Chapter Fourteen (Pacific Heights)
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In September I moved into a huge Queen Anne mansion on the corner of California and Octavia in Pacific Heights. The owner had converted what used to be her private residence into eleven separate apartments. Her name was Carrie B. Rousseau. She had lots of cats. Her apartment was on the first floor. When she opened the door all you saw were cats — on couches, in chairs, rubbing lovingly around her swollen ankles, everywhere. The place reeked of unchanged kitty litter.
She didn’t charge much rent — forty-five bucks a month, which even back then wasn’t much — and the place was completely furnished with all kinds of antique Japanese silk screens, English China and Chinese rugs that Mrs. Rousseau and her husband had picked up on trips to Europe and Asia before World War I. Maybe it was because of the cats that she didn’t charge much rent. She and her husband had both been architects. They’d had a hand in the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. He was dead. She was lonely. She may also have been slightly nuts.
I remember sitting with her out in what used to be her living room. It had been turned into a parlor. There were couches and floor lamps and end tables. Anyone who lived in the building was welcome to sit around down there, but not many people did. Mrs. Rousseau and I talked about as much as we didn’t talk. She ended most of her sentences by saying, “Don’t you know.” It wasn’t a question. I’m not sure what it was, but she looked right at me when she said it.
Her eyes were still blue and sparkly, and the way she put on makeup was probably the same way she’d put on makeup the day she got married — circles of rouge, puffs of flesh-colored powder. She looked so innocent, so sweet, so like a blushing bride shortly after the turn of the century, with her mouth painted into a pert little pucker of bright red lipstick like Betty Boop. She had to have been in her late eighties by then.
“I went down to Grant Avenue this afternoon, don’t you know,” she said one night. “I had to order a funeral arrangement from Podesta Baldocchi, don’t you know. Another day, another funeral…they’re dying like flies, don’t you know.” Her voice trailed off. She reminded me of my grandmother.
Mrs. Rousseau knew a song my grandmother used to sing to me: “Hello, Central, Give me Heaven (Because My Mother’s There).” I used to lean my head against the prickly arm of my grandmother’s maroon overstuffed chair while she soaked her feet in Epsom Salts and sang me songs from the olden days. When I found out Mrs. Rousseau knew the words to the “Hello, Central” song, I got all excited. She wouldn’t sing it, no. She didn’t like to sing. “I have a terrible singing voice, don’t you know,” she said. But I got her to say the words out loud to me. It was a real tearjerker of a song…all about a kid calling the operator after his mother had died, probably not long after the telephone had been invented. “Central” was what they used to call the operator. The kid says, “Hello, Central, give me heaven, for I know my mother’s there. You will find her with the angels, over on the golden stair.” Then at the end he says, “Kiss me mama, it’s your darling. Kiss me through the telephone.” I forget what the operator said. What could she say?
After Mrs. Rousseau died, I read in The Chronicle that some quasi-religious New Age cult bought the place. They were going to turn it into an ashram or a monastery or a cloister of some sort, but then they tried to back out of the deal. They claimed the house was haunted by the ghost of Carrie B. Rousseau and the everlasting souls of dozens of dead cats. I’m sure it was, too. It more than likely still is.
Mine was the smallest apartment in the building. There was a breakfast nook in the tiny kitchen and a bedroom and a big closet — that was it. The door off the kitchen opened out onto a patio, half a block down from the Hayes Street Hill. There was a park up there. I was happy. I was making money. I was writing stuff. I was reading stuff. I was living in an opulent mansion full of silk screens and Chinese rugs and English China for forty-five bucks a month, and the love of my life stayed with me most every night. What more I could ask for, I did not know.
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Then it started getting close to Christmas again. I’d heard about Ginny and her Christmases, but I’d never actually been privy to the whole phenomenon in any kind of day-to-day way. I didn’t believe much I hadn’t seen for myself. I still don’t. Ginny and her Christmases you had to see to believe. I saw. I believed. I believe.
The first indication I got was that one night, probably around the middle of November, she came crashing through the kitchen door, laughing, out of breath, drunk off her ass, and told me not to let anybody come into the apartment.
“Lock the door,” she said. “Don’t open it, no matter what.” She jabbed a finger at my chest and ran into the bedroom. I closed the door behind her.
Not long afterwards, four or five huffing, puffing policemen showed up. I opened the door a crack but kept my foot behind it. “We need to talk to the girl who came in here,” one of the cops said.
“No girl came in here,” I said.
By the expression on his face, the cop knew I was lying, but then he seemed to be trying to think what it was that Ginny had actually done wrong. Yell? Run? Hide? Laugh? Were those things against the law? He couldn’t exactly put his finger on it, but whatever it was, he’d better not catch her doing it again.
Ginny was ambivalent toward policemen. It had something to do with getting raped by that cop after she stole the bulldozer back in high school. One of the things that characterized her Christmases was that when she got drunk she pissed off cops for no apparent reason. She used to play with them, to toy with them, to ruffle their feathers. She’d see a cop across a street, wave to him, call out to him in that same confident voice she had used to get the waiter’s attention at Ripley’s, “Yoo-hoo, Mr. Policeman!” That was it. That was all she ever said.
Then she’d laugh and take off running…and when the cop saw her running, he chased her. She didn’t know why she ran. He didn’t know why he chased her. But when other cops saw her being chased by a cop, they all stopped whatever they were doing and chased her, too. It was a game, like cop tag. They hardly ever caught her, and even when they did, they didn’t know what to do with her. What could they do? Arrest her? For what? Waving? Laughing? Running? She was like the Pied Piper of cops. She ran and ran. They chased her and chased her.
This was my first crack at getting her from November to March in one piece. Other guys had had their chances. Roger Singmaster had had his turn. She ended up in a loony bin in La Jolla with bandages on her wrists. Ronnie and the college kids had their turn. Jim Moss had his turn. None of them had made it past February. I was determined to make it forever. I thought I was up to it. I wasn’t. Nobody was.
It always started with just a drink or two. During the rest of the year she was fine with a drink or two. She just got giggly and cuddly and talked too loud and went to sleep, but once she started drinking around Christmas, she very simply never stopped. Even when she was blacked out, she kept getting more blacked out. It was an amazing thing to see. When she was blacked out, she didn’t have any fear or shame or guilt or pretense, which opened her up to all the sin and sickness and misery and sadness in the world, to all the joy and beauty and charm and affection and love. She felt too much, knew too much, absorbed too much all at once. She ran into traffic. She rolled in gutters, laughing and crying simultaneously.
It was really just your basic vicious circle. She’d drink a bottle of gin, black out, know everything, love everyone, be loved, pass out, wake up the next day, drink Fizzrin, hear what had happened the night before, feel contrite, know nothing, love no one, be unloved, take sole responsibility for all the sin and sickness and sadness in the world, feel empty, want to die, drink a bottle of gin, black out, know everything…on and on, over and over, at least once a week from November to March.
Some years she went into mental hospitals. Other years she managed to get through the whole rigmarole with whatever guy she was with. Not many lasted more than one Christmas. I lasted five. That’s the all-time record. I’m not bragging. It wasn’t exactly something to brag about — well, you know, unless you think beating your head against a brick wall is something to brag about.
It breaks my heart sometimes still after all these years to know what Ginny would have been if she hadn’t been such a schizophrenic drunk. She would have been a god damn icon. She would have had followers, worshipers, acolytes, an entourage. She would have given Zelda Fitzgerald and Anais Nin and Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker a run for their money in the memorable chick department. She was the first hippie, for one thing. I’ve mentioned that. Yeah, well, she was. I have proof. Documentary evidence. You could look it up.
There’s a picture of her in the school paper at San Francisco State: The Gater. The picture was taken in the spring of 1963. Ginny’s dancing on the lawn across from the library; her hair’s kind of in her face, but you can still tell it’s her. Jim Moss is in the background, egging her on. And the first time the word “hippie” was used to describe the sort of person who we all know now as a “hippie” was in the caption to that picture. She may even have had some flowers in her hair — which, in my book, makes her the first hippie. Merriam Webster may wish to quibble, but hey, she’s got her own damn book. In my book, Ginny Good is the first hippie. Ha!
It wasn’t just the picture, either. She was an icon in all kinds of other ways, too. She ironed her hair and put cucumber slices on her eyelids at night. She ate alfalfa sprouts and Northridge Farms Honey Wheatberry Bread and tofu and great vats of zucchini, parsley and green beans, all on the personal recommendation of Dr. Henry Beiler himself. He hung out with Ginny’s aunt and the Vedanta Swamis in Laguna Beach and literally wrote the book on hippie food. Check it out. Food is Your Best Medicine, the book was called. While everyone else was still drinking Nehi Grape, Ginny Good was guzzling frothy concoctions of Tiger’s Milk, Brewer’s Yeast and Blackstrap Molasses. While everyone else was just beginning to catch on to the idea of eating Big Macs and Round Table Pizza, Ginny Good was the first one on her block to cook brown rice to perfection.
Nor did it end there. She was the hippiest little hippie chick who ever lived. She defined the whole idea in about a billion ways. Later on, she carted boxes of her old clothes down to the Digger’s store so other chicks could become hippie chicks too, then so did they and so on and so on. It wasn’t just a matter of appearances, either. Ginny was all up into astrology, astral projection, past lives, psychic this and New Age that, the I-Ching, Eastern Philosophy, Paul Reps, Alan Watts, Fritz Perls, R. D. Laing, Arthur Koestler, Wilhelm Reich and Sam Lewis — Sufi Sam.
Ginny and Sufi Sam liked each other. We used to hang out at his house over by Precita Park. She was one of his favorites, one of his devotees, an acolyte, a disciple. Sufi Sam gave her a special disciple name, a devotee name, an acolyte name: Mumtaz. She went around calling herself that for years. Mumtaz was the gorgeous mogul chick in whose memory the Taj Mahal was built. Sufi Sam thought Ginny was some kind of budding Sufi saint herself.
He didn’t think as much of me as he did of her, but he thought enough of me to have me help him fiddle with a translation he was working on of some of the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi. I tried to get him to make it more modern. Sufi Sam gave me a funny look and said that would be stupid. Who was I to disagree? I still have part of one of the poems in my little stack of letters and things. It sounded like Ginny. That’s why I kept it:
“I am light, you are my moon, don’t go to heaven without me.
The thorn is safe from the fire in the shelter of the rose’s face:
You are the rose, I your thorn;
Don’t go into the rose garden without me.”
She might have been the first hippie, but Ginny drew the line at not shaving her armpits. Part of being the definitive hippie chick was not doing the things all the other hippie chicks did — and she had the most perfect armpits ever. Strong arms. Muscular shoulders. When she stretched her arms over her head, the veins in her armpits showed up like veins in leaves. She was beautiful — vital, alive.
She was just a regular chick, too. She got her feelings hurt and had sibling rivalries and liked to drink coffee and read the pink section in The Chronicle and go to movies. She wanted to make something of herself. She wanted to have kids, to get a house, to cook, to sew, to plant vegetables, to sing in a choir, to sit on a porch swing somewhere and watch the sun go down. She wanted to make something of me. She wanted to get me rich and famous and educated so we could do all those things with each other. I didn’t get rich. I didn’t get famous. I didn’t get educated. We didn’t do those things with each other. We did other things, different things.
The multimedia version has music by The Dave Clark Five and John Coltrane, but this voice only version ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: