A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

I met must have met Swan in the fall of 1993. He spent his mornings at Java Man, writing his leaflets, and because I was also a regular there, we talked sometimes, mostly about his program to get himself elected mayor of San Francisco, or Swan Francisco, as he called it. He possessed a great deal of information, most of it fictitious, about Saint Francis of Assisi, who had been, he said, a huge pothead, which was the reason he could understand what the birds were saying. Saint Francis began as an ordinary monk, Swan said, then he discovered marijuana, which was brought to Italy by Marco Polo, along with silk and the numeral zero. Weed unlocked the door to the animal world, Swan said, and Saint Francis went right on through. He discovered that animals deserve our love every bit as much as human beings do, more, in fact, because the patience of animals is limitless, whereas human beings get sick of you, which is the cause of war. Saint Francis became a Buddhist and a vegetarian, he preached a gospel of unfettered desire and kindness to animals, and if elected mayor, Swan promised to bring these teachings back to this, his city. It would be the beginning of a world revolution: pot would be legal, and money abolished; animals would be cherished and might, once the mass of humanity had reached a sufficiently advanced state, consent to serve as our teachers. Swan always kept a bird near him, a pigeon, usually, often one with a broken wing. As he spoke, he stroked the bird’s back; sometimes he raised the bird to his face and looked into its eye, and it seemed as though the two, Swan and bird, were really understanding each other, although no words passed between them. I liked listening to his unorthodox histories, and promised to vote for him as soon as he got himself on the ballot.

When my work was going badly, and the career I’d chosen seemed like a dull dream, as unfulfillable as it was unwanted, I wondered what decisions had made Swan Swan, whether they could be counted, how many they had been. How thick was the line that separated us, how easily could it be crossed, and, once you had gone over it one way, could you go back in the other? To this last question, at least, I got an answer, or deduced an answer, no, it was not possible. Swan refused to talk about his past; when I asked him even the least personal questions, where he had grown up, how long he had lived in San Francisco, he stopped speaking and turned his attention to his writing or his bird. Peter, the owner of the Latin Quarter Bookshop, told me that Swan had come from the Midwest, but where in the Midwest, and what he had done there, and whether he had been born there or had come from somewhere else, no one knew. Swan was Swan.

Once, on a rainy winter night, I felt a pang of concern for him. I heated a can of soup and poured it into a big plastic mug and took it downstairs to the doorway where Swan sat on his bedroll.

“No, thanks,” Swan said.

“Come on, it’s just soup. It’ll warm you up.”

Swan didn’t answer. I couldn’t think of anything to say either, and after a minute my waiting there became absurd, as if I were in a Beckett play. Swan understood why I was there, though. He wanted me to know that he was all right. So he lit a cigarette and, blowing smoke through his clenched brown teeth, he said, “I think I’m going to run for president.”

Gratefully I said it sounded like a good idea.

“If animals could vote it’d be a sure thing.” He nodded impatiently. “You don’t know what it was like when the door was open. It wasn’t about drugs. Now people say, oh, you were a hippie, you took LSD, you’re crazy. But it wasn’t like that. We were getting hold of the truth. Why do you think they killed Dylan?”

“They killed Dylan?”

“They replaced him,” Swan said, “with a robot from Disneyland. I knew the guy who made his face. He died of a heart attack in nineteen seventy-six. He was forty-one year old. A heart attack. Everyone who knows is in trouble. Are you a poet?”

“A historian,” I said.

“Is that right? I’ll tell you what you have to do. You have to write down what’s happening in this place.”

I tried to explain that the present wasn’t my period, I was more of a nineteenth century person. Swan didn’t listen. “There are things happening right now that would blow your mind,” he said.

“Like what?”

He gave me a leaflet.

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