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.)

Originally Published: November 22nd, 2009

Actress and poet Amber Tamblyn was born in Venice, California. She is the author of the poetry collections Free Stallion (2005), winner of the Borders Book Choice Award for Breakout Writing, and Bang Ditto (2015). She self-published the poetry, art, and photography collections Plenty of Ships and Of the Dawn, and...

  1. November 23, 2009
     Jon Corelis

    Once in California on the Fourth of July a homeless person told me, without even asking for money, "This country isn't cool, because it doesn't respect the rainbow."\r

    This was in Palo Alto. Of course. Even the street people are New Age.

  2. November 23, 2009

    It's nice that he said "ma'am." That's polite.

  3. November 23, 2009
     Don Share

    Simic on homelessness here:\r

  4. November 23, 2009
     Steven Fama

    It probably doesn't change much here, but permit me to clean-up a detail. Manson has not been incarcerated at San Quentin for approximately 20 years. He's currently at Corcoran State Prison, about an hour and change north of Bakersfield, and has been there for most of the past two decades.

  5. November 23, 2009
     Michael James

    "homeless person told me, without even asking for money,"\r That wow is not a wow of surprise at the fact this gentleman did not ask for money, but of your own astonishment of this fact...

  6. November 23, 2009
     Teri G.

    Wasn't your Dad also Dr. Jacoby on the most poetic TV show of all time, Twin Peaks?

  7. November 23, 2009
     Amber T

    Argh Steven! It's so funny that you wrote this because my dad called me a few hours ago to say he read the Harriet post but forgot to tell me that he and my mom walked over to the prison the following day and my dad asked the guard at the main entrance if Manson was still in there and the guard said no, he is in Corcoran now. \r

    But Manson was there for a little while when he first went to prison for the murders. \r


  8. November 23, 2009
     Amber T


  9. November 23, 2009
     Steven Fama

    Yes, yes, correct: Manson was at SQ -- and I *think* pretty much almost all the time -- from after his conviction and sentencing (circa 1971)up to a few years after 1985.

  10. November 23, 2009
     Teri G.

    A man of many talents!

  11. November 23, 2009
     michael james

    And my apologies Jon, if this seemed like a rude comment. It is just that I've been homeless and the perceptions homeless people have, and how deeply engrained these perceptions are, bother me a bit.

  12. November 23, 2009

    Not to stray too far from Amber's excellent post, but speaking of Dads and Charles Manson:\r

  13. November 23, 2009

    Very cool father/daughter story and - regardless of the "facts" - an incredible story of the hitchhikers. Gave me goosebumps!

  14. November 24, 2009

    This is one of the best posts I've read on Harriet. I could go on about why I feel this way but it'd ruin the simplicity of how I'm feeling right now at 1:30 am on the dot. Good night!

  15. November 24, 2009

    One summer before finding work in the Alaska fishing industry I stayed a few nights in tent city in Anchorage; people were perfectly nice and gave good work tips. Another time working day labor in Seattle, many of my crew mates were homeless. One guy I worked with began the day saying he was going to keep working and sleeping out until he had enough money for deposit on an apartment, but he was so beat at the end of the day that he decided to blow his money on a hotel room for the night. But in sidewalk interactions, I've said, "sorry, I can't help you" many, many times too. It's usually a lie, though, in the immediate sense.\r

    Amazing our social consensus doesn't perceive chronic, widespread homelessness as a massive systemic failure. Homelessness has a high link to mortality, and every year homeless people are murdered in random hate crimes. No excusing the man's death threat against you, though, Amber -- I'm very sorry to hear about that.

  16. November 24, 2009

    Yes, I remember your father! Wasn't he in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, doing amazing acrobatics?

  17. November 25, 2009
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    Forgive the impertinence but when I was a child, I wanted to be your father. I was obsessed by West Side Story: not the Romeo and Juliet of it but the dance. I was reminded of your father's grace and lightness of touch by his story here and also by your telling of it. It is a pleasure to read someone (and to be reminded of someone) who knows how to weigh the dark things.

  18. November 25, 2009
     Amber T

    Thanks for the Father-love. My favorite growing up was Tom Thumb. I must have watched that literally a thousand times. \r

    When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to watch Twin Peaks for the most part. But the way our living room was structured, I could stick my Hello Kitty mirror around the corner from my bedroom door, and secretly watch the tv on the opposite wall. I recently told dad about this. He said he knew I was doing that but never said anything because my Mother was the one who would have freaked out. He thought giants and ladies who talked to logs and women walking through fire were healthy for my imagination. He was probably right.

  19. November 26, 2009

    Wow! Sounds like you could write a book - besides poetry :) - about your adventures/misadventures growing up! Never a dull moment at your house, I'm sure!\r
    Seriously though, it sounds like you had a great creative environment to do so.

  20. December 1, 2009

    Good writing, Amber Tamblyn. Quite good actually. It is the kind of lyrical essay I tend to look for in the blogosphere, or whatever it gets called. Penultimate paragraph particularly kicks ass as you might say.\r

    Eight years or so ago I met Archibald Macleish's youngest daughter, the youngest of twelve children as I recall. She would have come of age when his life had pretty much become an accomplished thing and a done deal. It happens. In her conversations and descriptions I noted a dynamic, something unique, that can get played out between an old man and his youngest daughter child, especially when the child comes to him later in life. Maybe you know the story involving Mignon, a fictional character Goethe invented, and that pretty much sets the type of just such a dynamic. It is what your essay brings to mind, which is my way of saying the piece resonates.\r

    And maybe you know the story about how Faulkner finally went back home to write about things most familiar to him. Sherwood Anderson persuaded a younger Failkner to eschew his stupid ambitions involving New York and Paris, go back home, write about something he knew in his bones. Another way of saying this is good writing.\r


  21. December 4, 2009

    Amber, to me you will always be the REAL Emily Quartermaine and your father will always be Riff. It was nice to spend a bit of time with the two of you, as yourselves.

  22. December 5, 2009
     Gary Thompson

    Amber for all your humanitarianness qualities, "I mean I can't help you in the long run, man," weighs down the story, otherwise my favorite post of yours ever on Harriet's. Obviously, you know this, you could help the man in the long "run" in the usual ways (food, shelter, money, etc.). Homeless people I don't doubt stagger into the sawdust of Hollywood, mill around and promenade new lives, careers, in that sanctified Tom Thumb land. God's somewhere in that industrial scent.\r
    This is about before, when he made that profane death threat. Your reaction before the first breath of that sentence to you.