Just so, I ought to tell you how I came back here, to San Francisco, this place where I was born but until lately I had so little to do with. My early life was spent in a balmy, idyllic little town just south of there a league or so. And it was happy, genuinely. All that stuff that made this place such an attraction to other folks from all and everywhere, that didn’t escape me at all, but as jaded as I was having grown up more or less that close to the nerve-center of it all, it never made that much impression on me. That is why, I guess, coming here and crash-landing, like I did, I didn’t have all those naive expectations, about the fixation with the “gentle people with flowers in their hair” and all that crap. People are just people anywhere and everywhere you go, and there isn’t all that much difference, but all them invaders with the garlands and the flower power buttons, they were, are, always will be, a gigantic illusion when it comes to painting a perfect picture of the town.
This town is a working class town, or, they say, it used to be. Maybe around the time I got here, everything got washed out and changed. What I know is that, that stuff about the freaks and the West Pole and all, that all happened because rents were cheap, and college kids got turned on to acid, and in no time at all, what was a small and sustainable little community got overwhelmed by refugees from Muddle America. More than anyone could have imagined. So much so that the very soul of that little community struggled to cope with the masses. Of course, it was all over with in a matter of months, but the attraction, it still lingered. Summer of ‘67 was the deluge, Summer of ‘68 was the ebb tide. By ‘69, the urban grit and dog turds had overtaken whatever had not had the sense to get out of Dodge fast enough.
But none of that attracted me to the place. I just came there because I was born there. If I had had a start in life and it happened here, I figured I should come back and bop the reset button here, too.
I had had an almost perfect summer, living in a beach town about a hundred miles down the coast, but my living by my wits took me to the end of them as well. A time came when I could not manage to scrape the low rent on the little place I shared with my artist roommate, so I found myself living in the woods out of a sleeping bag, my guitar case for a pillow, and walking over to town every morning to play on the streets and scare up enough bread for a meal or two. It was not so bad as it sounds, actually.
There were a good number of other players on the street then. There was fat and balding Tom, gregarious and effervescent in his hairy Jewishness, who knew every bluegrass tune over under and sideways, and was always good for joining in with. We would get little Suzanne, another one of the blood, her tight curly locks flowing well over her shoulders as though a cape, and she could play the fiddle with the best of any of them. Pete, the banjo guy, had come out with his friend Billy from Carolina, and when they weren’t doing their own dog-and-pony, they’d get in on it too. We also had Randell, a local mandolinist, who would relate his tales of traveling to the lair of The Great Dawg for lessons and smoke-outs. As well as putting his chops in. So there could be a conglomeration of up to eight players, all comfortably harmonizing, taking over the sidewalk near the Hoople House when it wasn’t afflicted with jazz in the afternoon, and everyone not even noticing whether or not the passerby stopped to drop a bill or a coin, since this was all great fun and indeed, it was church-like in the way just singing and playing together like that was enough to get you high.
When everybody joined in on the old gospel tune “I’ll Fly Away” or the more recent Rasta ode, “By The Rivers of Babylon”, one might transport oneself by the power of song into that land beyond this one where all spirits merge as one and all souls unite in the eternal joy and harmony of the universe. At least, it certainly felt that way at the time. And in my head, what’s good for any moment of time, the Now, is pretty much good for All Time, and only memory and the illusion of time itself remove us from those places which we create, for our disembodied existence, while we walk around down here emburdened by bodies.
One of those passerby one day stopped to spend an hour listening to me while I was just playing on my lonesome. Her name was Elyse, and she was German. Dressed in Chinese Army marching slippers and an orange shift and blue jeans, I could say she was “just off the boat” except, that she wasn’t, and had been living in the area a year or more, on a tourist visa she would get renewed every six months. She walked me over to a free spaghetti dinner with wine, and we spent the rest of the night at the little cottage my roommate and I shared, just down the road in Soquel. And she was lusty, and interested, and full of dozens of interesting stories. She wasn’t the first of the international travelers I encountered that year, only the one I was most “successful” with. Suffice to say that while I had the little room in the cottage, with the breezeway window opening on the trunk of a low-branching oak, and the cotton candy fog piled low over the town each midsummer morning, I had a refuge to which I might take these denizens of my attempted wooing. And like I said, she was a success.
Well I lost the little cottage, but not before I had spent over three months with Elyse prior to her getting her boyfriend Tomas over from Germany himself, and after then, well, they went off together to find whatever destiny awaited them as a couple. But while we were together, she and I, we took a trip, hitching together down the coast to Big Sur.
