Monday, June 18, 2012


When I returned to San Francisco for the first time since I lived there forty years ago, the flashbacks were inevitable, even though the acid had long since worn off.

As a lost-in-life, hippy mailman driving a delivery truck back then, I had known my way around the city pretty well. Poking around Chinatown this month, I couldn’t believe I once had navigated that confusing jangle of back alleys and labyrinth balconies, delivering packages to old Chinese who seldom spoke English.

I frequently worked in North Beach – birthplace of the beatniks and the neighborhood where author Richard Brautigan (A Confederate General from Big Sur and Trout Fishing in America) lived. I trucked packages to City Lights Bookstore, founded in the ‘50s by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind), and to all the other famous tourist spots – Telegraph Hill, Lombard Street (“the crookedest street in the world”), and topless/bottomless joints on Broadway Street. My favorite delivery was to The Condor where Carol Doda and her “twin 44s” danced. If I was lucky, a bare-breasted dancer would answer the bell and sign for the package.

Some nights, I wandered along Broadway watching the strip club hawkers at work: Right a-bove your chair on a sol-id glass cage… My favorite I called “The Bullfrog”; his croaking voice, inviting sailors to “step right in,” was even lower than a bullfrog’s. He got upset if you giggled when you walked past.

On my recent return to San Francisco, I walked these same streets. The park where once I had seen Richard Brautigan sitting alone on a bench, was filled with flocks of t’ai chi-ing Chinese women. Broadway’s licentiousness had withered; a shabby Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club echoed by-gone color. Chinatown was vibrant as I remembered, clogged with locals shopping for food – colorful boxes of fresh produce and seafood stacked early-morning sidewalks, Chinese voices chattered like wind chimes in the cool breeze. A bent, toothless woman with a bag of fresh, silvery smelt haggled price with five customers surrounding her.

On Grant Street, a window display of ivory netsuke caught my eye. Netsuke – invented by Japanese more than 300 years ago – were used to cinch to sashes the cords that hung pouches (kimonos lacked pockets).

I first fell for the miniature carvings when I had lived in the city, often visiting the netsuke collection at the de Young art museum in Golden Gate Park. In fact, that moment in Chinatown, I was heading to the Asian Art Museum to see them once again. (The Asian museum was created from the old city library; it now displays the Asian art once held by the de Young.)

The netsuke in the Chinatown shop window, however, were not limited to traditional depictions of monks and animals. Many were X-rated, carved, oriental Kama Sutra – all acrobatic positions finely rendered in ivory. I needed a closer look.

The shop was empty of customers but jammed wall-to-wall with all manner of high-end Asian arts and crafts, including exquisite jade and wood carvings. The really good stuff was upstairs on a balcony, the steps blocked by a velvet cord.

I asked Carlos, the young salesman, the range of prices for the netsuke in his front window. He said one to several hundred dollars each, then escorted me upstairs to see more netsuke and other fine art.

I stopped cold at the head of the stairs. “This is incredible,” I mumbled. My delight at his sculptures inspired Carlos and he showed me his favorites – two-foot-long ivory tusks with dozens of tiny figures incised in their curves. “These are museum-quality,” I said, and told him how I was heading for the Asian museum that very morning.

“But you can’t touch them in a museum,” he smiled, and caressed the un-carved, ocher end of a tusk. “Here.”

The ivory felt alive, smooth and cool on my fingertips. It was like sneaking a touch in a museum, but without the guilt.

Carlos showed me a brilliantly-lit display case crammed with netsuke. “Any chickens?” I asked. He opened drawers and boxes, but found only one tiny rooster that didn’t impress me. Carlos wanted to sell me something and I wanted to buy something. He showed me ducks and other miniature creatures, but nothing I liked. I focused, one-by-one, on the hundred or so netsuke (the majority in frozen stages of fornication). I asked to see an R‑rated one, a naked geisha sitting on her haunches. Ivory, probably from an ice-age Russian mammoth tusk. She was the one. Sold, I thought. I threw out a number. “Would that do it?” I guessed. I was thirty dollars too low.

“But would you do it anyways? That’s my limit,” I replied in my sternest tone. Carlos finally agreed and we started downstairs.

“Just one last feel,” I said, and stroked again the carved tusk. That gave Carlos fresh salesman adrenalin, and he launched into a story about rare white jade, reaching for a delicate white sculpture in a display case to show me the jade’s inner glow under the spotlight. His sale pitch started at $4,000 and eventually got down to $1,500.

“Carlos, you’re killing me here,” I laughed, while thinking: My wife would kill me. “No, I just can’t,” I concluded. “I spent all my money on chickens, building them the Taj Mahal of chicken coops.”

Carlos laughed, but sounded deflated. I went on my way with my naked netsuke, an odd birthday present for my wife.

When I got to the new (to me) Asian Art Museum, the handsome, young, African-American security guard, all natty in his dark suit and tie, cooed, “I like your bag,” inspecting my birdwatching book-bag. “O-oh, purple on the inside!”

“Thank you,” was all I said. What I thought was, Maybe we’re all a little gay on the inside.

Netsuke -- Asian Art Museum
After soaking up all the art culture I could manage, I returned to the sunshine. The broad plaza between the library-converted-to-museum and the city hall was quiet. But scenes of anti-Vietnam War violence and hatred flared in my memories.
* * *
The date was May 4, 1970.

My home apartment had been just up Market Street and then a couple blocks up the hill on Haight Street. Walking to the library that day, I had stumbled into an anti-war demonstration and joined several thousand people outside the nearby Federal Building. Lots of “right-on” and “power to the people” in the air. Country Joe McDonald sang the call-and-response Fuck Song (Gimme an F!, etc.) and my favorite, the Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag:

Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

…Well, come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to
Come on fathers, don’t hesitate,
Send ‘em off before it’s too late.
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.

After speeches, the demonstrators marched across the concrete mall to City Hall to present an anti-war resolution to the Board of Supervisors. Everyone tried to crowd inside; Viet Cong flags waved and chants of Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh echoed off the rotunda. Finally convinced to go back outside, the crowd clogged the sidewalks and street. That’s when dozens of “blue meanies” (city police) arrived and started sweeping up the area. I watched twenty kids get clubbed on the steps. From there, it turned into an off-and-on skirmish for the rest of the afternoon. The cops formed lines to keep the street and front of the building clear, so the jeering crowd gathered across the street in an open mall area. Rocks and bottles flew; one took out a window in a passing patrol wagon.

The cops carried three-foot clubs scarred with cuts and nicks. If they thought they saw someone throw anything, a squad would give chase, and people would scatter. Guys got hauled down and beaten. One was caught and clubbed by a cop, who found himself alone and surrounded by a lot of pissed off people; he pulled his gun and started waving it at our faces.

Personally, I never saw the point in throwing things or being ugly about it all. Nonetheless, I was there because I wanted the war to end, which was the real point.

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San Francisco City Hall in quieter times (2012)
Everyone knew by then that there were demonstrations going on that same day across the country. In Lansing, more than 25,000 people marched on the state capitol building, and twenty-five were hurt when a pro-war supporter drove a car into the march. Eastern Michigan University was under a state of emergency and dawn-to-dusk curfew. That day at Kent State University in Ohio, four students were shot dead and nine injured by National Guard troops.

In San Francisco after things had petered out at the anti-war demonstration, I walked home and ate some supper and later walked back to the library again. It was all so peaceful. Nothing left but discarded pickets and broken glass. The rhododendrons were in full bloom. I picked a big pink blossom and took it home to fill my apartment with sweetness.

Being a hippy mailman was easy, but it sucked. I drove my truck every day in traffic jams and smog and hauled heavy packages up hills and stairs, dodging dog shit that seemed everywhere.

When not working, I bought fresh squid for bait in Chinatown and fished off the rocks at the entrance to San Francisco Bay, using a cheap saltwater fishing rod I bought through the mail from L.L. Bean. Rarely, I caught rock fish and tiger sharks. The sharks seemed more like dogs than fish; their malevolent eyes would follow my hand, and they would snap at me when I took out the hook. One time, something enormous took my bait and headed into the setting sun. It easily stripped all my line and vanished, leaving me shaking and in awe. And once, I caught a 19-pound striped bass off the sand at Baker Beach in Marin County. I rode my Harley home across the Golden Gate Bridge with the great fish’s tail sticking out of my backpack. Jaws dropped as cars passed me. It was a proud moment.

