In 1999 Julie and I planned a trip to Yosemite. We were going to hike and camp in the backcountry. At some point between the time we booked the trip and when we ultimately went, a woman and two teenage girls went missing from the area. There were some clues as to where they might be. A wallet was found in Modesto. And then the car they were driving in was found inside the park, burned, and their bodies were inside (pretty sure this is how it went down, going from memory here).
So when Julie and I went hiking in the park, we did so knowing that these people had been murdered there and that there was potentially a serial killer in the park. This was significant because we went pretty far in the backcountry and we were totally on our own. At one point, we met a strange guy and hiked with him for a little while. I thought he seemed OK but he gave Julie the creeps so we decided to pretend we had somewhere else to go and said goodbye to him at a fork in the trail. Then we waited a while and doubled back, hiking to the backcountry spot we’d reserved.
When we got there it was almost dark and there were no other people within a few miles, as far as I knew. After we ate dinner we were laying in the tent. I felt like I could hear so much going on outside. Things rustling, sticks breaking. It was pitch black out and you couldn’t see a thing. And I had a strong sensation of fear and dread. And I think it was partly because I was afraid of the responsibility that came with being in a relationship. If something happened and we were confronted by something dangerous, I was going to be the one to deal with it, primarily. Not because I was the guy, exactly, but because I was eight inches taller and 75 lbs heavier. Julie and I split up tasks pretty evenly in general and not along traditional gender lines. But there was no doubt that “protecting the two of us from physical harm” was going to be mostly my job, and quite honestly, I wasn’t sure I was qualified. But I also knew I had to do it.
This feeling had been building. About a year earlier, Julie and I had moved in together for the first time. We lived in a neighborhood called Hayes Valley in SF, in a carriage house that was in an alley. The carriage house was really nice, a spacious one-bedroom, and it was a good deal. But, and we didn’t know this when we moved in, the neighborhood was dodgy. We were across the street from a housing project and outside our window we could usually see a lone figure standing on the corner waiting for someone, even in the pouring rain.
Sometimes a guy might ring our doorbell and I’d go to the door and he’d be asking for money. Not for anything, just like, Do you have any extra money? Our door opened right to the street. And you know, it’s one thing to be asked for money when you are out, and another to have people come to your door. And if you say “No” and they’re kind of pissed about that, which happened, they know where you live.
Another time we saw a guy sitting in his car for eight hours straight for several days in a row, directly in front of our house. I was pretty sure he was keeping an eye on the drug business, but he also seemed like he could have been watching us.
We’d be watching a movie at night and sometimes Julie would want some ice cream and I’d be scared to go to the corner store to get it. The store was robbed a lot and there was always some tense situation in there at night, someone trying to steal something or being asked to leave and they wouldn’t. It aways felt like violence was just a second away.
Another time some kids biked down the street at night and smashed windows in every car parked within two blocks. I was awake in bed and could hear them all being smashed one-by-one and I wondered what the hell was up. I’d hear a lot at night when I couldn’t sleep and most of it had an air of menace, at least my mind labeled most of as “danger.”
In retrospect, all of this probably wasn’t so bad, and the way it was in my mind probably didn’t match reality. But at that time I was a novice in terms of negotiating life in a rougher neighborhood. So it weighed heavily on me, stressed me out. And a lot of it was up to the fact that I wanted to make sure Julie was safe. She’s tough, but still. It’s an instinct. It was a good example of how fear can come from feeling like you have something to lose. When I was alone, I wasn’t so worried about taking care of myself.
While we were living in this carriage house, Julie picked up a copy of Lynch on Lynch, a book-length series of interviews with director David Lynch. This book has since been a huge influence in my life. One of the biggest. There is so much insight about film, sound, art, creativity, life. I almost think of it like a holy book. I read and and re-read it. I know little about filmmaking, but Werner Herzog likes to say that you don’t need film school. He advises prospective film students to take the money they would spend on film school and go for a year-long walk and that his how you learn about film (by learning about life). I don’t know if that’s true. But if someone were to ask me, I’d say skip film school and read Lynch on Lynch, Herzog on Herzog, and Von Trier on Von Trier. I think these three books contain an unbelievable wealth of information about films and the world.
Anyway. I read Lynch on Lynch while I was living in this carriage house. And in it was this passage, where he was talking about his life as a young husband and father in Philadelphia:
We lived cheap, but the city was full of fear. A kid was shot to death down the street and the chalk marks around where he’d lain stayed on the sidewalk for five days. We were robbed twice, had windows shot out and a car stolen. The house was first broken into only three days after we moved in, but I had a sword that Peggy’s father had given me. I don’t know what era this sword was from, but I kept it under the bed. And I woke up to see Peggy’s face about one inch from mine with a fear that I hope I never see on a person’s face again. ‘There’s someone in the house!’ I leapt up, put my underwear on backwards and grabbed this sword, and started screaming ‘Get the hell out of here!’ I went to the head of the stairs with the sword raised and kept screaming. And these people who’d broken in were confused because the house had been vacant for so long, they were used to coming in. It dawned on them that someone was living there now and they left. […]
I tell people that all that protected us from the outside were these bricks. But the bricks might as well have been paper. The feeling was so close to extreme danger, and the fear was so intense.
And oh boy, when I read this, I felt like he was describing my life in this carriage house. When I was laying there in the dark listening to what was outside, the walls really did feel like paper. This was it, exactly. Lynch’s life in Philly was the direct inspiration on Eraserhead. And after reading this, I feel like I knew where he was coming from. And of course from “Twin Peaks” and elsewhere, we know about how he feels about fear, the woods, open space. So I really felt like I was getting Lynch from all angles.
A year after this carriage house time, back in Yosemite, the guy who killed those three people eventually killed another woman inside the park and cut off her head and then he was caught and he confessed. It wasn’t that far from where we were hiking. This was just a few weeks after our trip. The killer’s name was Cary Stayner. When he was a boy, his brother had been abducted by a pedophile and was kept captive for years. Eventually, his brother escaped. The first thing his brother said when he found police was “I know my first name is Steven” (the pedophile had changed the kid’s name). A TV movie was made out of it, which I can remember seeing ads for. It was called I Know My First Name Is Steven. This family had one brother who was a prisoner of a pedophile for seven years and another who turned out to be a serial killer. Families. You want to protect them.