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[Readings]

Lost and Found

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From My Meteorite, which was published last month by Penguin Books. Dodge is a sculptor and video artist.

I always knew I was adopted, and since I was born in San Francisco in 1966 (this I did know) and since my imagination was admittedly psychedelic, I had more than toyed with the idea that my conception had occurred in Golden Gate Park during a summer of love and had been abetted by an LSD-addled haze and multiple orgasms.

At thirteen, I had written a hideously long, hideously depressing research paper on the psychological stresses that attend adoption. The primary source, Lost and Found: The Adoption Experience, was a book whose titular perspicuity was apparently enchanting enough that I couldn’t help but recycle it as my own. “Lost and Found, a Report by Harry Dodge.”

After a year of university classes, I decided to move to San Francisco. I announced—avoiding the obvious and implicit erotic promise of relocation to an international gay mecca—that I might also try to find my birth mother. This was always followed by the optimistic, Who knows? Maybe she’s still there.

Two high school friends, Cairo and Jimmy, and I convinced my dad to rent us a car (Hertz in Libertyville, Illinois), which we promptly filled with the crap we thought we’d need. We drove continuously, stopping only for gas and, periodically, to pee.

The morning of our arrival, after coffee and a decidedly impecunious bout of emptying clove cigarette butts into a “beaker bong” for smokes, Jimmy and I took a long streetcar ride to Ocean Beach. We hiked for hours through brown weeds, along cliffs, the sullen sea larboard, and then veered into old San Francisco.

It was the mid-1980s, but this neighborhood was still reverberating with the Beats, Kerouac, Gillespie. A free-jazz shamble, full of dark pawnshops, filthy record stores (I heard Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue for the first time here while we sheltered from a downpour), tattoo parlors, and loud, ubiquitous cable cars. Fog came in like disaster. There were scores of bars in rows on a steep rake and one called The Lost and Found: big orange letters on a shingle barely visible through the cheesy, slowly whorling miasma. Lost and Found.

I blew on my hands, roused by the jittery prospect of a hazy, sexy, psychedelic birth mother quartered nigh. What if she was in that bar? We moved on, chilled like organs.

It was the late Eighties and the Nineties. I went to shows at Gilman, Chatterbox, Albion, etc. We walked—no one had a car; hopped trains and hitchhiked; alternately rescued food from dumpsters and lit dumpsters on fire; were fired from jobs for insubordination; protested (hegemony?); conducted fragmented run-ins with college; studied poetry; generated community by making events; and made art, especially performance.

Later I ran this feral coffeehouse–cum–performance space (salon?) called The Bearded Lady. It was the epicenter of some heavy third-wave feminist flow for quite a while. Woven into the fabric of this textured, gritty existence was an ongoing cosmic experimentation, in which I tried and sometimes managed to materialize the spiritual (sanctify the flesh?). These were experiments in radical sexuality, fucking. I thought I might find God this way. It was churchy.

Well—you’ve been waiting for this—the internet was invented. The birth mother’s name started popping up in web searches that other people conducted for me; folks walked up and snuggled scraps of paper into my fist, donny molloy jotted a few times onto each slip, accompanied by phone numbers, addresses. This was absolutely exotic at the time: raw databases suddenly thrown into the commons. Loath to know more, I forwent these tiny dossiers for a couple of years, often shuffling them into drawers, bags, the trash. Imagining the deliverance, dejection, or blue funk that might attend what the adoptee assistance group Search Angels call contact (lost child turns up at the fountainhead) caused me no small amount of trepidation. Plus, I luxuriated in the purity of the potential each of these slips was charged with. I had grown up waiting and was, after all, not some hasty fireball rushing to renovate my approach to personal subjectivity. I was strung out, comprised of particles that had skipped the specificity of one womb; I had grown tendrils to every cosmic iota and was not at all certain that I wanted a name. One day, however, I did write a letter.

I acknowledged, of course, that I couldn’t know whether I had found the correct Donny Molloy, but: Did you have a baby on May 31, 1966? I sent it to San Jose. Two days later, when my phone rang showing a number with the San Jose area code, I let it go to voicemail and then brought the device in to my roommate so that she could check to see if Donny Molloy had phoned. She had.

The next day I arrive at Chili’s and spot her in a booth facing the door. I approach her, she stands up. She says, “You’re Gene’s kid. You look just like Memphis.” I note here that Donny’s current girlfriend, Jean, and my birth father seem to have the same name.

We hug. I slide into the booth, sit down across from her. She’s a handsome person, big hazel eyes, with wire-rimmed glasses, flowy gray linen pants and a matching tunic. Her silver hair is in a bob; she has a studied, thoughtful way of forming her words and is surprisingly good at concocting spontaneously formidable (truly grand) sentences. She isn’t taken aback by my goatee (which is both a surprise and a relief); in fact, when I describe my time running the coffeehouse and tell her that in the early Nineties I had been on the cover of the SF Weekly, she is gleeful, and briefly cedes her (ultimately supple) composure. “I saw that cover, I remember that cover! My daughter’s the Bearded Lady. My daughter’s the Bearded Lady!! You guys were the new dyke café!” She puts both arms up like Muhammad Ali and bounces up and down in her seat.

She tells me my brother Memphis was stolen from her when he was just two by the birth father, Gene, the used-car salesman, who, she mildly explains, is a bad, violent guy.

She tells me she lived in San Francisco through the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties, in North Beach.

She tells me that when she was younger she supported herself with intermittent trips to Nevada where she worked, legally, as a prostitute, for cash, saving it up and carting it home. She tells me she’s a femme, that Jean’s a butch, and that they’ve been part of the LGBT leather scene in San Jose for years now, happily.

She tells me she stopped drinking at fifty and has been clean and sober for the better part of six years.

She tells me she has had a face-lift and I wonder if discarded with some tuck are the resemblances I’ve been waiting a lifetime to parse.

The waitress sets down a hamburger and I see Donny’s mouth say, “Pearly and I drank at The Lost and Found—that was our place . . . for decades.”

My whole body goes numb for about ten seconds.

I manage, “I saw that bar on my first day in town. We walked by it.” I can’t forgive myself for saying the truth. “I stood out front and wondered if you were in there.”

“Well I probably was!” she says. “We all but lived there, hon.”


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April 2020