On Meeting Chet Helms

I suspect most readers will recognize the name Chet Helms. He was a seminal figure of Sixties San Francisco and a friend. Unusual for The Pondering Pig, we’re turning over the space today to a reminiscence of Chet written by another friend, Greg Hoffman of San Mateo, California. I met Greg one night nearly three years ago when he called to interview me about my early memories of Chet. Since then, he has interviewed nearly two hundred sixties survivors and family members as he researches the first authorized, authoritative biography of the man. Here’s Greg Hoffman…

At precisely 6:00 p.m. on November 9, 2004, Chet Helms closed the door of his small, cluttered, ground floor apartment on the corner of Bush and Mason in San Francisco and stepped out into the damp, bone-chilling air.

He was wearing a pair of thick-soled, black shoes; baggy, wrinkled khakis and a heavy black coat that was buttoned up to his neck, around which was wrapped a bright red scarf. A black bowler was perched atop his head which was ringed by his flowing, white hair and long, white beard. He looked like someone who might have fallen out of the pages of a Dickens novel.

Chet crossed Bush Street and continued down the steep Mason Street hill to Sutter, where he turned left. A half-block later, he entered the Hotel Rex and walked past the reception desk into the spacious, dimly-lighted lobby that doubles as the hotel’s bar in the evening. There were a dozen people, mostly couples, scattered throughout the room, talking quietly. Several of the patrons nodded at Chet and he acknowledged the greetings with a smile and a small wave.

He carefully folded his tall frame into a straight-backed chair at a small, round table near the center of the room and crossed his legs. Once settled, he slowly unbuttoned his coat and removed his scarf, which he draped across his lap.

A few minutes later, a young, Asian barmaid approached the table. Chet ordered a cup of hot tea and honey. His soft, deep voice carried the hint of a Texas accent. His enunciation of each word, of each syllable, was impeccable.

The waitress soon returned with a delicately-patterned, ceramic tea pot, a matching cup and saucer, a spoon and a small container of honey.

“Thank you,” Chet said, almost inaudibly, but with unmistakable sincerity. He didn’t just say it, he meant it.

He spent the next several minutes meticulously preparing his cup of tea. His movements, from pouring the water to spooning and stirring the honey, were excruciatingly deliberate and almost hypnotically graceful. It was as if he was performing some sort of ancient, sacred ritual that required a precise choreography.

When he finished, he encircled the tea cup with his large right hand, raised it to his lips and took a small, exploratory sip. Satisfied that he had achieved the desired result, he gently placed the cup back onto the saucer, leaned back and laced his fingers together across his ample stomach.

Then he did something he loved to do, something at which he was well-practiced, masterful and indefatigable.

Chet Helms began to talk.

He began to talk about himself.

Greg Hoffman is inaugurating his own blog. He”ll devote it to tales of the people he meets and stories he hears on the research trail. It’s got to be good – The Chet Helms Chronicles: Documenting A Life.
Better bookmark it.


2 thoughts on “On Meeting Chet Helms

  1. I love this piece! Greg, you captured him, you got Chet down on paper. No small task indeed. He did understand the importance of ritual, and he was never shy about telling his own story. He was the lanky prophet in black frock coat, who could tell such a well-crafted tall-tale. His detailed memories were comparable with the very best of story tellers.

    I keep coming back to this particular piece of writing. It touches me deeply, for all sorts of reasons: a love of Chet, a nostalgia for those golden years, a real and painful longing for something so tenderly translucent. A time and place, but most especially one peopled with such originality, that it will never be repeated for me in this life time.

    Thank you Chris and Greg, for indulging us in these exquisitely sensual remembrances!


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