Down and Out in San Francisco

After returning from Sweden and flunking my draft physical, I tried a few jobs, like canvassing for one of Nader’s political action groups (see, The Mysterious Saul Alinsky), and also working phone sales for a mob operation selling discounts to Vegas casinos masquerading as radio quiz-show jackpot awards. Both those operations seemed similar and equally sleazy, although the Nader group paid in full, while the mob op disappeared overnight owing me hundreds. I also tried working in an automobile plant producing bumpers, but wasn’t cut out for that grind.

So I went back to college for free, enrolling in San Francisco City College to study journalism, film and theater. I had little money and no car, but I found a room a block from the school for $50 a month that was owned by a Filipino woman who also lived there. She had rented the downstairs to her best friend, Rose. The upstairs had three tiny bedrooms. Ronnie moved in first. Then I arrived. Then our landlady decided to move into the pantry behind the kitchen so she could rent another room.

Ronnie had once been signed to a major film company right out of high school and, according to him, was being groomed as a leading man in the John Wayne/Rock Hudson mode when his career tanked for some reason and he was obviously gay although we never discussed his orientation. Ron had a lot of stories about Hollywood in the early sixties, and was a bit bitter, but had now morphed into a master of bilking the welfare state of California, which is what I guess I was doing in a way too, collecting my free education in a state I’d just moved to. Ron became a model for a character in a play I would soon write. I even have some correspondence from him, although I lost touch with Ron quickly and I’m sure he never saw the play.

Funny how I took a photograph of my desk, starting in Stockholm and then continuing in San Francisco. I was convinced I was going to become a famous writer some day, and was already documenting my progress. I did write one story during this period, The Stockholm Manifesto, based on my experiences in Sweden evading the draft, a story available for free on my smashwords site. You’ll notice my ceremonial elements are assembled in this photo: two candles, the record player and albums, expensive bottle of bubbly, and a bunch of manifestation prayers adorning the wall above my headboard.

One day when Rose came up for a visit, I told Bugsy I wanted to get a picture of her for my archives, so he sat in the living room and I took Rose’s picture over his shoulder. The following semester, Bugsy’s brother Don and I moved into the house next door and I think we were even paying less rent for more space.

The picture on top shows me seated at my trusty Olivetti. Within a year, I’d write my first play on that machine, inspired by my year in San Francisco attending City College. And that play would be my first big break as a writer because it was staged at the University of Illinois and then invited to the National Theater Festival Regional, where it got a standing ovation. But that’s another story with another set of pictures. This is the real place that story was based on, inhabited by a real cast of characters. If you ever want to check out that play, however, you can read a sample for free on my smashwords site. It’s called Mrs. Roses’ Boarding House.

My take on the generation gap

Hey, Steve, I see you have a lot of books out and that’s really cool. But there’s so much material, where’s the best place to start?” —Longtime Fan

Depends on what you want to read about. My best book right now is probably the one on the Kennedy assassination, and after that the one on the Lincoln assassination. But if you like Hip Hop, then the best book is my complete archives on that subject, and the paperback costs under $12. But if you want to delve deeply into my development as an author, the best place to start is with 1966, which contains my earliest work as a writer. It’s all fiction and a wonderful introduction to the real story of the 1960s. From there, I’d suggest reading Magic, Religion & Cannabis, which contains my autobiography from that period and will explain a lot about where my head was at the time. My first short story was titled East Village, and written at age 17. It takes place in New York’s East Village in 1966, a very important year in counterculture history. That’s when thousands of male teenagers began pressing their parents to discontinue the ritual of visiting a barbershop once a month, so they could display locks like their rock role-models. For many parents, however, having a well-shorn male child was just as important as having a well-trimmed lawn. The biggest battles may have taken place in the fall— many could escape haircuts during the summer, but not when school started.

My friends Bugsy and Maarten pulled off a daring escape for a few weeks, landing in a crash-pad in the East Village, which was experiencing an explosion of teenage runaways, and celebrating up a storm, all of which came to a sudden halt when a society teen was found murdered in a speed-freak shooting-gallery. Their adventures inspired me to write my first short story.

Next, came The Steam Tunnels, which takes place in 1966 and involves my climactic confrontation with my parents. After this day, I’d never be forced to get another haircut. I soon moved down into the basement and transformed it into a psychedelic play-land. It became the rehearsal studio for my band, The Knight Riders, my art studio, and a clubhouse for all my friends. My mom called it “The Den of Iniquity,” so I painted a sign on the entrance: “Are you sure a nice person like you belongs in this Den of Iniquity?” I was exploring the steam tunnels at the same time, and actually did consider moving down there permanently for a second. One night we thought we’d been caught by the University police when the lights came on unexpectedly. It turned out to be Guy Maynard, lead singer of the Seeds of Doubt, and a friend of his. I had to run away from home twice before I could negotiate a livable arrangement with my parents, one that afforded me the freedom that I needed. I was branded “emotionally immature,” because I wanted to be in charge of my life’s trajectory. The threat of reform school, military academy, and/or the dreaded “electro-shock therapy” was always hanging over my head. I wrote The Steam Tunnels at age 20, five years after it happened. Wesly Pinter is a composite of Bugsy and John Hayes, founder of the Knight Riders.

