Those First Few Weeks Were Murder
The main thing I recall about those first few weeks in San Francisco in early 1968 was how unpleasant they were. It was chilly and dark and rained a lot, and I quickly realized that San Franciscans apparently had some macho notion that, since it never got really cold, heat was only for wimps “back east,” so there wasn’t any. So, although it never got below 45° outside, I had never experienced such cold inside, in my entire life.
Curt lived on the fourth and top floor of a big apartment building. The place had no elevator, so I really had to learn how to climb. The living conditions were less than ideal. All the apartments in the building were studios, but strangely the kitchens and bedroom/living rooms were across the common hall from each other, and there was only one communal bathroom for the whole floor, halfway down the hall. Curt already had a roommate. So that meant that Curt, his roommate Jimmy, along with the four of us who’d driven out from Indiana—Ben Lynne, Bill and me—had to share two rooms among the six of us, and a bathroom with the occupants of the entire floor.
It wasn’t long until we’d “divided up” our territory. Ben and Curt moved a bed into the kitchen and stayed there. The rest of us had to make do in the other room. It was a big room, but even so, sleeping on the floor with no heat and being forced to listen, alternately, to Lynne and Bill’s romantic goings-on and Jimmy’s constant chattering, not to mention the difficulty in cooking anything with only intermittent kitchen privileges, was tough duty. Then when Ben, who was bisexual, started having guilt attacks about his affair with Curt and started emerging from the kitchen after the door had been discreetly closed for some time and pouring his guts out to me about how he enjoyed making love with Curt and really loved him but felt dirty afterwards, I tried to be a friend and console him while discouraging him from giving up on my other friend Curt. And that balancing act was even tougher duty.
Given all these various relationship hassles, not to mention the adverse living conditions, it was hardly a surprise that I soon began regretting coming to San Francisco. If I were back in Indiana with my roommates Larry and Matt, I would have my own room; it might be cold outside but never in, and, after a short break, I would certainly have found another job. I wouldn’t be so lonely either. Matt and Larry were both single and, though I wasn’t interested in either of them romantically, Matt was like a distant cousin and Larry like a brother. And after spending two weeks surrounded by amorous couples, except for Jimmy who was so nondescript as to barely exist, in the middle of all that love and sexuality, I felt desperately alone.
Partly to escape the piles of bodies in the apartment and since it was no colder outside, I did venture out during that time. It rained a lot, so I didn’t do much, but I recall dodging puddles, clambering up and down hills and staring blankly at the ever gray and threatening sky. I meant to hit the employment office, I really did, but I just wasn’t ready to go back to work yet.
The one touristy thing I remember was Union Square. I was amazed to see that little square of green with palms trees plopped in the midst of and completely surrounded by gray skyscrapers. The dichotomy of it, the crazy juxtaposition, bowled me over. There, with the beginnings of a smile, I wasn’t bothered by the chill and the dense overcast sky. But it was only a little, and it wasn’t enough. Worn out, cold and downhearted, the only thing that stopped me from leaving was that, after two weeks in San Francisco, I suddenly got so sick I literally couldn’t move to go.
I’d had mononucleosis in college and this felt like that, if somewhat less intense. Ben had had some pre-med training before dropping out of IU and kept assuring me I couldn’t get mono twice. His assurances hardly lessened my fever, achiness and general lethargy. I would have preferred less medical advice and more medicinal trips to the drugstore. But he and Curt had more important items on their plate, and Bill and Lynne were more and more drifting off hand-in-hand in search of better digs. So about all any of them did was shake their heads ruefully as they passed me by and left me lying there.
Harry and Betty were Curt’s next-door neighbors. She was an ex-prostitute who had been “saved” by Harry and was now a stay-at-home wife. Harry worked at the Post Office during the week, but from 5:00 PM Friday until 8:00 AM Monday stayed stoned on heroin.
I’d met Betty one day as Curt and I were migrating from kitchen to bedroom and back again. When I bumped into her a few days later, she invited me in, and that’s when I met Harry. She was a real talker, so I sat on the couch beside Harry, while she sat in a chair across from us delivering a monologue on Astrology and the Tarot.
Harry said nothing; in fact, he sat almost motionless. At first, I didn’t take much notice of his inertia, and certainly didn’t connect it with his part-time junkie status. But after a few minutes of his complete silence and utter motionlessness, I began to suspect that something besides lack of communication skills was going on with him. Finally, I did notice a slight but somehow eerie movement emanating from his general direction. I stole a glance at him. It appeared he still wasn’t moving, but his left arm was bent up at the elbow and was jutting out at a peculiar angle.
Betty went to the kitchen to make some tea and I turned toward Harry, ready to say something chatty. His arm was still hanging in mid-air, in almost the same configuration as before. I opened my mouth to say something, then quickly shut it again. I watched in mild shock as that strange arm-elbow configuration finally moved almost imperceptibly, in a snail-crawl, upward. I noticed then that there was an unlit cigarette wedged between his index and middle finger: apparently it was on its inexorable way to Harry’s mouth.
Betty returned with the tea and I drank it, hand shaking, trying not to turn and stare at Harry. Betty really got going on the Tarot and part of me was listening in “real” time, but another part was fastened onto Harry’s arm as it made its glacial progress towards the far-distant, far-future destination of his mouth. At last the journey ended and Harry had his cigarette. I didn’t catch him lighting it. Maybe that took place in normal time, or maybe there was some wild magic afoot with the lighting and smoking taking place outside of regular time. Whatever the case, that day I identified an entirely new type of time: Harry-time.
I didn’t see Harry or Betty for a few days after that. Then when I came down with my flying case of pseudo-mono, I had little choice but to avoid everything and everybody. But apparently word got around and, on about the fourth day, when I was beginning to wonder if I were going to die on that cold floor, there was a knock on the door and, as nobody was around, I croaked, “Come . . . in.”
I cleared my throat. “Door’s open,” I said a little louder.
The door creaked, jarred open and Harry edged in. I’d expected it to be Curt or Ben, both of whom sometimes observed the amenities of knocking. So I sat up, forced my mashed hair to lie a little flatter and even tried to pull myself up. But I felt dizzy and my legs wouldn’t work, so I just sat there staring at him.
“I heard you were laid up,” he said, taking a position on the far side of the room.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Mono or something. I don’t know. I don’t know what it is.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Happens like that sometimes.”
I blinked. Harry was hardly being loquacious. But I couldn’t recall him saying this many words all in a row, ever.
“I guess I’ll get better,” I moped. “I suppose.”
“Sure,” he said. “But you need some help. I’ve got just the thing.”
I blinked again. Could it be? After being ignored by everybody else, could it be that old Harry was actually going to help me?
“Really?” I said. “That would be great. Some iron or aspirin would be nice.”
“Oh, no,” he said and smiled a wily grin. “You need a little smack. That’ll take all your troubles away.”
Smack! “What?” I yelped, jumping around on that air mattress I called home. “But—but that’s not medicine. That’d just wipe me out more.”
He shook his head. “No, it’ll cure you.”
I shuddered. “I’m sick,” I said, “done in, and you want to finish the job. Forget it.” Transform me into a creature of Harry-time, most likely.
“No, it’ll work,” he insisted. “You’ll feel better right away. I’ll go get some now and fix you up.”
“Wait! Wait!” I was panicking, though the effort was making me lightheaded. “I don’t want any. It’s not medicine, it’s a drug. It can’t cure anything.”
“Drugs. Medicine. Not all that different.” He started for the door.
“Come back,” I yelled. “I don’t want any. Uh, uh, thanks. Thanks and all that, but I’ll take my chances. Hey, I’m feeling better already.”
His hand was on the doorknob. He stared at me for one long, Harry-time moment. “I’ll shoot you up,” he offered. “You don’t have to do a thing. Just lie back and it’ll be over in no time flat.”
“I don’t want any junk, Harry.” I steadied myself with my hand against the wall. “In my condition, I think it would kill me. I think it would wash me away.” I sucked in some air. “Please,” I said. “Please.”
One corner of his mouth turned up. “Can’t handle the heavy stuff, huh,” he said. “You hippies are all alike. All talk and no action. All a bunch of wimps.”
“I’m not a hippie and I’m sure not a wimp—” I cut myself off. “Uh, uh, yeah, I guess you’re right, Harry. A little mousy grass is all I can take. I’m a wimp, a big fat wimp.” I managed a truly wimpy smile.
He smiled back; sneered. “That’s what I thought. Well, let me know if you change your mind and I’ll have you back on your feet in an hour.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, wondering just how long a Harry-hour would last. “Thanks again. Bye.”
He gave me one last look, then shook his head and left. For some time after the door closed, I lay there wondering if I should drag myself up and stumble out of there before he changed his mind and came back and drove a needle deep into my wimpy arm.
Maybe it was the fear of needle-rape or maybe the creepy feeling that my whole life there was cloudy and dulled-out like the February sky and also like what I imagined a heroin high to be. But, a couple of days after Harry paid me that visit, I actually did start feeling better.
The day that happened, propped against the wall, I looked out of the bevy of windows across the room and there, interlaced among the dark clouds was a jagged stripe of blue. I took it for a sign. I also made a resolution: either this place was going to start offering up some interesting experiences for me, as it was for everybody but me, or I was getting out. I drew in my breath, coughed only a little, got up, and feeling only slightly lightheaded, grabbed a towel and went to get a much needed bath that I hoped would get me started on my way.
And it was about then that I started really being in San Francisco, rather than just hanging over the rail of it, odd-duck out.
A day or two later, somebody moved out a couple of doors down the hall. Jimmy and I leaped on the chance to escape the hordes and arranged to share it, he in the kitchen on one side of the hall, me in the bedroom on the other.
“I’ll pay more rent,” I offered gladly, “since the bedroom is bigger and all.”
“No, I’ll pay the full half—$30. No problem. You can even have kitchen privileges, if you let me know in advance.”
Sixty dollars a month: rents were really murder back then!
That same week, Lynne and Bill found an apartment and moved right in. Curt and Ben moved into their whole apartment and were presumably happy. Jimmy and I were sort of all right, and Bill and Lynne should have been ecstatic too, but the few times I visited them, she seemed as repressed as ever and he his usual slightly surly self.
For the first few days I spent in my new room, I pretty much hibernated. I didn’t have much stuff to put away so that didn’t take long. I wasn’t heavily into cleaning back then, so it wasn’t mass renovation and fumigation that engaged me. But after all that noise and bustle, I appreciated the relative quiet and especially the bed which was mine, mine and only mine! So I spent the time reading, writing and joyfully, silently staring at the wall.
That didn’t last long. I’d made that vow that things were going to start getting more interesting or I was cutting back to Indiana, and I couldn’t expect that to happen if I stowed myself away. I’d noticed too that there seemed to be some interesting-looking people, some of them apparently single guys, living on my floor. I was curious to meet somebody in San Francisco besides Harry and Betty. I wasn’t quite ready to go door-knocking yet though, so when I crawled out, I spent time with Curt and Ben and visited Bill and Lynne and strangely, considering her mousiness, it was Lynne who got me started on the road to really experiencing San Francisco as it existed then in all its blooming, psychedelic glory.
“There’s a class at SF State that I’d like to take,” she told me on my second or third visit to her new apartment. “Bill doesn’t want to go. Would you come with me?”
“A class,” I wondered. “Well, I don’t have much money and, anyway, the semester has started, hasn’t it? Isn’t it too late to sign up?”
“Oh, no, this class is in an alternative school, kind of a shadow school.” She produced a wan smile. “There’s no charge. You just show up.”
“Really! So what is it?”
“It’s called ‘Monday Night Class’ or ‘White North American Witchcraft’,” she said without blinking an eye.
I blinked. “Wow. That’s far out, really out there. I don’t know anything about witchcraft, white or otherwise. I don’t want to put hexes on anybody or—”
“Nah, from what I’ve heard, it’s just this guy who talks and people ask him questions. No potions, nothing like that. How about it?” She actually seemed excited. For Lynne, that was a surprise in itself.
“Okay,” I said, remembering my vow, “I’ll give it a try.”
The instructor, Stephen Gaskin, turned out to be a former member of the SFSU English faculty. He’d been teaching merrily along until he discovered that his students were teaching him more about what was happening at that time than he was teaching them about lit. So, following Tim Leary’s lead, having already turned on and tuned in, he dropped out. But not all the way out, just over to that old semi-warehouse-looking, barn-like structure plop in the middle of the campus.
He started out by fiercely hugging a few dozen of his closest pals, while the remaining thousand or so of us stood around in the huge, chairless room watching. Then he jumped on stage and cajoled us to recite “OMs.” He said it was a way for us all to talk at once, whatever that meant. He also said it was somehow the hollowed-out, deepest, fullest sound of the entire universe, and of God.
I didn’t understand it then and still don’t now. OMs sound impressive though, I’ll give them that, and I still say them silently when I’m nervous and need to calm down.
I was starting to fidget, considered suggesting to Lynne that we leave, when Stephen started talking. He talked about esoteric subjects, including Buddhism and Hinduism, but also about ordinary life, although with anything but an ordinary slant. He asked us how many people had taken LSD. Most had, of course including me. He was a stoned head, there was no doubt about it and a lot of what he said was scrambled up and mashed together, but a lot was intriguing and, right away, on that first evening, he made me ponder the nature of awareness and enlightenment and even reality in ways I’d never done before.
During a break, standing in the SFSU courtyard, Lynne turned towards me with shining eyes. “Wasn’t that far out,” she extolled. “He really is cool.”
“Yeah,” I reluctantly agreed. “Some of it was pretty weird and I don’t know if I can believe it, but it is interesting. Very California. Yeah.”
She flashed me a hard look, which in her case was kind of like getting a scowl from a field mouse. “Charlene, it was great,” she proclaimed. “What about that stuff he said about us all agreeing that the world is as we collectively perceive it, and that we can lose that agreement, that attachment, and if we do, we might stop thinking the floor is a floor, and realize it’s just a vast network of atoms that we perceive as a floor and then we would fall right through it?” Her eyes really glistened then. “That was really outta sight.”
I wasn’t convinced of even the possible validity of such a concept. Still, it was great to see Lynne turned on by something other than Bill. So, “Yeah,” I said, “it is a cool idea, but if it were true, it would throw our entire worldview as well as the world itself into a tailspin. It would change everything.”
She nodded sagely, still with that strange glint in her eye. I flashed on the Ancient Mariner and his glittering eye, but didn’t say a thing.
“Thanks for bringing me,” I remembered to be polite. “Let’s come again next week.”
She just grabbed my arm and dragged me back inside for the grand finale. As we elbowed our way through the throngs of people with stoned expressions and sparkling eyes, I felt attracted and yet also vaguely repelled. They did seem to be on some other wavelength, like they knew something I didn’t and like that something was a big joke. I worried about them too though, that they were losing touch with their own minds and might actually fall through their own mental floors. At the same time, I envied them their apparent unanimity.
It seemed that all of them, maybe including Lynne, were speaking and being all together, reciting OMs. But I remained on the sidelines straining to hear, clearing my throat, never able to leap in and join them in their vast OM-atic sea.
Back at our building, challenged as always by the four-floor climb, I made it almost to the top and collapsed, huffing and puffing, on the stairs. I struggled to get to my feet, but my knees gave out and I plopped down again. Just at that moment, a guy came out of his bedroom down the hall and went across to his kitchen.
“Damn,” I hissed to myself. Had he seen me in graceless-swan mode? What must he think? And I cared too because he was one of the two-three seemingly single guys I’d had my eye on for some time.
I pulled in my breath, grabbed my purse and then the railing, and started getting up. So, of course, right then, with my knees and arms bent in awkward angles, he reappeared and, this time, as he closed his kitchen door, he looked straight at me.
I hoisted myself up, cleared my throat. “Hi,” I managed to croak.
He looked to the side, then down and said, “E-uh,” or some such. Then he turned and went across the hall and back inside.
Oh boy! I’d really blown it. Not only had I demonstrated all the agility of the Tin Man, but instead of laughing it off and smiling in some friendly way, I’d acted embarrassed, like it really mattered, and driven him away. I finally did drag myself to the top of the stairs and started towards my room. But then, with a little rattle, his door opened and he came back out.
For a moment, we stood staring at each other. “Hi,” he finally said. “Had my hands full before, so I couldn’t stop to talk.”
“Oh. Well, that’s okay. I just wanted to say hi. I mean, since I’ve seen you before and . . . and well, you know, we’re neighbors and all.” Wow, what a gift for repartee. I was outdoing myself.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sure.”
“I’m Charlene,” I said and considered offering my hand but that seemed silly.
“Bill,” he said and nodded slightly.
Another Bill. Just what I needed.
“Hi Bill,” I said without even wincing. “Nice to meet you.”
“Sure,” he said again. Maybe his repartee wasn’t sparkling either.
We stood in silence. I started edging towards my door. Then he said, “Hey, I’ve got some popcorn. Want some?”
“Uh, sure,” I said. “I guess.” I wasn’t sure about going into his apartment, neighbor or not.
He seemed to get that. “I’ll get it.”
While he got the popcorn, I sat down on the top step; it seemed the thing to do, and in that minute or so flashed through what had just gone on, what I thought of him and what the possibilities were. He was tall, dark and handsome, no doubt about that. Still, there was his hair. It was black and long, the way I liked it, but it always looked messy, as though he hadn’t combed it in days. He had a sort of lumbering walk too—I’d seen him stomping down the hall several times, head always slightly down. So with that and his extreme hairstyle, he made me think of a caveman.
A good-looking caveman.
He came back and slouched down on the other side of the top step and set the popcorn bowl between us.
I dug right in. All that weird and somewhat unsettling talk in and out of Stephen’s class had left me famished. “Thanks,” I mumbled with my mouth full. “It’s good.”
He chuckled, a lock of his messy hair falling over his forehead. “Yeah, I have some every night while I’m studying.”
“Oh,” I said, slightly disappointed. I guess after the night I’d had, I wanted him to be a real hippie, hanging out on Haight Street, dropping acid and conjuring visions all day. “Uh, where do you go to school?”
I perked up a little. “I was just there tonight,” I said. “I went to this alternative class by Stephen . . . Stephen something.”
“Stephen Gaskin,” he helped me out.
“That’s it. Anyway, it was strange, but pretty interesting.”
He looked straight at me, eyes dark and steamy and nodded knowingly. “I’ve heard he’s on an ego trip,” he said and kept on staring.
I considered that. “Well, maybe so,” I said. “He did seem to really enjoy being on stage. But he said a lot of things that made me think, or rather made me look at some things differently.”
“Like that this reality,” I waved my hand around the murky hallway, “is just a construct that we all hold in common and if we let go of it, it would fall apart and we’d all float away.” I laughed. “Not really, but that’s kind of the idea.” I laughed again.
“I’ve got one better,” he said stuffing popcorn into his face and throwing his head back in a really cool way. “How about this? We not only hold reality in common by our beliefs, we also can change reality with our beliefs.”
I frowned. I didn’t get that at all.
He leaned towards me and set his searing eyes on me again. They were vaguely menacing, but attracting too. “Well, for example the fog,” he said.
“The . . . fog?” I repeated, even more confused.
“Yeah, the famous fog and gray skies we put up with so much of the time here.”
That was a shocker. Fog all of the time? “Do you mean in summer too?” I did wince then.
“Sure. The fog season.” He looked crookedly at me.
“I just moved here from Indiana,” I explained. “I knew it was foggy in San Francisco, but I guess it’s worse than I imagined, huh?”
“Summer’s the worst,” he said. “July and August are cool and foggy rather than hot.”
“I see.” Even more treats to look forward to.
He smiled faintly. He seemed to be enjoying my discomfort in some caveman-hippie way.
“Anyway,” he said, “we have all this fog and chilliness because so many of us want it. But if we didn’t want it, hard enough, enough of us, the fog would break up and float away.”
“Really,” I said, wondering if he were putting me on. “So, you’re saying we can . . . control the weather?”
He grinned. “I guess so. But not consciously, not by waving our hands around or casting spells, just by some mental mechanism we haven’t defined or even understood yet.”