The mountain range of the Sur coast loomed above us to the left, long, large heaps of conglomerate pushed up against the North American continent, dull brown in summer fallow, ringed in places by tall oak and madrone, here and there, broken by a creek and its accompanying canyon. Elyse insisted we stop at a certain point, and we left our ride, from whoever it had been and we started waking down a path, half steps, that led us to a tunnel in a promontory, which led us out onto large flat rocky tidal pools, many of which, now above the water line, were filled with drying sediments of salt.
I reached down and felt it with my fingers. In each pool there must have been five gallons of the stuff, also I pulled a plastic sack out of my backpack and began filling it. I must have gathered a good five pounds of it, all for free, all healthy and pure, and there for the taking. I turned around, and Elyse had stripped off her dress and lay bare as the day she was born, and invited me to join her.
So there we were. Not a soul in sight, only an occasional gull would float past, cruising the shore, and we took the opportunity to enfold each other in an embrace, that glimmering moment when two souls attempt to merge in a congress of skin, sighs, and sweat. I must say it was probably the most out-of -the-ordinary location I had ever been laid in, but Elyse was quite the expert, and seemed to possess few of the hangups I might have encountered from an American girl. Especially in initiating the event!
We came back up the hill to the highway, thumbed a ride to the Nepenthe Restaurant, got two bowls of oatmeal (at three in the afternoon) and then made our way back, down to the Pfeiffer park, where we scrambled over boulders at a small waterfall and pool and made ourselves a little camp for the night under fragrant pines. We locked our sleeping bags together and had another bout of the two-backed beast, then Elyse, nudging me back awake, scrambled over the bed of pine needles and jumped unclothed into the Little Sur River.
Not to be left out of the fun, I joined her, and there were both were, naked to the stars, staring up into the constellations and the galaxy, the swaying pine trees up above us, the clear water shimmering with reflections of moonlight, the fat June moon hung low over the hilltops just behind us.
That was to be the last time for what would be many, many years when I felt myself as a link in the great long Chain of Life, the Human River of my Ancestors, my dual-continental heritage, the Ocean of Existence, as it is played out in the hunger-dance of bird vs. worm, snake vs. rat, and human vs. all...
Wildflower seed on the sand and stone
May the four winds blow you safely home
After the trip to Big Sur, there was no real kitty left toward keeping the house with my artist friend, so I packed it all up and split for the forest and the river near Santa Cruz, where I lived the precarious existence I spoke of for a number of weeks. When I had managed to bore myself to the maximum, I headed back to the old hometown, where I crashed in a friend’s garage, and looked up my old sweetheart, Emmaline.
We got together in the parking lot of the local college, a bottle of wine between us, and spent a good few hours talking and (for her) half-heartedly making out. But by the end of it, it was obvious no consummation was forthcoming and I spent that night in the forest behind the college, tight in my sleeping bag, cursing my luck and lost opportunity. It was then I decided in the morning I’d hit the road the next afternoon, after another visit to the friend with the garage, and a day of drinking beer with him.
My Mom died young and I was just eighteen, now my Dad was remarried to an insane woman who would never stand to have me ‘round, and if I had my way, I’d stay away just as well just the same. I know she’s going to run him into his grave someday, but hell he seems to like it so what can I do? But surely I miss being able to come home for a Thanksgiving dinner, or Christmas, once in a while, or at least just be able to drop in. But it just isn’t possible, she threatened to sic the cops on me if I’d ever even try, and Dad said he understood completely where I was coming from “but don’t push her.” So it’s pretty much my own future I’m trying to sculpt out now, there’s no real family to fall back in with, or on, and whatever I make it has gotta come through my pals, however cool or lame they turn out to be.
And life there in the stifled, provincial atmosphere of the “hometown” was anything but pleasing, welcoming, or even, once I had had a taste of Europe, the east bit pleasant. for me. The local authorities had thrown down a seeming fatwa against anyone who held tightly to the idea of creating a local “counterculture” or showed the slightest inclination toward a pro-psychedelics bias and the world that came (later) to be represented by the Grateful Dead. Of whom I was, of course, an early and original fan, and whose music certainly lent an antidote to the fascistic attitudes I encountered, whether from police or misguided “grief counselors”, who seemed to make it their duty to throw even more opportunities for grief in my direction every day.
I had to split and get out of that scene, it was completely uncool, and Dad thought so too, so he sent me the bread and the name of a friend I could move myself in with and I was gone—gone, gone, gone! —faster than you can say Jack Robinson. So the airhead brain police could no longer hassle me—it was as if I had merely vanished in the thin air— but the downside of it was, I also took a fly from Carly, who had been the first really good thing to happen to me in the last couple of years, in that there dull, dead town.
Before my “first escape” I had chanced to meet an older woman, whom I met downtown and went out for pizza and beer with. By the end of the meal I was asking her, “Could you make it with me” and she answered “I think so...” and we headed down the road in search of a cool place to do the beast-with-two-backs routine. We soon ran into an African-American gentleman who said he was so happy to see two people in such contagious amorous acquaintance, he’d loan us his room for an hour. And that led to some of the most amazing, mutually satisfying sex I’d ever know. Carly and I stayed with each other a few more days, avoiding the blitzing “therapy” offered by the shrinks we shared, and spent more time together in my own hotel room, where the shrinks had “placed me” after relocating me rather against my will. And all of this came before the great escape, the intervention of my father, whom the shrinks had come to see as as much a shit-disturber to their authoritarian sense of order as myself, although he, himself, lived a bureaucrat’s life as a civil engineer. There is just no accounting for bad taste! I never saw Carly again, since the escape was full, total, and irrevocable, but neither did I encounter those dark personages of the thought police again in my travels, and so much the better for that.
So I ended up leaving the old hometown rather as a pilgrim. I had no destination, but the general idea, that if I just go back where it all started for me, perhaps it might all be allowed to begin again. A couple of rides took me from the usual highway on-ramp in the old town, up to the city, and onto Market Street.
From the approach on the southwest, the city lay under an ominous fog, which seemed to hide an unknown, charonic, diabolic abyss. Who knew what things went on in such a place? The city wrapped itself in its nightly blanket of fog, and all that went on beneath it would be subterranean, diversionary, absenting itself from the norm and mainstream just as much as possible. The freak-beacon of Mount Sutro tower glared on, poking itself up above the blanket like the Cyclopean eye of some Atlantean nightmare creature- broadcasting an advertisement for whatever out-group on the national circus needed a refuge, a shelter. In the abyssal fogs, there would be opportunity for both anonymity and fame.
I found myself there at dusk, walking the way up Market in my grubby blue tennies, backpack and sleeping bag on my back, guitar in hand. Within the hour I was out at the corner of Haight and Masonic, and leaned up against the side of an old car. I pulled out the guitar and started tuning it, and then launched into a Dylan song or two. Just which I can’t say today, but I was big at the time on “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Tangled Up In Blue” I felt like I had been living in both, over the summer.
So I was not at all surprised however when I had begun to collect a small crowd of heads, freaks like myself, grateful for this pause, completely clueless, myself, as to how this evening would conclude.
But foremost in this little knot of furries were Puzzle, Mimph, Jay, and Wizzard. I must have asked one of them where I might find shelter for the night, and they laughed.
“Mimph has a place, but the rest of us are staying over there.” They pointed to a small crawl space behind the bank on the corner.
Hastily packing the guitar back, I followed them as they shuffled across the street and made clear what they referred to.
Behind a cyclone fence separating the back from the neighboring house was a five or six foot wide empty space. On this small postage stamp of land they had pitched a tent. Night had begun to fasten down on the street, and one of them suggested he was ready to pack it in himself.
“Here is where we are stayin’!” the one called Puzzle said.
“How do you manage?”
“Oh we do!”
So four of us huddled in the dark, one lit a candle, and somebody rolled up a joint from a bag of buds. The j went around, and around, and around. I realized I could (if I had the mind to!) stretch out my legs Juuuust far enough to make my sleeping bag fit among the others. And somehow we made it through the night, and they began telling me how they managed to eke out a life from the hardscrabble dirt and bricks of the city where Love was now more a matter of public image than a unifying spirit of gathering community.
Puzzle and Mimph, were, in fact, with Jay and Wizzard, part of a distribution chain for illegal (what other type was there, in that time?) LSD, and held between themselves something like fifteen sheets of blotter acid. While weak, and not strong in terms of the active dose (a person needed to drop four to six to really get a “fireworks spectacular” out of it) it was acid, and it was a means of earning income. They got their stuff from a cat that called himself Uncle John, reputedly a living legend all his own, and a couple of them wore brass triangles decorated with the Eye of Osiris and sculpted by the one and only Bear Stanley, which they proudly wore as though the badges and sashes of some esoteric secret society. Which, in a way, they were, of course. Puzzle offered me a sheet of my own, so that I would not need to panhandle, and off each sale I could keep one or two dollars (small difference, from panhandling to dealing acid!) and I supplemented that with rolling joints out of the bag of homegrown shake I had acquired from my Santa Cruz friend Dobbs, and sold them for a quarter (a real deal!)— for most street dealers who took that end of things on the street were now charging a Dollar! At first, I felt that was needlessly and heedlessly capitalistic. A quarter for a joint, but after the first week I upped it to a buck myself. I was running out of stash fast, and besides, why not do as the Romans?
But that first week took on a routine all its own, soon enough.
Since I was often the first one who awakened in the absent morning sunshine of the tent behind the bank, I would be out of there with all my stuff and out on the street by eight. I would head for the Reaper first thing, for a plate of home fries, healthy and filling for .85, with a cup of coffee for .50. I would get out where there was a nice little break in the stores on the sunny side of the street near the music store, and start into my usual set. I played a number of original songs, but mostly, while on the street, things people would be familiar with. After a few hours, I had made lunch money, so I’d repair to the deli nearby with the others, who would have made their street rounds in the meantime.
At the deli we would gather around a sunny table that was open to the air, and discuss the ins and outs and the supply and demand and anything else that came to mind. Puzzle, it turned out, had separated from his wife Wellesey and his children, but the kids and Wellesey were always around, yet a part of his daily life. The boy, Ardo, was precocious and no stranger to the life himself, and the girl, Cokell, while a year younger, had a streetwise sass that would turn most mothers blue in the face, should they encounter her. And Puzzle would gather the kids and take them to the playground after noon, and drop them with Wellesey somewhere near four, so the bunch of us would regroup at four or five get dinner (there was a pizza joint that sold by the slice nearby— the cheap eats and cokes kept us going) and we would go about our nightly prowl. For me, it meant playing for another couple of hours, breaking it down around eight, and then, doing the prowl myself. For locals and heads, I stuck to a three dollars-per-hit price, but if the buyer looked tourist or possibly narc, I’d up it to five. In this manner I managed to sell the entire sheet of fifty in a week, and that allowed me to do considerably more for myself than mere playing for street change did.
The morning after the morning after Mimph’s strange tumble off the rooftop, the news was out. Was it ever, indeed! The Chronicle blasted across its front page “Druggie Falls 3 Stories to Death” and I worried that the detectives would be nosing about as well, soon enough, connecting us all up, the mystic brotherhood, in a dragnet of suspicion and culpability. I was relieved when after a week later, no such thing had happened.
But that week was filled with crisis, terror, and fear, among we who remained, and the word was on the lips of many who we approached with our wares.
“Mimph? Oh man, I knew him!” would be on every lip.
“Bummer, man! What’s next?”
“That really harshes it out, man. Mimph was an OK dude. Did he jump, or was he pushed?”
In all this I never let on what had really been my personal appraisal of Mimph. Now I was not some homophobic macho asshole, but Mimph pushed the boundaries of sexuality to their limit. One might say, he was certainly happier in his bisexual costume than cramped into a hetero suit, but, I had my suspicions from the very first night in the tent. Mimph begged off on spending the whole night in there, but as the evening had gone on, I did feel a hand on my leg once or twice as I struggled to toss and turn, as though he were making no doubt for me as to his design and what might be his pleasure. And I purposely ignored this and pretended I slept on ignorantly, since I sure didn’t appreciate it, nor did I want to encourage this direction of his thoughts. I was glad he had that other place of his to stay at, and that he was (otherwise) not going to push some seduction scene on me. But no less... Mimph made me uncomfortable, and he always had, despite his generosity toward me. I guess I figure he was trying to make his way with me in his own way, but if so, it was sure to be denied to him.
Anyway it would all be moot now, since Mimph was dead and already becoming just a memory for all the people on the street and to the little group of “instant friends” I had made. The first person who came by the deli with the newspaper article was Wizzard. Wizzard was the youngest of us, I imagine, just out of high school from appearances. But he read, and he read the papers, and he found the article that floored Puzzle and I. Immediately our suspicions went to work.
“Are we gonna be tailed? As far as I know, Mimph had a sheet on him when he fell.”
“I don’t know. Don’t you think it is weird, that you and me did nothing that night and the morning after? Remember how all the cop cars and the meat wagon were there? We just slinked away. I don’t think it speaks well of us.”
“Well you got to admit— if we had shown concern, they might have searched us as well!”
“Listen, Muggles, this city is a tough place. If you don’t want trouble for yourself, it is best to stay out of scenes that can get it for you. I think it was wise of us. We avoided so much that might have been obvious to them, you know? ‘Our friend...’ ‘Your friend? And how was he your friend? How do you know him?” Can’t you just see that?”