Then came the The Stockholm Manifesto, written while living in Sweden trying to evade the Vietnam War, which is free to download in any format.

I’d eventually get kicked out of Sweden and flunked my physical thanks to a sympathetic psychologist. I just told him I didn’t fit in the Army and they wouldn’t want me. He asked how I knew that and I told him I’d gone to Valpo University and been put in a dorm, and ended up in a huge conflict with a lot of people in the dorm who didn’t like my style. Then I began to shed a few tears. Hey, I was on the chopping block—an impeccably-groomed master-sergeant had escorted me to the psychologist’s office. Very few potential inductees even saw the psychologist. You had to demand to see him! I’d already been identified as a flight risk. You had to sign an oath right off and I refused, saying I was sympathetic to the Vietcong, and considered the USA the aggressor nation and refused to fight. After that, they kept a eye on me. What I was counting on was my weight. After days of fasting, I was probably around 125. I had some magic number in my head that if I was under that, I would be 4-F. The weighing-in however, was extremely fast and sloppy and they were taking everybody they could get by 1971, so my fasting was of no avail. The sergeant guarding me was already letting me know I was going downstairs in ten minutes and getting on that bus to boot-camp! Just as soon as you get out of that office, hahaha, you dirty hippie! He didn’t say that, but I knew he was thinking it. It was a spider looks at the fly moment. But that sergeant was positively crushed when the psychologist branded me 4-F and his little fly flew out the front door, back to freedom! It was one of my peak ecstasy moments and it had all been a lot easier than I’d thought. I sure could tell that sergeant was pissed this little fly got away and the Army never got their claws into my brain.

The Stockholm Manifesto

Marta was my first real girlfriend.

Thanks to mom filling out an application to Valparaiso University, I briefly attended college after barely graduating high school. Mom figured I’d jump on it since my favorite cousin, Tom Hutton, had just returned from Vietnam and enrolled there on the GI Bill. I ‘d kept up a correspondence with Tom during his entire tour, a time during which he went through some heavy, heavy changes and emerged as an ardent anti-war activist.

I’d been living in Oakland when I got the news I’d been accepted, so I hitch-hiked back east, and checked out the Lutheran college both my parents graduated from. Unfortunately, I felt tremendously isolated from all the devout Christians, although I did create two lasting friendships with fellow searchers on the path of illuminated fun I’d been scouting the past three years (The Merry Pranksters being my ultimate role model). We discovered a hay-filled barn with a giant rope swing and it became 24-hour party central. A lot of swan dives into the haystack while intoxicated on LSD, beer or both. After the Kent State Massacre, however, I stopped attending class, and just spent my time studying the art of having fun all the time. When the school music building burned (suspected arson), it came down the grapevine I was the number-one suspect being investigated.

Eventually, my dad caught wind of the situation and cut me off completely, having already wasted $5,000 on tuition fees alone. The best thing that came out of Valpo was an encounter with Joseph Heller, who clued me into Louis-Ferdinand Celine, a tremendous influence on Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, to name but a few.

Maybe I wasn’t attending class,  but I was educating myself in my own way and I burned through everything Celine wrote (that I could find) in a few days. My draft number was low, so when my cousin Tom discovered my circumstances, knowing I’d be inducted straight from the physical exam into bootcamp, plunked down $350 for a one-way ticket to  Stockholm, where his army buddy, Ed Keeling, was attending the university.  I had very few possessions, just a letter from Tom explaining my hasty exit from the States and could he help me out? I had virtually no money, and slept the first few nights on the floor in Ed’s tiny dorm room, with Ed wondering what the hell was going on and when was I going to get the hell out of there?!

I was soon rescued, however, by a couple of amazing Swedish goddesses, one blonde, one brunette. Eva, the blonde, took me under her wing and introduced me to her revolutionary cellmates. She put up with my cynical rants and was even amused by them. Eva sensed I was going to evolve into a great, great revolutionary. In fact, I think she was convinced that’s exactly what was going to happen. This made me laugh. I loathed Marxism more than I did organized religion!

Eva was certainly beautiful and I undoubtedly had a shot with her, but I chose Marta, who was a dead ringer for a French movie star. Or maybe Marta picked me? In a way, she became my first real girlfriend. Marta was a year or two older and gave me some necessary schooling in art of making love. I was living my down-and-out-in-Europe fantasy and having a blast! I even got some extra work in the film Joe Hill, which gave me enough money to buy a typewriter so I could commence creating the first great counterculture novel of my generation, the rock’n’roll, garageband, go-for-broke generation that actually created the sixties.  I never got beyond the opening chapter.