Thursday, May 29, 2008

Gato De La Noche: Santa Fe 1984

When I lived in Santa Fe I lived with Joel. He had a roommate, Mike I think, who was a musicologist, a good guy but a little anal. Anyway, they lived in a adobe house on Camino De La Luz on a dirt road up near St. John's University (where they were both students) among the hills filled with pinon trees and juniper. The house was actually split in half, so it was a duplex (some other characters lived in the back half, had their own entrance and I never saw them much), but Joel's mud brown house with its tiny porch opened up to the street and gave the illusion of being a single entity. Inside was a kitchen and bathroom, a living room with a red fold down couch (where I slept, kept my U.S. Mail duffle of belongings tucked behind it) then a bedroom accessed from the living area with yet another bedroom--like a shotgun house--accessed from that bedroom.
The house was unkempt, rustic and what I liked best is that they always kept the broken-screened windows open, the doors unlocked, drapes unveiled so that the outside was forever present inside. Scrub hills and dirt road visible, the fresh high-desert air always fresh and flowing so that you never had an accumulation of human odor; there were ants in the sink, lizards, always the chances of bats, snakes, venomous spiders, dust and errant raindrops. It was nice. It was often cold but that clean air made up for the unclean house.
Actually the front door was usually left open because there was a tattered screen door. I slept well in Santa Fe. I worked at The Forge Restaurant downtown--walking each day and night along the winding Canyon Road or Alameda Street to work and back--at the Inn of the Governors. (Later I worked as a bouncer at Club West, also downtown.) I didn't really hang out with Joel all that much--or Mike (one thing about Mike, though: he introduced me to the music of Professor Longhair, John Lee Hooker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt--good stuff--the Clinch Mountain Boys)--but kept my own hours, developed my own school of friends, natives mostly, from work and socializing with those from work. So, I slept quite well and happy most nights, with door wide open to the late night.
And actually, the screen door was torn on the bottom. I came to realize this because some nights there was a cat that came into the house. I don't know if it was a wild, feral cat or just someone's loose house pet (never saw it during the day) and I really don't know how often it visited the house, because--as I said--I slept pretty damn good most nights (which was unusual for me--must have been that New Mexico air). But what I recall is that I was asleep and, at first, would wake up, gently, calmly, for no special reason except maybe out of some animal instinct, to find a cat watching me. It didn't happen every night (that I knew of, at least), didn't follow an exact pattern, maybe I heard it or something, but there that cat was, small and dark figured, sitting on the floor and watching me for some eerie reason, like I was a television and my body displayed old black and white late-night movies. Then when I made a move or if I called it, no matter how softly, it would rise and jump through the bottom of the screen door. Gone.
The cat did not unnerve me, it was just odd. And later I looked forward to its visits, had a better sense of when it came into the house and learned not to try and call it. It must have prowled around some, but most of the time it just watched me. And I watched it.
Santa Fe was a serene time for me. I was done with college--had my degree from the University of Iowa--and the hills, plants, smells, the Spanish and Indian culture all provided me with a quiet and observant adventure, much like--maybe--the mild adventure I provided the post-midnight cat.
The smells of New Mexico stayed with me a long time. In fact, years later when I was in Des Moines around Xmas time, Joel--who still lived in Santa Fe (or maybe he was in Albuquerque then)--had just arrived in Iowa (where his parents lived, but not in Des Moines)and stopped to see me. We went to the Waveland Tap, my favorite watering hole in the city. And Joel was wearing this thick red sweater as he discussed his hitch-hiking and bus riding adventures while on his way back to the midwest and as he sat next to me, even in the little stale-beer and smoke tavern of the Waveland in winter, I could smell New Mexico. There was the distinct sweet smell of pinon and sage and desert dust. And it was emanating from his sweater. I asked him: "Joel, were you wearing that sweater when you were in New Mexico?" And he said: "Yes."
And I bet that cat smelled like New Mexico, too.

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