Several years ago I found that cramming a large table into a small room greatly increased the size of the room. The table invited conversation, ideas, and laughter much more easily than I did. It was a Wednesday in September of 1991 when friends and I first wrestled a wooden spool top up the stairs, oblivious in our excitement to its splinters and rusted nails. By nightfall we had calmed it with offerings of spilled candle wax and red wine. By ten there had begun what came to be known as the Utopia Round Table Meetings.
These meetings, more or less centered on figuring out what the idea of utopia was all about, were the best discussions I ever had at Harvard. They would begin tenish every Wednesday and last to the wee hours of the morning. We were not beyond including course material or reading out loud from books, nor were we beyond moaning about relationships gone sour, or abandoning words altogether to play chess.
The conversations were intense and spectacular, charged with the unspoken understanding that the round-table meetings themselves were a kind of utopia. Every week we tossed around notions of community and tradition, stability and sterility, free will and free love. Toward the end of the year the meetings felt as if they were rolling toward some kind of climax. Very late one night, with the sun just peeking through the Boston skyscrapers, we put all differences aside and promised to meet in Baja (why Baja, I don't know) after we had graduated. Amid daring speeches and solemn oaths we signed our names on the wall committing ourselves to launching the real thing?the real Utopia?no matter who we became in the between years.
The following Wednesday nobody showed up. A week later, the table disappeared into the basement, where it soon became moldy from a water leak. It took a month before we could look at each other in the eye and the notion became, unanimously and without deliberation, a topic of taboo.
But the idea of a round table, where no seat is privileged, and all eyes look through the same pocket of air, has continued its hold on me. After years of carrying the notion with me through travels and co-ops, I now find myself literally carried by the idea. A community around a table is?in many ways?the real thing, not just the launching pad.
I have now begun building a traveling commons? An eight-foot round redwood table atop four wheels and a car engine. I, and whoever else ends up joining me, will drive the table around the world. Talking, cooking, writing, sculpting, playing billiards...the table escapes narrow definition of purpose.
It will be a drama in which many people, with all their stories and concerns, thoughts and passions, will be the actors, the landscapes, the backdrops. It will be a community based on what people have to give?and there is everything to give. Some may offer food, wine, and a place to park; others, content and inspiration. The traveling commons is the stone in stone soup, the sand in the oyster. It is a magic carpet that flies?not above people, but through and within them.
There will be a library, dictionary, typewriters, cameras, easels, and elegant china stored in compartments below deck. We will stop at universities, parks, capitals, housing developments, and sometimes even red lights?the traveling commons transcends class and country. We might stay in a place for weeks, or just a couple of minutes. As we gain recognition, and take on the momentum (wobble?) of a pottery wheel, we will sometimes write ahead, inviting artists, writers, and thinkers for a meal and a chat. Over the engine, using the heat of combustion, we will bake bread and make coffee. We may also have a zucchini or two growing in a well in the center of the table.
Deep in the marrow of West Oakland, in the industrial desert of the abandoned Phoenix Iron Works, under the derelict scaffolding of warship craze and the flapping of pigeons and the falling of feathers, in inches of soot and clouds of green gasses, lit by shafts of light piercing dusted air from a thousand windows vibrant red from the setting west, among miles of steel and acres of concrete, the table seems simple, small, insignificant. In this gloom of forgotten machinery, under wires which haven't breathed electricity in years, there's the sense?not so much that beauty will one day be guest to the table?but that the table is already guest to great beauty.
When the door to the central bay (100 feet wide, 150 feet high, 600 feet long) stopped creaking upward, and my eyes had adjusted to the gloom, I could barely make out two abandoned VW Bugs tucked into a mountain of garbage. They were listing at crazy angles with smashed-in windows and fenders all dented, but the essentials were all there: the motor, wheels, and floor plan. I looked around me. If people could enclose such a vast expanse, and make the overhead crane capable of lifting a hundred VWs, surely I could modify a Bug.
