I stand before a statue of Schuyler Colfax in Colfax, California. He was the Vice in our drunkest White House. Even here, in official memory, Colfax looks runtish and seedy, with his wide-brim hat warped and his striped suit pants wrinkled and loose. I intuit that his eyes were grey and fogged like creekwater, and that he must have squinted a lot during his tour of the Sierras, absently nodding to the idea of the Union as he fingered his coat pocket for his flask.
Colfax is a suitable genius loci for this “small drinking town with a railroad problem,” where worn-out presidential miens peer at you from every other pickup truck, barstool, and check-out line. They are self-wise inveterate drunks, pulling off their incapacities—likable to one another because their hiding isn’t well hidden.
They all know what’s up: their time here on friendly terms with law enforcement, with a plot of unincorporated area and an unincorporated gal.
(Notice to passing nth-wave hippies, starseeds, Rainbow Children, and shamans on your way to Grass Valley, Nevada City, Burning Man, or the Pleiades: Stop here only to refuel and use the bathroom at Starbucks. There is nothing aurally welcoming about Colfax. You will be stared at from porches. You will be mocked by dropouts foraging for beer and smokes. You will have a bad trip thinking about a statue of Schuyler Colfax.)
In 2014, I was laptopless in Colfax. My only friend was Schuyler Colfax. We walked to rivers and read print by sunlight. Yet I carried with me a crowd.
Whenever Colfax noticed I was distracted by the thought of the others—what they’d make of me now, stranded here in Colfax, entertaining Colfax—he’d bat the air, instructing me to turn off my phone and dissolve such shades with spells of willful archaism, so earning myself a moment of solitude, a suspension from the world-historical.
“If you want a secret, listen . . .” Colfax once said, pushing my shoulder. “Deign to posture Thoreau or mutter an old Catholic school prayer. Talk to the sky; live out a parable; venture something meaningless and mockable—and Solitude, sovereign, will deign to admit you. She does not accept pretenders—but since pretend you must, pretend outrageously, at your own expense.”
With Colfax stone drunk by my side, I sometimes felt strong: we were two solitudes against the thought of the crowd.
“They love none, nothing, and no one in particular,” he’d say, passing the flask.
“Friends! This whistle still echoes, these engines still chug—but these are old, obsolete engines, carrying rotten goods,” I found myself crying, soapboxing at the center of town, with Colfax swaying by my side.
“You retired construction workers!
Aging Hell’s Angels!
Auto salesmen out on disability!
Billiard hall wraiths!
Your ears are pricked up, your blood is attuned. You hear this train’s old war cry petering out into a swan song—so you’ve begun to fence off hills, stockpile weapons, ideate hit lists, and carve out circles in the woods to act out the control you think Schuyler here promised you, which has always been denied.
Listen! When the world to come weighs you, it will find you lacking; and if you resist, you will be helpless before a power infinitely more intelligent, networked, and licit. If you’d preserve the Union, lay down your guns, your life, even your pride, and take up the—aah!”
The Whitmanian wax had provoked an unleashed dog that chased us all the way to the part of Colfax with gas stations and fast food.
As we caught our breath, we spotted a prostrate figure in the distance, on the grassy island of a drive-thru: a sleepy meth head, Colfax supposed, one of his own. But as we approached, we saw she was healthy and well dressed. Just before Colfax could ask her if she was all right, if she needed a hand, I noticed she was only charging her phone with a hidden outlet. She glanced at us standing there, then quickly looked away, got up, wiped the grass off her jeans, and returned to her idling Subaru. Twice sobered, we silently continued toward the Taco Bell. I thought about how I must have looked to her, with Colfax at my side
So that I didn’t have to wait long for my Gordita Supreme, I turned my phone back on to order. That’s when Colfax suddenly stopped and pretended to search vainly for his flask. He said he’d be right back. I haven’t seen him since. I guess Colfax just didn’t know how to say goodbye.