I had an experience once, riding in a Buick and winding up in San Francisco. It was 1962 and I hardly recall what we did once we pulled into town and made our way to North Beach. Ferlinghetti was the only thing I knew or cared about the place until someone handed me Hammett’s “Maltese Falcon.” The experience remains lit in my head by the drive up One-O-One from Los Angeles. It was in the Salinas Valley that we ran into fog. We had to lean out the window to see the white line. We were young and none of us admitted to the fear squirming in our guts. It’s the fear that trumps the rest of the trip. When telling it later, I rarely mention the Golden Gate, the hills, the lights and grandeur of the Fairmont, despite walking in the lobby, pretending to belong in its leather and wood. I barely recall what it was like in the old City Lights.
It’s the fear of hearing a truck long before seeing the glow of a headlight that lives as the story I retell, it’s the lesson, perhaps, of something learned. Bit by a dog once, I experience a flush, however brief, before I rub the snout of a spaniel or shepherd. It’s the path by which I arrive either scared or dancing, hands out or folded on my chest. Imagine all our experiences unchecked by a rational thought, a reasoned summation of cause and effect.
This, it seems, is how beliefs are formed, experiences hammered into truths, experiences of, either our own, or someone else’s. In those boundaries decisions are made, alliances formed. What we teach our children barks inside the fence. It’s at those boundaries I think we need to test and occasionally cross. Otherwise we become bound or trapped to the lowest common denominator, an experience that easily explains or allows us to avoid any risk.
Why else is the boss at the factory looking to promote the one with the most experience? Experience for the boss is the comb with which to cull the chaff. Sadly, it doesn’t necessarily result in finding the best practice or method. As I once heard, “experience is just doing the same thing over and over, and not always most efficiently.”
Experience keeps our fingers off the stove, but it also can blind, distract us from discoveries possibly more interesting than the stories we have for neighborhood parties and coffee shops.
Muriel Rukeyser writes of a student reading Gerald Manley Hopkins’ “The Windover,’ who upon reading the poem was perplexed. He read it twice and grew more confused. He found it incomprehensible, feeling “very irritated and tired and fell asleep.” When he awoke and despite his experience, he read it again and discovered things “I had not suspected, but in a strange way, [it was] like remembering.” This new experience Rukeyser calls a “moment of impact” rather than “getting it.” This latter cliché supposes an aim for meaning by the fitting together of pieces—a process that limits and not discloses.
Despite what’s buried of that trip in 1962, I recently recalled stumbling on a plaque while walking down Bush Street after missing the streetcar. The plaque marked the alley where Miles Archer was shot in Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. One of those forgotten moments that makes for a better story than babbling on about the fog.