Friends helped strip windows, fenders, bumpers, doors, hood, trunk, seats, and running boards from the car. In our enthusiasm we pulled out all the wiring, only realizing afterwards that some of the wires were probably important. From the mountain of trash, we recovered three ignition wires and the oil and generator lights. Then using an air grinder, Sawzall, tin snips, can opener, and finally a corkscrew, we cut the top off the car. Now only 33 inches tall, the VW was the right height for a table base, but at 12 feet long, it threatened the roundness of the table. So in a moment of brash confidence ("we'll just spend a few hours welding this thing back together"), we chopped the car in half and threw away the middle four feet. Now we had a big problem. The car was in two pieces, and no one knew how to weld.
When we ran out of thoughts we turned the ratchet from loosen to tighten and bolted the car together. With a mig welder borrowed from Phoenix we tried to make the two halves stick. After struggling for hours, experimenting with voltage and wire speed, we finally showed Weldon, a third-generation ironworker, our progress. After several moments of silence, staring at our atrocious splatter of weld, he said, "Well, I hope you're at least having fun."
Dealing with strangers first became a problem on a particular Wednesday lunch at the Phoenix Iron Works, a month before our departure. Despite people's interest, I found myself getting grouchy. An enthusiastic stranger who walked in off the streets managed to ask the same exact questions I had already answered twice that day. "Wow," he said staring at the table, "Where did you get the idea?" A button pressed inside my head and I launched into spiel #1. When I reached the end of my recording, I beeped and he asked, as if on cue, "What are you going to do when it rains?" Without hesitation, I returned, "Get wet," and prepared for the next assault. Before he had even finished asking: "How are you going to get across the oceans?" I was screaming dementedly, "Take a boat! Take a boat!"
Gradually the problem became clearer?the only thing talked about around the table was the table. Instead of being a catalyst for conversation, the table was the sole topic of conversation. Somehow it had gone from being the pot for stone soup to the soup itself.
The problem became acute when an unknown man fingering a Bowie knife wanted to carve his initials into the just-sanded maple top. The question became one of limits?to what extent is the commons common property? Can someone rip off a hunk of table for firewood? And more importantly, do I reserve the right to direct conversation to things that interest me?
I finally found the solution the night I finished the table. It was now pitch black. Leaving the commons behind, I kick-started my motorcycle, and rode toward the sliding door of the warehouse. When it opened the horizon of the whole world seemed to lift. Suddenly I was overcome with a desire to ride as fast as possible. At 95 mph a critical speed is reached. Under that, everybody you pass thinks "What a jerk, I hope he kills himself," but over 95 people see you fly by, and without meaning to at all, they step on the gas. It's like you've inspired the race in them. That night every car behind me moved faster than before.
Instead of inspiring people to greater speed, I want everyone the table passes to start going slower, thinking harder, laughing louder. Instead of people looking at me and thinking "What a mad man," I want to be so totally mad that without meaning to they start acting strange themselves. If people are looking at the table and wondering, "What does he do when it rains?" I clearly haven't reached critical speed yet. So I'm winding up the throttle more. I want people merely to hear the table coming and start shaking hands and giving fantastic introductions. I want people just to see the table from afar and start scribbling poetry on scraps of guttered paper. And by the time the table arrives, I want there to be so much raw energy that the table is hardly noticed at all.
That's what I'm trying to build. I don't know where the critical speed is that inspires such madness and communion, and life, really, but I know the table just might find it. And when that critical level of intensity is reached, there will be conversations, sculptures, readings, and parties like never before.
Less than a month on the road, on a hot day in late February, the grungy banditos nervously approached the inspection station at the Arizona border. They were driving a table. They were about to get busted.
Having spent the last week crossing the Mojave, Scott, my friend and copilot for the first thousand miles, and I were grungier than usual, and the table looked down right impossible to have a respectable conversation around. The left rear tire had lost half its air and the land-boat listed dangerously. The windshield had long since fallen out, somewhere, I think, between Barstow and Bakersfield. Although we'd duct taped the windshield frame back together, we'd jammed the wiper switch on, so that the blue wipers waved incessantly in empty space. Such quantities of chili beans, bacon grease, and wine had spilled on the table that, as we slowed down to be inspected, a great swarm of flies descended upon us. I peered through the bugs splattered on my safety glasses at the fine specimen of authority blocking our way. We had been stopped several times already and I was wondering how in the world were we going to convince him that the table, despite appearances, was a socially responsible invention designed to foster a utopian sense of community.
As it turned out, the officer had altogether different concerns: "What happened to your windshield?"
"It fell off."
