Last week, I went up to Susanville with my mother to help bury my uncle, Marty Paguegui, who lived on the eponymous street you see pictured above. I’ve never been to Susanville, not being close to my uncle. It’s a wonderful place.
On the surface, I don’t belong in a place like Susanville, not at all. Susanville is about 80 miles west of Reno. It’s in the mountains — 4,200 feet — it snows up there. People ranch, and they work construction (which is what my uncle did), or they work at the High Desert Prison, one of those huge new prisons the state of California’s thrown up in all kinds of out-of-the-way places. When you drive out to Paguegui Lane, you can see the prison from a long way away because it has so many lights outside and there aren’t that many lights on in Susanville at night so nothing competes with it.
Me, I’m from a place that’s easy to get to, any season at all. And people here don’t ranch, let’s just leave it at that. Side dishes with mayo, particularly ones with macaroni? Not much in evidence in Berkeley. But surprisingly yummy when eaten in the parish hall of the catholic church in Susanville after mass, or at my Aunt Vicky’s house, in Maxwell, which is off I-5, on the way home from Susanville. I’m not sure you’re supposed to discover how much you love a place when you’re on a funeral mission, but there you have it: that was mostly what I did.
My uncle — who was in his early 70s — had a lot of friends. The funeral mass was crowded with them, and the amount of help they gave was huge and without any hesitation. It was lovely for my mother and my cousins to have people volunteer to do things they couldn’t do. For example, my uncle left his important stuff in a combination safe. He’d given the combination to two different people, but on the Sunday when we needed to open it, the combination was nowhere in evidence. So, how do you get a safe open on a Sunday in Susanville? Well, you take it to the local locksmith, a heavily tattooed ex-con, and he drills it open in about two seconds so you can get the instructions for the funeral, the will, and the cash he didn’t want to put in the bank.
My uncle was a handsome man, in that way Basque men can be handsome, with a white smile in a dark face, the kind of guy who loves to dance, and has a way of talking to women that makes them feel that they might possibly be the most beautiful and desirable woman in the world. As a result, he was not that successful with women long-term, but he clearly had a lot of short-term fun. So much so that when it became evident that one of his wishes for his funeral was to have women pall bearers, the rush to volunteer was immediate and fierce.
Here are some other facts about Susanville:
- Things start early. Starbucks is open at 4:30 a.m. That’s so the prison guards and the ranchers can get a latte on their way to work.
- The local AM radio station, KSUE, has a very popular swap program every day, a program in which you can, for example, let people know you’re willing to swap your used generator for a ride-on lawn mower. And if you show up at 4:30 a.m. at that radio station, which is in a little house by the fairgrounds, there will be a guy there who’s wide awake, and he’ll read the announcement of your uncle’s death and the funeral mass to come a couple times a day, just to make sure the word gets out.
- You’ll discover, when you walk outside your room at the Best Western, after your mother’s woken you up to go to the radio station, that the air is cleaner and fresher than any air you can remember in a long time, and the moon will just be sinking beyond the edge of the horizon and you’ll notice that the sky is huge and open and so beautiful you want to stand there in the parking lot and not move because you know it’ll be a while before you see the morning in quite that way again. And you’ll see this is why your uncle spent most of his life up here. Because it is beautiful in a way few other places are.
- When the Irish priest in Susanville is on vacation, his place is taken by the Rwandan priest whose parish is up the road. This Rwandan priest will hug your mother more than a few times, and he will give a remarkable homily about life and death, which you know he’s seen a lot of, even though he looks like he’s barely thirty years old.
- People will invite you to come back to Susanville because your uncle was their friend. And you will come back — to a party in a few weekends, and to the big lamb barbeque your uncle gave every year, the one where the old Basques stand around telling jokes, charming women, living a good, full life. You’ll come back because you like this place, this early-rising, kind, surprising place.
And that is where I’ve been, and what I’ve been doing, since I last posted about how good the food at the Berkeley Bowl looks in the summer.