It’s late spring, 2008. My daughter and I are on the west coast, spending a few days at a pop culture conference in San Francisco. She’s almost 14, finishing her middle school days—those days when children begin maturing in ways no one, least of all them, can fully absorb.
I let her hold my cell phone on this trip. Part of our problem, my wife and I will soon learn, is that since we have forbidden our daughter her own cell phone, we are the enemy to teen independence. She keeps my phone in the back pocket of her way-too-skinny jeans, but her dexterity in whipping it out, simultaneously texting and walking without hitting any object or person, truly impresses me.
My wife and I had both hoped this trip would distract her from her sacred peers. During the trip, I think we’re reconnecting, perhaps even bonding. She sits attentively as I deliver my paper—something about comic book golems—and as I speak (18 entire minutes), I don’t notice her thumbs moving at all.
After my presentation, we get a coffee and take the trolley to City Lights Bookstore. I tell her about the Beats and Ferlinghetti’s patronage. I explain what Howl is and buy her a new copy. Then we head to a bar and grill near Fisherman’s Wharf, where I let her take a few sips of my draught beer. We both feel the early beer buzz, just enough to be light and happy, I think.
She urges me to order another, and I do, thinking as everyone does that a little more of a good thing will translate into a lot more good. We laugh about people we know and some we don’t, and I wonder if this moment, this faraway idyll, can last beyond this night. Next, we wander into the Virgin Megastore across the street, as I try to find the Bloc Party record one of the other speakers on my panel mentioned. As we scour the bins, I notice the phone is out again. What is she texting about me? About us? About what I’ve allowed myself to believe is this happy time? This experience with her 50-year-old dad.
“You oughta buy that record,” she says putting the phone away, and so I do, hoping…what? That she’ll think I’m hip? That once we’re home, we’ll listen to it together? It’s not like that would be a first, but maybe a third.
The next night, our last in this city, I get us tickets to the Fillmore West, a temple of music I’ve dreamed of visiting since the early ’70s days of Santana, the Airplane and Hendrix. The Black Crowes are playing tonight, and it seems funny to have traveled across the country to here to see a band from our home area.
When we first entered the Fillmore, I spoke to one of the bouncers, telling him about my journey here to this shrine. He points out sacred places, hidden alcoves where Janis and Jerry and so many others once paused. I hope my daughter can appreciate some little part of this. She’s quietly following me, her phone in her pocket. Maybe it’s out of charge, but I don’t ask. Does she wish that she were here with a friend instead of me?
My daughter stands just in front of me, and I’m buffering us from the slightly crazed guy to our right. The one who just after the lights go down fires up a joint.
Only once in my concert-going memory did I turn down taking a hit. It was a Jackson Browne show back in the mid-’70s, and I had been invited by a college friend, a guy who once confessed to me that he didn’t know whether or not he should masturbate because Jesus hadn’t weighed in on the subject. During the show, a guy sitting next to me offered me a toke, but in deference to my friend, I said no.
As the smoke envelopes us tonight, my daughter turns to me: “You can smoke if you want to. It’s all right.”
Her words paralyze me. Yet I manage to say, “That’s ok. I’m fine like I am.”
If I had smoked, how would I have appeared in her eyes? Would she have reported back to her friends that her father was cool? Pathetic? Or just an old man trying to stay young?
At 11:00, intermission came. We were both spent, given that we are East Coasters, so we left the Fillmore and the Crowes and caught a cab back to our hotel. I kept wondering why my daughter believed I smoked. Was it just a guess, or was it a deeper, more intuitive suggestion? And then I wondered—and this formed my thinking during our entire flight home the next day—if I had ever wanted to be the kind of dad who would one day get stoned with his kids? Surely during some moment of cooly stoned and daughterless bravado I had said something of the kind. What had changed me?
Was it seeing my daughters in the first seconds of their life? Or was it later, reading stories like Elmo Goes to Day Camp or Adelaide and the Night Train to them? Or fixing them mac and cheese, or coaxing them into taking their Augmentin? Or was it their clear brown eyes that move me beyond any haze?
Smoke winds its way over us in another time, another arena. The Black Keys are playing “Turn Blue” on this wintry Saturday night, 2014, in Greenville, South Carolina. The smell is unmistakable, but why am I surprised? My daughter smells it just when I do. We look at each other and smile. She stands during the entire show, but I’ve paid good money for individual seats—seats with backs. So I settle in and close my eyes, glad to rest my body, glad to hear this beautiful rock music with my daughter. My daughter, who’s not ashamed to be out on a Saturday night with her dad, a guy who doesn’t smoke and who can barely make it to 11:00 when the show ends.
After I drive us home and head inside to join my wife on the sofa for a few minutes of Saturday Night Live, my daughter jumps into her car and drives off into the night to join her friends wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. Her feet are in both worlds, while mine are propped on the ottoman—each pair in its proper place in our respective times of life.