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El Paseo, 2019-2020

Mill Valley looks like the kind of town

You’d expect to see in a model railroad set

Minus the trains—

Tracks torn up

After a massive fire

Almost a hundred years ago

But each little house

And road sign

And tree

And store

Glued on

Exactly where it belongs

There’s a hair salon on the corner

With a hand-painted sign outside

Doesn’t say the name of the salon

In fact I don’t even know the name of the salon

Or if it has a name


A barber pole

And a giant pair of scissors

Downtown Mill Valley, 2019

Someone not from here

Asked me if Mill Valley is a Hollywood set

And I’m still not sure it isn’t

I mean it definitely has a cast:

There’s Alex the rug guy

Poor thing looks like he hasn’t eaten in a decade

Doug behind the counter

Who co-owns the market

His son Eugene

Who surfs big waves at Ocean Beach

Jason the bartender

Who knows everything

Theodosia the barista

Who only knows how to frown

Kecia who sells flowers

From a cart over the arroyo

Larry the Hat

Who needs no explanation

And Denis

An 80-something fellow

Gentle giant of sorts—

At least six-and-a-half feet tall

Maybe seven feet with the giant mop of white hair

He would dig through the trash

And return things to me in paper bags

That he thought I didn’t mean to throw away

Denis was also my landlord—

And property manager

As I’d round the corner

Up the stairs to my apartment

I’d peek over my left shoulder

Into Denis’s gallery—

And store I guess

I mean nothing had a price tag

But hundreds of oils on canvases

Leaning against the walls

Stacked ten deep

Like cardboard boxes broken down for recycling 

Then in the very back of the store

Or gallery or whatever it was

An easel facing the rear wall

And balanced in one of Denis’s enormous hands

I’d see the edge of a mottled palette

And a few fronds of white hair

Jostling around as he tinkered with his brushes

Most of his massive frame

Hunkered behind his latest work-in-progress

An old man emptying his brain

Filling canvas after canvas

In a race against time

Next door is a store called Poet and the Bench

That sells neither poetry—

Nor benches

That was pretty common here in Mill Valley

Also sometimes it was really hard to tell

What was for sale—

And what was just part of the store

The north entrance to the El Paseo tunnel

I lived above these art galleries

That wanted to be stores

That wanted to be art galleries

In a tiny apartment overlooking

The pedestrian tunnel entrance

On the third floor of El Paseo

In an unlikely love affair

With Mill Valley

A model railroad town

And Hollywood set—

Featuring majestic redwoods

In the shadow of Mt. Tam

From my tiny apartment

I’d watch glorious sunsets

And make vintage cocktails

In my little kitchen

And at 8pm sharp

In a coordinated show of support

For essential workers

We’d howl out the window

Like a bunch of fucking lunatics

The echoes bouncing off the buildings

And through the El Paseo tunnel

I would live above the entrance

For more than three years

Which felt like home

Until suddenly it didn’t

El Paseo was not the only tunnel in Mill Valley

The other one cut between Piazza D’Angelo

And the Balboa Cafe

That tunnel leads through wisteria to a small parking lot

The exit of which faces an old theater

It’s small—

Seats fewer than 300

But just a few months earlier

I gave my first musical theater performance

As J.P. Morgan in Ragtime, The Musical

It was a pro-am cast

With a 21-piece orchestra

Quite a spectacle

Yours Truly as J.P. Morgan in Ragtime, The Musical, summer 2019

Anyhow, I’m sure most of Mill Valley didn’t care

That ten times—

For ten performances

I was J.P. Morgan in Ragtime, The Musical

But that didn’t stop me from feeling—

And acting

Each time—

Like a local celebrity

I would don my wardrobe and do my makeup at home

Then I’d walk the two blocks from my El Paseo apartment

Actually it was more like prancing

Off to the theater

Dressed like J.P. Morgan

Navy blue pinstriped

Three piece suit

Ivory sash

Black top hat

Silver monocle

Chrome pocket watch

Wooden cane

And a ridiculous mustache

I was J.P. Morgan

This weird little place

Half model railroad town

And half Hollywood set

It felt especially right for me—

When I was J.P. Morgan

Morgan literally singing about how wealthy he is

See, there are a lot of J.P. Morgans

In Mill Valley

And for most of them

It’s not a fucking costume

During the summer of activism

Around police violence

Which could have been any summer

Or anytime really in the last 150 years

So that doesn’t narrow it down much

But I’m talking about the summer of 2020

The mayor of Mill Valley

Herself a dark-skinned woman of Sri Lankan descent

Shut down any discussion of Black Lives Matter

At the town council meeting

Saying it wasn’t an issue of local importance

I guess that was on-script for Mill Valley, too

Where I rarely saw anyone who wasn’t white

And either enormously privileged—

Or descended from enormous privilege

Or at least they acted that way

There were other problems, too

In Mill Valley

Related to being black

See Ragtime, The Musical

Is about a lot of things

Like immigration

And love

But mostly it’s about racism

Specifically whites

In the early 1900s

Being truly awful, racist pricks

To blacks

So to pull off a musical like this

We needed three casts:

An “immigrant” cast

A “black” cast

And a “white” cast

Some members of the black cast

Both adults and kids

Came from the greater Bay Area

But others came from Mill Valley

I don’t know where the hell we found them

But somehow we did

We also needed guns

Fake guns, of course

This was musical theater

Not a theater of war

See what I did there?

