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Heidegger in San Francisco

4,563 words

Illustration by Jef Costello

Illustration by Jef Costello

A short story by Jef Costello

The lesbians of Berkeley can strip a man to the bone in thirty seconds. At least, that was what Heidegger had heard. They lumbered around the U.C. Berkeley campus, their large, pale, shapeless bodies suspended in boiler suits. Land manatees with buzzcut heads full of raised consciousness. One of them dropped a few quarters into the cup of coffee Heidegger was holding as he stood on Telegraph Avenue, trying to find his bearings. He had not been enjoying the coffee anyway.

Heidegger had flown into Oakland in the late morning, and had been picked up by his host, Furness Meeks, a professor of theology at the Berkeley Union of Liberal Learning, School of Higher Involvement in Theology, or B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T., as the locals called it. When Heidegger had exited his plane, bags in hand, he had seen Meeks standing with families waiting to greet their returning loved ones. He was bald on top, with a very long, grey beard, and wore a tee shirt and a broad grin. Meeks approached Heidegger with arms outstretched. “Martin! Welcome,” he said, and embraced Heidegger. The philosopher was glad he had his hands full with his raincoat and briefcase, as he was not sure how he should respond.

In Meeks’ Volkswagen van, Heidegger had asked him about his institution’s curious name. “You know, Martin, it’s an odd story. Originally the school was called the Hackett School of Theology. But the Hacketts were a wealthy, white family from San Francisco, and none of us really liked having that as our image. Of course, when we changed the name we lost the Hackett money, so that’s why we affiliated with B.U.L.L. We had a meeting to decide on the new name. It dragged on for about fourteen hours. Various ideas were proposed. Lee, one of my best friends on the faculty, wanted to call it the School for Enlightened, Non-Racist, Non-Sexist, Non-Classist, Non-Homophobic, Non-Eurocentric, Non-Christocentric Study of Interfaith, Non-Sectarian Theology. One person objected that that was too long. But he’s sort of a dinosaur, and dead now anyway. The real trouble was we couldn’t agree on the word order.”

Heidegger raised his eyebrows.

“I mean, Tina, who was a transgendered student in the program, argued that it was demeaning to make ‘non-homophobic’ the fourth adjective on the list, as if it’s the fourth most important issue. Everyone was prepared to give in to him . . . er . . . her and make it item number two, but then Pat Smear, who is a very prominent feminist scholar on our faculty, objected that ‘non-sexist’ absolutely had to stay where it was. Anyway, that whole discussion actually took place at the second meeting, which lasted thirty-six hours. But we couldn’t reach any agreement. So ‘School of Higher Involvement in Theology’ was kind of a compromise name. We worked that one out over the course of a third meeting, during which that older professor—the one I said was a dinosaur—during which he passed away.”

Heidegger asked why the words “higher involvement in theology” had been chosen.

Meeks laughed uncomfortably, as if caught out in an embarrassing mistake. “Well, it’s a little too specific, I know. But we wanted to convey the idea that our program is a place where students come to learn about diversity, and to become involved in meaningful activities that promote diversity, and that combat racism, sexism, homophobia, and ethnocentrism. The students and the faculty work on community outreach programs dealing with multiculturalism. We work with the homeless, we campaign for progressive politicians, and we run a free AIDS screening clinic.”

Heidegger asked if the students had any time left over to study theology.

Meeks was silent for a while. “We do some of that, yes. More recent work, of course, because the older stuff is really out of date and filled with sexist God talk.”

Heidegger was scheduled to speak at B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T.’s Interfaith Chapel that evening at eight p.m. He had lunch with Meeks, but asked to be left alone to explore Berkeley by himself for the rest of the day. Somewhat disappointed, Meeks extracted from Heidegger a promise that on the following day they would do some sight-seeing together.

So now, some hours later, Heidegger stood on Telegraph, looking for the way back to the U.C. Berkeley campus. It was just after seven p.m. and Heidegger was thinking about heading back toward B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T., whose campus lay on the other side of U.C. Berkeley on a hill that, provided the day was clear, afforded a magnificent view of the San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately, somehow he had gotten turned around, and could not find his way back.

