Photo courtesy of Alia Volz
Meridy bloomed into the role of outlaw entrepreneur.
Stepping out on the wharf in November 1976, weighted down with marijuana brownies for sale, she felt her energy crackling dangerously—a stripped wire. Her reputation began to precede her. “Oh, you’re the Brownie Lady!” Among her new customers were several fine men to flirt with. She had fair-weather boyfriends here and there, hey-baby-free-love romps, and the occasional awkward orgy—but nothing she could hold.
Meridy wanted a knock-down, drag-out, transcendental romance.
She didn’t go for the bucket jaw, toothpaste teeth, harmonica mustache look that was mainstream then. Creative, slightly broken, effeminate types gave her butterflies. She considered herself an artistic genius and was, at the very least, an artist of significant promise, so she wanted a lover of the same ilk. A Diego to her Frida, a Rodin to her Claudel. A man who dealt from a full deck of cards.
Preferably tarot cards.
Her best friend Barb kept saying they needed to find her a magician.
He’s here somewhere, Meridy thought. Somewhere in this seven-mile town.
He was about three miles away.
The man who would soon become my father walked the Mission, toward what he didn’t know. He liked to be on the street, checking people out, getting checked out. He stood an even six feet, with good posture beaten into him at boarding school, and moved with an easy long-legged swing. Music in the wooden heels of his cowboy boots striking the sidewalk, rhythm in his hips. On a clear day, he was the kind of guy who would try to stare directly at the sun and meditate —once burning his corneas so badly that he had to wear gauze patches.
He walked, destination wherever, soaking in the scene. Passing the Sixteenth Street BART station, he checked out the Chicanos in high-waisted slacks. Round women selling tamales. The crowd surged and ebbed. Occasionally, he’d see another freak coming the other way. They’d lock eyes and nod, a current passing between them. He liked the smell of grilling meat, the sound of ranchera music a little circusy to his ears. The funk of junkies, the occasional rainbow of a kindred spirit. He walked, feeling alive inside his skin. We are all one light, he thought. All the world’s children . . .
Barb was the one who found him.
Her burly carpenter boyfriend had moved into an enormous warehouse on Twentieth and Alabama streets in the Mission. “I’m living with all these kooky psychic hippies,” he told her. “You won’t believe my housemates.”
Barb liked kooky psychic hippies. She visited the new space, and that’s where she met Doug Volz.
Doug told her that he’d graduated from the Berkeley Psychic Institute the prior autumn, earning the grandiose title of ordained reverend of the Church of Divine Man. He explained that trained students in clairvoyance, aura readings, chakra readings, telepathy, and telekinesis. When he mentioned that he’d painted a mural in exchange for his tuition, Barb’s ears perked.
“Oh, you’re an artist?” she said.
“Come right this way.”
He directed her to sit in a straight-backed wooden chair facing a triptych of canvases seven feet tall and three feet wide. The central panel featured a life-size woman with long blonde hair sitting on a wooden chair and staring frankly out at the viewer, palms on her knees.
“I call this piece My Old Lady Is a Dancer,” Doug said. “It might not look like she’s dancing, but sit with her for a little while. See what happens.”
Barb could feel Doug watching as she tried to focus on the painting. A green field stretched toward barren trees behind the seated figure and filled the other two panels. Puffy clouds drifted across an intensely blue sky. Doug’s style was photo-realistic; the detail was so fine that she thought he must have painted with the tiniest brush imaginable. But there was something otherworldly about the image, too. She looked at the woman’s calm brown eyes, and the painting began to move: the grass swayed, the blonde hair twisted in the wind.
Oh, my God, Barb thought. Doug and Meridy are going to be together.
By early November, the bakery was running out of magic ingredient. Meridy had sent a letter to Mumser—her source in Humboldt County—but there wasn’t time to wait for a response, so she and Barb decided to drive up. Despite the drought, a soft, welcome rain fell during the drive north.
On the way, Barb told Meridy about the handsome psychic she’d met. “I got his number for you.”
“I can’t call this guy out of the blue,” Meridy said. “I’ve never met him.”
“Oh, come on. What do you have to lose?” Barb cajoled, but Meridy dug her heels in.
They drove four hours only to find out that Mumser had harvested late and was still drying her plants; she didn’t have anything ready to sell.
“It’ll be all right,” Mumser said. “Plenty of us up here.” She put a call out on her CB — which growers used to track wildfires and notify one another when law enforcement was prowling. “This is Merry Widow,” she said, winking at Barb and Meridy. “Anybody got eggs for sale? Got friends up here looking for eggs. Over.”