So anyway our guns—

Theater guns

Some revolvers

Some rifles

They were vintage

And fake

Of course

But they were also kinda


One day the director

She sat everyone down

And gave us a very serious talk

About only using the guns—

Theater guns

In the theater

And only on stage

During rehearsals and performances

This had me wondering

Because very few things in theater are serious

But this sounded serious

Did some “well-meaning” white person

Wander past the theater

And notice a kid in the black cast?

With a gun—

A theater gun

Way more irony than I can stand

To have a police shooting

During the making of a musical about racism

Weeks later somebody spray-painted

Some KKK-related garbage

On a small building down the street

White people clutched their pearls

And said Not in Mill Valley

But until the police stop

Relentlessly provoking and killing black people

And proving

Again and again

That black lives don’t matter

This will continue to be an issue

In Mill Valley

And everywhere

Walking to rehearsal one evening

I noticed Theodosia wiping down tables

Sporting new purple streaks in her hair

My gaze lingered an instant too long

She frowned at me

Very much in character

Then I passed a parked Prius

Informally the official vehicle of Mill Valley

The paint was dinged up and worn

But the bumper stickers intact:


You know—

The blue one with all the religious symbols

And another with a raised black fist

This was exactly the kind of person

Who would probably call 911 on a black kid—

With a theater gun

And this is what makes me want to smash my fist

On the Hollywood set

On the little model railroad town

Watch the little fake houses and stores and trees snap

As they peel up remnants of the fake asphalt

Because the Prius driver would never identify as a racist

On the surface they would deny it

They’ve got the bumper stickers to prove it!

But their racism doesn’t live on the surface—

Like a bumper sticker

It’s buried deep within

And sometimes it has a way

Of sneaking through

Do we have to have our own real police shooting

Our own dead black kid

Right here in model train town

For it to be an issue of local importance?

Though I loved Mill Valley

With its quirky cast of characters

I didn’t like this plot development

Not in the slightest

So I’d end up living in Mill Valley

For another eighteen months after Ragtime, The Musical

So much of that in the thick of coronavirus

To keep everyone safe

We played apartment trading games

Quarantining with my teenage daughter

In El Paseo

Or sometimes it was just us

Oh and the cat we were hiding there

For months!

Perhaps the world’s most adaptable—and cuddly cat

Keeping the cat litter

And empty food cans

In separate trash bags

And sneaking out late at night

To deposit cat trash in the dumpster

Behind the nameless hair salon

So Denis—

The dumpster-diving landlord

Wouldn’t suspect anything

We did such a good job

That not even Jason the bartender found out

And he knew everything

Plus he lived next door

A paper-thin wall separating our apartments

And my bathroom window opened

Right onto his patio

(Don’t ask why)

(Because nobody knows)

And before COVID canceled love and everything

People would get married

It seemed like every weekend

At the Outdoor Art Club

Across the street

One time I even recognized the music

Cosmo Alley Cats, a San Francisco swing band

From the comfort of my postage-stamp-sized living room

And then there was the time I helped Kecia

By climbing over a railing

And down an embankment

To fish fallen orchid stems out of the arroyo

And the time a woman at the market

Asked me to help her get basil off the shelf

But wouldn’t accept the basil I had right there in my hand

And the time a guy tried to pick me up

At the bar of Tyler Florence’s old restaurant—

In El Paseo

But I acted straight

And it was hard to watch

(Most guys really need to learn how to flirt)

And the time I asked the metermaid

If moving violations

Were within her jurisdiction

To stop her from yelling at my ex-wife

Perhaps an unlawful u-turn was involved

But that wasn’t my point

And those times I slipped out

Through the El Paseo tunnel

The careful art of triangulating

Between the elementary school

The restaurants

And the homes

So I could smoke a half a joint

Without getting dirty looks—

Or even actual aggression

Damn you Mill Valley!

The little model railroad town

That won over the train-loving kid in me

The Hollywood set

Where I learned to love community theater

I love you still Mill Valley

Because of you

And in spite of you

In some ways you need to change

And change is coming

Whether you’re ready for it or not

But in some other ways—

Some important and curious ways

I hope you’ll always stay the same