Heidegger entered a bookstore called “Moe’s,” intending simply to ask for directions, but instead he succumbed to a curious temptation. He asked where the philosophy books were, and, climbing some stairs, found a large collection of them on an upper floor. His eyes scanned the “H” section, going past Hegel, and then lighting on his own name. Almost half a shelf was taken up by English translations of Heidegger’s works. He took a copy of Basic Problems of Phenomenology off the shelf and opened it, recoiling from the book at once, for almost every page had been defaced by a yellow highlighter pen. In some places, the yellow ink had turned a kind of burnt brown color. He was about to close the volume in disgust, when suddenly his thumb slipped and the book flipped open to the very back. On the blank pages at the back of the book, the previous owner had written, in pencil, a list of numbered items in a small, neat hand:

  1. Oaxacan animals
  2. New Zappa release
  3. New cap
  4. Kimchee

Stranger things were written in the back of this book, however. On the lower, right hand corner of one page, the book’s previous owner had written, “The Duke and Duchess of Windsor.”

Suddenly, Heidegger heard a man’s voice call out behind him. It was high-pitched, with an English accent: “But Pookie Deamus!”

“Shut up, David!” barked a woman with a rather deep voice.

Instinctively, Heidegger snapped the book shut just as the woman rounded the corner. She was over fifty and smartly dressed, but with a harsh, angular face; not pretty in the least, but elegant. She held two pug dogs on a leash. The woman addressed herself to Heidegger. “Excuse me, do you know where the chief jeweler is?”

Heidegger hesitated, then explained that this was a bookstore.

“You see, David. There’s nothing but books here,” she called behind her. “And you know my allergies. We’ll have to leave.”

“No!” the little man piped. He remained on the other side of one of the book cases and did not come around to speak to her. “I want to look at the golfing books.”

“David . . .” she began, threateningly.

“No!” he piped, rather more meekly.

“Well, I’m surprised,” she said, putting her hands on her hips. “For once you show a little backbone. But over nothing at all! How typical.” She turned to Heidegger. “He’ll abdicate a throne for me, but he won’t leave a bookstore. Do you know any jewelers around here?”

Intimidated by the woman’s manner, Heidegger began to stammer out an answer in the negative. But she cut him off: “Come on!” She paused long enough to deposit the two pugs with her husband, then headed down the stairs and out the door. Strangely, Heidegger felt he had no choice but to follow her.

Out on Telegraph Avenue, she turned to him. “It’s all right if you don’t know any jewelers. I just want to spend a little time away from him. He panics when I do that. Especially if I’m with another man. So we’ll spend awhile together, okay? I’m Wallis, Duchess of Windsor,” she said, sticking out a bony hand. Heidegger shook it and introduced himself. “Oh, a German? David and I just love Germans. David speaks the language fluently. So where shall we go?”

Heidegger indicated that he needed to head back to B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T. so that he could give his address. There was supposed to be some kind of service held beforehand, and Heidegger had promised to attend. So he and the Duchess began making their way across the U.C. Berkeley campus, during which she chattered away happily. “It’s an attractive campus, don’t you think? Although I would move that building . . . just a little bit to the left,” she said, stopping to indicate with her hands. “Yes, about three feet. Oh, and I love those misty hills, although there’s the most gawdawful concrete bunker architecture up there. Oh, and the palm trees are so lovely. They remind me of the Bahamas. So tell me, what sort of lecture are you giving?”

Heidegger intended to repeat the “What is Dwelling?” address he had given twice already at other universities, and he began to try and summarize it for her. The Duchess listened quietly, but soon she began to make a face as if she had just heard someone break wind. Her eyes began scanning the horizon, looking for almost anything to divert her. “Yes . . . uh huh . . . yes, well that sounds very interesting,” she said when Heidegger had finished. “But frankly I think it’s all just talk, and rather useless talk at that. No offense. Believe me, I know dwelling. The first place David and I dwelt was the Château de la Maye in Versailles. Oh, well that’s if you don’t count the Hotel Meurice. Then we moved on to the Château de la Cröe on Cap d’Antibes. That was really our first home. But a dwelling isn’t just a box you put furniture and people in. You have to choose the furnishings—and, I might add, the people—to bring out the dwelling’s natural virtues. So, for instance at the Mill . . .”

