Berkeley Episode 3: The Crack Pixie

Of all the people who lived in the house I was probably the closest to Sarah Beth.

She grew up in a somewhat small town with a mother who clung to Sarah Beth and her sister only slightly more tenaciously than she clung to the ghosts of her family’s wealthy and glorious past.  Sarah Beth’s sister decided to make her way in her home town, while Sarah Beth went to New York City and majored in forensic anthropology and loosing her Southern accent.

Little known fact: Forensic anthropologists don’t just work with bones of the long-ago deceased. A lot of police departments have a forensic anthropologist on staff to help with much fresher dead bodies. After one too many brushes with a body that was more recently dead than she’d been hoping for, she went back to the south for a brief stay before she decided she just wasn’t meant for the Antebellum life.

She drove her wreck of a car out of somewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line, with her mother hurling curses and “you’ll be sorries” behind her, and found her way to Southern California. After an affair with an alcoholic writer that she assured me was “torrid,” she decided to try the North.

The first time I saw Sarah Beth she was in mid-leap from her bed to the window with a string of Christmas lights in her hand on a mission to add twinkling ambiance to her room.

She was about 5’3″, had bleach blonde hair that was shaved in the back and long on top, and was a tiny 90 pounds of pure manic energy. It was like living with a perpetually caffeinated chihuahua. Plus she had a job at a coffee shop and would bestow free espressos upon us when we popped in. Thusly she earned the nickname “Crack Pixie.” I’m not sure we ever called her that to her face. If we did I’m sure she loved it.

I owe a lot to Sarah Beth. She taught me the art of living poor. Not this “living frugally” crap that the upper-middle class seem to attempt when they feel guilty about consuming so much of the world’s resources, but living bare-to-the-bone-Ramen-noodle-eating poor.

She was also the main reason that we didn’t starve to death. We were all making about $16k/year and couldn’t afford much. Sarah Beth worked for a coffee house that is absolutely not named Starbucks which also served sandwiches on fresh bread. When it was her day to close up the shop she would bring home bread that was going to be tossed and sandwiches that hadn’t sold that day. She was also known to hook us up with certain “mistake” sandwiches if we came by while when she was manning the sandwich bar. Probably better for us than a triple shot of espresso.

Sarah Beth taught me how to be an expert dumpster diver. I didn’t have a mattress for the first 2 months I lived there. I slept on a folded up comforter on top of a twin-sized bed shelf that Burt had hand-crafted for me. No, he didn’t ask if I wanted it. It was just there. Yes, it was made out of wood, nails, and caulk.  One day she burst into the house yelling, “You gotta come quick!” We ran down the street to snag a well-used queen-sized mattress before animals or weather could ruin it.

I was way too naive to think about what had had been done on and to that mattress or even consider why it was on the curb in the first place.  She did, however, stop me from putting sheets on it before she could spray it down.  She Lysoled it to within an inch of its life. My room smelled like a hospital for a week. However, we were confident no germs could survive the soaking of disinfectant and when it was dry I slept on it.

Sarah Beth was full of extreme contradictions. She had been a vegetarian since birth (her parents were going through a hippie phase) and could not physically eat meat, yet she loved cooking meat. She could be soft and kind and then turn right around and be caustic and hard as nails. She loved piercings and yet wouldn’t get them herself. However, she did goad future roommate John into getting a “very private” piercing and then showing it to all of us. (Ew.)  She was also a fan of drug culture, yet she would never even smoke tobacco cigarettes or pot. She had a couple of interesting looking bongs and a collection of herbal cigarettes, but her proudest possession was her terrarium.

One day she lugged this 10-gallon fish tank home from God knows where and spent a good hour scrubbing it out. The next thing we knew she had scavenged everything she needed from around the neighborhood to build a terrarium.  Then this chunk of wood appeared and started to sprout mushrooms.

And not just any mushrooms. Magic mushrooms.

The terrarium was under the window in a dark corner of the small TV room.  It was watched carefully not only by Sarah Beth, but by several hopeful members of the household. No mushrooms in the history of the earth received more loving attention.  Kept from the chill of a San Francisco summer. Shaded from any harsh sunlight when it decided to peak through window.  We watched those mushrooms slowly grow until they were just about the right size.

There were more than few tears when the mushrooms died before anyone could experience their magic. Unfortunately, John and his girlfriend accidentally left the window open on a particularly cold night and they didn’t survive. Elliot (another roommate yet to be introduced) offered to deliver mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but we decided a burial in the backyard was probably a better idea.

Every so often I wonder about burying those mushrooms. Putting them in the dirt might have saved the spores and growing outside under the lone tree in the backyard might have made them hearty enough to survive the weather. They could still alive in the backyard of that house and sprouting up on that tree.

Road trip, anyone?


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