"What about your license plates?"
"They fell off too."
"Do you have registration and insurance?"
"Well not exactly, but..."
"Where is the Vehicle Identification Number?"
"Well, in the modifying of the car I cut it out and lost it." A change came over the officer. He got very excited. "Don't you know," he yelled, "you're not allowed to move the VIN! That's a Class Five felony!"
"I'm sorry boys, but this vehicle is contraband. I've got no choice but to impound it. Without the VIN I have no way of knowing whether it's stolen or not." Then his eyes narrowed, "Say why are you trying to leave California anyway?"
"Well you see, Officer, the truth of the matter is I had this going-away party, and it was such a great party I just had to leave afterwards." With one big breath I continued, "It was in the Phoenix Iron Works warehouse and hundreds of people came and whole motorcycle gangs rode through the darkness toward the bonfire which raged 40 feet high 'cause Jenny kept throwing on whole pallets and the concrete floor was exploding from the heat but Eric kept on barbecuing fifty chickens and tapping Bison Brew and people gave away cigarettes and motorcycles and secrets which you couldn't hear because the musicians who were lit by red stage lights and looked a mile away blasted notes till morning and Steven jumped off the bus and hung upside-down on the rope swing to fly right through the flames emerging again to applause looking rather singed and two shades darker but grinning nonetheless like he might have seen something in the fire and then Big Dave heaved the top of the VW Bug over his head like the skin of a fierce animal and danced while Kate sang to the flickering shadows of the steel girders with her legs swinging from the speakers and poets sat around the table typing messages full of spirit and mystery such as 'xjbacl qroty spark' and what I'm getting at, Officer, is that I love my friends but that the table strives to overcome itself and reinvent itself again and again so after that party I just had to leave."
The policeman had been growing paler and paler. When I finished he looked like he wished he'd never stopped us.
"Maybe," he cleared his throat. "I could allow you return to California."
"Yes, Officer, yes sir."
However, when the CHP officer arrived to escort the table back, he took one look at us through his Terminator II sunglasses and said, "California doesn't want you." But Arizona wasn't about to give up. "I am definitely," he said, "not allowing them in our state." After a good deal of negotiating (it's amazing what the table's been used for), we were ordered to return to Blythe, California. We were sweaty and tired and pissed off.
Blythe looked a god-awful city. We pulled off at a dusty turnout behind some dilapidated trucks. Tex, a skinny Oklahoman, pulled himself out of an engine and sauntered over. "Wow," he said, "nice rig! What is it?a Jacuzzi on wheels? Ha ha. No, I really like it. It's different. You make it?" Like most people we met (authorities aside), Tex became all grins when checking out the table. His enthusiasm picked us right up. "Yeah man!" We were grinning too, "It's the Traveling Commons. We're seceding from the Union. Ha ha. But first we're gonna cook up a storm?you hungry?"
"Yeah, sure. One sec." Tex returned wearing a white dress shirt, carrying a Patsy Cline tape. He sat down on our folding chair, rolled a Bugler cigarette, and watched Scott slice steak and mushrooms. (The table serves only the finest of foods.) Tex said he'd just left his wife 'cause "it was like that Hank Williams song: If she ain't gonna change, I'm a-gonna leave." But he missed his yellow Lab, who used to split a case of Coors with him. Together they would howl at the moon.
"Once," he said, "I saw the most beautiful woman in the world. But she turned out to be a sister I didn't even know I had."
I drifted off. The table had seen so many strange and sad people. There was a man in King City who had just stolen his grandma's '57 Chevy Impala to transport a harvest of dope, but first he had to stop by court to plead guilty to biting his wife. Then we spent a night talking to Victor, a shy Peruvian shepherd, whose land we camped on near Lost Hills. He told us that the black sheep always leads the pack because it walks faster, and that Orion's belt is really called the Tres Marias. In Rosedale we were surrounded by junior high delinquents who kept disappearing to "yank" packs of Marlboros. In Twenty-nine Palms we met a Mexican jail runner who lived on earnings from cockroach races. T-bird, his favorite roach, never lost when beans and tortillas were at stake.
The grungy banditos had to escape Blythe, but they were afraid of getting pulled over on the way out of town. They had no itinerary other than to make it to Tucson, Arizona where their friends were. Then they got an idea. If they weren't allowed to drive on the roads, they'd drive off them.