It still didn’t make me feel any better, even if Puzzle was right, after all. I had a perfect record, so far, and I wasn’t going to throw it to the wind, and I didn’t want anyone—anyone— discovering our mutual means of support that we could avoid letting know.
Puzzle slapped me on the shoulder and gave me a kind look.
“Look Muggles, let’s go to the Piss-Piss Room and catch a beer and a game of pool... I’ll buy.”
“Pool? I don’t play pool...”
The Piss-Piss Room was located across the street from the Straight Theater, now a hulk of concrete and rebar, due to be demolished and replaced by a yuppie disco and several used (“vintage”) clothing outlets. It actually had a different name, the Teatro Club, but we called it the Piss-Piss Room since just down the street was the Persian Jim-Jam Room, and besides, that’s what you ended up doing after a night there in any case. The Piss-Piss Room also took its name from the faint but distinct ever-present odor of puke and urine common to many old-time bars. Founded back in the War Years, and by that, we mean in the middle of the century, not before, the Piss-Piss Room offered free peanuts and a free pool table in the back room. By dragging me there, Puzzle and Jay had gotten me into a mode I was previously not aware I possessed— the hard-drinking pool shark.
Of course things started out that way for me. I had a deep, well-ingrained aversion to bars. If I was going to drink with friends, it was best over a six-pack at somebody’s house, or a few bottles along with dinner in an outdoor cafe, not the sleepy, dusky, dim-lights type of place that the Piss-Piss Club stood in for as an archetype. But I was with friends, and I felt no other pressures.
Jay, his long and curly hair resembling no other than the sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, led off the round of pool by chalking up a stick and breaking the set. No balls dropped however. Then Puzzle, swigging from his Dark Molly, sunk one. He took his free shot but didn’t catch another.
Now it was my turn. I chalked up my own cue and banked the eight ball against the eleven and dropped it. Now it was indeed on. Puzzle had claim on everything up to the nine, and I had the double-digits. Jay would do what he could to get anything else. The game ran on for near a half hour, with curses, exclamations, and missed shot after missed shot, by all of us. Then somehow luck fell on my shoulders. In a series of very fortunate shots, I managed to drop the thirteen, fourteen, ten and the nine.
“You are a pool player!” laughed Jay.
“Are you sure you don’t practice this often?”
“New,” I replied. “Never done this before, actually, not like this. Get off my back! I hate this game!”
They continued laughing at me. Then Wizzard, who had been sitting on his own back at the bar, shuffled up and said a few words to Jay and Puzzle.
“Hey, we got to split, Muggles. Unless you want to come. We’re going to beam down to The Spud and sell some hits.”
The Spud was one of the newer developments in the city since the Gay Invasion had taken over. Once confined to Polk Street for its excessive Halloween parties, the gay trip had now spilled over to the Castro district across Market, and The Spud, while not in the Castro, had become the meeting spot for the horny of that persuasion of most-happening status. While we would be a tad out of place there, it would, in the least, mean we could make some sales amongst those hoping to make the night one to remember.
So they polished off their Dark Mollies and Red Spouts and flipped the pool cues back to the racks, and we “beamed” over to the Spud.
“Beaming”, as we call it, takes its name from the Star Trek transporter. “Beam me up, Scotty!” “Beam them down!” And the transporter transmogrified the subject into a beam of light which instantly replaced itself at whatever chosen point the coordinates had been set for. But for us, it was both a confirmation of the telepathic bonds we shared, and our ability to go from point to point in what were, it often seemed, nanoseconds compared to a healthy slog across town. Besides, if you were high, you could pretty much beam yourself anyplace in the city, and barely notice the time it took to do so. So that is why we call it “beaming.” You don’t need to be Stuck in San Francisco with the LA Blues Again to do it, however, you can do it wherever you are, just put yourself mentally at your destination first, and direct your appendages to head that way, and before you know it, you’ll be there.
This night at The Spud the crowd was mixed, male and female, but of course, being a gay trip, the sexes were not mixing with each other. Puzzle, Jay, Wizzard and I pushed our way through the sweating, amyl-fueled heaving dancers furtively making contact with those few willing to acknowledge us.
Once in a while we’d catch a lucky break and one of them would pull aside and the sale would go down. I was weary however, since The Spud was not my type of scene, and I felt we were being more opportunistic than necessary by taking this place on as a searching point for clientele.
Puzzle and Wizzard, however, begged to differ.
“Yeh, most of them are relished on alc’ and amyl, and ‘ludes, but we have the real thing, and if they are looking for a good time, why not?”
“It just seems weird to me.”
