Chapter Twenty (Shrader Street)
— — —
Acid changed everything — politics, relationships, fashion, religion, war, peace, freedom, diet, philosophy, soap operas, advertising, you name it. The normal things you used to just do from day to day — get up, brush your teeth, eat a bowl of Wheaties, go to work at some flunky job — all that changed once you dropped your first little orange speckled hit of LSD or ate your first sugar cube or drank your first Dixie Cup of Kool Aid. Your hair grew long. You couldn’t look into a bowl of Wheaties without imagining where the wheat grew, who planted it, how it got cultivated and turned into flakes and put into orange boxes…and who cut the trees to make the boxes and who drove the trucks…and that was before you even got to the milk and the sugar and all the grass the cow must have eaten, not to mention what the heck exactly was it that went into the making of a champion? You wore necklaces and bright-colored clothes; the gray hooded-sweatshirt you used to put on without thinking about it one way or another became an elfin cloak.
One of the changes I noticed was that Ginny didn’t seem to give a shit whether I wrote books or not anymore — so I didn’t. That was a relief. I barely read books anymore. It was all I could do to look at the pictures on psychedelic posters or in Zap Comix. Reading was too linear. Words were too cumbersome. Even the individual letters out of which words were constructed just got way too squiggly and artificial looking to mean anything anymore. Nothing made the kind of sense it used to make.
Ginny still read books. She read books all the time, meaty stuff and fluff — but she hadn’t ever read books in a very linear way, anyway — she didn’t do much of anything in a very linear way. Taking acid had nothing to do with it.
— — —
When we got back from La Honda, Ginny and I rented a two-bedroom apartment — 410 Shrader Street, Apartment 3. It was a few buildings up from Oak, a block and a half down from Haight Street, three blocks from Ashbury.
When we went to see about the apartment, the guy who managed the building had a monkey on his shoulder. He was an old Russian, probably in his early seventies. He’d been a circus performer — a daring young man on a flying trapeze. His last name was Forkel. His first name was Vela, but I never thought of him as anyone but Mr. Forkel. He reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov — well, of pictures I’d seen on dust jackets. Nabokov had worked in a circus, too. He also lived up here in Ashland, Oregon for a while. In the fifties, I think. He used to catch butterflies in the woods at the end of the ally behind my mother’s house after he’d fiddled with Lolita enough for one day.
Mr. Forkel and his wife lived in the front apartment. It had bay windows looking out onto Shrader Street. After I rang the bell, the first thing Ginny and I saw was the monkey. He popped his head up under Mr. and Mrs. Forkel’s white lace curtains and gave us a sour look. Ginny gave him a sour look back. He grimaced at her and scratched his head. She scratched her head and stuck out her tongue at him. That was when Mr. Forkel’s wife pulled the curtains aside and saw us standing there. Pretty soon Mr. Forkel let us into the hallway — him and his monkey.
The monkey crouched on Mr. Forkel’s shoulder. Its fur had a greenish tinge. It scratched its tiny, dirty, human-looking fingernails through its owner’s sparse gray hair like it was looking for ticks. The monkey offered Ginny a piece of lint with a mawkish grin, showing off the bright blue veins on the wet pink insides of its lips. She took the lint from the monkey’s fingers. They frowned at each other.
Mr. Forkel called the monkey Houdini. “Hang on a second,” he said. “Let me get rid of Houdini, here.”
He had only a slight accent. He scooted the monkey into his and his wife’s apartment, and we followed him down the long hallway to the rear apartment on the right-hand side.
“You got the garden out back. It goes with this unit.” Mr. Forkel opened one of the window shades. Dirty white curtains billowed out. The cross ventilation seemed okay. I liked the idea of having a garden. We could grow things, rhubarb, tomatoes, green beans, like my grandpa used to grow. The curtains, we could wash — we could spiff the place up in all kinds of other ways; paint the walls, maybe.
“It’s how much, again?” I asked.
“Two twenty-seven fifty. Two bedrooms. Furnished. The owner didn’t raise the rent after the last tenants moved out. They weren’t here long.”
“Why the fifty cents?” I asked.
“Owner’s Chinese. It’s a Hong Kong corporation.”
Mr. Forkel went back to his apartment. Ginny and I walked around awhile, into the kitchen, into the bathroom. We tried the faucets, flushed the toilet. We sat on the couch. The refrigerator clicked on. We heard a siren. A bus stopped. There was the sound of compressed air when the bus door opened and another hiss of compressed air when the bus door closed. The bus drove away. We heard the voice of a kid yelling. The refrigerator clicked off.
