Wild Times in 1957 San Francisco
by Gary Beck
First thing in the morning Steve telephoned. The butler answered in his chilly voice.
"May I speak to Randy, please?"
"Whom shall I say is calling?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"It's a code name. He'll understand."
The butler said disdainfully: "I'll see if he's available. Please hold on."
I rushed to the phone, not sure why Larry was calling me. "Larry?"
"No. It's me, Steve."
I immediately thought something terrible had happened.
I was a bit confused. "Why did you say you were Larry?"
"In case we don't want your folks to know I'm here."
I couldn't believe what I heard. "You're here?"
"That's what I said."
It was difficult to accept that my closest friend had hitchhiked across the country to be with me.
"Where are you?"
"I'm staying at the Hotel Wentley."
"Where is it?"
"It's an oddball place in North Beach."
"When did you get in?"
"Last night. I went to the beach and almost froze my ass off in the water. I thought the Pacific was supposed to be warm?"
"It is, you dope, further south."
"I didn't know."
I didn't admit that I had made the same mistake and said loftily: "That doesn't surprise me. Now why shouldn't my folks know you're here?"
"Because they wouldn't trust us to go off on our own together," he answered knowingly.
"That's for sure. Where are we going?"
"We'll start by exploring San Francisco."
"What do I tell Mother and Dad?"
"Tell them you're going camping with Larry and his friends in the mountains."
I wasn't sure what he meant. "What mountains?"
"How should I know. If they ask you anything, play dumb and tell them Larry knows. They trust him."
"Sounds good to me. I'll get the chauffeur to drive me to the hotel."
"Don't do that. Then he'll know where we're staying. Have him drop you at the South Street Terminal bus station. I'll meet you there. Bring some money."
"I'll be there in an hour," I said eagerly.
I got a ride to the bus station and watched the chauffeur drive off. I met Steve and we were on our own. We hadn't seen each other since September and it was good to be together again. I moved into the Hotel Wentley with him. It was in the heart of North Beach, the neighborhood where the Beatniks were hanging out. We both decided to grow beards and try to fit in. Richard was very happy to meet me and positively glowed when I gave him some money. Steve told Richard we needed temporary jobs and he sent us to a construction company around the corner.
'Big Al' McArney hired us part time, four days a week, 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM, to work in the office and do errands. We could earn enough money to pay for the hotel and most of our expenses. Steve liked the idea of his boss being called Big Al, and Big Al liked being called that. We heard about a place in the Mission district where they had a soup kitchen. We went there figuring we could get a free meal and save some money. We got on a line that slowly moved towards the entrance. People were going in one at a time. Steve went in first. He came out a few minutes later with a funny look on his face.
"What happened?" I asked curiously.
"I went in and someone handed me a book and told me to read. At first I thought I was reading a hymn, but it turned out to be something else."
"It was a script. I was auditioning for a play that opens in two weeks."
"A play? Are you kidding?"
"No. I got the part. I'm the juvenile delinquent."
"They recognized you?"
"Very funny. Go ahead in. You're next."
"I'm no actor," I protested.
"You don't have to be. You can do backstage work. I really want to do this. There are some great girls in there. Now go in."
So we joined the Luster Theater Company, a community theater group that was involved in social issues. They took themselves very seriously. Since we were the youngest and newest members, everyone tried to educate us. They all asserted that their particular discipline was the most important part of theater. The director, Ronald Fenton, told us: "Directing is the most important position in theater, because without the director there's no show."
The playwright said: "Without a script, there's no play."
Tony, one of the actors, swore: "Without us, there's no performance."
The set designer claimed: "Without a set, the script wouldn't work."
The costume designer asserted: "Without costumes, the audience wouldn't believe the actors."
Myron, the lighting designer, simply said: "Without light, the audience couldn't see anything." They all seemed to make sense, so we couldn't tell who was right.