After my girlfriend from Michigan moved in with me, we spent my free days in Golden Gate Park, along Bodega Bay, and on Mt. Tamalpais hiking and bird watching. She cooked and made our tiny apartment homey. She wore spring-flower perfume. We drank jasmine tea and ate Chinese food with chop sticks.

She enrolled in classes at San Francisco State, and I rode the bus with her to cinema classes to watch avant garde films. In Golden Gate Park, we watched old Italians play bocce ball and dreamed of learning the language and traveling to Italy. We were enchanted by an outdoor performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the park’s open-air amphitheater.
* * *
Four decades later, I sat on the same green park bench, stared at the empty stage, and the moment was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. Here was where last I sat a lifetime ago, watching Shakespeare with the then-love-of-my-life. Puck and love’s foibles had made us laugh. Little did we know that it all was a will-o’-the-wisp.

On this day in 2012, the true-love-of-my-life, my wife, was 500 miles away. She would enjoy this park, I thought, with its gardens, ocean air infused with eucalyptus, lovely Asian-Americans everywhere, including a young man in a white sweater, black pants and a sword-shape of white down each leg, floating on the Earth through his t’ai chi.

The Vietnam War and its protests were long silent. Had all that really happened? The only protest I had seen on this visit was a small group of striking janitors noisily picketing in front of their parking lot employer on Market Street.

I had forgotten the anonymity conveyed on you in the big city. Despite the loneliness, there is a freedom that comes with knowing you have virtually no chance of seeing anyone you know. Of course, “virtually none” is not zero.
* * *
Back in 1970, on a Sunday morning in an early December rain, I had dropped half a hit of acid and headed for Golden Gate Park. From the foggy bus window, I spotted a bum on Haight Street who looked familiar – tall and lanky, scruffy beard, dark eyes. I jumped off and found an old friend from Michigan, Tom, selling the Berkeley Barb alternative newspaper. He was dirty, ragged, and looked like he had been standing out in the rain too long. He told me he was living on the street, selling papers, and sleeping in crash pads, the park, or, once in a while, hotels.

I gave him my other half-hit of acid, and we walked around the park, sat and talked, and went to the de Young art museum, where I showed him my favorite netsuke. Tom stayed with me a while and then moved on with life back in Michigan.

A decade later, when I also was back living in Michigan, Tom and I ran a half-marathon together on a gorgeous late-fall day in rural mid-Michigan that was the best run of my life. We averaged 7:30 minutes per mile and finished together with energy to spare. Today, running one mile at that pace would do me in.

Back then, Tom was looking for love and used a dating service where, after many false starts, he found a wife. They moved to a farm in Minnesota. Tom developed a difficult disease, but he seems to have had a happy life with his family and farm animals, judging from the annual Christmas cards I still get from him. As I struggle these days through my solo runs in rainy Oregon, I often marvel at our long-ago friendship and those two strangers whom I barely recognize, running like gazelles in the Michigan sunshine.
* * *
As for my hippy, trippy self of so many yesteryears ago, that lonely guy wandering the city, lost in life – well, it turns out that I still have an eye for netsuke. I still hate war and warmongers. I still like birds and fishing and flowers and jasmine tea and bare breasts.

Wandering the city this month, I stood on the traffic island outside the Broadway Street tunnel and stared into its dark opening, peering into my past. I once had loved going fast on my Harley. I would ride to this spot late at night, idle until traffic had cleared ahead, and then fly as fast as possible through the half-mile-long tunnel – 85 mph was my tops. The Harley’s roar in that narrow, one-way tunnel was some kind of thrill, especially when a little drunk. Far out.

That had been my life for a few long years living in San Francisco in the ‘70s – a mostly unhappy time filled with weed, acid and ennui. Yet, it was where finally, at age 25, I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up (that’s another story). Starting in San Francisco, I spent a lifetime becoming the person and creating the life I wanted for myself. My return to the city of my spiritual birth confirmed how much I like how that all turned out.


  1. Wayne, I loved reading this. You are a gifted writer. Please write more! You need to write a book and get it published.
    Best, Chris

  2. Hi Wayne,
    As always a great read, really enjoyed it.