“What do they come to San Francisco for, if not for a “memorable adventure”, though?”
I couldn’t argue that much, but for a good part of the evening I confined myself to the wall near the bar, offering up doses, being rebuffed, and feeling like a short pip in a long can.
And it was not long after this discussion that I spied someone I knew in the throng, someone I knew from elsewhere. This was Sazareea, my Santa Cruz buddy Dobbs’ roommate. Positively shrinking from the floor and her dance partner when she spied me, Sazareea also shrank from my approach, as though she had been “outed”, as though she had something to hide in being recognized.
I walked over to her, and offered her a dose.
Silently, she shook her head in the negative, and returned to her furtive behavior, as she and her partner retreated back into the shadow and safety of the seats along the windows. Clearly she did not enjoy the fact that her cover had been blown, somehow. And what, just what, was she doing all the way up here, if not attempting to fill in that missing hole in what must have been her life in the balmy little vacationland of Santa Cruz? What could drag her a hundred miles out of her way to The Spud, if she were not part of all that?
Amused, I returned to Puzzle, Jay and Wizzard, who were collecting themselves after having passed among all the hoipolloi and were ready, now, to “beam” themselves back to the Haight.
“Not a great night, there,” offered Puzzle.
“Naw, not a good night. I sold three.”
Wizzard huddled under his sweatshirt and sparked up a roach, which he passed along to Puzzle.
“I sold only two,” added Jay, who took the embers from Puzzle and pulled himself off a fair toke.
Jay passed the j to me, but it was turning to paper ash just as he did, and I couldn’t get more than a lungful of heat from my hit. Disgruntled, I stomped the crutch into the concrete and ground it under my toe.
“Well, let’s go back to the tent and hang for a while. I am sure that the rest of the night is pretty well done, said Puzzle.
And we beamed back to the Haight. It seemed to have taken even less time than our trip down to SOMA to the Spud, even being all uphill, but we did it, and felt all the lighter for having tried, at least, unloading some of our “product” on the Bacon, Lettuce, and Gay Tomato set.
I was sitting in the deli reading the local free paper, the Gag Order, when I came across a listing in the back pages under events for an “Open Mic- Poets and Musicians Wanted!” The establishment advertising such was known as the Dairy Whale. And it listed an incongruous address, too— someplace out in the Avenues, no doubt, a long ride out the N streetcar line, out in tsunami country.
I wanted nothing more at this point than to have some sort of opportunity to work from a stage rather than the street, and I showed it to Puzzle.
“I’m going out there tonight, Puzzle. I am eager to perform again. You ought to come! I will try and make things fun.”
Puzzle nodded, but I did not expect him to want to travel the long tram ride nor to bring the others with him. But later that night the rest all showed up, in fact, they came on the next trolley after mine, missing me by a mere fifteen minutes on the ride.
So now we were at the Dairy Whale. The Whale was a little cafe that had implanted itself inside the corpse of what had been a neighborhood supermarket. The display cases had still their proper use as display cases, but instead of butchered meats they now held fancy artisan pastries. The Whale sold coffee, beer, and wine but nothing harder. The clientele were freaks and people who all seemed to have relocated themselves for the night from other areas of town. Indeed, as one of them told me, “even the neighbors don’t come here!”
I could sort of understand why. But the open mike attracted struggling writers, and other musicians who had not quite made their imprint on the town, yet, and the event was hosted by a garrulous figure known as Sam Empanada, coincidentally, the editor of the Gag Order, a rough customer, and someone who definitely saw himself as a shit-disturber and man about town, ready to make or break souls in the process. In fact, if you were not a somebody already, Sam’s philosophy was that you ought to shut up, unless he could gain some fame by “making” you a name and cop your action in some way. He was supposedly an old friend of an internationally acclaimed folksinger and spent much of his time getting mileage out of that fact, although it had been many, many years since the international star had even seen or spoken with him. All the same, fame was Sam’s game, and if you played it his way, you might get some (noplace).
The Whale had a bulletin board where people offered music lessons, Spanish, French, and Russian lessons, car mechanics, house painters, dog walkers, and various other freelance services. While waiting for the sign up for my fifteen minutes of fame, I went over the various ads. While I did so, Puzzle and the others grabbed themselves egg cream sodas and hard cider from the counter, and took a table nearest the side window, which looked down Lincoln Avenue toward the ocean. Night had lain its blanket of afternoon and evening overcast early over the Sunset district, and the fog hung mist-like and mystic over the dampened streets. Trolleys ran every fifteen minutes, and rang their bells when they reached the Whale’s corner.
