The First Few Friends I Had

First Few Friends Cover005

The Pondering Pig is relieved to announce his long-sought collection of stories about being young in San Francisco during the maelstrom of the early 1960s – is finally done, published and available on Amazon.  Here’s the link:

The First Few Friends I Had

and here’s what I said about it:

Someone asked me who the first hippies were, those unknowns who kicked off the psychedelic era of the 1960s. Were they born-too-late beatniks who arrived at the party after everybody had gone home? Or were they something else? Something new?
I actually knew some of those first freaks. In fact, they were the first few friends I had.
This trip starts in Nineteenth Avenue Park, San Mateo, California, winter of 1958, muddy raw subdivision streets, brine shrimped salt flats stretching to the Bayshore Freeway and beyond to sorrowful tract houses of Norfolk Street. The ground I sprung from.
But we won’t tarry. We’ll hit the road through the vast Sonoran Desert on solitary two-lane highways spring of 1961 to adventures in Mexico, then on to steaming East Village summer to swirling fog over North Beach, broken hearted spring of 1962.
Along the way, we’ll stop at the corner of Seventh and Judah Street in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset to watch a girl named Solveig rush out our door with ‘Ban the Bomb’ placards banging against her shoulder. We’ll scene shift till midnight to watch Peter Weissinger swing over the stair rail into teens crashing our big peacenik party and whomping on them in peacenik joy. We’ll contemplate a ghostly Carmen O’Shaughnessy stride through the archway in badass logger boots, tawny lionhair in long braids, brassy confident smile and my handmade Mexican chaleco.
Snow is falling over Long Island, the first winter rains are pouring into the sewers of Lily Alley, San Francisco. Carmen has jumped off the bus in Barstow, hitched home across the desert and there is not a damn thing I can do about it.
Summer 1964 in the Langley Porter Psychiatric Day Care Center for Mind-Blown Proto-Hippies and Hysterical Teenagers, the passengers are unraveling hidden meanings within Sally Go Round the Roses by the Jaynettes. They hear the Bomb, the war, the police dogs attacking demonstrators, fire hoses of death, J Edgar Hoover vs the Commies, peyote, pot, fear, angst, and – hey everybody, it’s Mashed Potatoes Time.
Look, the sky has gone blue, the golden city beckons. It’s spring again. Let’s stroll down to the North Beach Arts Festival to find my friends. Come on, they want to meet you. The First Few Friends I Had.

It’s been getting great reviews so far – so I hope you have a chance to check it out soon.  PP

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Carmen in the Morning

 

Born in San Francisco, nineteen forty-two
First thing my Daddy say was, “Son,
that Carmen O’Shaugnessy gone make a fool of you.”


uc hospital 2

Whenever I think about getting born, I think of UC Hospital, where they dragged me from my mother’s womb one rainy morning, and whenever I think of UC Hospital, I think of how it looks from Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco,

DCF 1.0

and whenever I think of Children’s Playground, I think of Carmen O’Shaughnessy.

margaret o'brien

Carmen was more beautiful than Margaret O’Brien, the famous child star, and she wore her honey-blonde hair in braids like Margaret O’Brien did. They streamed out behind her when she got going on the swings, which was the only way she ever swung, getting higher faster than any of the boys and laughing with joy and pride. Except sometimes she let her hair blow free. Then I couldn’t look away, even when she made faces at me.

1948 rabbitville childens' playground

In my memory, it’s always Saturday morning. Chickens are running round the playground because they haven’t been scared back into their safe little barnyard yet. Carmen is wearing brown corduroy bib overalls with a striped tee-shirt under it, and Keds. In those days, Keds meant black high top basketball shoes.  They were for boys only. Girls were supposed to wear white lace-ups or black patent-leather Mary Janes with a strap across the top. But if you tried to tell that to Carmen, she’d grin at you and run away. So I didn’t say anything. Who would want Carmen to run away?

I dreamed about Carmen again last night, for the first time in years. In the dream I spent long hours inventing carefully nuanced speeches so sincere she would finally love me and never leave me anymore. I spent night after sleepless night like this when I was twenty-three. But I’m old now.

I woke alone in the darkness with my mother’s voice in my ear. “Chris! Watch out!” She was trying to wake me up. That was part of the dream too. But I did wake up, and I was too spooked to go back to sleep. I was sure I’d heard her.

Carmen, why won’t you leave me?

