Photo: Gwen Harlow

The Tweakers or the Ghosts

You know you’re close when the fog thins out, when the dull pink behind cuts through, when the hills along the highway become vacant and brown. Staples, Starbucks, Target, In-N-Out; casinos and check cashing. The spires of the oil refinery silhouetted and pumping exhaust that smudges across the sky. The last exit before the Carquinez Bridge, before the end of the East Bay, and you take it. Turn left, turn left again, past the Dead Fish Restaurant with its rattling neon, back under the freeway, beneath the hissing and the headlights and you are there.

Crockett: a little cluster of buildings at the bend of the Carquinez Strait, wedged between the hills and the shoreline, the highway and the bridge, like food caught between teeth. Home to saloons and antique stores and the C&H Sugar Refinery; to the stubby remains of hundred-year-old piers and a set of railroad tracks that freights still rumble down a few times a day.

A high school boyfriend FBs me that he and his sister have bought a bar in Crockett. Tom’s new band is playing, he writes, and I should come out. So I do. Because it’s a Thursday night, because I have a friend’s car at my disposal, and because I have fuck all to do. A little old-school would do me good, I tell myself, descending the steep incline of Crockett’s small downtown. A cruise through memory lane. A field trip into what remains.

Crockett is one of a handful of unincorporated towns in Western Contra Costa County, just north of Berkeley. Actually, just north of Albany, a one-square-mile town where I went to three years of high school. An Oakland girl, I’d thought Albany was small-town until I’d met Chris, smoking weed under the BART tracks during fifth period. Chris was also a transfer student but from the other direction, farther north, one of the towns in that cluster—El Sobrante, Crockett, Port Costa—where the Bay waters tentacle and the urbanity dissipates. “The Midwest begins where the BART line ends,” a San Francisco comedian once quipped. I wish I could say that isn’t true.

I’m driving down Second Avenue—really, there are only three avenues—and I’ve already forgotten the name of Matt’s bar. I figured I wouldn’t have to bother remembering it and I’m right: I pass a neon martini glass with the silhouette of a naked girl inside, extending one leg in the air, and I know that must be it. The letters run down the side, right beneath the second-story bay window: Toot’s.

I pull into a parking space—there are parking spaces everywhere and none of them metered. The street is filled with the sound of cars hissing above, along the Carquinez Bridge, their headlights casting quick little glances of white. Sitting behind, I can make out the C&H Factory, its dark mass obscured behind the cement and steel of the bridge. But mostly I can smell it: the faint sweet stench it emits over the town.

I see Matt sitting hunch-backed on a stool outside the bar. He’s just as small as ever. He’s got full-sleeve tattoos and forehead wrinkles and chops down his cheeks and the first signs of grey, but otherwise he’s the same Matt.

He grins when he sees me—“Oh shit!”—and I see a flash of his two sharp teeth. I see a flash of those teeth in a rearview mirror, grinning at me the night I decided to date him. He didn’t drink so much, had stopped doing blow—really only smoked weed and that had seemed like a good plan to me then, dating him a good way to contain my own gnashing addiction.

When he stands up to hug me, I remember just how little he is. I used to be able to pick him up. I realize how many years it’s been since we actually kicked it. His mom has died and his dad has remarried then also died, drowned in a boating accident just outside the Golden Gate. Tourists spotted them, the story went, from inside that remodeled Cliff House tourist trap on Ocean Beach. Matt and his sister have inherited some money and in addition to getting a body suit from the same dude who’s done a bunch of my own tattoos, he now owns a bar and that’s what he’s doing with his life, that’s what his life has settled into and become.

God, we were kids then.

I feel suddenly self-conscious, not sure what to do with my hands. I put them in my pockets. “What’s up?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Just this,” he glances over his shoulder with a smile and he’s proud, I can tell.