Heidegger interrupted her to explain that this was not the sort of thing he meant, but at this point they had just started up the hill to the B.U.L.L.S.H.I.T. campus and had run right into Furness Meeks. “Martin! I was getting worried. The service starts in about five minutes. Who’s your friend?” The Duchess introduced herself simply as “Wallis” and Meeks did not recognize her. They went up the hill together, and the Duchess continued chatting about the furnishings in the various houses she and the Duke had lived in. When they reached the door of the Interfaith Chapel, a small, squat modernistic structure that didn’t look like a church at all, one of the land manatees was waiting for them.

“Uh, Furness we’re just about ready to begin,” she said in a husky voice and ushered Heidegger, Meeks and the Duchess inside. They stood together for a couple of minutes making awkward conversation. Meeks noticed the jeweled flamingo-shaped brooch the Duchess wore on her Chanel jacket. “Oh my, that’s pretty,” he said. “Was it very expensive?”

The Duchess recoiled slightly, then replied, “Well, let’s just say it’s good enough to wear here.” She glanced around the room. The chapel was devoid of decoration. There were about fifteen long pews, and a raised platform in the front of the room, which was supposed to suggest an altar. “Christ, what a dump!” the Duchess exclaimed, oblivious to the fact that she could be plainly heard. “I mean, I’m not particularly religious, but if you’re going to do the whole church thing you can at least do it with style: stained glass and high, vaulted ceilings and incense. This place looks like traffic court.”

Meeks shifted around uncomfortably. “Well, we didn’t want to give the suggestion of endorsing any particular faith . . .”

“How do they do communion here?” the Duchess continued. “Take a number and wait your turn? ‘Now serving Number 58, come get your body and blood!’”

“Perhaps you’d like to be seated now,” Meeks whispered. There were about forty people present, and every one of their heads was now turned toward the Duchess. She sat next to Heidegger several pews back from the altar, and Meeks went to join the minister, who was a young woman with short, brown hair, standing near what passed for a pulpit.

“My God,” the Duchess called out, “I haven’t seen so many pale, unhealthy bodies since Patton liberated Dachau.” She tapped the shoulder of the hefty, buzzcut lesbian sitting in front of her. “Excuse me, sir . . .” When the lesbian turned around, the Duchess gasped. “Oh! I thought you were a man! Wait, you are a man, aren’t you? Professor Hildegard what is this, a man or a woman?”

“What do you want?” snarled the lesbian.

“I want to know how I can order something from the bar . . .”

At just that moment, the minister began. She had now donned lime green vestments (“Tacky,” whispered the Duchess) and raised her arms to welcome the congregation. “Greetings! And a non-sectarian blessing be upon all of you!”

“And also on you!” most of the crowd called out in unison.

“We are gathered here this evening for a joyous occasion, to welcome new members of the School of Higher Involvement in Theology community. Please rise.” Four individuals now stood up. They were one man and three women, including the lesbian in front of the Duchess. “We welcome you in a spirit of ecumenical fellowship,” continued the minister. “And we urge you to become involved in the greater fellowship that is the Bay Area community. You may be seated. We also give an especial welcome to those of our community tonight who are African American, Latino/Latina, and Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered, in the hopes that we may build bridges and mend fences together.”

The Duchess looked around the room and noticed that about two thirds of those present were white, and a third were Asian. “What are all these gooks doing here?” she asked sotto voce, though seven faces turned to glare at her.

Meeks now came to the podium. “It’s my pleasure to introduce to you tonight a world-renowned philosopher, Martin Heidegger.” There followed some details of Heidegger’s career, including a list of his major publications, conveniently omitting some of the unpleasantness of the ’30s and ’40s. “His topic tonight is, ‘What is Dwelling?’”

