4 a.m. -- I'm out in my studio after having slept four hours, and perhaps that's how many Tony slept, too, but his plane is somewhere over the Pacific right now or on the ground refueling in Hawaii -- for the first time in 31 days I don't know his exact whereabouts. (Our sleep patterns seemed to have synchronized over the last few weeks. A few days ago I woke up at 4 o'clock, lay in bed for a couple of minutes, thought: "Well, might as well get up," and the I tiptoed toward the bathroom -- only to bump into Tony tiptoeing in from the other direction.)
Something like a hundred people showed up for our Saturday night bonfire at Ocean Beach -- Tony's "despedida" (Tagalog -- or is it Spanish? -- for "going-away party"). A woman named Kelly Theodor, who had emailed me a few months back after reading my book, flew in from Wisconsin specifically to be here. She said she first learned of my book when she walked into her local bookstore to seek reading material and was told that the store's reading group was reading my book. This amazes me -- people talking about my book outside of my immediate presence! Somehow, given that there are now nearly 10,000 copies of it in circulation out there somewhere, I know this has to be the case, but again I find it unbelievable. And pleasing.
David Holmstrom -- retired after 25 years as a Christian Science Monitor reporter, and a man whose work I have read reams of and have long admired -- also came, and also said he flew out from Massachusetts just for the bonfire. He swore this was true, although the fact that his daughter Krista is half of the Travelers' Tales publicity department had to factor in there somewhere. Still, how flattering! -- and to hear him say how much he loved my book and that my descriptions of India were the best he'd ever read (this from a man who has been there numerous times and probably read reams of India descriptions and written more reams of them himself)...what can I say?
Two months ago, at the viewpoint in Banaue, the spot where I met Tony in 1988, an American man named Daryt "DJ " Frank fell into a conversation with Tony. Daryt had been in the Philippines with the Peace Corps, had married a Filipina named Mina, and the two of them now lived in Los Angeles. Tony mentioned to Daryt that in a month he, Tony, would be going to America, to San Francisco, to visit a taxicab driver who had invited him over. Daryt was doubtful -- on the road one hears a lot of strange things from a lot of strange people -- but he told Tony some places to see in California and gave him his business card and said if you're in L.A. why don't you give me a call. The brief incident then slipped his mind. So imagine his surprise six weeks later when he got a call from a taxicab driver and a rice farmer who were near St. Louis, Missouri. And imagine our surprise when Daryt and his wife drove up from LA on Saturday night to deliver a Makita circular saw -- a present to Tony, who wanted one to give to his carpenter friend in Banaue.
I could tell similar stories about just about everyone at the party. David Muchow, for instance -- who in my mother's back yard three days earlier had told me to buy hiking boots and running shoes for Tony's wife and kids and to send him, David, the bill -- was here from Washington, DC on business. He came to the bonfire with a check that he filled out for $450 -- and with his daughter, Heather -- who I've known for all of her twenty-seven years (she grew up outside Washington but now, with her guy [also named David, also at the bonfire], is my Oakland neighbor).
Really, I could go on and on and on -- a dozen cab-driver colleagues, writer friends, strangers who were fans of "our " book, friends of Tony who'd trekked with him in Banaue, Bob Whittlesey (who originally directed me toward Banaue), and for good measure, Shellie Hatfield, my therapist. Sarah had taken a nap so she could come and now she spun in the sand like a globe run amok. Late in the evening (the party started at 6:30) I pulled Kathy Meengs's (the other half of Travelers' Tales publicity department) guitar out of its case and put it in Tony's hands. With the surf crashing in the background and with fireworks from nearby bonfires whistling and bursting into rainbows overhead, Tony sang a song that only the last few Filipinos understood, but which everyone understood.
We had one crasher. A guy no one knew arrived around sunset, took all the bags of chips off the food table, arranged them in a row in front of him in a prominent position near the fire, and lay down, his head propped on his elbow, munching chips and staring at the flames -- not bothering anyone, no one bothering him -- for the next couple of hours. But when I pulled out Kathy's guitar I noticed the guy sit up, and he moved close to Tony while Tony sang, and when someone asked him if he could play, the guy said, "A little bit," and then took the guitar and blew us all away. Toward midnight we final stragglers left him a stack of firewood, all the leftover food, and a copy of my book.