He’s running the place, he tells me, managing and bartending some too. His sister does the books and I should see how big she’s gotten, how much of a woman she is. He’s spending most nights here. He’s living in Rodeo and I have to ask where that is. “Another town around the corner, like ten minutes from here,” and I wonder how many towns like this there are, tucked into the crooks and crevices of this part of California.

He stubs his cigarette in the sand. “Can I get you a drink?” he asks and I squint at him a little. I wonder if maybe he doesn’t remember—doesn’t recall that a month after we broke up, I got clean and stayed clean. That I later made amends to him for the shady way I dumped him and the story I wrote about El Sob, telling him that I was fucked-up then—not telling him that I was still fucked-up and always would be, that a piece of me was trapped in those blackout nights and wouldn’t ever leave.

That information is lost somewhere in the crooks of his memory, the terrain inside him. “A soda water would be great,” I tell him instead.

We go inside and he asks the bartender for a soda water: “This lovely lady is having a soda water,” he says. A dude on a stool turns around to look at me—Carhartt overalls and a beard and those hard deep wrinkles. The bartender says, “You want a lime?” And I inhale as though I’m seriously debating it, then say, “Fuck it, Thursday night, let’s go crazy.” Which is what I always say, and they all three smile, the way people always smile when I say it.

The inside of the bar is painted deep red and there are taxidermied mounts on the walls, deer and elk heads turned at different angles, as though they were frozen in the moment they heard the rifles’ pop. There’s a pool table and those old-timey mirrored beer signs. A woman with saggy knees and wedge sandals fingers a beer label, leans suggestively towards a man with a moustache, and I think, “America!” And I think, “Salt of the earth!” And I distinctly try not to think, “Redneck!” which is what I always tried not to think while hanging out in Crockett.

Here is where I could tell you about the history of the place, how Crockett came to be and how I came to be there. I could start with the boom times: the railroad and the ferries and the shipyards and the mills and the refineries. I could start with industry men, the seekers with their bushy beards and pocket watches, their sharp eyes and big dreams. I could tell you about the workers, the two-bit hustlers and bootleggers, about the smuggling and the gambling in the brothels and saloons. I could start with the land parcels after the Mexican-American War, the squatters and the gun-toters, the Russians, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the wayward Westward-running Americans. I could start with the Spanish Missions and the diseases they spread, the way the native Karkin Indians died inside those white-washed walls. I could start with the Karkins, a tiny sect of the Ohlones who occupied pretty much the exact territory of the incorporated towns today. I could start with the bears that used to line the shores, hunting for salmon that don’t swim there anymore.

I could start with my high school, trace the bus routes, the nearest train station, the left-side exit ramp Matt’s dad drove me off once. I could probably still tell you how to get to Matt’s old house, could point out the bombed-out methhouse down the block, describe the sharp chemical sting it emitted for weeks. I could tell you about Hell Hole and the landfill and coming out of a blackout on the train tracks in Port Costa—how the gravel crunched beneath my sneakers and the lights glinted in my eyes and the horn rumbled in my chest. I could tell you the way our bodies slid in the back of B’s truck when he took a sharp turn, the way the death metal blared through the speakers, the way the smoke curled and clung—how black the nights got out there.

And I could tell you how it all ended: that my time partying in El Sob and Crockett were some of my last months using; that I was tracing the contours of my bottom while I dated Matt; that I left and got clean and never looked back. I could tell you how the automobile killed the freight traffic; how the factories burned and the old piers rotted; how the lavish ferry the industry men once rode was abandoned and sank into the Strait waters slowly, over the course of decades. I could tell you the way everything was consumed: fires and earthquakes and toredo worms eating into the structure of those men’s dreams, drinking and whoring and gambling eating into them. I could tell you how the little townships like Crockett slowly faded in the landscape, got incorporated into larger towns, and eventually disappeared, how Crockett only avoided this fate because of the C&H Factory and the jobs it provided. I could tell you about the secret passageways that remain, the architecture of the past: backrooms and crawlspaces, and the rumored ghosts who walk them.

