Directions to my houseboat:
1. Drive to Marin County, California, which has one of the highest incomes per capita in the United States but forget about that, you won’t need your wallet where you’re going. Huddled between the highway and the bay, overlooked by mansions, you’ll find one of the last things on earth that isn’t for sale.
2. Take the Sausalito/Marin City exit off Highway 101 and head toward the water. Do you see that dirt parking lot which might look more like a giant mud puddle if it’s high tide? Pull in there.
3. Wipe off your lipstick and/or untuck your shirt. If you’re wearing fancy shoes, kiss them goodbye. Or you could go barefoot. It’s your choice, but if you’re worried about getting something dirty, you should leave it in the car. I suppose if that worry extends to your person, it’s not too late to change your mind.
4. You’ll see some rough-looking folks in the parking lot. Some live in those vans so in a way you’re on their property. Think of them as the gatekeepers. Nod politely and walk toward the community garden. If you see totem poles, busted chairs, bits of metal bent into shapes, clots of succulents, flowers, vegetables, and weeds, and a giant half-buried paddlewheel jutting from the dirt, you’re headed in the right direction.
5. On the right, you’ll notice a tidy shack with a sign that says “Gates Co-Operative.” That’s the office. This co-op began when the rich Hill People started trying to evict those who lived on this poor, non-compliant and therefore illegal dock, people who banded together to protect their homes. No, you don’t need to check in at the office, this isn’t a hotel or something. If you see a bearded sailor-type it might be Klaus, so say hello.
6. The raised dirt pathway will take you to the entrance to the dock. At the shoreline, you’ll see a tall pole completely engulfed by a giant snarl of electric wires. Peeking through the wires are signs that remind you this is private property and warn you to enter at your own risk. If you choose to enter, you will have to reconsider your definitions of the words “private,” “property,” “illegal,” and “risk.”
7. Stop for a moment to take it in. Observe how the thick vines of bundled electric lines festoon the maze of decrepit, soggy planks that connect those hand-made floating houses. Smell the heavy scent of marine mud mixed with incense, weed, and fresh paint, hear the sounds of hammers hammering, guitars strumming, and gulls screaming overhead.
8. I don’t have to tell you to be careful since you can see for yourself that some of the walkways are damaged, waterlogged, and/or a bit tippy. As you’re walking, take a moment to appreciate each home you pass. Think of these houses as personal evolutions which, upon hefting themselves up from the primordial ooze, performed unique mutations. Some made elegant transitions from boat to house while others endured several transplants and have the scars of many weldings and graftings to show for it. Some are newly painted and tidily swept, with homemade curtains and geraniums in window pots, while others list like drunken pirates with graffiti tattoos and busted eyes. The cats you see sunning themselves will expect you to stop to pet them, since that is the neighborly thing to do.
9. To get to my houseboat, follow this pattern at each intersection: right, left, right, left, then you’ll find my boat on the right, third from the end. It’s an old 40 foot tugboat painted emerald green, set on a rectangular cement basin and topped with a mildewed canvas tarp. I’m renting from a family who outgrew the space. It’s just the right size for me and my front door is usually open, so just lean in and call my name to let me know you’re here.
(I was there from 1992-1994 and it was one of the best places I’ve ever lived. Things have changed a lot since then. Last I visited, my houseboat was gone, replaced by a very fancy one. So maybe it was for sale, after all. Where have you lived and what happened to those places?)