GHOST LAND by RODGER JACOBS
The following personal rumination on Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon in Oakland — the epicentre of Jack London’s historical Bay Area — was written in 2003 by San Francisco writer Rodger Jacobs.
In the burgeoning skin flick trade of the 1990s, Martin Brimmer was the man to call when you wanted a quality screenplay churned out in days, not weeks like some of the other hacks in the business. Brimmer’s poison pen produced over 100 screenplays for X-rated video features and one screenplay for a shot-on-film flesh epic. All in less than four years.
I borrowed the nom-de-porn of Martin Brimmer from a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s swan song, The Last Tycoon. Brimmer was a jaded screenwriter and visionary union organizer, a thorn in the side of movie studio chieftain Monroe Stahr. I relished the idea of taking a fictitious character and breathing life into him, transplanting Fitzgerald’s 1930s screenwriter into the 1990s and making him a scribe in the world of adult entertainment.
The problem is that I did too good of a job. Martin Brimmer was wildly successful, a three-time award winner no less, whereas Rodger Jacobs was less inspired, producing only five mainstream spec screenplays in roughly five years.
Martin Brimmer was born inside of me long before I was aware of it, sometime back in my early childhood when I developed a voracious appetite for books.
My mother would never indulge my natural curiosity; instead she perpetually directed me to the encyclopedia whenever a query sprang from my young mind.
“How do birds fly?” I might ask.
“Go look it up,” was her consistent reply, sweeping me out of the room before I dared to disturb one of my endless series of step-fathers with an innocent question that would challenge their stunted intellect and awaken an alcoholic rage.
In a day and age when the youth culture is defined by their collective fucked-up childhoods I will resist getting into a pissing contest as to just how bad mine really was. Suffice to say that I sought escape in literature, encouraged by my mother, collecting books in my adolescent and teen years the way other boys would collect model airplanes or baseball cards.
My mother, it is important to understand, adored writers, putting them on a pedestal somewhere near the left hand of God. In particular she worshiped at the altar of Scott Fitzgerald and Jack London (I would discern later in life that my mother favored authors based on their degree of sexual appeal rather than on their body of work).
Around my fifth year of life, when other children were dreaming of becoming policemen and fire fighters and doctors and cowboys, I resolved to become a writer. I can recall taking sheets of paper, folding them into fours, and literally scribbling on the inside with a crayon, presenting the completed work to my mother as a new book for her to read.
“Writers make a lot of money,” my mother assured me in encouragement of my aspirations. (“Yeah, mom, just last week I made 300 bucks for writing Eight Women Who Ate Women.”)
She presented me with a used first edition of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on my fourteenth birthday and from that glorious novel I extracted a philosophy that by amassing wealth as a writer I could fulfill any romantic dream that I aspired to. Never mind the fact that Jay Gatsby, the source of my inspiration, was self-delusional and paid for his illusory dreams with a fatal bullet in his back; he died with his faith still alive and that’s all that matters.
It was somewhere near my sixteenth birthday that I settled on a select group of writers as inspiration for my future career: Fitzgerald, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Eugene O’Neill, Horace McCoy, and Nathanael West. Seven writers sewn together with a common needle and thread: troubled souls with a penchant for substance abuse.
Not only did I hungrily devour their dark and caustic works but I fastidiously studied their fractured lives, particularly West and Fitzgerald, two gifted authors ravaged by their experiences in Hollywood.
The self destructive behavior of these magnificent writers tantalized my teenaged mind. There was something warm and lyrical about the way they washed down their despair with a tumbler of whiskey or gin or whatever was handy at the moment.
“Drinking, as I deem it, is practically entirely a habit of mind,” Jack London wrote in Alcoholic Memoirs. “The desire for alcohol is quite peculiarly mental in its origin …. the human is rarely born these days, who, without long training in the social relations of drinking, feels the irresistible propulsion of his system toward alcohol.”
If alcoholism is a learned habit, as London suggested, I vowed that I would educate myself in the thrills and dark despair of drinking when the time was right and that time would be when I became a writer. I reasoned that drinking was as vital and necessary to a writer and a typewriter or pen and paper.
A particularly important rite of passage occurred several years ago during an excursion from L.A. to the San Francisco Bay Area. While touring Jack London Square on the Oakland waterfront I was ecstatic to discover that Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, a certified state historic landmark, still stood on the wharf.
It was my childhood in the Bay Area that introduced me to the works of Jack London in the first place. “Why is so much stuff named after Jack London? Who was he anyway?” I asked my mother one day as we drove through downtown Oakland. The following day she bought me a lavishly illustrated children’s edition of Call of the Wild.
Heinold’s Saloon was built in 1880 from the timbers of an old whaling ship. From 1880 to 1883 the small, claustrophobic room served as a bunk house for sailors working the oyster beds in the nearby bay. In 1883 a man named Johnny Heinold bought the building and converted it into a saloon for waterfront laborers and seafarers.
It was at Heinold’s Saloon that Jack London studied as a school boy. He wrote notes for The Sea Wolf and White Fang in Heinold’s Saloon, seated with pad and pencil at the very same tables that are still in use.
Over 100 years later, Heinold’s Saloon is still a watering hole, retaining its original gas lights and a wildly tilting floor, the result of damage from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake when the pilings beneath the bar settled in the mud and could never be shored up.
Jack London loved to drink at Johnny Heinold’s Saloon and now, I thought to myself as I walked through the door one cool summer day many years past, I am going to sit down and get drunk at the exact same bar where one of my idols traded wild tales with his boisterous drinking companions.
The bar is dimly lit with gas lights. A brownish oily creosote is seeping out of the aged wood and the smoke from the wood-burning stoves and cigarettes has stained the walls.
I sidled up to the bar with its original but worn through brass rail and ordered the first of an unending series of bourbon and waters. The bartender tried to impose the tourist spiel on me but I dismissed his rehearsed lecture with a wave of my hand.
“I probably know more about this place than you do,” I said. I simply wanted to be left alone to soak up the booze and the history.
Once I assured the bartender that I was not going to be climbing behind the wheel of a car, not me, he began pouring the liquor with a free hand. It seemed that I was imbibing from a bottomless glass.
Golden time arrived quickly; that’s the moment when the drinker abruptly finds his boat cast on the other side of the shore. Lucidity is gone. Senses are dulled to the point of numbness. The stability of the ground beneath you feet is no longer a certainty (Well, it never is in Oakland). And the brain returns forgotten memories and offers up tantalizing hallucinations and fantasies as the optical gaze turns inward.
Through the filter of my mind’s eye there marched an endless procession of spooks and ghouls that were oozing out of the stagnant air of Heinold’s Saloon like the creosote from the wood.
There were hundreds of nameless and faceless ghosts, aimlessly shuffling around the room, wishing and hoping that they could locate the other pieces of their disintegrated souls so that they can be whole again. There were longshoremen and sailors and sea captains from all corners of the globe. There were soldiers who shipped off to war from the Port of Oakland, enjoying their last drink at Heinold’s before rushing to greet their grim fate on some foreign battlefield.
Not all of the ghosts were anonymous. Some of them were men of great repute, anxiously taking advantage of my blinding inebriation to reveal themselves.
Robert Louis Stevenson, who passed time at Heinold’s before embarking on his final cruise to Samoa, brushed past my shoulder in the form of a cool breeze. Pieces of Robert Service’s soul lingered in the air, cursing his lack of physical properties because there is so much poetry to be composed about life on the other side.
The disembodied spirit of Ambrose Bierce, the ultimate cynic, treads the boards at Heinold’s Saloon. In The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce defines a ghost as “the outward and visible sign of an inner fear.”
And in time I could almost discern the apparitional form of Jack London, his stocky frame poured into a bar stool. He is like vapor, bathed in a glowing yellow light, wearing a bulky waist-length rain slicker. His hair is tousled, as it is in most photographs of him, and his sunken eyes are haunting beyond words.
Jack doesn’t utter a word. He flashes that wry grin of his, cocks his head slightly to the left, and fixes his spectral gaze on my face, occasionally glancing with envy at the strong bourbon concoction in my hand. I find myself, in this moment of communion with the dead, recalling Jack’s observations about life and the spirit world, observations he made while conversing with the Noseless One, Death, in Alcoholic Memoirs.
“Life is apparitional and passes,” the passage begins. “You are an apparition. Through all the apparitions that preceded you and that compose the parts of you, you rose gibbering from the evolutionary mire, and gibbering you will pass on, interfusing, permeating the procession of apparitions that will succeed you.”
Truer words were never spoken, Jack. We create our ghosts while we are still alive. Little pieces of our spirit fall off like discarded limbs, littering the landscape of our lives. Life is apparitional, a crazy dance in the domain of flux. Life is ghost land.
Copyright © 2003 Rodger Jacobs. All rights reserved. This piece originally appeared at Dead Drunk Dublin.