What I can’t tell you is what actually happened. What I did in Crockett, what the nights were like or how those people lived in them. That part is gone.

Matt comes out from behind the bar. “You remember Damien?” he asks, pulling a pale, moon-faced guy our direction.

The face is vague but the name pokes at something, some deep corner of my brain, down by the nape, the stem—reaches down through a steely wool of memory: an apartment complex, beige walls and the yellow light against the stucco wall. Did we buy weed there or just smoke it? I see Matt pulling his truck in sideways. I see wall-to-wall carpets and no furniture, or hardly any furniture. I see nothing else.

I squint my eyes, cock my head. “Ooooooh yeah,” I say slowly, waiting for the spark to ignite. Nothing happens. I smile, shake his hand, “It’s been awhile,” I say and I wonder if I’m pulling it off.

“You’d remember his sister. Briana,” Matt says as we walk away. He says it knowingly, like I should remember her, but the name stirs nothing.

Matt shows me around, gives me the grand tour. He owns the bar but not the building. It’s an old brothel, he tells me, just like the one down the road in Port Costa where the punks used to party, except this one isn’t haunted, or as haunted, just old and spooky-feeling sometimes.

He leads me into the back room, a stage area with a balcony surrounding it. “This is where the girls used to walk down,” he points to the stairs, “and here’s where the men would stand to pick them.” He sweeps his arm around. The room is faded and wrecked, smells like wood rot and mold eating cheap carpeting.

There are secret passageways from the Prohibition Era, Matt tells me. There are the small dark rooms of the former prostitutes, all hidden away back there, just up the stairs and behind the walls. He can show it to me, we can go look at them if I wanna see.

“No,” I tell him, shaking my head and giving a fake shiver. “Way too spooky.”

He laughs. “The landlady keeps telling me I could use the space, for shows and stuff, but it seems like too much trouble. People wanting to practice here, crash here”— he shakes his head—“too much.”

“So does it just sit here?” I ask. “Vacant?”

Matt shrugs. “Basically. I mean, the landlady rents the rooms out. They’re tiny as shit, really just big enough for a bed, no bathroom or anything. They were only built for, you know.” He pauses, waits for me to understand. “She rents ’em to tweakers.”

I laugh, but he’s serious. “So sometimes at night, if I crash here, I hear noises and I don’t know if it’s the tweakers or the ghosts.”

He snaps out the light and locks the padlock behind us.

We go back out and I nurse my soda water and watch the crowd: denim and moustaches and low ponytails. You have always been a tourist here, I think.

My old friends begin to filter in, faces I recognize under the mask of time. B is cooking in a restaurant in a Marin shopping mall, one of the better ones, I’ve been there. Chris is still working at the Guitar Center and still in the same apartment and he still doesn’t have a license and he’s doing good, he tells me—“just chilling, you know how I do,” and I do.

Tom’s face is rounder, not a sharp as when we were kids. But beneath a thin reddish beard I can still see those deep lines, the ones that would crease like leather when he smiled. “His face completely changes every few years,” his wife says, and it’s the same girl he dated back then, the same girl I introduced him to—the girl who was my best friend for a few summers, who hasn’t aged a bit under the dim lights: no wrinkles, no grey, no tired bloat.

Tom’s band isn’t really a band, just him with a microphone and another dude with an acoustic guitar. They sing about suicide and rape face and not fucking with white girls from Rodeo. There’s a lot of screaming and power chords involved, and the other people in the crowd cheer. I’m not sure if it’s genuine or some kind of performance art meta-statement, and neither are they, I think.

Chris leans towards me. “This band sounds like what I imagine it feels like to get your nipples pierced.” He stoner-chuckles to himself and I see it in him, for a moment, a flash: that kid he used to be, shaved head and green bangs, Dystopia patch. I see seeds popping in a metal pipe in Rob’s backhouse.

