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To be clear, Rodriguez is less accusatory than resigned. There is no one to blame for this lingering psychic phantom itch. It’s perhaps the central theme of Darling and of Rodriguez’s work for the last four decades: There is only then, now, and the individuals throughout who make up the difference.
There is Rita Spillane, for example, by some seemingly random grace. During Rodriguez’s recent birthday visit to Sacramento, Spillane drives onto the Sacred Heart school campus while watching Rodriguez enter on foot through an adjacent gate. Rodriguez’s curiosity had taken over, and Spillane’s own curiosity about an unfamiliar, uninvited guest prompts her to call the school’s principal, Theresa Sparks, who comes out to investigate. The three introduce themselves in the courtyard and share a laugh stoked by memory: Spillane says she was working in the office at the old school another time Rodriguez stopped in with journalists. “I know who you are!” Spillane exclaims to him today.
Rodriguez gestures toward the neighboring house, a white wooden structure cosseted by a thick, verdant shroud of trees. “Mrs. Luther used to live there,” he says.
“She still does,” Sparks says.
“She still does,” Rodriguez repeats, his voice tapering into a stunned whisper.
“She’s 95,” Sparks adds. “A great neighbor. Raised 12 children who went through Sacred Heart. She told me when she moved in there was a cow in the yard.”
Eventually, Spillane reaches into a plastic tub she has balanced on her hip. She produces a brick from the old school building and gives it to Rodriguez. He scans the inscription: Sacred Heart School, Est. 1934. “I’ll send you some money for it, OK?” he says.
“Just remember us,” Sparks replies.
The women invite Rodriguez on a tour of the new school. The cornerstone of the original Sacred Heart school has been transplanted to the opulent multipurpose center. Inside, the proscenium above the stage communicates a prayer: “Jesus meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like yours.” It’s a translation of the prayer on the baldacchino down the street at Sacred Heart church, Spillane says—“since most people’s Latin is a little rusty.”
They exit back to the courtyard and Rodriguez returns to his car, parked on the east side of Sacred Heart church. “They gave me a brick!” Rodriguez tells Jim, who awaits in the passenger seat. They have not yet married, and Rodriguez doubts they will—at least not the way the state of California has codified it.
“I don’t like appropriating the language of heterosexual marriage to homosexuality,” he says, noting that he and Jim however do plan to officially recognize their union soon at San Francisco’s City Hall. “I’m looking for my new language, the way the feminists found the word ‘Ms.’ as a completely new vocabulary for a completely new world. I’m looking for a new vocabulary for my relationship. But we’ve been each other’s completion for 30 years.”
Rodriguez drives Jim on a brief tour of Sacramento before they leave. Rodriguez points out the space where the Tower Café now resides, a former drugstore from which a 16-year-old named Russ Solomon humbly launched the music-selling enterprise that would become Tower Records. Rodriguez briefly gets lost looking for Joan Didion’s childhood home at 22nd and T streets—mere blocks away from the original Christian Brothers campus at 21st and Broadway, which Rodriguez attended as an underclassman before graduating up to Bishop Armstrong. (The schools have since combined under the Christian Brothers name.)
They pause to view the historic John T. Greene house on H Street between Alhambra and 33rd, which remains as fine a vision to Rodriguez today as it was when, as a preteen, he collected subscription fees there as a Bee paperboy. Its meticulous design and oriental elegance still transfix him. The long structure looms into the sunlight, throwing crisp noontime shadows over the city around it. Soon, the shadows will be as long as the memory of their visitor—this son of Sacred Heart and the Alhambra Theatre, this citizen of the world.
“I don’t know whether that family still owns that house,” Rodriguez says. “But my goodness, was that something. That was as enchanting as Sacramento was to me. Do you know what I’m saying? I drive through it, and everything is the same, and nothing is the same.” S