Sunday, January 04, 2004

Berkeley 1969

I remembered the following article as I was talking on the phone with Michael McClure, veteran San Francisco poet and playwright, about the influence of Buddhism on Bay Area arts and culture over the decades, for my San Francisco Chronicle article on that subject (which you can find here.) I suddenly recalled having heard him read many years before in Berkeley. He also remembered the reading, even the color of the poster. It was a stellar gathering of Bay Area poets, which at the time I blithely assumed happened all the time, but my guess is that this was the last time that all of these poets read together.

I was a temporary resident of Berkeley at the time: the autumn of 1969.
In some ways, it was a mistimed visit. I missed the political heat of the People's Park affair the previous spring and summer. And while I was there, I picked up a Life Magazine to read about something amazing that had happened back east, called Woodstock.

But in other respects, it was still not too late to catch the late 60s counterculture in something like full flower. My report, even though it was published in an underground newspaper, was a bit circumspect on the extent of the dope culture, and on certain personal matters. (I sent it to "view from the bottom" in New Haven, because I was headed there, to try to reconcile with my significant other of senior year. She was teaching school, and living in a nearby tiny town, just across the Sound from where a law student named Bill Clinton was living at the time. It's possible that she met him.) But smoking dope was so open, and grass so common, that it really seemed it would be an ordinary part of the culture quite soon. And there was still an ethic attached to it, summarized by the fairly characteristic moment when a friend (probably the Michael named in this piece) and I were walking down the street in absorbed conversation, and passed two other guys walking in the opposite direction. One was smoking a joint---wrapped in yellow paper, pretty much the standard look---and he handed it to me as we passed. Neither pair broke stride, and we acknowledged the transfer with a simple wave.

At the house I was living in, there were a few acid trips to the accompaniment of the recently released "Abbey Road," and several of the others made a blundering attempt to deal, losing money in the process. Other than that, the memorable events were several trips to the mountains and the beaches (including nude runs into the ocean, though one wave was usually more than enough, the water was so cold. That experience shows up in a metaphor in this article, I notice.) One of these trips resulted in a bad case of poison oak, which I suffered through by drinking inexpensive California white wine from the corner store, eating oreos and reading Hemingway. Otherwise, I spent a lot of my time on Telegraph Ave, in the bookstores and cafes, and on the Berkeley campus. Money was a problem, so I supplemented the house diet of oatmeal for breakfast, and brown rice with whatever vegetables could be scrounged for other meals, by sneaking into the student union line for a tuna fish sandwich, which was more like tuna paste, on white bread, with a slice of carrot. And coffee. Always and everywhere, coffee.

By the time the article was published, I had made my way back east, through Chicago and my home town in Pennsylvania, to Stony Creek, Connecticut. "view from the bottom" was a typical underground paper of the time, with sex, drugs and rock and roll and antiwar politics and countercultural arts. It was supposed to be a cultural as well as political revolution coming. The slogan we'd been hearing that fall was: All power to the imagination. Power to the people.

I remembered the article because I remembered the poetry reading. As it turns out, an account of the reading is a small part of it. (It's funny to see Gary Snyder referred to as old-looking in 1969, but then I was 22.) I wish there was more, since it's possible that this was the last time Lew Welsh read in public, at least with his friends and fellow poets. Not long afterwards he disappeared into the woods with a gun, and was never seen again.

Elsewhere in this issue there was an account of a speech by Abbie Hoffman, an obituary for Fred Hampton, the activist gunned down in his apartment by Chicago police, news stories on a New Haven park being turned over to a rowing club organization and on police actions against local Black Panthers, a surreal short story, a piece on a Paul Butterfield concert, and cartoons about Rufus, the Rosy Red Radical Reptile. As it was the Christmas issue, there was a lead article on the holiday as the Festival of Plastic, and a centerfold of Santa doing the dirty with a comely angel.

My piece, with its weirdly New Yorker type title, was on page 4, illustrated with a nice woodcut. I notice that it ends abruptly, so I'm guessing that they didn't want to bother with continuing it onto another page. I remember what happened next in the encounter I was describing. I told Angela that I was leaving California in a few days, and she began to cry. She couldn’t understand why anyone would willingly leave California. I remember running into this a lot: the idea that life outside California was unimaginable—that beyond its borders there be nothing but monsters in the void.

Letter From Berkeley

published in "view from the bottom," New Haven underground newspaper, on December 25, 1969.

Traveling around, moving from world to world, catching a glimpse here, a fragment there, of places and people's lives in them, but with no place or field of life of my own except the thin connecting shafts of similar experience, leaves of my mind floating in a kind of permanent state of multiple schizophrenia...the dream state.

And when one is also a traveler of the imagination, muddling around in that inner sea of continuous combining and disintegrating organisms, life becomes like the cereal box picture within a picture within, or the play within a play continuing in geometric succession, dreams within dreams at the speed of light.

Berkeley is a friendly place. One encounters people and places that are instinctively sensitive to the vulnerability of travelers, but Berkeley is a congregation of travelers trying to become a community, so it is as hospitable to its established own as it is to its transients and fledglings.

Hitching is a regular part of community life. People hitch because they want to get from place to place, or because they are lonely. Last Friday night I was picked up by a very spaced out twenty-six year old electrical engineer who had started just driving around in San Francisco, picking up hitch-hikers and taking them where they wanted to go. It was then three hours after he began and he was in Berkeley. He wanted to know the freeway entrance back to the city where there would be the most people waiting for a ride.

Hitch-hiking is a way to meet people, make dope deals-the only form of true free enterprise now functioning in the western world---and learn things. In the course of a conversation with the driver I have changed my destination because where he was going sounded groovier than where I was going. The reverse has also happened. You can do it because you know that you can go just about anywhere, and get a ride back.

Dear Jeremy,
A good rule to follow in life is: always put the cream in the cup before the coffee.
I am writing this during my daily hour or so of lucidity. Sometimes more, but rarely. And often less. The rest of the time I am a citizen of the dream state.
I don't mind living in a dream world, as long as I get to approve the final script.
Right now I am sitting in the sunshine on the patio of a coffee shop on Haste Street. Smoking my pipe, occasionally punching ashes into the picturesque ash trays---old pickle jar caps---drinking coffee to keep the lucid state going, and writing to you.
Behind me, as I sit facing the late afternoon sun, is a fenced in area once called People's Park, and despite the Regents of the University of California, destined to be known forever as People's Park. Today it is divided into three sections, one grassy, one asphalt, one a desert of dry dirt cut by a rivulet bed running from a central, solitary clump of weeds.

I went to a photo exhibition on College Avenue, about six blocks from here. It is the People's Park exhibit. It shows people planting things, and soldiers pulling those things out of the ground. It shows people shouting, and people being beaten and gassed. It shows men with beards showing little children how to hoe the earth, bare chested women touching bare chested men, men with masks like mollusks lined up in the streets, police cars burning, and little old ladies with signs: "People's Park is a beautiful, creative thing. Go see it."

The photo exhibition is a very large success. It will soon tour the country, and a book is being made of its photographs.

The Regents of the University of California say that People's Park is to be an intramural playing field until it becomes a parking lot. But it is not an intramural playing field now, because no one will play on it. The inter-fraternity council voted to boycott it. They refer to a student referendum held last spring that overwhelmingly supported its use as a People's Park. They do not feel that the Regents paid much attention to what the students thought.

And as a parking lot, so far it doesn't look very good. The first group that was offered the right to run the parking lot refused it. Not very politely either.

Pretty girls walking by. Berkeley has beautiful women in disorienting quantity. I feel lucidity evaporating into timeless spaceless everything at once. Only the past is real. Lucidity is seeing reality, and coming to it from the dream is like being washed over by a cold ocean wave, your mind shocked to your body's awareness of itself: "so this is what it is (was)."

The newspaper today says that scientists believe that from 50 to 60% of man's physical ills can be traced to the fact that he has stopped walking on all fours and his body hasn't caught up with the change.

* * *

The other night we had a difficult decision to make. Would we go to the second evening of the First Annual Northern California Holy Man Jam (featuring Timothy Leary) at the Family Dog in San Francisco, or would we attend the Ecology Benefit Poetry Reading in Berkeley?

In the end the problem was solved when we found that we didn't have enough money to get our bus across the bridge and still pay the admission (yes, even in the bay area, you still have to pay to get into a holy man jam.) We had attended the first night, and I'd been ordained a minister in the Universal Life Church. Communion was a toke from the longest bong I've ever seen.

So Michael and I went to the campus to the poetry reading. Michael is the only person in the place I'm living in that I knew previous to a month ago. We live with a kind of floating commune situation in a pleasant old slum on Shattuck near Ashby. One of us-the guy who owns the bus---is a northern California Indian. His girlfriend is a New England girl named Priscilla who cooks oatmeal or brown rice in the nude. Bob is a 19 year old from Philadelphia with a Jewish last name. Michael dropped out of Stanford where he was doing graduate work in philosophy. He's from Joliet, Illinois. His girlfriend comes and goes. I think she is from hereabouts originally. She once referred to my presence in the household as "solemn and tacit."

It's strange about crowds in Berkeley. They are not like crowds I have known before. They seem more comfortable in the identity of a crowd.

I had hardly been in Berkeley a week when I accidentally heard Bernadette Devlin speak. I was just walking through an unfamiliar building on the campus when I came upon the signs saying she would be there. The time and place on the signs were the same time it was and place where I was standing.

So I went upstairs where there was an auditorium. A girl at the door smiled and told me I shouldn't have been let in and smiled again and let me in. Inside, Bernadette Devlin had been expected for about a half hour and hadn't appeared yet. A great many people were amusing themselves by throwing paper airplanes at the stage. When one made it, or when there was a particularly spectacular flight, everyone cheered.

Then the inevitable began happening. Someone threw a frisbie. Frisbies had been outlawed on the campus the previous spring. But, even in the midst of the People's Park crisis, Berkeley students responded with a mammoth Fris-Be-In in Sproul Plaza.

Now a guard confiscated the frisbie. Which touched off a ritual, but good humored and slightly melancholy chorus of "Off the Pig!" Any time a policeman appears, even in a movie, even in a Laurel and Hardy movie, he is given this same greeting.

Finally Bernadette Devlin arrived. Someone tried to give a "we are all happy to welcome the woman who..." introduction but he was shouted off. Nobody wanted to hear a bullshit introduction. They wanted to hear Bernadette Devlin.

It was a different group at the poetry reading. They were people whose concerns were ecology and the land and the water and the air and the poetry. We sat in quiet, spacious rows of folding chairs, waiting for the program to begin, just as at any reading. People were looking around, talking a little, staring ahead, and smoking. Finally the master of ceremonies, an ecologist, came to the microphone and said that he knew it might be difficult for most of the people, but if somehow some room could be made at the back of the ballroom, more people could get in.

Immediately everyone moved their chairs towards the front, obliterating the orderly rows and pushing everyone closer together. Then everybody looked around at each other and at what they had done, and giggled.

The M.C. watched it all and said, "What just happened was very much like the action of wind, or water. I think we're ready to begin."

It was a fine reading. Gary Snyder was the crowd's favorite. He came to the microphone, looking like a wise old shaman, or the wind-aged Indian on the Sierra Club poster, and asked that all the doors be opened to let in the air. For some of his poems he received applause after every line.

Michael McClure read, bringing nature and politics together. David Meltzer spoke of the sensations of a city boy moving to a cabin in Marin County. Richard Brautigan, the confederate general of Mendecino, pranced around the stage at the end of each one of his short, delightful non sequiter poems. Lew Welch, a tall, theatrically handsome but obviously gentle man, read poems about a child's view of the world, authentic and pure.

Welch also expressed a view about the mythology of the bay area that one runs into constantly. As an introduction to his poem/prayer in praise of Mount Tamalpais (a mountain in Marin County north of San Francisco widely regarded as magical) he asserted that all of the great revolutionary movements in America---westward expansion, the Beats, psychedelia---began in the bay area. A recurring line of his poem is "This is the last place/There is no where else we need to go."

After the reading I stopped at Giovanni's for coffee. I met a girl in Colorado who had worked there. I mentioned this to the cashier who, it turned out, knew her. The cashier's name was Angela. She was a Leo, but she had a strange attraction to Cancerians. She had known I was a Cancerian when I walked in. Her current lover is a Cancerian.

We talked about my being in California and how I was doing. She asked me how it was to be in California alone. I said that part of it was not good. She nodded and had to rush off to a customer.

In the peculiar matrix of the traveler, people who make you welcome quickly become friends. Yet lacking a context you are really grounded in together, and without any sense of permanence---sometimes, with an active sense of impermanence---you always remain strangers.

Tonight, or this morning, it is raining. It is the dawn of October 15, the Moratorium. Already in Berkeley it has begun. People are standing in the rain somewhere, reading the names of men, boys who died in Vietnam.

Laura is 18, a freshman at Berkeley. I met her yesterday on the campus. We started talking when I asked her for a sheet of paper. We sat in the sunshine drinking coffee. We talked about all the beautiful places to go, like Big Sur, Marin, Mendecino, Sausalito, Yosemite. She told me that if I was ever hungry, to come to her sorority house for a free meal.

Sometime this morning the people standing in the rain are going to read the name of Laura's only lover.

Earlier tonight I went back to Giovanni's and had coffee. That's where I got all this lucidity. Angela was there, but she was unhappy. Her job was getting to her, all the rushing around, her uptight boss who was getting ulcers and complaining, but mostly it was the gloomy, rainy day that was bringing her down. At the foot of the soaring soul of all Californians is sunshine. At the peak, there must be a coolness, a breathlessness, a quiet, still closer to the sun.