Buddy: A Nobel-Inspired Reminiscence

The announcement last Thursday that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize made me think of my pal Buddy Phelps.

Buddy was my best friend during the years I went to half of junior high school and half of high school in Carmel, California, or “Carmel-by-the-Sea,” as the tourist brochures put it. This would have been from about 1964 to 1967. The two of us courted trouble as aggressively as you could on the cypress-lined back streets of Carmel. Buddy usually led the way but I didn’t need any convincing.

I don’t remember exactly how we became friends, though it probably had something to do with our mutual determination to get drunk. If we couldn’t get one of the soldiers from Fort Ord to buy us beer, we’d break into strangers’ houses at random to steal whatever booze we could find. I’m pretty sure we were the first in our class to smoke pot. Buddy had scored it somehow, and somehow he knew what to do with it. I remember how exotic the Zig Zag cigarette papers looked when he came out of the tobacco store with them.

Buddy looked wild even before he became a stoner. A cross country runner (a sport he’d given up before I got to know him, I think because he didn’t like taking orders from the coach), he was thin, lanky but not especially tall, with a crooked, wiseacre smile and slightly hunched shoulders. His dark eyes had a gleam in them that could go from mischievous to demented, depending on how high he was. He dropped acid before I did, and I have another memory of him excitedly moving his hands in an accordion motion and making loud “whooshing” sounds as he described how the walls of the room started pulsating in and out as his trip began.

The incident that came to mind when I heard about Dylan’s Nobel occurred in the late spring or early summer of 1966. Blonde on Blonde had just come out. I liked Dylan okay in those days, but I wasn’t nearly as passionate about him as Buddy was. Evidence of his devotion was the condition Buddy imposed when he invited me to join him in robbing the local record store: We’d split the haul equally, he said, with one exception. All the Dylan albums would be his.

The store had one of those French doors in back, facing a secluded courtyard, which was our point of entry. In the middle of the night we broke in, ignoring the hi fi equipment in the front, focusing entirely on the record bins at the rear. We made off with hundreds of LPs, carrying them, laboriously, to an empty lot a couple of blocks away, where we stashed them in some bushes. We must have made a number of trips back and forth, although I don’t remember the details. I ended up with a lot of good albums that night, but, true to our deal, Buddy got all the Dylan.

Not long after that our paths temporarily diverged. My father changed jobs and we moved a couple of hours north to Burlingame, on the edge on what the world would come to call, twenty or thirty years later, Silicon Valley. The move broke my heart, and I visited my girlfriend in Carmel whenever I could, sometimes on school days, disconnecting the speedometer cable on my old Corvair so my parents wouldn’t be able to detect the extra mileage. I’m sure I saw Buddy every now and again, on the beach or at the park in town, but we weren’t especially close. Circumstances brought us together again a year later.

It was the summer of 1967, the so-called Summer of Love. I’d read an article in my father’s Time magazine about a new store on Haight Street in San Francisco called The Psychedelic Shop. We should start one of those in Carmel, I said to my older brother, Scott. He liked the idea, but it seemed little more than a pipe dream until I mentioned it to Buddy.

As it happened, Buddy’s father was an importer of Mexican pottery, and he had a second-floor storeroom overlooking Ocean Avenue in the heart of town. Happy to think his wayward son might be interested in anything having to do with business, Buddy’s dad turned half the space over to us. We cleaned it up, painted the walls in bright colors and stocked it with posters, buttons, incense and crafts on consignment. I was embarrassed then as I am now by the name we came up with for our store: Little Love.

To be the teenage co-owner of a psychedelic shop in Carmel, California, in the summer of 1967 was, as you can imagine, a blast. Scott and I rented a little bungalow behind a larger house a few blocks away. There was an endless supply of pot, no parents and plenty of friends stopping by. We didn’t see much of Buddy, though. He was off on his adventures, leaving the tending of the shop to us. One highlight was the Monterey Pop Festival, where, thanks to Scott’s initiative and the organizers’ commitment to let local businesses in on the action, Little Love had a booth on the fairway. Again, Buddy wasn’t around much, although on Sunday night he and I did manage to wear down the resistance of a benevolent ticket taker who let us waltz joyfully into the festival’s closing concert, just in time to see Jimi Hendrix take the stage. He played “Like a Rolling Stone” before he set his guitar on fire.

At summer’s end we closed the shop as abruptly as we’d opened it, and I returned to Burlingame for my senior year in high school. I don’t recall ever seeing Buddy again. After graduation I went to college in Oregon and then to graduate school in New York and fell out touch with all my friends in Carmel. Later I heard from my brother that Buddy had lost a leg when some bandits threw him off the top of a train in Mexico — apparently he was coming back to the states with a load of pot. I could picture him hobbling around Carmel with his stump, a crutch and his pirate’s grin. He didn’t reform, which doesn’t surprise me. Sometime later, I’m not sure exactly when, Buddy was shot to death during a drug deal in Big Sur.

So it was Buddy’s ghost that visited me the morning Dylan’s Nobel was announced. It would have been fun to share the news with him. What he’d be up to at this point, if he’d lived, is anybody’s guess, but I’m sure he would have cackled madly about this august recognition of a fellow pirate, so late in the game.