To realize you are about to embark on a journey and yet have no idea of the destination is a wonderous pain that all caterpillars must endure. — Stephen N. Brennen
Cont. from the prior blog
In the midst of all the excitement, a guy, reading under a tree, gets my attention. He’s wearing green corduroys and a headband that says Superspade for President. Before I can say hello, he looks up and says, “Ever made a scene like this man?” He offers me his hand. “Name’s Peter.” Before I can even respond, he launches into his next sentence, “My old lady’s smoking banana peels. Mellow, like this happening, man. I’m a writer, and I drive a cab for Yellow how about you, man?” No doubt, the guy, a little buzzed, is a tad chatty.
“Just got to town, but I’d sure like a job,” I tell him.
“Got a license?”
“Excellent man, go see Ray at Yellow Taxi. and tell him, Peter says hello.”
I take another pull on the joint, “Thanks,” I say, before heading off and walking back thru the crowd. I’m going home to change because it’s unusually hot for a San Francisco afternoon and I need to shed some stuff. I stop at a picnic table where tubs filled with what looks like mounds of black earth sit. The rich dark color and indescribable aroma are so intriguing I stick my nose in to get the full force of the fragrance. It’s fruity and pungent. People are standing around, rolling their eyes and as many joints as they can from several tubs filled with freshly baked banana peels. I guy in the crowd says he smoked some in Hyde Park after they baked a batch up and scraped the burnt insides. Maybe one of the girls standing around smoking is Peter’s wife. I pick out the one that best suits him and have a good laugh. A crew from WKTV is taping what’s going on in the park, more like a giant family gathering than a groundbreaking event. I pull out a sheet of Zigzag rolling papers, sitting on the table and sprinkle a little banana peel on until it’s more than I can roll. Then slide it into my pocket. The park, overflowing with people has probably never seen this much action. And it’s good to take a break from the excitement. Outside the park, every corner in the Height Asbury is crawling with hippies, vendors, and tourists. Pot smokers and panhandlers pass joints back and forth while preachers spread the gospel on park benches. The sun spreads its’ warm healing rays. Tourists clog streets, and cars too, around the Panhandle. It’s the summer of love and love is everywhere. Unfolding, before my eyes, drama, and theater of the absurd. It all has the feel of a movie set, with a chance at a role in the spontaneous outpouring. By the time I reach Height and Cole Street, the corner I live on, I’m convinced this is a once in a lifetime happening. But when I enter the building I live in, my land-lady collars me, and asks, “have you been hanging around those freaks in the park.”
“What business is that of yours?” I say as I backpedal to my apartment door.
“Remember what I told you,” she says, bringing me down with authority. Cont.
Cont. from the last blog.
With the Triumph motorcycle taking up most of the room in my car, I take off for California on a colorless day in January. With all that weight, the old clunker, a 53 Plymouth, strains to make it up the steep grades of the Pennsylvania hillside. Barren hills pepper the rugged terrain as rain soaks the car from an early morning shower. A jug of water sits by my side and a loaf of Italian bread keeps me nourished. When I reach Chicago, fifteen hours later I’m so whipped, I fall asleep on the parking lot of Denny‘s Restaurant and sleep for the rest of the night.
After a few days’ drive I make it to San Francisco. Rent a small apartment that has everything I want except for plastic curtains, and a dank, musty odor. The manager, a stout German lady, with a thick accent, and stern demeanor, tells me no fooling around. This is my first pad, so I know not to cross her.
“Yeah, I know the streets well enough to get around,” I tell the man at Yellow Taxi, interviewing me for a job. I’ve been in the city for less than a week and just the other day I get lost walking back from the grocery store. “I’ll ask for help should I need too,” I tell him. But I’m queasy taking calls on the two-way radio, fearing it will expose me as the imposter I am.
It’s dark, not quite sun-up when I report for work that first morning. Over-head lights turn the parking lot into a sea of shiny metal. I walk along the pebbles leading to a dilapidated wooden shack. The man on duty greets me and hands me keys and a manifest. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and fried onions greets me when I open the door of cab 641. When I realize I’m going to be breathing this stuff for the rest of the day I roll down the window. I gun the engine so the fumes will flood the compartment and fumigate the foul air. When the temperature gauge inches its way upward, I head for the pumps. The attendant quickly fills the cab with gas. “Thanks,” I yell, and flip the guy a buck for his trouble; pull the cab out of the lot, and drive in the direction of down-town. The industrial area surrounding the garage is deserted except for a covering of grime that’s taken up residence on the one-story buildings. Before I relax my sphincter, a voice, crackling over the two-way radio, breaks the silence. “What’s your location, trade 641?”
“Block past Greyhound,” I report, as my heart begins to plunge.
“1405 Grant, Russian Hill.” Comes the call. “Lady in the lobby. Read 641??”
“1405 Grant St. lobby, 641 out,” I’m trying to remember. Is Russian Hill that stately area on the way to Fisherman’s Wharf? If not, I’m screwed. All of a sudden my hands feel clammy and sweat breaks out on my far-head. I‘m heading in the general direction, as I stumble up and down hills in what seems like the darkest part of the night. Amazingly, a truck-driver, making an early morning delivery is in front of a small luncheonette. “Fourteen hundred block of Grant?” I yell. “Four up and two over,” he shouts, pointing. I release my grip on the wheel, and take a deep breath. I really need this job. The day before I’m in Golden Gate Park. The weather’s gorgeous, the sky so bright everything gleams in vivid color. The streets packed with kids in elaborate costumes, some wearing flowers in their overflowing hair, all decked out in outfits layered with beads, frills, and trimmings. My head is tipsy, and my body weightless from the joy of what I’m witnessing. It feels like an out of body experience, I’m not sure though since I never really had one. A Frisbee comes flying past me, then hovers in mid-air. I reach up to grab it but it falls at my feet before kissing the grass. A dog with a corkscrew tail grabs the plastic saucer and takes it back to its master. I fall down in the grass and look all around me. A guy flops alongside and hands me a joint. He’s mumbling and laughing, so I take a couple of pokes, and continue to enjoy the spectacle. A band is playing and kids are running back and forth, everyone is spacing out. Heaven is making a rare appearance, and all-around people are dancing in the fresh cool breeze or hanging out on colorful blankets. The air is electric and calm at the same time. It’s a scene of unimaginable unity and serenity. An underground culture emerging as if distant tribes are in-gathering from far off corners of the earth. (Cont.))
Continued from the prior Blog
“I buy a car for a hundred dollars,” I tell my tired father. “The guys at the gas station can’t stop laughing when I ask them to take out the seats to make room for my motorcycle. Two hours later, we stuff the beast, all four hundred pounds, into the empty car like a fat guy in a straitjacket.”
I know it’s late. I’m sharing my excitement with my dad, not trying to bust his stones. Hoping he won’t think this is another one of my grand-stand plays to keep my childhood alive. The words echo through the kitchen. After a moment of noisy silence, he rolls his fork through some leftover pasta.
“Where are you off to now? Didn’t that flight to Europe last summer satisfy your wandering urge?”
“School’s been a long ordeal. It would be nice to see what the world is like.”
“You hitch-hiked to the middle East. Isn’t that enough?
“Mom spoke to you about graduation, right? There‘s nothing more to say.”
“Is that so? Do you think it’s that simple?
“I don’t want to trade barbs with you, Dad. There’s a world out there I need to be a part. How can you fault me for that?”
“Since you’ve been living under our roof what have you done for us?” The look on his face is turning demonic, he’s beginning to lose his cool. In an instant, an old familiar feeling rises in me. A raging vortex is about to kick in.
“I knew the honeymoon wouldn’t last long.”
“Right, your damn right.”
“I’m going to California because I want to. It’s something I need to do.”
“What about what I need.”
“Are you joking? What does this have to do with you?”
“You’re selfish,” my father says.
“It’s my life. Give me a break.”
“You little dip stick, if it weren’t for your mother I’d bang the snot out of you.”
My dad is red as a beat. He’s ready to pounce and take me apart. All those times when he was imploding with frustration. I knew he was dying to throw a punch. But to his credit, he spews hot volcanic words instead. “Bull-shit,” he says, then storms out of the kitchen.
I stare into the open bowl of pasta. Shit, I saw it coming, I‘m thinking, as I slip out on the back porch and light up a joint I stashed in my wallet. I guess tonight wasn’t the night after all. (Cont)
I’m holding a slice of baloney between my fingers, in the dining room where mom is readying a gown for delivery. She’s gone into the bridal business, and when she falls behind with alterations she helps the seamstress any way she can.
“Your home,” she says, surprised.
“I’m finally done with it,” I say, after my final day of college. ”I still owe for a whole year of classes. But who cares?”
”Now It‘s time to graduate. What was it all for?”
“I didn’t want an education. Riding boxcars or the merchant marine woulda done what I needed. A window is closing if it’s not already shut. Five years down the tubes because I didn’t have the guts to ignore everyone’s advice. Now I have no choice. I’ll clear out, head for the Coast. Dad will be happy. He’ll finally be rid of me.”
“Tell him what you just told me.”
“ He makes faces. I want him to hurt the way he hurts me. I’ll make him squirm till he crashes and burns.”
Standing as straight as ever, my father, a man in his fifties still looks good. His glasses make him appear scholarly, but it doesn’t help to raise his low opinion of himself. Neither does his thinning hair.
Six nights a week he manages a lounge and liquor store his brother owns. We are usually asleep by the time he returns. But tonight, I wait up, hoping he brings Chinese food with him. That‘s reason enough to sit and talk, despite my instincts that tell me this will only end in misery. I’m calm and focused. But I nod off on the sofa waiting up for him to come home.
“What are you doing up so late?” he says, with a hint of pleasantness, when he walks through the door.
“Waiting for you,” I say, fearing that a negative gesture or a sudden mood change on his part will set me off.
“This is a nice surprise.” He says, still sounding good-natured.
“Can we share your carry-out?” Happy that things are civil between us, and that the familiar feeling of walking on eggs doesn’t arise.
“They were closed when I got there.”
“I‘m starved,” I say, unaware I’m describing my needy state of mind I sometimes have in his presence.
“Well let’s see if there’s anything to eat.”
All this pleasantness is probably Mom’s doing. If she softened his crusty demeanor, that’s good. There’s less chance of a head to head clash. Besides, I’m not perfect. I can just as easily set him off.
My old man doesn’t have it easy. Running a bar in the city is a trying piece of business Dealing with drinkers till all odd hours is a foul irritant. His courage to hang with a den of vipers has to be taking its toll. But, hell, why can’t he just be nice to me? Maybe tonight will be different. (Cont).
Before the San Francisco adventure kicks into high gear, there is still the family story to contend with.
My Jewish upbringing, limited in scope, has no chance of improving my character, or outlook. Not alongside the power of the popular culture. I love Willie Mays, soft fat pretzels, and our ethnic neighbors hustling to make a living. My parents, on the other hand, Jews to the core, lack the spiritual insight to steer us through the inevitable twists and turns life periodically heaps upon us. Except for mom we’re an average family at best. She’s the primary bread-winner and full-time caregiver. The glue that holds us all together.
Day to day living is exceedingly difficult. Requiring great strength and endurance handling the rigors that life puts before us. Providing the family with basic wants and needs is an ongoing struggle that families must endure. But once it becomes the focus, the main thrust of life, you’re painted into a corner, functioning in a lesser way, thinking you’re finished cloth, instead of viewing life as a constant unfolding, and a job of continuing development. And so, like all children needing direction and a steady hand to guide them, my folks, loving souls, decent and good, fall short of leading by example.
I take off for California to experience the most happening place on the planet. The San Francisco Bay area, awash with hordes of young folk turning protest and self-expression into a colorful art-form. Thou the sixties is a time of unrest, and social change, it’s also one of celebration and great creativity. Scores of enthusiasts clad in colorful gear and outrageous attire pour onto streets and parks, converting quiet neighborhoods into vibrant block parties. It is the summer of love, and love is everywhere. Unfolding in plain view, an underground culture, of fervent youth, itching to make a difference. Here for all to see, a spontaneous outpouring of elaborate ceremonial costumes, gypsy-peasants adorned in one of a kind get-ups, wearing beads or flowers in wildly overflowing hairdos. Drama, and street theater at its very best. A carnival atmosphere way before Woodstock ever takes place. I absorb the varied mix of dress and originality, but I’m no hippie or spaced-out flower child. Sympathetic to the gentle, care-free souls and their laid-back lifestyles, I’m more an outsider looking for a job while the action swirls around me. The outfits, extreme for me, open a world that feeds my imagination. Dress is more than the way you look. It defines you, and what you stand for. The novelty of that awareness drives my fancy, the potential unmistakable. But that will all have to wait. First, I need to find a job. After that, who knows. Maybe find a way to capitalize on all this excitement?
(Cont. from the prior blog)
He should only know, my heavenly gifts, both mother and child, are at home in Baltimore. I look over at my friend. Like the roving missionary, her eyes are like hot fiery coals. She is grinning from ear to ear as she had just been magically transformed. Is she in step with the messenger, or just in agreement with the message? I am all by myself on that beach. Truly alone. Yet, just the same, have a slight suspicion that what’s taking place is no random happenstance. More an act of mercy, to bring to my attention, perhaps from some greater dimension, the weight of the matter before me. The preacher continues, “Living without purpose isn’t living at all.” The tranquil blue sea and the sun dancing on the surface of the water put me a little at ease. But when the man pauses and begins to kneel. “Let us welcome in the holy spirit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ so that we may be cleansed of our wrongful acts, and let us say Amen,” my stomach does a war dance. Far from embracing my Jewish roots or revering the G-d of my father, I still can’t kneel or invoke the name of Jesus. I just don’t have it in me. I can only fix an eye on the sky, fearing a heavenly bolt of lightning might strike me dead at any moment. In spite of my shortcomings, I am happy they think enough of me in Heaven to send a special emissary to deliver this important message. But hey, this tropical wonderland is already Paradise. The preacher is trying to turn me inside out and save my Jewish soul in the name of a good Jew like Jesus. Where is the wisdom in that? Anyway, I am really hungry and I want a whiskey sour. “Right on man.” I blurt out, trying to regain my composure.
“Well put sir. No purpose, no life. That’s exactly where it’s at. We must fulfill some higher calling.” Never mind that the preacher is a good Christian carrying out his heavenly duty. He can be the chief rabbi of Warsaw it won’t mean a lick to me. I know what life’s about. Life at this very moment is to be lived to satisfy whatever urges arise, without thought or restraint. So I am on this tropical island with a young babe. Is there something defective about that? Honestly, though, I know I am sinking fast, and that two sides, one spoken by the preacher, and the other by my fervent desire to be off the beach, is struggling to get my attention.
I am tired and my thoughts are flying to fast to clearly make out. As soon as a cloud moves in front of the sun, I grab my friends’ hand and hurry to our room. After I drop a Lude to calm down, the sedatives numbing effects soothe my jittery nerves. But the gnawing doubt the pastors’ words trigger keep me on edge for the rest of the trip. After dinner and a quick shower, I decide that the trip is over. The next morning, we board a plane for Baltimore and hurry back home. The damage from the short encounter will be hard to overcome with my family, but the soft-spoken words by the preacher will have a lasting effect for many years to come.
In a move of desperation, I run off to St Croix with a woman for the week-end. We walk along the beach staring at each other like we are looking into one another’s souls. She is young and pretty, and back then, I make things out to be more than they really are. I was torn between this crazy infatuation and the thought of my wife and son at home without me. Watching the tide from the window of my room is like riding a wave of emotion, first cresting then falling. It leaves me drained and exhausted.
A dark skin man with a shaved head wearing a white suit and a flower in his lapel walks up to us. His beaming white smile is infectious and his shining countenance makes him hard to resist. He seems to appear out of nowhere. “So my young friend’s”, he says, while looking us over. “You’ve come to our island to celebrate your honeymoon, yes?”
I am taken aback. I want to jump in the water and bury myself in the surf. I reach into my pocket and finger my pill case filled with Quaaludes. The preacher has grasped the differences in our ages and I have this awful feeling he is weighing us up and has his sights on us.
‘No, we’re really not married,’ my young friend says, squirming just a little. I am struck by his sudden appearance and the timing of his question. A rush of regret and a feeling of affection brought on by the man’s soft-spoken manner comes over me. Nonetheless, I feel like a weasel.
‘You know, life is very precious,” the preacher says. “I’ll never forget that look of calm certainty on his face. There was nothing pushy about him. He wasn’t pressing for a response or trying to gain the upper hand. He just had a kind demeanor.
“You’re not wed in holy matrimony?” What chutzpah. The liberty he takes with us. That’s what these guys do. They disarm and overtake you until you are left feeling exposed and awkward.
“Man forfeits his rightful inheritance. Squanders his heavenly gifts, without a life of purpose.” He uses his hands to make his point. (Cont.)
“To gain control of the world of space is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
It seems that spiritual disciplines and old-world religions agree when it comes to an underlying collective conscious though they make their claims in different modalities. The Hindus say, the mind is a veil of deception and delusion. The Christians that living a life of sin, one that misses the mark, and muddies the water, causes greater ignorance and darkness in the world. The Buddhists, that the mind in its normal state generates despair, discontent, and suffering. The Torah points to man’s evil inclination and the challenge to harness it for good while living a life of moderation and self-mastery.
Until we begin to live our lives skillfully, which includes expressing our thoughts, speech, and actions in a mindful manner, the universe will continue to tilt and wobble. It is up to us to find a way to lift the fallen sparks, particularly on the ground that each of us stands upon. What else can we do except start with ourselves and share the light with our fellows in hopes of turning around the destructive cycle that has us in its grip.