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

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.

Dust on the Stupid Roses

Originally published March 22, 2006

You know what burns me up about life? That we get old and die, that’s what. I’m ready for eternity right now!

I’m ready to go hang out with my Dad some more. I’m NOT ready to go visit his stupid grave. I want to have more fun watching him do his soft shoe routine and hear him grumbling behind the typewriter in a hurry to get his newspaper column out before the deadline. Dad was lively! You know what I mean?

Here I just discovered this great singer, Ivie Anderson, bursting with life and youth and exuberance and great chops and I want to go see her and tell her how great she is. But you know where she is? In the ground somewhere. Dust and ashes.

Ivie

Do you think this is fair?

If I tell you she sang lead with Duke Ellington’s orchestra back in the Thirties, you’ll go, “Oh, some boring old singer. Let’s go see The Buggers instead.” And her youth and talent and wonderfulness is invalidated because she’s in the ground and forgotten like dust on my living room floor that I ought to sweep up.

I don’t like this!

I want to go to heaven right now, please! This is not a death wish, by the way. The world is full of cool people I love now. And I’m ready for more adventures. It’s just that I want to hang with Ivie Anderson and my Dad. And my pal Rodney Albin who died of stomach cancer in the Eighties and my brother Noel who turned me on to rhythm and blues before he got smashed at the age of 19. I want us all to be together NOW!

Botheration!

Luminaries of the Haight-Ashbury: Good-bye To All That

Big Brother guitarist James Gurley’s demise in mid-December got me thinking about the Haight-Ashbury again, that world that so dominated my early life and still follows me today like a puppy that refuses to become a dog.  What gets me, when I let my mind roll back, is not the music, not the LSD, not the teenyboppers dancing topless in the Panhandle, no – it’s my horrible optimism, the shiny beckoning utopian vision grinning like The Joker.  I believed a new age was coming where we would live in love, in harmony, in peace, in the country.  No one would have to work unless they wanted to, and there’d be apples cheery red in every orchard.

I wasn’t the only fool on the hill.  Remember the Beatles?

All you need is love.  Love is all you need.

In the beginning I misunderstood, but now I’ve got it – the Word is good.  Say the Word and you’ll be free.

You think they wrote that with cynical commercialism?  They didn’t.  They picked it up out of the zeitgeist, just like I did.

Blind Jerry

Here’s a page from my address book of those days.  See the guy on the bottom left under the green ink smear?  Jerry Sealund.

Jerry was a go getter.  A high energy guy.  Had a vision for the future and got the bread together to open the first health food store in the Haight-Ashbury.  I forget the store’s name because we all called called it Blind Jerry’s.

Yeah, Jerry and his wife Ethel were born both blind.  That’s how I got to know Jerry in 1963.  San Francisco State hired readers for their blind students and I got the gig for Jerry.  I used to go over to their house off Market Street, read Albert Camus out loud for a few chapters, then Jerry and I would drive around and get stoned.  Jerry didn’t want Ethel to know about his pot smoking activities.  It was still the early days.

Jerry was an optimist, you know?  It didn’t occur to him that being the blind proprietor of a retail establishment might present problems of a shoplifting nature.  We original hippie were all friends, we had high ideals, no one would rip off a blind guy, right?  Did anybody notice the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem?  I didn’t.

How could we be so naive?  We weren’t in a cult, we had no charismatic leader.  Tim Leary was good for a laugh, that’s all.  If there were enemies, they came from the straight world — the fuzz, LBJ, television.  Acid had opened the frontiers of our consciousness and let in the white light that would guide us to bliss and the knowledge of how to truly love each other.

But Blind Jerry’s health food store got nibbled and chewed and shoplifted into oblivion in three years.  In his history of the Haight-Ashbury, Charles Perry says Jerry was robbed twelve times in eleven months.

Are we humans inherently good until civilization corrupts us, like the Romantics thought?  Or are we inherently evil, as Christianity teaches?

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s what it comes down to, and I’m voting with the Christians.  We see our best chance and take it.  Raping the weak, robbing blind guys, smacking little kids around, punching and bleeding and stealing from people who can’t fight back, that’s the human way, that’s our potential and I wish it wasn’t.  It makes my stomach hurt.

We’re smart, but not smart enough.  We love but we don’t love enough. We hate terrorists and child molesters and Republicans and Obama and Sarah Palin and climate deniers and global warming kooks and we never notice they are just us in another form, with another history.

If you’re a cynic, congratulations.  I wish my skin was a little thicker.

*    *    *    *    *

My archivist assistant, The Pondering Chicken, asked me to put in a little note about the other names in the address book scan.  For the record, Jim Smirchich was a photographer in those days.  Later he moved to Oregon where he learned to make the most beautiful handmade beads you ever saw.  http://www.smircich.com/index.html

Melinda Scotten, Melinda Scotten.  Hmm, did I meet her at a party?  Must have been a short friendship.

Stephany Sunshine of Cosmos City blew in and out of my life like the original flower child.  I wrote a song about her that began

“Pretty little, pretty little Stephany,
Now your head’s been opened and it’s my oh my,
The thought’s you’re thinkin’ seem mighty strange to me…”

She deserves a post of her own.

Skip Shimmin eventually became a recording engineer and worked for Fantasy records, I think.  Maybe Skip is out there somewhere and can tell us.

My New Year’s resolution was if I can’t say anything nice, then I won’t say anything at all.  But don’t worry, I’ll be back one of these days, more fun than a barrel of monkeys!

Philippa Pearce or How I Became A Talking Pig

OR
Revenge of The Spotted Gypsy King

I’ve always thought Victorians had the best names for their novels, don’t you?  Why have only one name for a story, when you can have two or three or however many you like.  A reader might think, hmm, Philippa Pearce, probably about a poor but noble nurse who has to go to the North to care  for a rich mine owner with gout and she marries him at the end and gets rich as pigs.  Not my cuppa tea…WAIT, Or How I Became A Talking Pig. Now, that’s more like it!  I’ll have a go.

So our reader opens to the first page.

"I have not always been as I am today. (the author begins) Once I was a man like any other.  Well, not just like any other.  Actually, just like any other chubby fellow with long floppy ears.”

Well, this sounds promising, thinks our prospective reader, but where’s the part about Nurse Pearce and her noble mission to help shell-shocked soldiers recover their sexual appetites?"

So that’s where the Spotted Gypsy King, comes in, see? He’s been in the War and he’s come out all in spots.

Oh, maybe I’d just better start over.

I really did start out as a normal, although strange, kid.  There was nothing piggish bout me.  I flew my balsa wood glider into the telephone lines just like any other all-American boy.  But, when I was seven, I got rheumatic fever and it messed my aortic heart valve so bad that, by the time I was in my thirties, I needed heart surgery to replace my leaky valve with a…proper pig valve! This was not merely a name.  This was the valve from the heart of a living, breathing, dreaming, pondering pig.  Soon I began to have thoughts of becoming a detective.  I found myself craving Freddy The Pig stories. Worse yet, I discovered The Adventures of Pigling Bland and realized if I could only get to England I would find a world with talking pigs like me wearing proper coats and no pants.  I could rescue a pretty pig girl from an evil farmer like Pigling Bland did and then I’d be happy forever like they were.

Oh, you’ll never believe this.  Maybe I should start over.

Pigling Bland

Scratch the part about turning into a pig.  I was still an ordinary guy; I just had a pig valve where you have a human heart valve. I wasn’t turning bionic, but something else.

OK, the years roll by. My power trio, The Three Pigs, has made it to the top.  Then, one night it happens, my regular, not-bionic pig valve starts to leak.  I go into heart failure.  We’re putting the final touches on our debut album, The Revenge of The Spotty Gypsy King and I can’t finish the mix.  I’m in the hospital fighting for my life while the hard-hearted record executives gnash their teeth and throw out the master.  The surgeons replace my leaky valve with a new improved pig valve they found at the Saturday market, but this one, unbeknownst to them, is not a regular pig valve, it’s a magical pig valve.  It lets me see things that aren’t really there.

OK? Got it so far?  Now listen up.  This is where Philippa Pearce comes in.  One night after I get out of intensive care, I’m lying in my hospital bed and looking out the plate glass window at the owl flitting across the moon like you see sometimes when you’re loaded up on Percodan.  I’m wondering when that pretty night nurse will come in for my back rub when suddenly I see a vision!

Laugh if you want to.  Mock me. But I must tell what I have seen no matter how late you’ll be for the wedding.

I saw a late afternoon in midwinter.  The canal before my eyes was frozen solid.  Trees and withered sedge stood petrified by the frost. A grey leaden sky spread its headache light.  Then a young woman and a boy skated into view, down the canal right past me and skated on until they disappeared in the distance.  They had said no word.  They knew not I was there.  The boy was wearing pajamas.

Aficionados of English children’s books will recognize this as a scene from Philippa Pearce’s 1958 novel, Tom’s Midnight Garden.  But, at that time I had never read or even heard of Tom’s Midnight Garden.  When the book first came out, I was sixteen.  I was planning on becoming Elvis Presley or James Dean, not reading children’s books.

Tom's Midnight Garden XXIII

So, one night two or three years later, I pick up my daughter’s copy of Tom’s Midnight Garden and I’m leafing through it.  I think, hmm, time travel.  I love time travel.  I think I’ll just glance through this.  So I’m sitting in the living room by the fire reading and loving this book when I come across the scene.  The pajamas, the skates, the ice, Tom’s little girl friend who has grown into a young woman while he has remained a little boy.  The leaden wintry sky.  The sense of endings and forlorn emptiness inside.  The whole deal.

All joking aside, folks, this is the strangest damn thing that has ever happened to me.  No author has, or could ever, affect me like Philippa Pearce did.  I must have a connection with her that goes far beyond books, that’s all I can think.  I found out today she died three years ago.  Which is why I wrote this post.

Lucy Lewis

I dreamed I saw Lucy Lewis last night,
alive as you and me.
“Lucy, I hardly knew yuh”, I said.
“I came to your dream anyway,” said she.

She smiled, but vague. I dreamed I said…

“I see you, Lucy. I see you walking across the San Francisco State commons in the fog with your dark-haired clone Lenore.

“Why, Lucy, you’re still wearing your black leotards, you’re still wearing your black tights you’re still exhaling coolness like rose perfume, you still even have acne!

“You and George Hunter are still producing the Happening in the Gallery Lounge Spring 1964. You choreographing it, George is making space music for it at the Tape Music Center and it sounds like a snowy midnight somewhere in 1840 or 2140 or out in the galaxy far past the farthest comet.

“I’m still holding your robe! What kind of dream is this anyway? I see black lights, strobe lights every kind of night light.

“You are unearthly and George’s gold front tooth is glistening wet and insane in the black light midnight.

“Who is carrying your crystal coffin? Why, it’s four Rodney Albins all wearing swallowtail coats and stovepipe hats and emanating theatrical gloom! I see. They’re marching the dead march for you until Lenore rises from her coffin like a ghost of love lost and dances a sad waltz in her diaphanous gown with the spotlight reflecting off cases filled with basketball trophies from 1948, 1949, 1956 and your well-trained raven and Edgar Allen Poe candles

burning my heart and fingers and then

your raven flew down from the trophy case and quoth ‘Nevermore’ no more.”

But you said,

“Who is George Hunter? Who is Lenore? Why am I in your dream?”

And I knew for certainty you lost your memory in sorrow that will never end in this life.

Because we were standing on the fifth floor of the Hearst Building at Third and Market in San Francisco waiting for the elevator and we were saying goodbye because we would never come here no more and I was grieving too.

I was grieving for my tough newspaperman father who had his office on this very floor where he smoked Chesterfields and Camels and bashed out a daily column and put on his fedora and hiked to the Nugget to interview Lola Albright. And I will never see him no more in this life no matter how much I miss him and Lucy Lewis was come to sorrow with me

because she was the angel of grief.

But she had lost her memory.

Photo by Patrushka

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.