Rehearsals were scheduled on weekdays from 6 to 10 PM and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Steve immersed himself in acting. I became an assistant stage manager and started doing technical chores and errands. We were accepted as company members immediately. After rehearsal, everyone went out to eat together at the Trieste Café in North Beach, on Grant Street. You could sit there all night over a cup of coffee and talk, listen to classical music, play chess, or just read. Occasionally they had a poetry night and a folk music night. It was a big, smoke-filled place with paintings by local artists on the walls. Most of them were horrible. Steve was trying to get friendly with Monica, who played a delinquent girl in the show. I played chess with Bill, the stage manager, who offered to train me in production. Someone was always passing a joint around, so we were high most of the time.
By the end of the week it was as if we had been members of the company for years. Steve was sleeping with Monica and I was learning how a theater worked. Friday night Steve read some of his poetry at Vesuvio's, a literary hangout next to the City Lights Bookstore, which was the first paperback bookstore in the country. Steve's selections were mostly about the grandeur of nature and the isolation of man. They were quite different from the other poets, whose poems were more like personal confessions, or obscure complaints. He was a little nervous, but he read well and got a big round of applause when he finished.
When we left there was a big commotion going on in front of the bookstore. Cops in riot gear were shoving people away from the store. We went closer and asked someone what was happening. It turned out that the cops were trying to prevent the bookstore from selling Allen Ginsberg's poem 'Howl,' which was considered obscene by city officials. We yelled at the cops for a while with the other young people. Steve wanted to buy a copy, but I managed to keep him from going in and getting arrested.
"Come on, let's get out of here," I urged.
"They shouldn't be allowed to prevent the sale of a book," he said indignantly.
"They claim it's obscene."
"So what. They don't have to read it. Next they'll be burning it, just like the Nazis. It's not right."
"We'll fight them another time, but not tonight." Steve was still agitated when we got back to the hotel and it took awhile for him to calm down and go to sleep.
The next morning, Monica took us to Chinatown. We walked through the largest Chinese community outside of Asia. We ate at Sam Woh's, where the headwaiter greeted Monica with: "Hello, cousin," and a big hug. She introduced us. "Edsel, this is Steve and Randy. This is my cousin, Edsel Ford Fong." We were welcomed as cousins. Edsel gave us 'Chinese hot chocolate,' made by mixing a raw egg in tea. "How do you like it, cousins?" Edsel asked: "It tastes awful," Steve replied. Edsel grinned. "Your cousin's not stupid, Monica. You bring them back." Edsel told us about a fortune cookie factory, where we could buy big sacks of rejects for a quarter.
Monica was enjoying our company and said: "Let's get some. Tomorrow I'll take you to the Palace of Fine Arts and we'll feed the ducks."
"What's this palace place?" Steve asked.
"It's like the Roman Coliseum. It was designed to be an old classical ruin. There's a beautiful lagoon with swans and all kinds of ducks."
We had already ridden the cable cars. My favorite went up Russian Hill. I particularly enjoyed getting off at the last stop and helping to turn the car around. Rehearsal of 'Clash of Interests,' the current production, was going well and we had a lot of new theater friends. We invited Big Al and his wife to opening night. Steve asked him: "Do we call your wife 'Big Jenny?' Big Al roared with laughter. He liked us. The Hotel Wentley was comfortable. Things were going well in every way.
We brought a bag of broken fortune cookies with us to the lagoon the next morning and we started feeding the ducks. Flocks of birds rushed towards us: gulls, pigeons, geese, swans and all kinds of ducks, flapping their wings, pecking at us, demanding food. It was a stampede. Sparrows and starlings joined the assault. Huge white swans pushed the smaller birds aside and hit us with their beaks and wings. They were going wild. I tore open the bag and threw it away from us. The birds went after it and we escaped. I was bleeding from cuts on my arms. Steve was brushing off feathers from Monica. A cop walked up to us.
"I'm going to give you a ticket for feeding the birds. Didn't you see the no feeding sign?"
"I think they fed on us," Steve said. "See my cuts?"
"If you didn't feed them, they wouldn't have bothered you," the cop said reasonably.
Steve switched gears instantly. "I was just giving a tour to these guests of the government."
The cop was confused. "What are you talking about?"
"These people are members of the Swedish National Mime Company and they're official visitors, touring America."