Eggs. A codeword, apparently.
The radio was quiet. Then a voice broke through. “Affirmative, Merry Widow, I got some eggs.”
Mumser drew a complicated map, which Meridy and Barb followed down unmarked dirt roads into the deep woods. The rain swelled from a sloppy drizzle into a downpour, and liquified clay streamed from the roads, exposing hunks of rock and giant potholes. They ground up a precipitous hill, then sharply down. At the nadir, a roiling brown creek cut across the road. Someone had laid two planks across the surging water.
Barb hit the brakes. “I don’t know about this. If we go in that creek, we’re screwed.” Her 1966 Datsun pickup didn’t have four-wheel drive, and they were miles from any phone booth. On one side of the narrow road, snaky black roots laced a tall clay bank. On the other was a sheer drop into the woods, an ocean of pines and redwoods rolling into the gray distance.
There was no room to turn around, no chance of backing up the steep hill.
Nowhere to go but forward.
Barb exhaled. “Promise me you’ll call this guy and I promise you we’ll make it.”
Meridy gave her a sidelong look. “It’s a deal.”
Barb patted the dash, and Meridy white-knuckled the door handle. They eased toward the creek. Milkshake-brown water licked the boards. Barb kept steady pressure on the gas. The boards shuddered under the truck’s weight but did not give.
“Yahoo!” Barb screamed on the way up the next hill. “I feel like we’re in a movie.”
Meridy and Barb bought everything the grower had, three fat black garbage bags full of raw shake — thirty pounds total — crammed it into the cooler in the back of the truck, and covered it with a tarp.
The drive home was nervous, slow, careful.
That much weed could send them to prison for years.
The first phone call between my parents was awkward, but Barb had prepared them both.
“I hear you’re good with the tarot,” Doug said. “Well, you know, I’m trained to read auras. Since we’re both into psychic work, why don’t we exchange readings? Let’s skip all the bullshit and pretension, and find out who we really are.” He laughed in a way that made it sound like an adventure.
They agreed that Doug would come to her house first. Then, the following day, he’d read her aura at his warehouse. Tit for tat.
No coffee, no concert in the park, no wine to break the ice. Just a hardcore display of psychic chops: the hippie blind date par excellence.
Four decades later, two loose pages of my dad’s 1976 day planner surface in a box of old letters, offering a snapshot of his life. On November 8, there’s a dental appointment and the name Barbara Hartman circled, the day they first met. Later that week, my dad has scheduled three psychic readings, including one with someone named Estania and the parenthetical note spiritual-sexual union.
I don’t know what that entails, and maybe that’s for the best. But it’s clear that my dad was making a go at becoming a professional. It might seem outlandish in any other time or place, but psychic work was serious business in the Bay Area in 1976. Multiple cities were embroiled in debates over the legalities of psychic services. The ACLU was suing the city of San Francisco over the right of palmists and other occult practitioners to advertise their services. And the California state senate was holding hearings on a bill to set up a statewide licensing system for astrologers.
On Sunday, November 14, Doug planned to fast, take mushrooms, and see a double feature of The Exorcist and The Other. Then, on Tuesday, November 16, there’s Meridy Domnitz’s name along with her address and phone number and the note 8:00 p.m. Reading with.
“I have this clear image of the first moment I saw your mother,” my dad says, looking back. “Her apartment was up these long narrow Victorian stairs, and she was standing at the top with the light from the door shining behind her. I had to climb all the way up there to reach her. She didn’t budge, like, to meet me halfway or anything. It seemed to take a really long time. She was like no one I’d ever met before, that’s for sure.”
Meridy eyeballed her date as he climbed the stairs, thinking that Barb certainly had fixed her up with a good-looking guy. Doug had a full reddish beard; a strong, straight nose; high cheekbones; freckles; and ice-blue eyes. He was tall, lean, and loose-limbed. Removing his leather cowboy hat, he revealed a shiny bald crown like that of a man twice his age, though his skin was smooth.
She led him into her bedroom, now outfitted with a gypsy boudoir vibe. Meridy had dressed simply in jeans and a slimming black turtleneck with an oversize ankh necklace. Her eyes were elaborately kohled and shadowed.
She chattered to fill the silence while showing Doug her latest watercolors. Art loosened both of their tongues. They fell into a natural one-upmanship, each waxing about their own creative obsessions.
For the reading, they sat facing each other on Meridy’s queen-size bed. She felt a little intimidated — Doug was so cute and seemed to fit her parameters — so she took deep breaths to clear her mind. Once she hit her stride in the reading, she relaxed and let the cards guide her.