I think it might have been the first, but definitely, by the second time, that I visited the Whale for its open mike, that I met Phelan and Hamtoe. Both were students at SF State University, both of them had been through the whole “going to SF to escape my boring hometown” syndrome, and both were, by now, fully into making the most of the dead or dying “hip underground” as SF now expressed itself to be. And the Whale, as it turned out, was the happening spot for that, if The Spud might be considered the same for the gay invaders. Nobody did any dancing there (least of all Sam!) but it did have its mystique and presence, and action was where you could grab it. I could not say the same for it, within three years’ time, but for now, it was.
And it was, in some sense, to become as much a home away from home as the Reaper had been in the early morning, or the deli in the afternoon, or the Pizza-By-The-Slice joint on most other weeknights.
Phelan worked down on Market Street at the Psychedelic Shoppe. The surviving hulk of the business as it had maintained itself since the early days of the hipocracy, the Psychedelic Shoppe survived half on its legacy and name, and the other half, from being one of the last places on Market Street (for a while) where you might find Zig Zag papers and hash pipes. Although competition was not long in coming from a number of Palestinian, Jordanian, Syrian, and otherwise Mid-Eastern emigre entrepreneurs, at least the Psychedelic Shoppe had that legacy of authenticity to lean on. They also sold posters, sometimes the long gone remainders of Bill Graham and Chet Helms’s Fillmore and Avalon heyday, most often, pop culture flashes of movie and music stars, and they had a gigantic selection of bongs in all shapes and sizes. Phelan handed me his card and invited me down if I were ever in the neighborhood. At this stage of my time in the city, however, I was staying as far away from Market as possible.
The other person I met on one of those early open mike nights was Hamtoe. Hamtoe had also spent a little time living in Santa Cruz, where he had worked as a mortician, pulling out guts and flushing them down the sewers and pumping stiffs full of formaldehyde for their final display and ride to their Final Resting Place. He wore his fingernails long, and could, when he wanted, take on something of a ghoulish aspect, what with his six-month beard and Rasputin-like tangle of hair. Hamtoe was pinning a note to the board which read “Household forming! Wanted- New Age types, Freaks, Self Respecting Anarchists. Share a big Victorian in the Lower Haight. Rents negotiable.”
I began a conversation with him, ostensibly, to see if I might find myself a place in this “household of Freaks and Anarchists.” Although I considered myself definitely a Freak, “Anarchy” was a new one on me, although it was surely a part of Sam Empanada’s, and Hamtoe’s, trips.
“Yes, I have just located this cool place, it’s right next to a church down at Steiner and Oak Street, back in the Haight. There’s six bedrooms and more. What can you help with?”
I told him I did not think I could help with much, but he said the place also had a downstairs basement with a heater, and I could set up in there for the mere piddling sum of forty dollars a month.
Since I had that sum, easily, every week that went by selling hits, and because I would soon find myself employable one way or another, I nodded agreement.
“Great. I can take you over there tomorrow.,” he said. He gave me a telephone number, and I stuck it in my pocket.
When eight o’clock rolled around it was time for Sam the Empanada to do his MC thing. He turned on a squealing PA system and began running his fingers down the list of the sign-ins.
Since I had shown up first of all and signed the empty sheet, that would only be me.
With a flourish Sam exited off the stage and left it to me. A lone stool sat under a lone spotlight . I began with “Ophelia”, one of the recent original tunes I had been working on. Because time was limited to fifteen minutes, I also threw in Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”. From their seat at the table, Puzzle and the others watched, and I could tell they dug it, since they were, in their half-drunken fashion, singing along on the choruses. When I was done, Hamtoe took the stage next and read some of his poetry. The Whale was half-empty, but those who were there all seemed like they were into it, and checking out whoever came up there, whoever had the guts to even attempt some public bravado, giving them polite or well-rounded applause, as they felt they might merit. I had left them in what I felt was a median-state of satisfaction, and since half of my audience came with a well established bias already, the comfort of their applause felt a little more than made-to-order. How I might go down in a crowd of total strangers was as yet, an unanswered question.
But then, once it was all over, around ten thirty, me and Puzzle and Jay and everyone else crammed ourselves onto the N streetcar and rode back up to the Haight, and the Tent. Another night of crushing each other up against the canvas walls, and another morning of shaking myself out and dusting myself off in the morning fog, awaited.
The next morning, I waddled myself, backpack, sleeping bag, guitar and all, over to the Reaper for my morning potatoes, and dropped a quarter in the pay phone and called Hamtoe’s number.
“Meet me at Oak and Steiner in fifteen!” he said, and hung up.