Monica and I played along, speaking fake Swedish. She said: "Buste gollo res vom dimkum?"
"What did she say?" the cop asked.
Steve interpreted. "She wants to know if you're going to shoot the birds?"
"I wouldn't do that. Does she speak English?"
"No. I'm the translator."
"Tell her I wouldn't hurt the birds."
Steve said in fake Swedish. "Venta biste clock die missof."
Monica smiled. "Gento sepglump winge den porsta flang."
The cop was trying to decide what to do with us. "What did she say?"
"When she meets the mayor tonight she'll tell him how helpful you were."
The cop was surprised. "She's going to meet the mayor?"
"Yes. He's hosting a dinner for them. They're on an international good will tour."
"If there's nothing more I can do for you I've got to get back on patrol," the cop said politely.
"Thanks for your help, officer."
Monica said sweetly: "Spankske."
"What did she say?"
He touched his hat and hurried off. We walked the other way, trying not to break into laughter while he was still in sight. We started talking fake Swedish to each other and cackled like loons. Monica reminded us we had to go to rehearsal. When we got there we told the company about the attack of the wild birds and the cop who assisted the visiting Swedish artists. They thought it was hysterically funny and promised to speak fake Swedish when we were together. San Francisco was definitely a blast.
Friday afternoon Big Al asked Steve: "Can you drive a truck?"
"Take the three-quarter ton and deliver this package to the foreman at the Geary Street site."
"It's almost quitting time and I can't be late for the theater. Can I keep the truck overnight and return it in the morning?"
"Bring it back Monday, because we're closed for the weekend. Just drive carefully."
"Can I go with him?" I quickly asked.
"Both of you get out of here."
"Thanks, Big Al," I said gratefully. "We'll see you at the show tonight."
We drove around the city looking at new neighborhoods. We didn't realize how late it was getting and we had to be at the theater. So we decided we could wait to deliver the package on Monday.
The opening was at 8:00 PM that night. Despite only two weeks of rehearsal we were ready. Steve was doing well as an actor. I was becoming a good assistant stage manager. I had invited Richard to opening night of the show. It was in the basement of the Mission Arts Center that had been fixed up as a theater. Half an hour before show time the power blew out and we couldn't fix it. The actors performed with the stage manager and me lighting their faces with flashlights. You couldn't see the set, costumes, lights or directions, just the actors' faces and their lines. The audience loved the show and we learned a valuable lesson about what was important in the theater. The local papers gave us favorable reviews, so everyone was happy. Steve and I used the truck all weekend and we even helped Tony move some furniture into his new apartment. He was a know-it-all pain in the ass, who always droned on about the art of acting. Despite him, we had a fine weekend.
The insistent phone ringing woke us on Monday morning at 7:00 AM. I answered sleepily: "This better be important."
"It's Richard. The police are here to arrest you."
I quickly woke up. "Why?"
"Big Al reported the payroll missing about an hour ago."
Don't you know?"
"No. We didn't take it."
"I believe you. Get out of there fast. Go up to the roof and take the fire escape in the back. Call me later. I'll try to find out what happened."
We grabbed what we could and headed for the roof. As we got to the sixth floor we heard the cops knocking on our door. We went to the roof, climbed down the fire escape and ran. A cop was waiting in front of the hotel. He saw us and gave chase. We turned the corner and looked for a place to hide. We didn't want to run through the streets of North Beach with the cops after us. Steve pointed at an old brownstone and we ran up the steps and ducked into the doorway. A beautiful Chinese girl was opening her mail box. Steve appealed to her.
"The police are chasing us. Can you help us?"
"What did you do?" she asked suspiciously.
"We gave a poetry reading on the street and they hit us with their clubs. When we ran they chased us."
"That's all? You just read poetry?"
"You didn't hurt anyone?"
"We wouldn't do that," Steve said sincerely.
The cop ran past the house. I crouched down and Steve put his arms around the girl and kissed her. The cop came back, double checking the doorways. He only saw a couple kissing and went on. Steve kept kissing her. I went to the door and looked for the cop. I couldn't see him. The girl pushed Steve away and said: "You can stop now. The cop's been gone for a while."