All night long people asked me (as they've asked me for months now) if there would be a book about Tony's and my trip. When I started this project 13 years ago, that was indeed my intention -- it seemed so obvious, so logical in my mind. What was not obvious to me was the struggle to get published that would be involved. Here's how it is: I will not write a book about this trip unless I have a decent contract in advance from a publisher (any agent or editor reading this, feel free to call me). I feel I've paid my dues -- and paid my own way. Each of my books cost me about $20,000 in actual out-of-pocket money to accomplish. The first book brought in about $20,000 -- so I broke even. This second one has brought in $10,300 so far. I've enjoyed the entire process -- but I'm not willing to bang my head on the wall anymore. My wife supports our family -- bless her -- I'm sure she could welcome a helping hand. Doesn't a man have to make some money some time?
This morning, that's my position. And I'm sticking to it until at least dawn.
Yesterday Tony and Sarah and Rhonda and I ran errands while the VCR made copies for Tony of the 15 hours of videotape I shot this month. We went around the corner from our house for lunch at Little Shin-Shin -- the best, by far, of the twenty or so Chinese restaurants that Tony and I sampled across the country. The VIP seats to yesterday's Giants' game that had been promised to me before I left never materialized, and it was just as well that the guy flaked on me -- Tony and I were too tired and busy yesterday for a baseball game. As Tony has been saying for the past couple of weeks, "Can't do everything." We sat on the back deck signing the remaining books that we have for sale. With six books to go I had the idea of having Sarah and Rhonda sign them also. Rhonda demurred -- "I don't want to look like I'm taking credit" -- but Sarah got a laugh from Tony and me with, "I'll sign anything you want me to." So she scrawled S-A-R-A-H on six copies, and got a bigger laugh from us with: "Someone will have to pay a lot for these."
At 6 p.m. we listened to NPR's "Weekend All Things Considered" -- they'd come to my mom's house in Virginia on Wednesday and spent two hours listening to us tell our story. Now they told it expertly in about 6-7 minutes, and we sat here in my studio and listened, approvingly, acceptingly -- this has all started to somehow seem normal. [Click here to listen to the NPR piece, in Real Audio.]
Around 6:30 in the afternoon we took a few parting photos, said our good-byes to Sarah and Rhonda, and drove toward SFO for Tony's 10:20 flight -- Tony made good-bye calls to my mom and sister on the cell phone along the way. We stood in a long line at the Philippines Airlines check-in. We'd been in line about an hour when Tony put his hand on my arm and said, in all seriousness, "Thank you for your patience." I burst out laughing. "We waited twelve years, " I said. "What's an hour? Thanks for your patience!"
We ate a last Chinese meal at the airport -- we each had a San Miguel Beer (it's from the Philippines). We sat there half shaking our heads, half panting. This 31-day sprint has left us both exhausted, depleted, ready to spend time with our families. But we both know we were part of something remarkable, something extraordinary. "Sometimes," Tony said, "I forget. I just think we are going around together. And then I remember. I know in a few days I will miss. I will miss."
I think Tony could be as famous in the Philippines as he wants to be -- and that's not very. The major Philippines newspapers came to the Embassy party on Tuesday night. Yesterday's Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a very long story on our trip. [Click here to read the article.] Even yesterday we were being contacted by people from the Philippine Consulate in San Francisco and by reporters trying to set up meetings with Tony. Tony didn't want any of it. He was asked if he could be given VIP treatment at the airport in Manila, if he would mind a few reporters greeting him there on his return. He said no VIP treatment, please. He just wanted to go home quietly, first to the house of his cousin in Manila for a night, then back to the mountains to see his family. Initially he said he would agree to a maximum of two reporters greeting him -- if they were both women -- or if at least one of them was a woman. Then he said he didn't even want that. If some reporter wanted to come to Banaue in a couple of weeks and talk to him, that would be better -- no one at the airport please, he said.
In Colorado my friend Bird asked me the best thing about this trip so far for me. No one had asked me that, and I'd not thought it out, but my answer was immediate: "How well Tony and I have gotten along." We were pals -- and now, whatever happens and whether or not we ever see each other again, we're friends for life. I learned a lot from him. I pushed him on this trip, he pushed me right back, and not once did we get on each other I don't think (and he'd have told me if it were otherwise). "Tony knows how to dance with people," he told me several times during our trip. And it's true. If you'd seen him at the party at my house on his third day, handling 150 strangers, you'd have no doubt.
All along our route we saw friends of mine. If I were to meet any one of them by myself I'm sure we'd have discussed our mutual problems and tribulations -- as friends do. But for a month I have not heard a single one of my friends' problems. No one has brought them up. Every person we've met has been blown away by our story. At the Philippine Embassy we were repeatedly told: "We have politicians, scholars, celebrities, judges, athletes through here all the time. We have never had a rice farmer and a cab driver -- and a taxicab out there in the driveway with $20,000 on the meter. This is cool. We love it!" And that pretty much sums up what I saw in the faces of and heard in the voices of the people we visited or met along the way. I don't suppose I'll ever have a month quite like this -- but then again, why should I suppose that? Why should I give in to the tendency to wind down? Why not kick this sucker into overdrive? Who says you have to quit?
At the same time, I know that it was Tony that made all this possible. And he seems to have vanished back into myth in a few short hours. No one gets as excited about me as they got about him and me. His ability to, as he said, "dance with people," to continue to open himself up and share himself and appreciate others (after every single encounter with one of my friends he would ask me about their families or ask for more information about their lives -- the man was not only talented in ways I am unfamiliar with and envious of, was not only interesting, he was also interested) was the crucial factor in our month together. My mother and brother and sister and their families all had a wonderful experience at the Philippine Embassy because Tony visited and was willing to stretch himself. He was a gift to everyone we met -- and I just loved that I could tap anyone on the shoulder, chat up any clerk, ease my way out of any encounter with the law just by starting my rap with, "This is my friend Tony from the Philippines. Today is his third (fifth, fifteenth...) day in America...." I may have helped get him a visa, but for a month he was my passport.
I have friends warning me about a potential personal crash ahead -- but I'm replying, "Who says? Why not just use this as a starting point?" (And regarding the tick-bite episode, my fortune cookie yesterday said, "Serious trouble will bypass you" -- so that takes care of that. A few days ago Tony's fortune cookie read: "You will be the richest man in your community.")
I walked Tony into the terminal as far as I was allowed -- and in the new SFO International Terminal that's a long way. We hugged and I promised to try to call him in Banaue this Friday, as he's tried to call Rita every Friday. Then I watched him walk away, his blue bag slung over the motorcycle jacket on his shoulders. He looked back twice and waved both times, and the third time, just as he was about to disappear from my sight,
he looked back, took that beautiful leather cowboy from his head and raised it as high as he could reach, and then he was gone, off toward gate A-11, toward a refueling stop in Honolulu, toward Manila, toward Banaue and Rita and the kids and the rice terraces. I took the slowest walk ever taken, through the world's longest airline terminal, back to the car.
His sunglasses case was on the dashboard. I think it's the only thing he left behind. I'm sure it was an accident -- but how interesting! For the first few days, for the first two weeks he was here, I rarely saw him -- day or night -- without those sunglasses hiding his eyes -- or rather, his eye. That, after a month here, he could be capable of leaving them behind says everything about his trip. I really wish I could be there to see Rita and Lorie and Lyn and Franz and Gladys and Rowel get a load of their new husband and father -- the cowboy from America.
When we were here in Oakland, Tony slept out here in my studio, which is about thirty feet from the house. This became "his" room. He liked it out here -- it was quiet, and the trees surrounding the studio made him feel at peace. When he'd go inside the studio he would slip off his flip-flops and leave them outside the door. Often I would glance out the kitchen window to see where he was or what he was up to -- was he sitting outside watching the squirrels, was he talking to Sarah, was he smoking on the patio, was he inside the studio trying to sleep or maybe putting photos into his new photo album? What was Tony up to?
Last night, home from the airport, I walked through the back yard toward my darkened studio and realized that, over the next few days or weeks or maybe months, as I make this walk out toward my studio my eyes will, futilely, continue their recently acquired habit of scanning ahead, hoping to catch a glimpse of his red and black flip-flops resting outside my door.