 

 

Rabbitville photo courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

Letter from Leslie in the East Village – 1963

Put on some Miles before you start reading. Maybe Generique, or Blue In Green. Whatever it is, make sure it’s about neon cities late at night, cold coffee, looking backwards at your mistakes and, well, melancholy. Leslie’s letter lays on the desk before me like a French new wave movie starring Jean-Paul Leaud and Anna Karina, black and white and in slow motion. It was a dark time. Acid rock and the Summer of Love were a long ways away. Leslie is purely natural, purely herself, purely her persona, but all the star-crossed young bo and beat lovers of a hundred years illuminate her pink pages. I can feel the intense drama of being eighteen and pregnant, poor and beat in a unknown, uncaring city as written down by a self-aware eighteen-year-old young woman, burgeoning into a remarkable life. I like this Leslie so much. And I haven’t seen her since 1963…

chris–

it’s still right now and now is rainy east side sunday. it has come to the point where rainy days are almost my favorites–i feel so comfortable and i can open our kitchen window and smell everything clean and cold.

how wonderful to get your letter. i am almost scared to answer because you are still thinking of me as i was over a year ago and i have changed i am much deader inside–almost never do i run down hills now. there are none in ny. i am somewhat disillusioned now about things–i had thought that to hitch hike three thousand miles of the united states would be very exciting (i’m afraid i thought of it in kerouacian terms) and i found out that kerouac’s innocence and wonder approached that of a mentally deficient and that i have lost all the innocence and wonderment that once ruled my existence. and now i sound phoney and i hunt for words.

how awful ny is! the first week we were here, i was depressed and sick and cried and bitched. i hated everything about new york–especially the filth and squalor and smells of the lower east side. it did not seem worth the struggle to try and live here. but now i have come to almost like our life.

we have a two room place on e. 12th st. it is in a building behind the one opening on the street, so that we look out on the buildings opposite (from the back they all look like they are made of crumbling adobe brick and i can almost imagine paris) and the wash hanging frozen from the clothesline. our place is very small–one of the rooms is big enough to hold our two mattresses one cardboard carton of over-flowing books and our hi-fi stuff. the other room contains the bathtub, a trunk, the refrigerator (surprisingly new and roomy), the stove (surprisingly free of roaches), two wooden box chairs, the sink, various kitchen materials, and the top of an old captains chair mounted on a wooden box.

this place has become almost the entire center of my existence. i stay in here almost all day except when peter drags me out to get a beer or shop or try to score. i have decorated the walls with pictures and i cook and read and listen to the fm and most important i write letters–the letters i get and write occupy my attention the greater part of everyday.

when we do go out, we usually have no money to spend and so sometimes we just walk–along the edge of the east river and look at the dirty red factories and smokestacks that is brooklyn or up 2nd avenue and look at the antiques shops or through the unbelievably tall buildings and hustle that is uptown (grand central station is a wonderland of towering ceilings and marble pillars) or we walk down avenue c past 7th street and look at the fruit and vegetables and kosher foods of the street vendors or 14th st., a market street that stretches forever with countless discount places selling cheap perfume and scarves–woolworth’s run off on a monstrous mimeo machine.

and even greenwich village, looking so much like north beach only even more vulgar and without the charm of hills and alleys and coit tower. no italians–just millions of frustrated teenagers and stereotyped girls with long hair pierced ears and capezio boots. angry young negroes dykes with italian cut trousers and so many 15 year old girls high on amphedamine and sitting in basement folk singing places.

and i am with child–gloriously pregnant–and happy about it even, afraid of becoming an example of maternal docility. i am reading have read summerhill and i am full of hopes of raising a beautiful brilliant nuerosis free child. and ever peter is beginning to enjoy the idea. pregnant women are almost morbidly depressing.

and so–perhaps a mistake–i (and peter) will be coming back to sf in early march, if possible. i miss everything so much. there are a million things for me to do and a million places to see again. so many hills to run down and hills to sit on.

please tell me how your life is. i love you still.

leslie

It’s Too Late, She’s Gone

Yesterday I learned Bess died. The beautiful girl whose strings are tied into my heart as fast today as they were the last time I saw her in 1968. My sad girl, my wicked girl, a friend who was a lot like me. Somehow I always thought I’d see her again one day and she’d tell me she was all right. She had come through. But she never did.

I first met Bess at San Francisco State in the fall of 1961. I was new on the scene and didn’t know anybody yet. I’d just transferred to State after a season of traveling in Mexico and New York. One night in October or thereabouts I went to an all-night vigil for peace outside the Commons, the schools’ poor attempt at a student union. I brought my Mexican guitar and sang Pretty Polly and We Shall Overcome and There Once Was A Union Maid through the night as the frat boys taunted us and threw eggs. By morning I knew all the peaceniks, the people who became my comrades for next few years, Solveig Otvos, Don Auclaire, Peter Weiss, Bob Kuehn, Eva Bessie, Peter Kraemer, Carmen O’Shaughnessy…and Bess.

Bess didn’t notice I existed, of course. Isn’t that how these stories start? Maybe she smiled at me once, I’m not sure. It wasn’t till months later I realized she was nearly blind without her glasses, which she refused to wear and she probably couldn’t see me.

Somebody invited me to a party on Clayton Steet that weekend, and Bess was there. Some haunting quality in her face drew me towards her. It must been her face because we’d never spoken. To me she was a charming, Audrey Hepburned sort of long-haired, brunette, eighteen or nineteen, mildly pre-Raphaelite, the kind of girl we called ‘woodsie-nymphsie.’ She had a big crush on a pink-cheeked, black bearded young radical named Steve something. She looked longingly at him, I looked longingly at her, and I sang “Oh my love, I’ve hungered for your touch a long lonely time” with great feeling. The party got real quiet. I had a good voice in those days and I knew how to sing.

Well, Bess and I never got together in the way you’re expecting, because Margarita got in the way. Margarita Bates. For now, let me just say she was peerless, I hungered for her magical presence, and Bess disappeared in her shadow – except she didn’t really. Instead, the oddest thing happened. Bess and I became friends.

As my love affair with Margarita proceeded from horror to horror, I found solace with Bess. She understood. She listened. She cared about me. As we got to know each other better, I discovered we also shared sensibilities. We both liked the same books, the same films, the same foggy streets, and we shared the same sliced up feeling inside.

As the sixties slowly burned down to the stub, I was never far from Bess. We spent days together wandering North Beach, drinking coffee in The Enigma or The Hot Dog Palace, playing Desafinado over and over on the juke box, sharing intimate secrets or just gossiping about mutual friends. I called her Ivich, after the character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Roads To Freedom trilogy.

Late one afternoon in 1962 we were hanging out in Solveig’s place on Page Street. Solveig wasn’t home from work yet and there were just the two of us, listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet on Solveig’s record player. The late afternoon light faded away until there was only the light spreading from the little kitchen. You can guess what happened. Our buried longing for each other took over, and we lay together on the couch in the darkness until Solveig got home.

I felt horribly guilty, because I was married to somebody else, who was pregnant with my child. Cheating on my wife was the last thing I wanted to do, I thought. Turned out I was wrong. We never touched each other again. But I couldn’t keep away from Bess. I loved her.

Funny, I never considered that spending so much time with another woman was a form of cheating.

Bess was never cool, never a freak. She got her BA in English in the requisite four years, married an earnest young carpenter, settled down in an apartment on Downey Street and got a big dumb Afghan dog. She grew fat. She was unhappy. She was a bore. She didn’t go to the concerts or listen to the bands. But I couldn’t keep away from here for long, she was too deep a part of my life. Their apartment was a regular stop on my rounds of the Haight-Ashbury. Her husband got me work on his remodeling crew. By 1967 though, we had lost touch. Our lives had finally diverged too far. It was around then they moved home to Marin County.

OK, my first wife and I eventually split up and by mid-1968 I was living in the Eureka Valley neighborhood. The Haight had become a threadbare circus. The Hell’s Angels and meth freaks were taking over and the original hippies had mostly moved on.

But one morning I was over there for some reason, and standing and laughing on the street with a group of freaks I’d never seen before – I saw Bess. She was thin again. She was extroverted. She was merry. She was delighted to see me. She introduced me to her new friends and I was polite but I could see right away they were creeps, and they gave me the creeps. OK, I admit it. I was a complete snob in those days. Only the original hippies were cool. Everyone else please show your hip credentials before I’ll speak to you. But I knew a creep when I saw one, and they looked like creeps to me. Speed freaks.

We exchanged phone numbers and Bess (who by now was calling herself Lenore) invited me to a party at her house in Marin that weekend. I was playing guitar and singing with Hugh Harris at the time and suggested he come with me so we could try out our new set at the party. Saturday night we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge in Hugh’s VW bug, and soon we were somewhere deep in the redwood sided streets of Corte Madera.

‘Lenore’ met me at the door in a transparent gown with a drink in her hand. Her new friends were eating and drinking and grinning at me, showing off their missing teeth. Scott, Lenore’s husband, was kept busy running out for more beer. While he was gone, Lenore made laughing, snide comments about him. His earnest, straight-forward self was comedy material to her new crowd. There were no other women at the party.

I got the creeps big time and withdrew into myself. Hugh and I played some tunes, I talked with Scott a little bit, and we left early. On the drive back to the City, I realized we’d been dosed with MDA, the “love drug”. It must have been in the punch.

The high itself was nice, pleasant. It wasn’t that. It’s that she hadn’t told me. It was her little joke, a mischievous joke on me.

That was it. I wrote Bess out of life. She shouldn’t have done that. She broke my trust. And I didn’t dig her new friends.

I’ve never forgotten that night, and the knowledge I knew my dear girl was in trouble and I just wrote her off. Why didn’t I say something? Beat her up? Ask her what the fuck she was doing? Listen to her like she’d listened to me. Cared about her. Been there for her.

I was such a hippie. No interference. That’s cool, man. Good-bye.

I looked for her half-heartedly over the years. She’d moved. Changed her name. Who knew? But I always thought one day I’d see her again. And her face has haunted me these long years.

The other day Greg Hoffman mentioned he was going to interview Wes Wilson for his new book. Wes is the artist who basically created the psychedelic dance poster in his early work for the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms. I remembered his wife had been Bess’s best friend in those early days at State, so I asked Greg to see if Eva knew what become of her. Last night Greg called me. She’s laying in the ground these fifteen years. From uterine cancer. I’ll never see her no more. It’s too late, she’s gone.