Heidegger rose and moved to the altar, removing his address from his inside coat pocket. He spoke slowly and carefully. Everything seemed to be going smoothly, but then about ten minutes into the talk there was a commotion in the back of the room. Heidegger looked up to see a tall black man, a latecomer to the gathering, standing near the Duchess, engaged in animated conversation with her. “No, I won’t get up!” she cried. The man muttered something but Heidegger did not hear him. “I’ll be damned if you’re sitting next to me!” the Duchess shouted and waved him away. The man didn’t budge, however, and there now flowed from him a virtual glossary of profane language. Meeks rushed over to see what the problem was. “Don’t you have a section for the coloreds?” the Duchess asked him. “When the Duke and I were in the Bahamas we didn’t even let them through the front door!”

The crowd gasped. The burly lesbian in front of the Duchess fainted. The minister crossed herself, though she wasn’t Catholic. Meeks shook with rage. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave!” he bleated.

“With pleasure!” the Duchess said, and rose quickly from the pew, her small Louis Vuitton handbag hooked over one wrist. “I’ve never seen such a collection of stunted, mealy-mouthed imbeciles in my entire life. Come along, Martin!” She motioned for Heidegger to follow her, and then disappeared out the door.

Strangely, unaccountably, just as before, Heidegger felt that he simply had to obey her. He tucked the speech back into his pocket and rushed outside to join the Duchess.

“But Martin! Professor Heidegger! Where are you going?! I didn’t mean for you to leave!” Meeks cried. He waffled back and forth between outrage and solicitousness. “If this woman is a friend of yours, I didn’t mean to . . . Well, that is to say I hope you don’t share her views! . . . Just because she leaves doesn’t mean that you . . . But then again, if you would associate with such a person then perhaps it’s best . . .”

But neither Heidegger nor the Duchess heard him. It was growing dark outside, and the two of them started back down the hill under the palm trees, in the direction of the U.C. Berkeley campus. “Martin,” she said, “first thing we’ll do is fetch the Rolls from my hotel, then Sidney can drive us into the city and we’ll have a hi-ho time! Jimmy Donahue showed me some marvelous spots on Castro Street. I wonder if they’re still in business . . .”

Many hours later Heidegger and the Duchess of Windsor were sitting at a bar in San Francisco sipping martinis. Behind the bar were tall metal racks stacked with liquor, and behind the stacks were opaque sheets of plastic through which colored lights were projected. Every few seconds one color would fade into another: blue into green, into red, into orange, into purple, into blue again, etc. Heidegger decided that he liked the Duchess best when she was red; least when green. Yes, she was almost attractive when she was red. But the green light made her look like a witch from a children’s stage production of “Hansel and Gretel.”

He had no idea where they were, and only a dim idea of how many martinis he had already had. He seemed to vaguely remember a visit to Alcatraz involving a boat load of drag queens. They had already hit three bars by that point. Afterwards, the Duchess had amused herself by feeding truffles to a group of sea lions on the pier. One of the drag queens had taken them along to what Heidegger had thought to be a very low place, where queer things went on. Bashful as ever, he had kept his eyes focused on his martini glass most of the while. Yet he worked up the courage to ask the Duchess about one thing in particular he had caught a glimpse of.

“Fisting? Oh, please don’t get me started talking about my second husband.”

Heidegger thought it best to change the subject and, groping for a way out, asked the Duchess to tell him what her first husband was like.