We went into the back bedroom. Clotheslines on rusted pulleys were strung between the backs of buildings. Facing the street, the buildings were the ornate, multicolored Victorians San Francisco’s famous for, but in back they were dull blocks of wooden planks, painted pastel blue or peach or yellow. Falling-down fences heaped with mounds of thriving ivy separated the yards between the buildings. Two of the yards had been cemented over. Weeds grew out of cracks in the cement. In one there was a yellow dog dish, another had a vegetable garden. Between the buildings, the golden spires of St. Ignatius Church glinted and clouded over, in and out of the sun and patches of fog. We took it.
That was where we lived from May of 1965 to the summer of 1968 — well, on and off; it’s all kind of a jumble. That thing they used to say — “If you remember the sixties you weren’t there?” — that’s not exactly a meaningless cliché. I moved out now and then, went up to Oregon, came back, got my own place for a while, moved in with Ginny again. We had other roommates sometimes. Brenda Creswell was one. All I remember about her was that she played the same Judy Collins record over and over on some cheap-ass record player that hadn’t had a new needle since she’d moved to San Francisco from Nebraska.
Mary Kramer was another roommate for six months or so. She was stable, down to earth — a nurse. The only unconventional thing about Mary was that she was Pigpen’s girlfriend. They were a miracle of contrasts. I remember finding them at the kitchen table one morning. Mary had just finished a nutritious, well-balanced breakfast and was dressed for work in her prim white uniform. Pigpen was wearing his black leather hat that was coming apart at the seams. Purple carbuncles pocked his unshaven jowls and poked up around the edges of his scraggly mustache. His jacket was coming apart at the seams; he was sort of coming apart at the seams, in general. I think Mary might have been trying to reform him, to clean him up, to nurture him, to give him some stability, to keep him from drinking himself to death. It wasn’t working. As soon as she left, Pigpen poured whiskey from a silver flask into a cup of black coffee.
All kinds of people used to hang out at our apartment on Shrader Street. We got our acid from Superspade. He got it from Owsley. It was to the apartment on Shrader Street that Hank Harrison brought little Courtney over for us to baby-sit — that day we took acid and her little towhead two-year-old glow lit up the place. Steve Gaskin used to drop by now and then. He was trying to get Ginny and Brenda to start up a commune with him out in the sticks somewhere.
— — —
Ginny went into the U. C. Hospital psycho ward during most of the Christmas difficulties of 1965 — from November until the end of February. When it turned spring things quieted down, as they always did in the spring.
During the summer of 1966, we mellowed out, lived our lives. I worked at little jobs. Ginny continued taking classes at San Francisco State, although going nuts around Christmas kept getting in the way of accumulating enough credits to graduate.
New hippies showed up in Haight-Ashbury every day. They just appeared — like crocuses. One day a guy would be a straight-laced claims adjuster, taking the bus down to Montgomery Street every morning, and the next day he’d be all decked out in hippie threads, leaning against the front of the Psychedelic Shop, asking for spare change. They danced around like dervishes, smiling the smiles they’d seen other hippies smiling, wearing clothes they’d seen other hippies wearing, smoking joints they’d been given instead of spare change. Most of them didn’t have places to stay, but they found places to stay. They were kids. People took them in like strays. Ginny and I were getting old and wise and weary.
By the fall of 1966, our apartment on Shrader Street had become a crash pad for all the people we knew who didn’t live in Haight-Ashbury — Thulin practically lived there, that fucker. He and Wanda got married there. Holy smokes, was that ever a surprise. Well, he and Wanda got married in Golden Gate Park, actually, but we all came back to Shrader Street when the wedding was over.
I’ve mentioned Thulin, right? One-Eyed Jon? The guy who gave Ralph Wood his first marijuana that time in the elevator of the Navarre Guest House? He had just the one eye, see. That was why we called him One-Eyed Jon. He ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone as one of the acid cowboys of Taos, New Mexico, but back then Thulin’s main claim to fame was chicks. He fucked more chicks than you could shake a stick at. I think it had something to do with his eye. When I first met him over at Ralph Wood’s place by the railroad tracks in San Mateo, the first thing I mentioned was his eye.
“What’s wrong with your eye?” I nodded toward it.
“This?” He reached up, plucked out his left eye, held it between his thumb and forefinger and looked at it with his other eye. Then he flipped the eye over in his hand, got his thumb behind it and acted like he was going to shoot it at me like a marble. “Nothing, man.” He smiled. “It’s glass. It’s a glass eye.”
My own left eye squinted sympathetically as Thulin popped the eye back into its socket, and I felt a wave of empathy toward him. He pulled the same stunt on chicks. It worked like a charm. He’d meet a new chick, take out his eye and pretend to shoot it at her like a marble — always with the same goat-like grin and with his face glowing with simple-minded mischief and irresistible charm — and she’d melt.