"Thanks. You saved us. What's your name?"
"Denise. What's yours?"
"Do you always kiss strangers?"
"I didn't know what else to do. We've got to get going before he comes back."
"Here's my phone number. Give me a call if they don't send you to Alcatraz."
"Sure. Thanks a lot for helping us."
We headed for The Mission. When we got there we told Ronald that we were in big trouble and we'd have to get out of town. He wasn't happy about having to replace us on short notice, but he said he understood and offered to help us.
"I have a little shack where you can hide out. It's on a cliff overlooking the beach in Montara. It's vacant now."
My local geography was poor. "Where's that?"
"It's a tiny town with about a hundred people, twenty-five miles south of San Francisco, on Route 1. The person I share it with will be back in a week, but you can use it until then."
I was glad to get a hideout. "Thanks, Ronald. You're a lifesaver."
"I hope I'm not assisting career criminals."
I called Richard to find out what was happening.
"I spoke to Big Al. He's furious with you for taking the payroll on Friday. He only found out this morning when his foreman called him from the construction site at 6:00 AM and told him that the men wanted to get paid."
"We don't know anything about a payroll."
"Big Al says it was the package you were supposed to deliver."
"We didn't know it was the payroll."
"Where is it?"
"It's in the truck, under the seat."
"Where's the truck?"
"It's parked behind the hotel."
"Where are the keys?"
"In the top drawer of the dresser in our room."
"You better hope the truck is still there. I'll get the keys, bring the payroll in and let Big Al know you didn't take it. I'll try to calm him. Call me back in ten minutes."
"Thanks, Richard. Don't take off for Bolivia with the payroll."
Ronald had been listening to my side of the conversation.
"What will you do if the truck is gone?"
"We'll make a run for it and hope they don't catch us. If they send us to Alcatraz will you visit us?"
"I expect that flip attitude from Steve, not you. You could be in serious trouble."
"I know. It makes it easier if we joke."
I called Richard again.
"You boys are in luck. The payroll is safe. I called Big Al and told him that you didn't know the payroll was in the truck. I said you told me where to find it and now I have it. As soon as he picks it up he'll cancel the APB for stealing the money."
"That's great, Richard. Thanks."
"We still have a problem. He says you shouldn't have kept the truck."
"That's not true. Steve asked his permission and he said yes."
"That's not what he says. Listen, I think he's upset and saying things he doesn't mean. But until he comes to his senses you better stay out of sight."
"All right. Tell him we didn't mean to cause any trouble. I'll call you in a couple of days."
I called Dad to make sure I wouldn't have any difficulties with the family.
"We'll be staying another week or two and I'd like to fly home with Larry. Could you leave money with Cousin Ben for our plane fare and expenses?" He agreed without fuss or questions and said he'd tell everyone good-bye for me. Then Ronald drove us to Montara.
It was a beautiful drive on the winding coast road, with the ocean on one side and mountains on the other. We saw cowboys herding cattle in the lush green valleys and surfers riding big waves on the rugged coast. Ronald stopped at the general store where we bought supplies. He introduced us to the storekeeper and told him we'd be staying at his place and to let everyone know we were his guests. He mentioned that the pay phone outside was the nearest phone. Then he drove us the half mile to the shack. It sat on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. All you could see from the road were wild rose bushes covering the back. The nearest house was on another cliff, about half a mile south of us. Ronald showed us the outhouse, then unlocked the door and let us into the shack. It was small, snug and quiet. There was no electricity, heat, or running water.
Two kerosene lamps lit the place and an old-fashioned pot-bellied stove kept it warm. We could get spring water from a hand pump outside. There was a picture window that looked out on the Pacific and a tiny ledge where you could sit and watch the ocean. We saw sea lions frolicking on the beach. A rope ladder led down the cliff to the beach, about seventy-five feet below. The garden of Eden couldn't have looked more beautiful to its new tenants. Ronald interrupted our reverie and told us he had to go and we should call him in a few days. Then he went back to town, leaving us to explore wonderland.
It took us about thirty seconds to unpack. We spent the rest of the day sitting on the ledge overlooking the ocean, sipping from a one gallon bottle of cheap red wine that we found in the shack. We watched a sunset that went on for hours, with the most spectacular red sky burning in the distance. When the glowing orange sphere finally sank from sight, purple clouds floated on the horizon for another hour or so. We sat there for the rest of the night, listening to the waves crash on the shore. There were no sirens, screams, or shots, just the occasional hum of cars driving through the night on the desolate coast road.
The outhouse faced the ocean. I sat there and watched sunrise. Small, black nesting spiders crawled on me. Bees worked on the honeysuckle growing on the outhouse. Shore birds cackled, complained and gloated. Blue jays yelled: 'no rain, no rain.' A fat Robin strutted nearby. Purple finches sang. We had come from the throbbing grit of the city to peace on earth, a new experience for us. I don't think we spoke all night.
Later that morning we climbed down the rope ladder to the beach. I loved the feel of the ladder swaying against the cliff. Steve was nervous. The water was much too cold to swim, but we lolled on the beach. After a while the sea lions came right up to us, as playful as puppies. The females were shy and affectionate. The males were posturing and spirited. One male kept shoving me with his nose, then started wrestling. He didn't mind when I rolled him over and his friends barked at him and chased him into the water. We spent all day on the beach until it started to get dark, then we climbed up to the shack. Steve definitely disliked the rope ladder.
It rained for the next few days and it was cold. We didn't have warm clothes so we kept the pot-bellied stove burning and dozed, read or looked out the window. It was very restful. Thursday the rain tapered off and we went for a walk down the highway. We passed cultivated green fields and a duck farm. We stopped at the general store and I called Richard. He had good news and bad news. Big Al had dropped all charges against us, but he was still mad and threatening to beat us up. On an impulse I decided we should have a party Saturday night and I invited Richard. Steve called Ronald and the rest of the theatre company and told them to bring food and drink. He also invited Denise, the Chinese girl who had saved us from the cops.
When we got home we discovered we had run out of wooden matches. Steve went to borrow some from our neighbor. I decided to walk on the beach. I was almost halfway down the rope when a section of the cliff collapsed under me and launched me off the ladder into space. There was no time to think. I spread my arms and legs wide as I fell and hit the cliff about fifteen feet further down like a pancake. I clung to the rocky slope for dear life. My heart was pounding, I was panting like a racehorse and every part of me was trembling. I didn't dare move. It was a long drop to the rocks below. After a while I heard Steve calling me. When his voice got louder, I carefully called him, without relaxing my grip.
"I'm here. I'm stuck on the side of the cliff. I can't reach the ladder."
"Are you hurt?"
"I don't think so. I'm just afraid to move."
"I'll get help. Don't go away."
"Very funny. I don't know how long I can hang on."
"All right. I'll be right there."
About a minute later I heard him start down the cliff. I rolled my eyes up and saw him coming closer. He had brought his tennis jacket. He tied one sleeve to the ladder, leaned over and put the other sleeve by my hand. He grabbed my belt and said we were ready.
"I've got you. Grab the sleeve with one hand and the ladder with the other."
"What if the ladder won't hold us?"
"We'll fall on the rocks, get killed, then complain to the manufacturer."
"I'm glad you can make jokes. What if the jacket tears?"
"What if. What if. Is that all you can say? Do you want to hang on while I go to the general store and call for help?"
"I don't think I can last that long."
"Then shut up. Grab the jacket and the ladder when I count three. Ready?"
"One. Two. Three."
I grabbed for the jacket and ladder and prayed. It worked. I was on the ladder. We swayed back and forth, but I was safe. I caught my breath and climbed up, painstakingly slow, until I was on firm ground. Then I just lay there shaking from head to foot.
"Randy. Are you all right? Anything broken?"
"I don't think so. I just can't stop shaking."
"I wonder why. I'll get a blanket."
"Thanks, Pappy. You saved my life."
"Anytime, junior. I'm sure glad that I got back in time to rescue you."
"Wait'll you hear what happened to me while you were fooling around down there."
"I wasn't fooling around."
"How did you fall?"
"A section of the cliff fell and it pulled me off the ladder. I fell about fifteen feet and hit the side. All I could do was hang on."
"You were lucky. They don't come much closer than that. The rain must have loosened the rocks. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes. What happened to you?"
"I went to our neighbor's place to borrow matches and this sweet looking old lady invited me in. She has a regular house, with rooms and bookshelves from floor to ceiling in the living room. She offered me a cup of tea and while she prepared it I browsed her books. She has a great library. One whole wall was filled with books by Kathleen Norris. I casually said to her: 'You must like Kathleen Norris.'
She smiled pleasantly and said: 'I am Kathleen Norris.'
"I was happy I didn't make a negative comment and said politely: Well, I'm pleased to meet you."
I didn't know who Steve was talking about. "Who is she?"
"A famous writer."
"Never heard of her."
"That doesn't surprise me, you uncultured boor. If you read books you'd know her. She was very big in the thirties. We talked about writing. She's really nice. You've got to meet her."
"Invite her to the party."
"That's a great idea. Do you want to come with me tonight?"
"To harvest artichokes from the field."
"Are you kidding?"
"No. We'll have artichokes and duck at the party."
"Where are you going to get duck?"
"We'll visit the duck farm tomorrow night."
"I like duck."
"What if we get caught?"
"We'll speak fake Swedish."
It was easy to get the artichokes. They didn't quack. We went into the field, picked a few dozen and left. The next night we went to the duck farm. We opened the door to one of the pens and the ducks went wild. They flapped, ran around and hollered at us. The lights went on in the house and a man came out with a shotgun. We ran and he fired both barrels at us. Fortunately, we were just about out of range, because he shot us in the ass with buckshot. We hobbled home and discussed an alternate menu.
People started arriving late Saturday afternoon, including all our friends from the theater. They had invited other friends. Monica was very happy to see Steve, until Denise showed up. They spent the rest of the night glaring at each other and Steve. Richard brought some of his friends. Everyone brought pot, wine, or both. By the time it got dark we were all high. Someone parked a car near the shack and turned on the radio. The place was packed and guests kept pouring in. People were hanging around outdoors, high and happy. Myron, the lighting designer, came back from the outhouse and rushed up to me. He was as white as a ghost.
"The outhouse is crawling with black widows."
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you know those little spiders in the outhouse?"
"Sure. They walk on me when I'm sitting in there."
"Randy, they're black widows. They're poisonous. They could kill you."
I thought about them walking on my bare legs. I shivered and asked: "Are you sure?"
"Yes. Don't go in there until you clean them out."
"Now we'll squat outdoors and really go back to nature."
Around midnight the great debate started. One group asserted that government should subsidize the arts because the arts humanized the poor. The other group said art was elitist and shouldn't have to compete in the marketplace like any other business. The argument raged for hours. Participants were loud, stoned and dogmatic. I was tempted to shove some of them off the cliff. A loud scream interrupted us and we rushed outside. Tony had climbed onto the roof to jump down and scare one of the girls. He slipped, fell and broke his shoulder. He carried on enough for a death scene. Monica and some of the actors took him to the hospital and the party broke up. Monica and Denise were angry at Steve. Ronald was mad at us for letting the guests mess up the place and told me we had to leave in the morning. Richard was mad at us for causing problems with Big Al. We concluded that our new friends didn't appreciate us.
We were already a week late for school, so we decided it was time to go home. We hitchhiked into San Francisco and I called Cousin Ben and told him we were leaving. He sent his chauffeur to take us to the airport. We were on standby, but we didn't wait very long. We got on a flight within the hour. Six hours later we landed at Idlewild Airport and we took the bus into New York City. Steve wanted me to spend the night at his house, but I said I better get home. We walked to Grand Central Station where we said good-bye and I took the train home. Vern picked me up at the station and told me that everyone was away. I didn't need the explanations that I had so carefully prepared on the train. Dahlia was happy to see me and gave me a snack, but she didn't ask any questions about my trip. It felt strange to be in a regular house again, but I didn't let that stop me from taking a long, hot shower and going to sleep in a real bed.