That was all. And so I polished off the plate of potatoes and left it on the bus tray, and beamed myself down the hill to that intersection. Hamtoe was along shortly, and walked me up the front stairs from the street to the front portico of a Victorian painted white, with bars on the front windows, and steel bars around the entry way. The street number was mosaic'd into the floor outside on the front stoop, though, and the doorway opened into a long hallway from which the various rooms, and a stairway, branched off. The first room, reached by double doors halfway down, was the living room. High ceilings and a working fireplace with a mantle made this the obvious center of activity. Later when the house had finally formed among a core of ten people, this room would be the scene of much merriment and conversation. But now, it was devoid of all furnishings, and Hamtoe took me on a tour of the rest of the space.
The living room was met at its edge by the kitchen, which the front hallway led into directly. Just off to the side of the kitchen was another small room, which had once been a family dining room, but which would eventually become my final room in the house. But for now, and it first few months, it was just a place where our visitors might crash. He took me out in the back yard and led me down a short flight into the heater room. It was, most surely, a small space, with little room other than that in which I might place a mattress, but even then, it was crammed up against the heater.
“Forty bucks?” I asked.
“Forty bucks, “ he nodded, and we shook, and I handed over two Andys to him.
“We can move in as soon as we have the full seven hundred. That’s all the landlord wants.”
“It shouldn’t be so hard to get that.”
“Let me show you the rest of the place.”
We went back in the hallway and he led me up the stairs.
“Here is where most of the bedrooms are...”
“This one I have dibs on.”
We walked into the southern-most room of the house. An east-facing window brought morning sun in through its bay. The room had the same high ceilings upstairs as the downstairs. Then he showed me the other rooms. A bathroom at the end of another hallway abutted three more bedrooms, all of a smaller size, two of which had no windows, the other which faced the backyard, did. Every room in the house was painted in the same shade of off-cream white. And when we had gone over it all, he showed me another little spot, nearly the same size as the heater room in the basement. This was a small closet beneath the stairs, lined with mirrors, which would eventually become Fook’s Hole. But we’ll get to Fook soon enough.
Hamtoe took me back out on the street, and together we walked back Oak through the Panhandle up to Masonic and the Reaper, where he left me.
“I’ll get hold of you again as soon as we get the other people together, OK?”
I agreed, we shook on it, and while I was not going to spend, at least the next night or two, inside under a real roof, at least I was assured that soon enough I would.
Now it was a cool thing I had met Gloria, but at this point, Gloria was but one of many possibilities who presented themselves to me as female opportunities, chances I had to score and obscure my inner need for sex and frivolity. There were, in fact, two or three more women I chanced to happen upon during this period, while my household scene was still something up in the air and undefined. I was, in fact, playing the field, although “the field” as it presented itself popped up these chances one at a time, and in no particular way which may have made sense. Everything in fact felt rather senseless, since Emmaline, the love of my life past and future, had declared herself seriously attached to the man she had been living with in sunny Santa Barbara, and our little brief reunion just before I turned tail for SF was to be our last night together, for many years, if not forever. My heart was in turmoil, since Emmaline had nursed me through a number of personal changes (read, “personality crises”) since the death of my mother, and, in fact, was working out to be my very best female friend of all, even (or maybe, especially) if romance was now going to be out of the question. If I couldn’t have Emmaline then maybe I could have whatever came to take her place. Maybe whatever took her place would be OK, and maybe not. I feared it would not. And as yet since Gloria at this time was still just another girl in all the mix of the Haight, I considered myself a free agent, and would get as much mileage as I might out of it.
Was I fooling myself? Only in hindsight can I now say that things were actually meant for more than I expected of them, with Gloria. But I would be shortchanging you the terms of this story if I should leave out those others, however brief those encounters were. We’ll get to them all, in time.
I had not yet encountered the conflict in my soul I would have over whether or not I should join some sort of hermetic retreat, or give myself fully to the maya of human relationships. Things were going to be what they were, in any case. And much more would present itself in the coming months while I lived in the rundown Victorian at Oak and Steiner. Some people warn me I shouldn’t look back that far, but now that I am well down the line, I call “nonsense” to all that. A life is what you live and I want to say I lived it and put what I could into living it then, and if I want to look back it’s really to remember, in some small way, people who had a great bearing on the personal direction I was headed in. For good or ill. And I’ll be the judge of that.
Chapter Two from a work in Progress -- "Hell Is For Hippies" --expected early 2016
Chapter Two from a work in Progress -- "Hell Is For Hippies" --expected early 2016