In 1960 I left Chicago with two other guys and we drove across the country to Los Angeles. I’ve told that story already at … The first Place I Lived in LA … so picking it up from there…
…Billy and I headed up to San Francisco driving my tired old Plymouth. I was excited but the long days in the car had left Billy with little appetite for more adventure. Once we hit the city Billy told me he was done. He wired home for money and got on the train back to Chicago. I was left with the car, a box of clothes and a few bucks. It seemed ok to me somehow. I was eighteen, thought I knew the streets and thought I knew the answers. I guess in some sense I did. San Francisco in 1960 was a different town.
In those days you could still find overnight parking on the streets near the Civic Center. I would head over there around ten and sleep curled up in the back seat, covered over with piles of dirty clothes, sleeping the sleep of eighteen.
Waking in the morning I stumbled out and walked over to the Greyhound terminal on 7th near Market. The bathrooms were free and among the travelers I was anonymous. Face washed and hair combed I walked across the street to Fosters Cafeteria grabbing a Chronicle along the way.
I’d order an English Muffin and coffee, cover the muffin with pats of butter and spoonfuls of raspberry jam. I’d fill the coffee with cream and sugar, fold open the paper and feast on my breakfast. Even now I can taste the pooled butter, yellow, sweet and salty mixed up with the red sugar of the jam and even now I will eat that meal again and be happy. While I ate I checked the want ads, scanning for something I could do.
Mornings I looked for work, afternoons I washed dishes in some joint for a meal and a few bucks and in the evenings I wandered Market and the streets of the Tenderloin looking into the bars and shop windows, looking at the people and wondering how it all worked. I was alone but not so lonely. Nowadays I can’t imagine how I did that but then I did.
I had a guide though for this rough life; Jack Kerouac. In 1957 Kerouac had published On The Road. I read it in Chicago, sitting in all night coffee shops probably seventeen or eighteen at the time and the book had taken the top of my head off. This is what men did. They careened across the country in old cars finding love and having adventures and feeling the sadness and the rush. It made so much more sense than living the same fucked up stupid life as everybody else. Neal Cassady and Dean Moriarity were my role models. My battered old Plymouth was Neal’s Hudson and in my way I was living as free and unafraid as my heroes. Now understand, I don’t think I ever thought it through that way. On The Road just informed me, gave me an understanding of how you could have a life different from your growing up life, a life you could care about.
Eventually I got a job, working for the phone company. In the morning I walked up Powell happy in the brisk air and bright sunshine watching the shopkeepers hosing down the sidewalks. In my way I was Dean working on the railroad. A blue collar guy doing a working mans work.
At the exchange they put me on the frames. I spent my days pulling orders written on slips of paper with cryptic sets of numbers that directed you to rows of tall panels labeled with codes and filled with wires. Finding the right one you slid a rolling ladder to the right frame then climbed up till you came to the node with numbers that matched your paper. Then you either tied on two new wires or disconnected two old ones. Every once in a while a voice would call out special instructions to one of the workers over a large brown trumpet loudspeaker hung high in the room. It was a new world for me, grownup and fulfilling. Evenings I began to explore the city, making my way to North Beach, finding City Lights and Cafe Trieste and the cheap Chinese restaurants.
I must have borrowed some money from my mother before I got the job because I moved into the Crane Hotel, a cheap joint on Powell Street just a few blocks up from Market. I know this because I have a letter I wrote her on July 14th, 1960. In it I say “…the big problem facing me is 1. shall I pay another weeks rent, $15 which would leave me about $5 for food. 2. Look for a cheaper room, $8 - $10 which would leave me that much more for food. 3. Move in with Tom and his aunt, saving money but not something I want to do. 4. Go back to sleeping in the car and cleaning up at the Greyhound terminal, an altogether unsatisfactory process or 5. come back to Chicago no better than when I left, this one doesn’t really appeal to me at all since I almost have a job and its so nice here…”
It might have gone that way. I had a few friends and the beginning of a life. For a few bucks more I moved into the penthouse at the Crane, a large room on the top floor with old furniture painted spray can gold. I started eating regularly. But my wife tells me that “At the beginning of every good story someone makes a bad choice” and I guess I wanted to be in a good story.
Larry B and Bill D showed up in town. Guys from my corner in Chicago, guys I already had some history with. They had been on the road making their way from Chicago west, breaking into laundromat coin changers, stealing credit cards from unlocked cars and in general leaving a trail of larceny in their wake. After a week or two Bill had seen enough and hit the road back. That left me and Larry and Larry needed a partner. He convinced me that life in L.A. would be even better than life in San Francisco so I quit my job and we hit the road down to trouble…