At three in the morning we steered the table over sidewalks, hedges, lawns and lots to the outskirts of Blythe. Then, putting garbage bags on to protect against the cold, we struck out over the sand. For fear of being spotted we left the headlights off, and it was near impossible to see. We hit one bump that was so big we flew clean off the table and had to chase it through the desert. We drove and drove, floated across the Colorado (yes, the table floats), and before long were completely lost. When we finally dragged ourselves back to I-10, we had no idea which side of the border we were on. But we guessed correctly, and turning lights on, stopping only for gas, drove east.
The ride was exhausting. For hours the table lay around our middles like a perverse guillotine awaiting impact. At interstate speeds, wind dove into the cockpit throwing sawdust and trash into our faces. At 55 mph the front lifts off the ground as the table planes into a wheelie. Without front traction there is no steering and the turbulent weight behind each passing truck lifts the table up, shakes it around and drops it. The worst, though, is that in the heat of the day the sun bounces off the deck and focuses on our heads like a solar oven.
We finally made it to Tucson, where we collapsed into the safety of our friend Grace's home. Grace, a graduate student of poetry, quickly got us into shape. Within a few hours we had showered (Ivory and Pert), washed laundry (Tide), eaten some veggies (lettuce) brushed our teeth (Crest), organized a poetry reading at the U of A (where squeaky clean students were to gawk at the table) and had the Transportation Department come over to inspect the table. There are the same old problems which are now starting to wear more on my sanity. Case of the missing VIN, concerns about safety. A truck that carries ideas, no gross weight, no idea too gross? A dune buggy for the rugged landscape of the mind? The inspector took a Polaroid picture and gave it to his supervisor, who sent it to headquarters in Phoenix, who sent it to their rep at the Attorney General's office. A long chain of stalling, deferring officials. Hurry up guys, take a stand.
Let me muddle through some thoughts which seem permanent, if uninvited, guests at the table. When I look at the Traveling Commons I no longer see a round table pregnant with potential; I see a flat-bedded hearse carrying an idea that has expired. The table is, among other things, a work of art, and driving it around makes me feel like a painter who has finished a painting and then gone and climbed into the canvas. It seems to me that a person who dreams up a rolling table is very different from the person who'd care to display it on the road. But surely, you might say, the table isn't just a sculpture to be displayed. It is supposed to create a sense of community blah blah blah. Well it does, but I prefer the community which surrounds creation to the community made of the growth-stopping applause of a work completed.
Though the table makes a hundred people smile a day, I find that I am not willing to inspire others at the expense of my soul. How can making people happy and organizing dinners damage anyone's soul? It's like this: because the table makes a hundred people smile a day, I, Reuben, have no reason to rise to the occasion. So I don't. Even if I pick my nose, wear smelly shirts, sulk in underground spite, and have no creative ideas to speak of, people will still like that stupid bucket on wheels. The success of the table has made me a dulled steward. I am waiting for someone to look at the Traveling Commons and say "Wow, nice coffin!"
I need a break.
By now I am searching for a way to rid myself of the table forever. It took me a week to get to the northern deserts of Chihuahua, Mexico. I spent the last of my money on a fabulous feast for seven: shark and lamb; caviar and olives; garlic, ginger and cilantro; French wine and fresh bread. Leaving the market behind I drove an hour due east into the middle of nowhere. There was neither road nor house, only a saguaro here, a barrel cactus there, a lot of sand underfoot, and even more sun overhead. It was very hot and I began chopping garlic. I cooked for three days straight, not eating or drinking, waiting to see who would come to the feast. Late in the third day I spread out a frayed white cloth over the table. A slight breeze rippled through the fabric like the echoes of a splash. On the cloth I set porcelain bowls and dished out the first course. Steamy aromas rose in spirals into the dry air. I laid out seven silver forks and seven folded napkins. I uncorked the cabernet sauvignon and poured it into crystal glasses. Then, as I was about to take my seat, (it's hard for me to tell if this has happened or not), I realized I wasn't invited?the meal was for the sand, the stars, the cactus and the wind. Without looking back I walked away toward Chihuahua, leaving the table to the elements and the gods; leaving the Traveling Commons to the riches of silence.