“Win? Oh, he was a dreadful man. Just dreadful. When we were married he had a big house in Coronado, California. He’d had it since he was a bachelor. When we came back to it after the honeymoon, he showed me a rack of keys in the kitchen. There were about a dozen of them, and they opened all the major doors in the house. You see, this was one of his peculiarities: he liked to keep everything locked. Anyway, he told me, ‘You may use any of these keys,’” the Duchess now tucked her chin in and lowered her pitch, “‘except this one.’ He meant the last one on the rack. ‘That opens the attic. You may never enter that room,’ he told me. Well, I said that that was just fine. And I meant it. My philosophy is live and let live. If Win had something he wanted hidden in that attic, it was fine with me. I was perfectly content to let that be his business. But every day after that he would come home from work—he was a flight instructor in the Navy—and put his hands on his big hips and say . . . ,” the Duchess now dropped her pitch again, “‘You have been into the attic, haven’t you! Confess it, woman!’ It was horrible, and I would say, ‘No, I have not.’ And I was being perfectly honest. Well, in any case, this happened so many times I got to think that he was positively encouraging me to go peek in that attic. But I never did. And it just made him madder and madder. Finally, we came to blows. Or rather, he did. It was an impossible situation. We just had to part ways. Would you like another martini?”

She finished off her drink and delicately blotted her lips with a folded paper napkin, leaving two crimson crescents on it. “You know, Martin, after this I think we ought to . . . Oh, my!” She had seen someone over Heidegger’s shoulder. “It’s Ron and Nancy Reagan. He’s a crashing bore,” she whispered, “talks nothing but politics and is so . . . ,” she swallowed hard, “wholesome. But I’ll have to say hello. Excuse me . . .” Heidegger now sat alone, staring down into his martini glass, wondering where the Duchess would drag him next, knowing he was powerless to resist. All of a sudden, he felt a presence near him. He looked up and saw Furness Meeks, the wispy hair on the sides of his head disheveled, his eyes wild.

“Well, I hope you’re happy with yourself,” he began. “Reverend Dworkin says we’re going to have to perform an exorcism on the Interfaith Chapel before we can use it again. Yes, that’s right. You’re not hearing things. The whole place will have to be scrubbed from top to bottom and all the carpets and furniture replaced . . . what do you mean ‘Why?’! Because of what your little friend the . . . the Countess Dracula did in there! Because of her obscene, racist rant! No one can use the building until it’s been thoroughly cleansed. Dale Grout, the student who fainted, she’s in intensive care, under heavy sedation. And poor Retrobatus Johnson, the African-American student your friend brutalized, he hasn’t uttered a word since. Yes, he’s completely mute. We’ve erected a tent on the quad and staffed it with counselors to care for the others who were present. And I don’t want to talk about myself, but I’ve now gone through four of the seven classic stages exhibited by trauma victims. I’m feeling a fifth coming on right now! In fact, we’re not sure that cleaning and then blessing the building is going to help at all. The memory could linger on indefinitely. We may have to tear the whole thing down. Dean Aspic, who’s very sensitive about these things, thinks we should turn it into a basketball court as a gesture of reconciliation to the African American community. And, my God! If this gets out, the school’s reputation may be harmed beyond repair. We may have to close the school entirely! We may have to kill ourselves!” The man was now shaking violently, and tears were streaming down his cheeks.

Heidegger stood up and slapped him hard across the left side of his face.

Meeks was silent for a while, and began wiping the tears away. “You’re right. You’re right. I’m taking this far too lightly.”

Heidegger asked him what time it was.

“It’s almost five a.m.”

Meeks scattered as soon as he saw the Duchess returning to Heidegger’s side. “Let’s get going, Martin. I feel like some air.”

As the sun rose over the hills of San Francisco, the pair walked up Haight Street and into the notorious hippie quarter. They saw only a handful of other faces, and the entire area was unusually quiet. It was Saturday, and much too early for most people to be awake, especially in this neighborhood. The Duchess kept chattering away cheerfully. She dished about a freight car full of dirt on the Royal Family. She told him about the last time she had dined with General Franco. She gave him her predications about the rise and fall of hemlines for the next two decades. And she explained to him, in great detail, how to throw a successful dinner party. “One point—and this cannot be overstressed—is that the guests can wait for the food, but the food cannot wait for the guests. This goes double if there’s a soufflé involved.”

