Remembering Singer-Songwriter Sue

I came face to face with my younger self when a cleaning frenzy unearthed this photo from a poster advertising a performance from years ago. The photo, fading and streaked, was mounted on black cardboard that had been chewed by what appears to be a rat. But you can still read most of the white lettering: Friday, Oct. 15 (1982?) Sue Barnard, folk singer-guitarist. (Barnard, pronounced bar-NARD, was my first husband’s surname).

I remember that gig. San Francisco Press Club. I was so nervous I had diarrhea and a sore throat. I mean, the last singer they had was from Broadway. There I was in my homemade clothes singing “Today while the blossoms . . .” and strumming a nylon-stringed guitar. The performance itself is a blur. I do remember how relieved I felt when it was over.

I was about 30 years old, working as a reporter at the Pacifica Tribune. I stare at the photo. I was pretty. No glasses, minimal makeup, longish hair parted on the side. Hands forming a C chord. I did not own a steel string guitar, couldn’t afford it. Sometimes I borrowed a friend’s guitar. I recorded my songs on a shoebox-sized cassette recorder.

I was so earnest back then, my songs so . . . well, I wrote about love, birds, rainbows, my dog. I had suffered through mild poverty and a divorce, but I didn’t know anything yet. So much more was to come. So much.

I miss that young woman. Not just the way I looked but the innocence, the lack of that constant underlying sadness I feel these days.

There was stuff. My stomach issues began in that era. The newspaper deadlines were so intense I often felt like weeping as I counted out headlines by hand and typed as fast as I could on that manual Royal typewriter. I had no money. My car never worked. In foggy Pacifica, we didn’t see the sun for months at a time. I was dating a guy who repeatedly broke my heart.

But I miss that singer-songwriter with the other name (I don’t miss that name) with her crocheted vest sitting on a rock overlooking the beach while her reporter friend Sandy Noack took her picture. I probably processed the film and developed the photo in the Tribune darkroom. I can still smell the chemicals. Using the quick and dirty method we employed for pictures that needed to last only until the paper came out, I didn’t think about “archival processing.” So the photo is fading.

I loved that job at the Tribune. I loved Jim, the hard-drinking photo guy, Tom the jaded police reporter, Mr. Drake the publisher with his bow tie and tweed blazer, Peggy the feature writer, Shirley the office manager who gave me advances on my paycheck, Cynthia the office cat. . . The building reeked of cigarette and cigar smoke and rotting paper. I’ll bet there were rats there, too. Cynthia spent most of her time curled on my lap as I wrote my stories.

I wrote a lot of songs back then. At least once, a song grabbed me during my lunch break and I was late getting back to work. I brought my guitar and played my new song for Paula, the editor. “This is why I was late,” I said. She probably just shook her head, muttering, “Barnard . . .”

I quit that job to sing with the Billy Vogue Country Singers, a Grand Ole Opry knockoff, Ryman set and all, that promised money and fame. We were supposed to spend a year touring the United States, but we went bust before we got out of California. Back to the newspaper biz. Do I regret leaving a job I loved to go sing? No. I had to try it. For as long as it lasted, the show was magical. We were good. I wish I had a video or audio recording, but it was 1983. I have a program, sheet music, and memories.

If I hadn’t gone off to sing and wound up unemployed and living at my parents’ house, I wouldn’t have met my late husband Fred, so it was clearly meant to be.

Fast forward 38 years. I don’t have that last name anymore, but I do have that guitar—and a lot more instruments. The old Fender guitar sounds better with age, and I play better, too.

Ah, time. Where did it go?

More to the point, is the rat that nibbled the poster the same rat I murdered last Christmas or is there another rat living in my house?

Thanks for sharing this trip down memory lane.  

Photo Takes Me Back to Pacifica, CA

Sue in PacificaOn Fourth of July, when current life got to be too much, I tackled a box of photos and memorabilia saved from my father’s house. I couldn’t face it before, my father’s death too fresh, but now I marveled at the treasures inside: a Roi Tan cigar box full of pictures of me and my family in all our previous lives. Newspaper clippings. Letters. A man’s wedding ring I’m wearing on my index finger as I type this. Photo albums more than a hundred years old from my father’s mother, Clara Fagalde, who died when I was two. The tiny black and white photos show her teenage years, the boyfriend who preceded Grandpa, soldiers in WWI, people wearing masks during the 1919 influenza epidemic, old cars that were truly “horseless carriages,” Clara’s days as a young teacher in rural Oregon, and the clearest photos I have seen of her parents, Edward and Paulina Riffe. So much. So many people who have died, but somehow these pictures helped me to feel less alone, as if my family were still all around me.

I learned some things. Grandma Clara did speak German, as evidenced by her captions with the photos. I always wondered. If she had lived, would I know some German, too? Her mother, who was cute and round, must have been in her 40s when she died in a car accident. My great-grandpa Joe Fagalde was my age, 68, when he shot himself in 1939. His widow, my great-grandma Louise had to go to court to fight to stay in the house they shared, laws being what they were back then. That box held so many stories that I’m itching to explore.

I was fascinated by the pictures of myself. Be honest, you stare at photos of yourself, too. There I was, the adorable toddler, the earnest Girl Scout, the hippie wannabe, the dressed-up professional, the older lady . . . wait, how did that happen?

The photo above from 1981 sparked the poem that follows. My first husband and I had split. I was just moving into my apartment in Pacifica, California, where I had a new job as a reporter at the Pacifica Tribune. I had a different last name then, Barnard, and I can’t believe how skinny I was. I lived a block from the beach and used to go running there after work. I drove a yellow VW Rabbit that was in the shop more than it was on the road. I was just beginning to explore the life I might have had sooner if I hadn’t gotten married two weeks after I graduated from San Jose State. Back then, I was writing poetry and playing music, same as now. I look much different, but I’m the same on the inside.

Anyway, on with the poem.

PACIFICA 1981

She’s 28 going on 17,
sitting cross-legged on the floor
of her apartment, the furniture
still at her parents’ house.

Against the wall, a sleeping bag.
Marriage failed, she can’t wait
to claim her space, to lock the door,
to plug in her brand new Princess phone.

Green shag carpet reeks of cats
as she leans against the counter,
long hair and thick brown specs,
skinny jeans, T-shirt tucked.

On the counter, a box of Quaker Oats,
an avocado green tea kettle,
a vodka box of Campbell’s soups,
Log Cabin syrup and pancake mix.

Beside her, a Blue Chip stamp guitar,
La Valenciana, fingertip dents
on the first three frets. Nearby,
a battery tape deck, fresh cassettes.

Her life still fits in a pickup truck—
clothes, sewing machine, books,
typewriter in a baby blue case,
paper with that wood-pulp smell.

She stares out the window at the fog
shredding to reveal hints of blue,
scrabbles in her purse for a pen,
writes the date on a clean white page.