I wish I knew what my mom saw in the cards that night, but all she remembers is congratulating herself on giving him a good reading. My dad isn’t any more helpful, his memory coming up blank.
Did she draw the Lovers and get distracted by a fluttering in her stomach, wondering if the lover in question might be her?
Did she see opportunity on his horizon, maybe the Ten of Pentacles, a hint that he was about to go from chronically broke to joining an increasingly lucrative illegal enterprise that would sustain him for years?
Did she glean from the Empress card that he would soon create a child?
It’s also possible that she saw none of this, her reading totally off the mark, blinded by attraction.
Doug left at midnight. From her window, Meridy watched his taillights flare before vanishing around a corner. She planned to visit his warehouse the next day for her aura reading. She lay awake for hours after he was gone, replaying the evening.
Meridy’s footsteps boomed through the cavernous warehouse. The floors were of rough, unvarnished wood. Skylights flooded the space with natural light. Freestanding walls, half-built rooms, and makeshift partitions.
Doug set up two chairs facing each other and directed her to sit, legs uncrossed, hands on knees. He closed his pale-blue eyes. “I want you to ground yourself,” he said. “Envision a blue cord running the length of your spine down through the floor and the building’s foundation into the earth itself. Plug yourself into the source.” He took long breaths through his nose, his features slackening.
Moments passed. A truck backfired outside. Then Doug extended the fingers of one hand toward Meridy’s lap. “This is the root chakra that connects you to Mother Earth. If anyone has hooked a cord into your root chakra, we’re going to detach it and send them on their way.” He flicked his wrist, and Meridy felt a lightness enter her lower torso and groin. He moved up through the seven chakras, cleaning each one in turn. As he went, he mentioned images and feelings he found there. At one point, he smiled. “I’m getting a clear picture of Shirley Temple,” he said. “A pudgy little girl in tap shoes trying to win the world over with a giggle.”
Meridy had indeed looked like a brunette version of Shirley Temple as a kid. She’d taken tap lessons throughout her childhood, and she still saw herself that way — as a beaming, curly-haired stage hog dancing to make the city smile. He couldn’t have known her that well, and yet he did. Doug had seen through the adult mask to the child she still was inside. The reading left Mer’s brain buzzing, a vibration around her third eye so intense it was slightly painful. Like coming down from an acid trip. She felt spacey and exhausted, but wide open.
She expected Doug to ask her on a real date. Now that they’d plumbed the depths, they could take a step back and have a little fun.
But if Doug’s finest characteristics were on display in those first interactions, his worst were not far behind.
Apropos of nothing, he said, “You know, Meridy, I was going to ask you on a date. But I’m going to have to reconsider. You’re holding on to too much, and it shows. You need to lose the weight.”
Stunned and hurt, Meridy left quickly.
She’d always been slightly plump. She dieted, did cleanses, took dance classes, overate, dieted again. Even her skinniest wasn’t skinny. Another rejection for the compost heap. But this one stung more than usual because everything else had felt so right.
No time to mope. With Thanksgiving coming up, advance orders for brownies rolled in. She kept busy, but that didn’t stop her from obsessively thinking up comebacks. Mentally, she gave him a whole different type of reading.
A few days later, Doug called. With no mention of his rude comment, he asked her out to dinner. In spite of herself, Meridy didn’t turn him down.
Permission: Home Baked by Alia Volz. Copyright © 2020 by Alia Volz. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
About the book: During the ’70s in San Francisco, Alia’s mother ran the underground Sticky Fingers Brownies, delivering upwards of 10,000 illegal marijuana edibles per month throughout the circus-like atmosphere of a city in the throes of major change. She exchanged psychic readings with Alia’s future father, and thereafter had a partner in business and life. Each was devoted to the occult, and they regularly consulted the oracles for information on the police.
Decades before cannabusiness went mainstream, when marijuana was as illicit as heroin, they ingeniously hid themselves in plain sight, parading through town—and through the scenes and upheavals of the day, from Gay Liberation to the tragedy of the Peoples Temple—in bright and elaborate outfits, the goods wrapped in hand-designed packaging and tucked into Alia’s stroller. But the stars were not aligned forever and, after leaving the city and a shoulda-seen-it-coming divorce, Alia and her mom returned to San Francisco in the mid-80s, this time using Sticky Fingers’ distribution channels to provide medical marijuana to friends and former customers now suffering the depredations of AIDS.
Exhilarating, laugh-out-loud funny, and heartbreaking, Home Baked celebrates an eccentric and remarkable extended family, taking us through love, loss, and finding home.