Presently, they came to a public park. At the entrance were a few scruffy youths, one of whom said something to Heidegger about “buds” as they passed by. He thought this curious, but gave it no further thought. They wound their way through the park, which was heavily wooded, and came to a large field. On the path running through it were a group of men and women dancing and beating drums. As Heidegger and the Duchess approached, a man joined the group and began playing a flute. There was no tune at all, just a beat, but the effect was somehow intoxicating. Heidegger looked around the clearing. There was a domed building nearby, with what appeared to be a carousel inside. There were white, modernistic buildings beyond the trees, on the misty hills above them, along with a tall radio tower.

“Well, why don’t we sit down someplace and rest awhile?” said the Duchess. They noticed a small group of people sitting on a hill nearby and began walking up it. “I really shouldn’t sit after all,” she said. “I don’t want the grass stains.” Heidegger removed his suit coat and gallantly laid it down on the grass, inviting her to sit. “Thank you, Martin! You’re such a dear,” she said, and sat down on it. He plopped down beside her, and both of them surveyed the horizon and listened to the music. “It’s so peaceful here,” said the Duchess after several minutes. “I think the Duke would love it, if they’d let him putt his little balls around.”

Sometime later, two young hippie girls with long skirts and flowers woven into their hair began moving unobtrusively through the crowd. Both of them carried small picnic baskets. One of the girls approached Heidegger and the Duchess and said, “Would you like some brownies made with ganja?”

“Yes, I’d love a little something sweet to nibble on,” cried the Duchess. “We’ll take four, two for each of us. Pay her, Martin.” Heidegger took out his wallet and paid the girl. Twenty dollars seemed a lot for four brownies. “Peace!” the girl said after handing them the merchandise, and moved on to someone else. Heidegger took his time opening the cellophane on his first brownie, but the Duchess tore into hers and was soon devouring it.

“Oh, my! This is the best brownie I’ve ever tasted,” she said. “I really must call that girl back and get the recipe. What did she say they were made with?”

Heidegger had to admit, as he got halfway through his, that there certainly was something magical about these brownies. In fact, after a few minutes he had quite forgotten himself, and was leaning back on his elbows, smiling up at the clouds.

“My, my!” exclaimed the Duchess as she finished off her second one. “Those were truly delicious, and I don’t understand it, but I haven’t felt this good since Queen Mary died!”

Heidegger laughed and scanned the horizon, thinking that he might like to retire to here. But Elfride would never stand for it. When his gaze returned to earth, he watched the joyful scene of dancing and drumming at the bottom of the hill. He saw something new there, and threw back his head and laughed. The Duchess of Windsor had joined the crowd below and was moving among them. Her arms and legs cleaved the air, and her Chanel skirt flapped to and fro as she did the Watusi.


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  1. Sutton Who?
    Posted November 17, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    Jef, this is well-written, imaginative, and absolutely hilarious. Who knew you spent time on Hippie Hill ( with Martin Heidegger and the Duchess of Windsor? I want more!

    • Jef Costello
      Posted November 17, 2014 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! Heidegger will return with new adventures, and new companions. (Just like the Doctor.)

  2. Mark Minter
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    I like to fancy that “I get around” and that I tend to find interesting stuff to view, read, and do. I tend to be the person that picks stuff and others let me. And I find that most generally enjoy the things I pick.

    With that said, I would give your work some of the highest recommendation and I found it quite original and very entertaining. I shall post it to some spots. I got here via Chateau Heartiste via a link to another essay by another author. CH is quite widely read and I leave a link there with a strong recommendation to this post.

    I wish you success in your future writings.

    • Jef Costello
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! I appreciate your support and kind words.

  3. Peter
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    I´m surprised not more people comment on that. I do think it´s hilarioius! Very funny; light entertainment. A whole new approach in the WN-scene.
    It reminds me of Boris Vian, and a bit of a satirical journal I used to read.
    Again: funny light entertainment, and a welcome variety to the much heavier texts one is otherwise confronted with in our sphere.

  4. Pelican
    Posted November 23, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the levity. We need more of that. (I don’t think I’ll be able to look at Heidegger quite the same as I have though.) Keep up all your good work.

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