It must have been this past December that I was camped out in my favorite corner of Coupa Cafe (Yes, I know. Cafe Zoe is my favorite writing place, but I’m coffee-promiscuous – I drink around shamelessly). A young woman, probably late high school, was sitting across by the window, reading Jitterbug Perfume. Being the talks-to-total-strangers kind of guy I am, I remarked to her that I’d been introduced to the weird and wonderful world of Tom Robbins when I was her age, and had been scheming to likewise introduce our son to it, but couldn’t decide between Skinny Legs and All (my favorite) and Still Life with Woodpecker (because, you know, pyrotechnics). She laughed and explained that yes, it was her parents who had placed the book in her hands, that it had somehow been important their courtship, and that she now understood them both so much better.
The conversation got me to thinking of my own introduction, via a short article my high school partner-in-crime, Robert Wayman, slipped onto my desk in English class one morning. Robert was sort of a Ferris Bueller to my Cameron, forever getting us right to the edge of real trouble and then somehow skating clear of it. He was brilliant and appeared fearless and indestructable to us all, his recklessness masking a deep, abiding depression that led him to take his life years later. I still regret losing touch after high school, and still nurse questions of whether I might have somehow been able to make a difference.
I remembered the article Robert slipped me that fateful day being titled something like “Why I Live in La Conner,” in which an unspeakably-offbeat young Tom Robbins extolled the virtues of living in a backwater town where the most significant entertainment was a resident whose mustache was haunted, and threatened to kill him if he shaved it off.
It was 1980, when Robbins could refer to Seattle, an hour south, as “a gem of a town” without smirking. I was seventeen, and the haunted mustache was all I needed to hook me. I didn’t move to Seattle until 1985, but by then I’d devoured everything he’d written.
From time to time over the intervening years I tried to find that fateful essay. But even with the power of Google behind me, I came up empty. It wasn’t until this past Monday morning, coming out of Tinker’s O-dark-hundred yoga class that my brain, in its newly-settled state, saw the light: what I needed was someone with search superpowers. What I needed was a librarian.
And not just any librarian. The La Conner Regional Library was just a ferry ride and 45 minutes drive away. And where in the world would I find librarians better equipped to answer the gnawing bit of trivia that had haunted me so long? Fifteen minutes later, I was on the ferry, headed east on an impromptu quest.
The La Conner Regional Library is an unassuming blue building on the one real street that runs away from the picturesque slough that has turned it into a tourist town. Janet, at the desk, was delighted to help me track down my answer. The library had collections of Robbins essays and damned near everything he’d committed to paper, but after fifteen minutes, she and the other patrons who joined in the search admitted defeat.
“Why don’t you just ask Tom?” suggested the gentleman shelving returns.
“He lives over on [omitted] Street, just across from the [omitted].” [I don’t imagine my countless devoted readers are likely to swarm La Conner to track down the reclusive author, but I would rather not be implicated in even a minor role in outing him.]
Janet seemed to agree that it was a fine idea. “Can’t miss the house.”
Now, I’m as much a fanboy as anyone, but I’ve learned the perils of meeting the objects of my admiration. You get to the front of the line, or run into them in an elevator, make eye contact and say “Oh my God, you’re Madeleine Albright!” (This usually works best, of course, if the person is indeed Madeleine Albright). They mutter something like “Yes, I know. Nice to meet you…?” You give your own name and say how much you admire their work. The first part is irrelevant and the second part assumed (you’ve just waited an hour in line to see them), and the conversation goes downhill from there.
But no, this time I had a real quest, a question that apparently only the man himself could answer. So there I was, another fifteen minutes later, knocking on an unmistakably Robbinsian door, wondering what on earth I would blurt out if he answered.
I didn’t get to find out because, just as my urge to flee had reached action potential, a car rolled into the (very Robbinsian) driveway and a woman about my age stepped out, eyeing me with some hesitation.
“May I help you?”
It wasn’t my most eloquent blurt, but I managed to spill out the thing about the essay from 40 years ago, and how I was now living not far away and I didn’t want to be a pest but… She spared me the trauma of continuing.
“I’m Tom’s wife. Let me see if he’s available.”
She disappeared inside, leaving me to fret for a few minutes before returning to the door and explaining that yes, he was home, but was on a call that would last some time. Would I be willing to write to him? She handed me a scrap of note paper with a local P.O box and asked if I would excuse her.
Yes, yes – certainly.
Of course, the rational thing to do would be to take the ferry back to Port Townsend, sit down at this very computer and compose a witty and Robbinsonian letter. And of course that wasn’t what I was going to do. The tattooed fellow behind the counter at the Post Office (this is La Conner, after all), suggested one of the Hallmark cards from the rack. “Because, you know,” he said with a wicked grin, “It shows you care to send the very best.”
But he offered that, if I wasn’t up to the cheek of sending their local recluse a “Congratulations on your Grandson’s Bar Mitzvah” card, the general store up on Morrison St. would probably sell me some ordinary lined note paper for my needs.
I installed myself in the Calico Cupboard Cafe and Bakery with a hot frothy mug of story juice and a side of bread pudding to compose my note, then dropped it off with the gentleman at the post office. After wandering the picturesque but deserted waterfront, it was time to head home.
I was surprised how quickly the the reply came: an envelope from the La Conner zipcode with a heading of “The Union of Mad Scientists,” bearing an even more colorful enclosure containing the answer to my quest (zoomable link here).
The article in question appeared in Esquire – exactly the sort of magazine Robert would have been reading back then – in October 1980. Turns out you can still find it online here if you’re willing to jump through the “get one month free then cancel your subscription” hoops.
Not surprisingly, my memory of the mustache story was off by a bit and my quest to find out what happened to it remains incomplete. No matter. Veteran questers, as Tom Robbins would be quick to remind us, know that the point of a quest is never really about finding the answers you started out looking for.