by Kyle K. Mann
The fact is, I didn’t know who she was, and she was scary.
Back in 1968 I was a bright-eyed lad of 17 with shoulder-length hair and a full, just-grown mustache, which made me look older. I’d gone from weenie punk to fully-fledged Bay Area hipster in just a few memorable months. Wow, man! Life was rich.
I stood hitching on Mission Street in San Francisco, on my way to see my poster-artist friend, when a couple drunken bums started hassling me for spare change. “Come on guys, if I had any money I’d be on the bus.” I still held my thumb out, waving my free left hand to ward off the mumbling, unshaven characters. “Go ask someone else, damn it.” I attempted to stare them down, but it wasn’t working.
Distracted, I heard a car pull up to the curb. I turned to see a sporty convertible, passenger door already open, female driver with long hair. A ride, and an escape from the aggressive creeps! I hopped in as fast as possible and she zoomed off.
“Thanks for stopping, those guys were bugging me.” My smile faded a bit as I assessed the driver. Woah, I thought, this gal is ugly! The hair was tangled, eyes bloodshot, but by far the worst feature was the acne, which looked like the surface of the moon… The far side of the moon, where crater overlaps crater in a landscape of pits. I glanced in astounded horror.
Her reddened eyes appraised me as we sped down Mission. “Here,” she growled abruptly, shoving a small, rather heavy open paper bag into my hands, a bottle obviously inside. I was pretty sure I knew what it was, but asked anyway. She shot me another bleary look, steering with her left hand and pushing back her long wind-snarled hair with her right.
“Vodka and orange juice,” she stated flatly, in a gravel tone.
Due to my Mom’s years of alcoholism, I recoiled. A joint? Sure. Hit of acid? Why not? But booze… “No thanks, I don’t drink,” I said as brightly as I could muster. Those scarlet eyes again regarded me, now with a flash of anger, as her forehead wrinkled in perplexity.
She abruptly snatched the bottle back and glared at me. “Well, I DO!” Her near shout was a powerful declaration, and in a magnificent gesture of defiance she tilted her head back, raised the bottle to her lips, and jammed down the gas pedal. We accelerated insanely, and with a lurch of fear I observed that she wasn’t even looking at the street. I did appreciate, however, that there was no one ahead of us, and that she drove arrow-straight down the lane.
“Ubda ubda,” I stammered. How fast, how long before she stopped chugging? I suddenly realized that life was sweet, that I wanted to live, and that the odds were very much against that. My mind worked furiously to solve the problem: how could I avoid a painful crunching death in the next few seconds? And still we accelerated, my quiet babbling growing louder.
And then, the breakthrough. “Um, I’m just going a little ways, I’ll get out at the next corner.” I pointed, she shot me a final look of the deepest contempt imaginable, slowed, stopped, and I hopped out, wheezing my shaky, insincere “Thanks for the ride!” Only as the sporty convertible roared off did I for the first time observe the unmistakable psychedelic paint job that decorated Janis’ famed Porsche.
* * *
“You fool,” was my first reaction of self-rebuke. My second was laughter, so much so that nearby pedestrians moved aside warily. The lesson was obvious: I would have treated her with deferential respect, had I not been distracted by the panhandling winos. Could I learn something about myself from the experience? I vowed to try, as I strolled down the sidewalk, still chuckling in rueful gratitude.
Cut to me at the Topanga Post Office, nearly 50 years later. My retirement papers have come in the box, but I’m out of stamps, so I wait in line to buy a sheet. As I stand, I notice a familiar face on a display. Yep. Janis Joplin.
Suddenly I’m that 17 year old kid with long hair and the whole future ahead of me, instead of a half-whipped beat up Union film crew worker looking to escape Hollywood and flee the country. And I laugh as I regard her glamorous airbrushed portrayal, yes laugh loud and long, and draw concerned stares just as I did long ago, and finally buy a sheet of her stamps. (Somehow, I can’t use them, though. I finally mail the forms with a Harry Potter stamp, which seemed more appropriate.)
The decades gave me this perspective, as Janis went from local rock star to dead multigenerational icon: I was lucky. Janis was a sexual predator, according to multiple sources, and she liked young boys. Who knows what would have happened to me if I’d started drinking with her, or worse? Most of the scenarios don’t feel like they turn out too good. Sour grapes? Maybe. But I now can appreciate just how incredibly young 17 years old really is.
Janis died at 27, of course… Another age I now regard as incredibly young. Hell, I’ll be 64 in a few weeks, just like that ol’ Paul McCartney song. I’ve got some getaway money coming, and a pleasant conviction that spectacular adventures lie ahead. My health is good, and my dad was traveling and active to almost 90. Hey, I like the odds for some more serious fun in the sun. I can finish that damn novel, write about my journey, swim in clear turquoise waters on beaches yet undreamed of, and sample exotic fruits I’ve never tasted. I’m alive, alive and somehow free!
And every once in a while, I hear one of her songs, and I think back, and smile a bit. I first saw her sing in 1967, a rip-snorting performance by the then 24-year-old Janis, hair flying, feet stamping, singing her guts out. One of a kind, I thought then, and the years have borne me out. From what I saw sitting next to her those few minutes, she was a tortured soul, and her fame and fortune didn’t help ease the pain in her aching heart.
I was lucky. I flew near a flaming sun, and didn’t get burned.
Thanks for the ride, Janis.
Dedicated to my step-daughter Kira
by Kyle K. Mann
June 30, 2015