After the band we go outside. I zip up my hoodie and bum a cigarette, a fucking menthol, just to have something to do with my hands. What am I doing with my life? they ask me, and I don’t know where to start. What can I say about my life, where it has led and what it has become? “I’m a preschool teacher,” I say.

It’s itching towards ten pm and the vibe on the sidewalk is changing. Getting sketchy, methy, full of twitchy bodies with boiled skin. There’s some agro-looking dogs and people still wearing sunglasses. A woman whose legs are miles of bruises disappears behind a truck with a man. A white low-riding Buick pulls up and a dude in an unironic camoflauge vest leaps out with his arms outstretched, like he were the king of this place. There’s the twinkle of the headlights, the hiss of the highway, the rise of the bridge and the arch of the overpass, the outline of the C&H against the black water and dip of the hills: this pocket of life.

Chris has an electric cigarette he’s put hash resin in and he’s taking little sips on it and telling me it’s the new thing, you can even do it at work and no one knows. He starts talking about some random night, some night I can’t remember, saying, “We were heeeeella faded,” and the phrasing brings something back, drags it out of that steely wool. Not a memory but the shape of a memory, the shape of his body beside mine teddy-bear familiar, something I want to sink in towards. His hyena laugh and coin-slot eyes.

“Don’t kick it up here that much though,” he says.

“Why?”

He shrugs, and there’s that sharpness in his eyes, that spark, very briefly—the kid I used to know.

He sips his electronic weed pipe. “You sure you don’t remember Brianna?” he asks me. He pulls out his phone, shows me a picture. It’s clearly a photo of a photo, and an old one at that: a young face with matted green hair, sly grin, round cheeks. It stokes nothing in me, nothing moves behind the steely wool.

“Oh yeah,” I say vaguely. “Maybe.”

He shrugs again and puts his phone away.

And standing there on the sidewalk, under the highway and behind the C&H, it all starts to feel like too much. Too distant, too close—like everything we did in Crockett and the people we were then were simultaneously a hundred years ago and five minutes ago. Like a part of us were still out there, riding in those trucks and on those roads, taking the turns and bends of this landscape. Like one of those trucks might rattle past any minute, all of our younger selves piled inside, stoned and laughing.

I wait a few more minutes before I say my goodbyes, give my hugs. I tell Tom I liked his set and tell Matt it was good to see him. He tells me we should get dinner while I’m in town; Tamir’s opened a foodie restaurant in Port Costa and we should check it out, and I agree, even though I know we won’t.

I walk back to the car I’ve borrowed. I make a U-turn at the intersection and catch a glimpse of two people from the bar. The boy’s got his head slumped against the wall and the girl is screaming at him and both of their faces are sallow under the streetlight.

I drive away. Back up the hill, towards the on-ramp, the C&H Sugar Refinery to my right.

Did you know that it was never supposed to be a sugar factory? That it was supposed to be a flourmill, the finest flourmill in the world, a monument to the Roman god of agriculture. Did you that it barely ever produced wheat, that it sat there idle and empty until Abraham Starr, the man who constructed it, went broke in a bank panic and sold it? Did you know that Starr didn’t even come to California to be a flour tycoon? That he originally came—18 years old, nearly the same age we were back then—to find gold? And that after that dream failed, his back-up dream failed and then some other man from other state constructed his whole fortune, and the whole trajectory of the town of Crockett, on Starr’s failed and waiting hunger?

Most people don’t know that part. Most people don’t bother to even wonder, just glide past on their way to the bridge. Most of the time, I’m one of them.

I climb up the hill, make another right and I am back on highway, going back towards Oakland, the oil refinery passing and the C&H factory growing small in the rearview. Crockett being buried in the space beneath the hissing, the moving, the lights and the speed—in the space between the water and the bridge.

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1 Comment

  • Melinda says:

    Soooooo good. My favorite kind of writing about a place, spun with threads of personal narrative and local history, infused with irony, darkness, and a bittersweet angst. Xxx

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