Essay/Commentary

Two Essayettes

By Jon Obermeyer

Scratching the Surface: The Origins of Writing and Vandalism

Our English word for writing derives from the Proto-Germanic “writan,” which means to tear or scratch.

Look at every etymological source, including Old High German, Old Saxon and Old Norse, and there is implied violence in the act of writing. Writing is associated with tugging and pulling, and the 3,900 year-old Indo-European ur-words for writing are mostly related to carving. The primitive scribe was hardly a sensitive dandy or greeting card composer of flowery prose; she was a savage.

Is that what we’re doing when we write?

Ripping the curtain to see what’s on the other side?

Tearing the lid off, so I can peer into my soul and the souls of others?

Picking at the wound?

Making little scratch marks on a tree trunk beside the path, so we know the way home?

Or, are we blowing open a hole in something like the Berlin Wall, so that someone detained on the other side sees the ray of light flowing through, and it alters the geopolitics of the entire planet forever?

Is there a butterfly-in-the-Amazon effect from a single sentence? I don’t know yet, but I’m writing every day to find out.

Letter from a Ghost Hotel

I. The last Monday morning of January dawns both sunny and windy. The bluffs between Crockett and Vallejo form a wind tunnel along the Carquinez Strait. The tide and the wind are either in sync, or they’re completely at odds; these whitecaps will not divulge the truth. At Benicia Point, I park the car, get out and sit in the morning sun, if only for a few moments before the wind gets the better of me. I have on a t-shirt, a sweater and a forest-green fleece jacket, plus a Covid-mask pulled down around my neck like a muffler. It’s the first day in California in over a year where I wish I had gloves on. The water in the lee of the breakwater is a double band of brown water, from stirred mud close to shore, and the dark blue water swirling around from the river. There are hardly any fishermen or fisherwomen out today. A week ago, it was 80 degrees and you couldn’t find a place to park.In the shallows below the bench and the peninsula of rip-rap, I watch a colorful mallard male, green neck, attempt to mate with a beige female. It’s the same ritual I’ve seen between a rooster and a hen in a lower Sierra barnyard; he keeps nipping at her neck. The steady wind chop gets the better of the male, and he falls off. The female takes wing, and flaps away quickly toward a small island in the river. The male flies towards her, but circles around behind the island. I’m assuming he will resume his conquest in calmer water.

II. Benicia was named after General Vallejo’s wife. Her first name, Francisca, was sort of already taken by another nearby city you might have heard of, so they had to use her middle name. Benicia was an ideal commercial port on the Sacramento River, a way station for miners bound to and from the Sierra gold fields. The town was briefly California’s capital, just 13 months, in the 1850’s, succeeding Vallejo and preceding Sacramento.

I’ve been staying at the Union Hotel, at 1st and D Streets. The hotel was built in 1882, a block off the water.

Due to the pandemic, everything is contactless, with not another human sighted during check-in and check-out. I never even saw a housekeeper.

Few rooms were rented, which is what I was after; a romantic solitary weekend in a ghost hotel.

On my first weekend, there was another couple in a room named Wild Peony and I had Lupine, with a bay window overlooking the working river.

On another weekend, I was given a room called Stickseed, which had hot water in the bathroom that actually worked, and a superior in-room coffee maker.

III. Solano County is the northeastern county within the nine-county S​an Francisco Bay Area​. With the exception of its famous, but tiny neighbor Napa County, Solano County has the smallest population of the nine Bay Area counties.

Solano is probably the least picturesque of all nine bay area counties, save for western Contra Costa, and the Richmond, Pinole and Hercules oil refineries. Solano is Spanish for “East wind,” hardly a quality-of-life endorsement.

Solano is home to Vallejo and Vacaville, and is decidedly blue collar. There are only a handful of wineries. The county’s redeeming assets appear to be U.C. Davis, Travis Air Force Base and the Jelly Belly jelly bean factory in Fairfield.

From the Union Hotel in Benicia, you can hear the working freights and the four-car Amtrak commuter trains, what’s known as the

Capitol Corridor line, rolling beneath the spring green bluffs, out of and into Martinez, across the river; diesel-powered, of course.

This is no longer an era of steam and iron, but my dreams in the hotel room named Lupine were of another century, an ancient century, having little in common with ours.

Those dreams formed out of antidiluvian residue, from river tidal brack, from a time when you could shoot someone dead in the street, on your way to dinner, or on the way to Sabbath services.

My dreams in Lupine emerged like the Furies, from sub-basement depths, from a time when fire consumed entire towns, and it took only weeks to build them all again. We were barely on the surface then. We just got here.

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Jon Obermeyer holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Greensboro. The author of 29 books (poetry, memoir, essay, short fiction, writing guides), he lives in Berkeley, CA and works for Project Open Hand in San Francisco.https://www.facebook.com/jon.obermeyer
Twitter: Surfzone101

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