblyn will turn 75 in December but he looks like he’s in his early 60′s. For many years he was an incredible acrobat (see this) and starred in many of the great musicals of Hollywood’s heyday. Now his routinely morning walk is the closest thing to a back flip you’ll see out of him. He’s always had a great sense of humor about outliving most of his contemporaries and age in general. He has a great sense of humor, period. It’s one of the qualities that makes him a kick ass Father. When I got my belly button pierced at 14, my mother cried. My Father asked if it had a tracking device, that it might be useful. He said any further bad behavior out of me would result in the consequence of tying fishing line to that naval ring and the front door handle for an inordinately long period of time. He wasn’t suggesting I have the thing ripped out as punishment, but it would make the mailman and any visiting neighbors very curious as to why our front door had me on a leash all day. “I’ll tell them you’re trying to stretch the hole. It’s the new trend all your friends are trying. My daughter is so trendy!!! She’s outdoing trends with crazier trends!!!!” My Father also never lies. He prides himself on this. So I know he was serious about the fishing line.
Outside the Marriott, I stared at the top of my dad’s head while he bent down to tie his sneaker. It looked like a well worn in Eagle’s nest: Sporadic twigs of grey fluff sprouting out over his ears and a satellite image of a hurricane swirling whites and grays across the top of his cranium. “Someday I won’t even be able to tie these myself!” He said, double knotting the shoelace. “You really missed your opportunity to make some money off of my physical skills. You could have human trafficked the heck out of me!” I rolled my eyes. Dad also loves puns. And cheesy jokes. I guess that’s a staple of all 75 year old men.
We crossed over the San Rafael Bridge and found a path that followed the water. The air was crisp and cool. No fog. No buttermilks. Just enormous amounts of blue. Dad picked up a fallen branch for a walking stick. “Do you know who we are less than a mile away from right now?” He asked me, thwacking the big rocks sitting in the shallow waves. “No. Who?” I asked. He pointed out in front of us and said “Charles Manson. That’s San Quentin, right there.”
I could see, quite clearly, the towers and metal gates in the near distance. The San Rafael Highway, which we had crossed over, is where the main entrance to the prison is… but it was clear we were far below that now and making a b-line for the actual holding cells sticking out over the water’s edge on a small peninsula. There was something unsettling about approaching this concrete monster from its side. There, nothing more than barbed wire fencing would separate us and the Brandon Wilsons of the world. Perhaps we were even headed towards the gas-chamber-converted-lethal injection room. I’ve read about that room.
We walked in silence, maintaining balance across the slippery moss. Dad skipped some stones. I pushed through willows. We were off the trail now, just following the shoreline.
“Did I ever tell you my hitch hiking story?” Dad asked.
He hadn’t. We were now within a couple hundred yards of the prison.
“When I lived in Topanga in the 60’s, there were some girls that were working for Susan Asavato at the Center Café. I was driving by and saw them hitchhiking so I picked them up- two women and a guy. I told them I would take them wherever they needed to go, as long as it was in the canyon. One of the women sat up front with me and the guy and the other lady sat in the back. Things were silent for most of the ride until the girl in the front seat asked me, “Do you know who that is in your backseat?” I looked in the rearview to see if I recognized either of them. I made eye contact with the guy. The girl was looking out the window. “No.” I said, “Which one?” She said, “Him. His name is Charles Manson. He’s the next Jesus.” I looked again in the rearview and he was looking out the window. I acted like I cared. What a bunch of nutbags, I thought. I dropped them off where they asked- at the top of Topanga Canyon at the edges of the woods. There were no houses around there. Just Government owned forestry. It wasn’t until years later, after the murders, that I realized it was Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme in the front seat and possibly Susan Atkins in the back with Manson.”
I asked dad, “Did he say anything at all?”
“Just, “Thank you” when I dropped them off. That was all.”
By now we were incredibly close to the fence that guarded San Quentin. Every piece of trash on the shore looked like the remains of a get away. I used a long branch to turn over rocks, to see if I could find any sawed off hand cuffs or ripped bright orange pieces of fabric left over from abandoned jumpsuits. Signs literally said, “Turn Back Now!” and “Do Not Proceed Any Further”. We proceeded further. We got right up to the fence and peaked inside. The sounds of the water lapping at our feet made for an agonizing cyclical background affect. We could see the dark windows of the jail cells, like small bruised eyes. No one ever approached us or asked us to leave. We just stared through the razor wire at the big quiet compound. I wondered how many collective murders lived in the hearts that beat in there. What about the hearts that no longer did? How much yin was floating through those hallways like ghosts? What would ghosts in prison be like? Could they haunt the already haunted? Whose last night on Earth was it gonna be at the end of this beautiful day? Would we get to see them walking their last walk? Or would it be us, dad and me, after the Great Northern Californian Jail Break of 2009?
A man’s face came to a window whose expression we could not make out. Should we wave? Stupid idea. We climbed the rocks and up the hill and walked along the highway back to our hotel.
(Post writing this, I took an editing break to go see my friend Beau Sia perform at the Bowery Poetry Club. A man walking in my direction asked, “Is it something I said?” I kept walking. “Am I saying something wrong to all these people walking by? I just want some money for food. Is that saying anything wrong?” I slowed down a bit and said, “I can’t help you, man.” He was walking behind me now. “What do you mean you can’t help me?” He said. I looked him in the eye and said, “I mean I can’t help you in the long run, man. I’m sorry.” I turned back around and kept walking. I could see his shadow nearly against my shadow on the ground- he was very close behind me. “Ma’am, do you wanna fucking die tonight?” He asked. I walked into the Bowery just in time to not answer his question.)