I still suspected subterfuge. But I didn’t know how exactly to accuse him of it. It was one thing for Stephen, a self-proclaimed guru, to be saying these things and quite another for my next door neighbor, a San Francisco State student, to say them. “I like the idea,” I said carefully. “It would be great to have a power to change things like the weather, and maybe other more important things too. But I just can’t believe it’s possible.”
“Then you can’t do it,” he declared. “If you don’t believe in it, you can’t do it. That’s the way it works.”
“How do you know?” I said a little petulantly. “How would you know all this?”
He jumped a little and laughed. “I just heard it or read it,” he said. “And it sounded pretty cool.”
“Oh, it is cool,” I agreed. “But I just don’t know.”
He got up suddenly and grabbed the empty bowl. I got up too, wondering if my lack of belief was bugging him. I also wondered, if it did, how much I cared. I headed for my door. “I’ve got some grass,” he said. “Wanta have a smoke?”
I did. I guess I thought he’d never ask, though I didn’t know I felt that way until he asked. “Sure,” I said and smiled and followed him to his room.
We smoked the joint right down to the roach and then used a clip for that as well. By that time, we were giggling and had forgotten all about fog and sunshine, along with just about every other damned thing. And it wasn’t long before we were working on our mutual and collective sexual power.
Sex is like Chinese food. There are a large variety of dishes, and every restaurant prepares them a little differently. Still, with all that, it’s hard to get a bad meal in a Chinese restaurant. Most places are at least pretty good.
It’s hard to remember just how sex was with Bill. But he had his distinctive style and that was fine with me. Again, like Chinese food, it doesn’t have to be fancy, just simple and flavorful, and it was.
There was one odd thing related to sex with Bill though: not with the act itself, which, in my experience, is always pretty much the same, but with the preliminaries. He slept in a T-shirt, nothing more. Sometimes in the morning after I’d spent the night or even in the middle of the night, wearing only that abbreviated attire, he’d chase me around the bed. There was nothing vicious about it. But he seemed to get a charge out of it. He’d stomp and lumber along, arms flailing, hair flying and then he’d “catch” me and we’d make love. I didn’t mind it. I wasn’t afraid. It just wasn’t my thing. It was kind of like mixing sweet and sour pork with broccoli and beef. It didn’t blend very well and in the end, neither did we. He had that caveman routine and, as usual at that time in my life, I had the hope/fantasy that whoever I was with at the moment would be the “one.” So I was looking for love and commitment and he was emulating his favorite Tarzan movie. So our fantasies didn’t jibe.
I don’t think Bill had to act in that extreme caveman way: he wasn’t dumb. Maybe he thought to be hip and cool he had to slouch around, converse in monosyllables and not comb his hair. He told me once that, though he did wash his hair regularly, he never combed it and, in fact, would shake the hell out of it after each washing to enhance the effect. Also, that brief talk we had that first night was the most expansive conversation we ever had, so he was capable of conversation, but just chose not to do it. So it seemed to me he was putting on an act, probably more for himself than for me and the rest of the world, although I never figured out why.
Anyway, after a couple of weeks, we got bored with each other and stopped sleeping together. In another week, we barely nodded when we passed in the hall.
Years later, a woman who had also lived on the fourth floor back then and I were ruminating over what may have become of Bill. She conjectured that he’d gone one of two ways: either he was living as a hermit in a cave in the mountains somewhere (her words, not mine) or he’d finally followed in his father’s footsteps and become an executive in Dad’s corporation in Southern California. It made me sad to think of either one being true, but she was probably right.
Every person leaves something with you, and what Bill left me was the idea that anybody, guru or dishwasher, can have a dramatic and direct impact on the world with his/her mind, and that, with enough mental power, she/he might drive the fog away, make it rain or even cause an earthquake. Most of all, he left me with the awareness that a so-called average person could take the idea of a would-be guru like Stephen and move it one step further. Stephen described us as having a worldview in common; Bill said we did have that and could change the world together.
I always wondered if he really read or heard that, as he said, or came up with it himself. I prefer to think it was him.
About Charlene Anderson
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