It must have aroused them in some visceral way, reaching down into some forgotten sexual, psychological mechanism left over from when men gave women the choicest tidbits of freshly killed animals as tokens of affection and desire. Whatever it was, Thulin fucked more chicks than anyone I ever knew. That was what the whole Haight Street thing was all about to him. That was what it was all about to lots of people, including, no doubt, all the chicks who were getting themselves fucked fourteen times a minute.
I remember Thulin trying to explain the whole hippie thing to Mr. and Mrs. Forkel. Ha! If he could explain it to them, he could explain it to anyone. He couldn’t, of course, but that didn’t keep him from trying.
— — —
There was a tarnished silver samovar and a tray of tall glasses on an end table in Mr. and Mrs. Forkel’s apartment, along with pictures in silver frames, pictures of circuses and pictures of old people, their parents probably, daguerreotypes maybe, and pictures of Mr. and Mrs. Forkel when they were around our age. Young.
In one of the pictures, Mr. Forkel was on a platform high up inside a circus tent. He was wearing a white body suit. His wife was beside him, wearing a tutu and sitting on the bar of a trapeze. She was smiling. He was stern and athletic looking.
Thulin and I sat down in brocade-upholstered chairs across from them. Mr. and Mrs. Forkel were sitting with their hands folded in their laps on their brocade-upholstered couch. After it had brewed long enough, Mrs. Forkel got up and poured us a glass of tea. “A glass tea,” she called it. Her accent was thicker than her husband’s. She sat back down on the couch and folded her hands in her lap again.
Mr. Forkel wanted to know if we could tell them what was happening in the neighborhood. He said this exact sentence, I swear, word for word: “Something’s happening here but we don’t know what it is.”
“You sound pretty hip already,” Thulin said.
“That’s eet,” Mrs. Forkel said. “Heep! I hear thees word many times.”
“It’s from jazz,” I said.
“Hep cats. Le Jazz hot,” Mr. Forkel said.
“Yeah, well some beatniks turned it into the word ‘hip’ and pretty soon newspapers were calling people ‘hippies.’”
“It is going like this everywhere on? And why so long the hair? The beads around the neck of the boys? The asking of spare change? Who has so much spare change? I’m telling you true, just going to the Cala, we see…such things…in the parking lot, on sidewalk, everywhere. Do we, Vela?”
“We see a lot of things.” He agreed.
“It’s kind of like a revolution,” I told them.
“We have seen a revolution,” Mr. Forkel said. “We have lived through a revolution. This is not a revolution.” He waved the gnarled fingers of his right hand.
“Yeah, it must look a little strange, I admit. It’s not very political. It’s more, like, personal, individual. It probably started with a kid named Bob Dylan.”
“Who this boy is? What his mother is thinking?”
“Dylan, my ass.” Thulin frowned. “It started with Woody Guthrie, man. No, Kerouac. Or Henry Miller. Gandhi? Jesus, maybe — peace and love, turn your other cheek and all that. Yeah, yeah, it started with Jesus and them, that’s what I think. Then Kesey came up from Stanford, and him and Cassady went around passing out free acid and got Timothy Leary to drop out of Harvard, along with what’s-his-name, that Herb Alpert guy.”
“What is it, then?” Mr. Forkel asked. “This ‘acid’ that they give away?”
“LSD, man! Lysergic acid di-thalidomide.”
“And this is why the children grow too long their hair?”
“Plus there’s the whole war thing,” Thulin said, holding his forearms out in front of him.
“Nobody cares about the war,” I said.
“What do you mean, man? Like who?”
“Like anyone with any brains, that’s who.”
“So, what’s all these demonstrations about?”
“Politics. Anyone who joins anything’s an idiot — that’s all you need to know. You want to change the world? Be good. Don’t fight. Eat your vegetables.”
“Thank you Krishnamurti,” Thulin said.
“Where’d you hear about Krishnamurti?” I frowned.
“Ah, some chick, man. I don’t know.” He waved.
“It goes more on, then? To when?” Mrs. Forkel asked.
“I don’t know. There are all kinds of other people coming out here all the time.”
“More chicks,” Thulin said. “All that’s really going on is chicks, more new chicks every day.”
“I think they have too life good. No pay the rent. Free food for eat. Free clothes to wearing. Free to sleep places…”
“Free love.” Thulin’s good eye got extra wide.
Mrs. Forkel removed her hands momentarily from her lap and held them to the sides of her face.
“It’s a phase,” I said. “It’ll go away.”
“I don’t know.” Mr. Forkel shook his head sadly. “Will it ever be Russia again? No. Never.”
“But that was a real revolution.” I said.
“I hope you know,” Mrs. Forkel said.
The multimedia version has music by The Beatles, but this voice only version ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: