Peter Case

As Far As You Can Get Without A Passport

Chapter 11

 

 

CUT THROAT ANGELS 

We crossed over into Mexico at Tijuana, in the afternoon a day or so later. I don’t know what we thought we were doing in the meantime. None of it made much sense.

I’d met Shawn on the Santa Barbara boardwalk. She was about my age, a nice hippie girl, pretty, and very friendly. We met by arrangement later that night, down on the beach again, and after some talk, flirtation, and fooling around, Eric drove us to a nearby park, gave me a blanket, dropped us off, and split. Shawn and I spread the blanket back amongst the trees in the pitch dark and talked. She was telling me about the boy she had just broken up with, and how she was going to go to London now, and meet her friend, and travel across Europe. Amid the chatter of crickets, and beneath a million friendly stars, I listened, bragged a little, and chain-smoked a few cigarettes. After a while, we started to kiss, and were working ourselves into some sort of a hot corner, when all of a sudden there was a loud noise in the bushes, and something big and white was coming our way. Shawn grabbed her blouse back up, smoothed her skirt down, and shrunk back in fear. I stood my ground, then looking closer through the dark, and, tipped off by familiar giggles and mumblings, saw that our midnight intruder was Eric.

“Put your clothes on,” I told him.

I was kinda pissed off, but that was that. He was lonely, didn’t like being the odd man out. Shawn immediately said she had to go home, so we gave her a ride, said goodbye, dropped her off out front of her parents’ house and got back on Highway 101 South.

We pulled the car off onto the gravel at a roadside rest area near Ventura, and slept a few hours in our seats, just passed out, we were so exhausted. I woke up in the bright sunlight, all hot and sweaty and disoriented, punched Eric awake, and we pushed on for LA.

From what I’d heard up in San Francisco, I had every reason to be afraid of L.A..  Eric had given me the run down: When you go out with “friends” in Los Angeles, the people in the front seat of the car will hold conversations about the ones in the back seat, putting them down, just quiet enough so they can’t be overheard. Everyone there is on the make. It’s Cut Throat City, with rich people, movie stars, crazy little actresses, power freaks and vampires of the special, tan So Cal variety, and everybody else, working arcane scams, climbing over each other in their abject mad desire for a place at the top. From the way it sounded, I didn’t think I’d dig it. I

could never be happy living in a place like that.

Somehow we found our way up to “The Strip,” Sunset Boulevard. I kept looking around for Lloyd Bridges. I half expected him, at any moment, to come running down the street in full scuba gear, like on the 60’s TV show Seahunt.

There were only two places I wanted to see: I had Eric go by 77 Sunset Strip, home of “Kookie,” hepcat hero of my lonesome childhood TV nights. We drove by Phil Spector’s offices and had a good look, but no one was around, and then that was it.

At Tower Records we pulled over and parked. I watched as a phony—looking Beverly Hills type guy with coifed hair, in a stupid brown leather shortcut jacket and wrap-around shades, parked his Mercedes and hopped out. He reached in his pocket for change at the parking meter, and when he pulled out his hand, a whole wad of silver coins jangled out and spilled in the gutter. He stoked the meter and split, not even bothering to pick up the dropped coins.

I went over and gathered the money. Almost 75 cents. That kinda said it all for me.

We drove through Beverly Hills, but I didn’t see anything, just big mansions surrounded by palms and hedges, one after the other, nothing to it. Back in West Hollywood, I strummed a few songs in front of a Cala Foods, out in bright empty sunshine, trying to impress the morning shoppers in their fuzzy slippers and silk pants. It was slow going; no one wanted to hear their favorite song, but I finally made a few bucks, one quarter at a time, and we headed out to the beach.

The Venice Boardwalk was foggy, ghostlike. There wasn’t much of anybody around. Eric got into a rap with a couple of clowns passing by. Of course, they weren’t really clowns, though that wouldn’t have been all that surprising there—the area looked like an empty amusement park—but they were just ordinary, bored Southern California hoods. I don’t know why, but there was a lot of hostility between them and Eric, especially when he challenged them to a car race through town for pink slips. They said, “Yeah, sure, you got it.” That was fine with me, but I was a little nervous in the car on our way over to the agreed meeting spot. For some reason, Eric didn’t seem worried at all. Guess he thought sure we could take ‘em, maybe ‘cause he was such a good driver from being in the cab so much. He said he was a professional. Anyhow, when they didn’t show up for the race, we were both disappointed. “Fuck it, man,” I said. “Let’s get the hell out of this place. It’s giving me the creeps!” So we split LA toot sweet.

 

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Chapter 13

“FRIJOLES TEQUIlA AMOR”  

We came down out of the mountains a few hours later, hit the road from Mexicali, and turned right, heading south. We didn’t see any other southbound travelers yet, just the occasional pickup trucks loaded with produce or equipment heading the other way.

We were hot and delirious with thirst. There was nothing in sight, no store, no stations, no restaurants, or even homes along this stretch. Only more rocks, sand, mountains, and road.

The sun was riding way down in the sky now, shadows were long, but the day was still very hot. We began to see more traffic, heading the same as us, into town. Soon we spied some little homes, and were about to arrive in the tiny fishing town of San Felipe.

At the side of the highway we saw a man selling fresh fruit. He leaned back on a little cart filled with an amazing selection of perfect watermelons. Our mouths would’ve been watering if they weren’t so fucking dry.

Eric pulled over, stopped the car, and said, “Give me your shades.” I had a pair of cheap wire rim sunglasses I’d been wearing all summer, day and night. My eyes were bad: I needed

Prescription glasses, but I broke my only pair months before, when I first hit the street, and since then it’d been like living in an Impressionist painting.

I hesitated to give him my glasses, but he repeated the request, so I took off the shades and handed them over. Eric took them and got out of the car, and walked the 10 yards back to the fruit man. The man watched him with no expression. Eric just walked up to him, aimed, and put the shades right on the man’s face, fixing the stems over the fellow’s ears.

The man looked back at him, poker-faced under the shades. Eric led him over to the Toyota’s side-view mirror and twisted it so the man could see himself. Eric looked at the man, and intoned the word “Hollywood.”

The man looked at him, looked at me, then turned to the mirror and smiled ever so slightly. He looked up again at Derek, who nodded slowly, then pointed at the melons and held up his fingers. “Three.”

The man looked back in the mirror, turned back to us, and held up two fingers.

So I took a melon, and Eric took one too, and we got back in the car and drove off. I got one last look at the fruit vendor, behind us, diggin’ the world through his new shades.Fun story!

We pulled off onto the side half a mile up, and I ripped those melons apart with my Barlow. The red meat of the fruit was hot from the sun all day, sweet and dripping wet. We didn’t speak, but devour, the sticky juice running all over our fingers and faces. I had

watermelon juice down my tee shirt, on my stomach. We ate until we’d had enough, and then, feeling much better, we slowly drove into the town.

San Felipe was just a little village, right on the water, with one main, dirt street. None of the streets were paved. The sun was going down now, the world was darkening. We saw a guitar player, a trumpet player, and a bassist, all in jeans, boots, western shirts, walking together, then heading into an alley down the street. We were cruising slow, and I could hear them from back there as we past, playing a rockabilly groove, quietly like an early ‘50s record, rockin’, the trumpet player blowin’ a solo.

We parked in front of the boardwalk and got out of the car and took a stroll. The old yellow dog curled up sleeping in front of the store opened his eyes as we passed but didn’t bother to raise his head. There weren’t many people in town. It was very quiet and relaxed now and the sky was getting dark. The lights and human motion up at the northern end of the town attracted our attention, and we started ambling that way. I was beat, rubber limbed from riding so long, but happy, intoxicated on the atmosphere. It was magical, like no place else I’d been, and I felt as far away from my troubles as I’d ever need to get.

There was one bar in town, a little neon beer light in a window spreading the word. It looked quiet in there, but Eric said wanted to poke his head in, see if the girls from San Francisco were around, by any chance, or whether anyone had seen them. Maybe he just wanted a drink, but I didn’t care. I looked up and down the street and just gave myself up to the slowness of the night, then walked around back and towards the beach, surrendering. I pulled out one of my last Camels, lit it up and smoked, rolling my head back, looking up at the stars that were starting to shine.

Eric came back out after a spell, and we picked up walking again. At the end of the street, everyone was getting ready for a big basketball game with the team from the next town. A generator was being hooked up to supply the power for the flood lights, bleachers were set up, and bright strings of colored party lights and streamers were hung down along the end of the court and in the area behind the bleachers. People were starting to gather, and along came the rockabilly outfit we’d seen before, and it looked they would be playing for the crowd at halftime, but the preparations were moving very slowly for a game that needed to get started in an hour or so. The teams hadn’t even shown up yet, but nobody seemed in a hurry, or concerned. Things were happening when they happened.

We sat in the bleachers for a spell, just looking and listening, but soon we decided to go back to the Corolla instead of watching the game. I pulled the guitar out of the trunk, then we walked back up the boardwalk to the general store. I set out the case, in front, and began to sing.

I played “Nadine” by Chuck Berry, then the “Billy The Kid” song off the new Dylan record that came out the previous month. I gave ‘em a little “Sunnyland Train,” but that one wasn’t connecting, so I tried a bit of the song I was workin’ on in the car. A man in a clean white Guayabera shirt and black slacks stepped up and shouted “Doors!” so I played “Light My Fire,” and “’Love Me Two Times” for him and his lady friend. A McCartney song called “Lazy Dynamite” seemed appropriate, so I kept playing that and singing. Soon there was a little crowd, coming to see what was going on, down at the store, with the hippie gringo singer.

Two young guys were asking Eric, with sign language, something about reefer. That put Derek uptight, he didn’t want any trouble, but nothing came of it. They seemed to be just goofin’ around.

The store owner came out with a wooden barstool for me to sit on, and after some managerial negotiations with Eric, he agreed to giving us some ice cream bars and a couple beers. We were attracting business for him, so everything was cool. I kept rockin’.

Eric borrowed a pen from him and on a piece of cardboard, wrote out the sign: “Frijoles Tequila Amor” and set it out in my case. “Now they know we’re crazy!” he said.

It was all a lot of laughs, but finally everyone had gone home, the shop owner put out his closed sign, turned off the light, and me and my friend headed down to the beach, to crash.

The sand was still hot, the air too. We lay on top of blankets as the full moon rose up in the sky. I got up, and following the sound of waves, stepped out into the water, which was like a hot bath.

The outlines of the mountains to the north were black shadows against the moon’s canopy. Music was playing in my ears, bright orange music, glowing like a cigarette in the night. The cops passed by on the street above, and didn’t seem to mind about the likes of us. The town was silent now, except for the waves. We didn’t talk; we just lay on our backs. I fell into the Milky Way. This was what I came here for. I wanted to live forever. That’s about how long it seemed like it would probably take me to get anything together, but I didn’t care. I was ambitious, it’s true, but it had nothing to do with reality. I was a singer and a wanderer, dead broke, sleeping on a Mexican beach. What else could you want? The song I was writing kept going through my head.

I woke up in the dawn’s first green light. On the left facing the beach, jungle stretched off into the distance. Where was I? Eric woke up and we went in for a swim, then headed up into town in the red and yellow sunrise. We were penniless, and no one wanted that credit card here, even if it was still working. This was a cash town, and we had none. The car was nearly out of gas. We were hungry, but there was no food. We had a pouch of tobacco, but no Zig Zags. Oh well. It was starting to dawn on me that we were stranded. There were no other Americans in town who we might appeal to. It looked like we’d run out of road, were stranded.

 

I could tell by the dry heat in my nose that this new day was going to be even hotter than the last. We went and sat in the shade, under the boats tipped up on the beach, behind the store, and I tried rolling a smoke with strips of newspaper, which kind of worked. A few other layabouts of the town came out, the local bums, and they had papers, so I let ‘em have some of my Bugler tobacco, in exchange for a couple of skins.

There was only one phone line out of town, and it was at the Police Station. That made me nervous. I didn’t want to feel too conspicuous around there, attracting too much bad attention, but Eric went over there anyway to try and call his relatives around the world, see if anybody wanted to wire some money and rescue us. No one did. It was a no go on the relatives’ front. Derek’s people had been through this before, apparently, during his Moroccan disaster. They got burned, and they were all done helping.

He asked me to try, but I wasn’t calling nobody. There was nobody to call. Something was bound to come around. Tonight I’d take my guitar and go back up on the street.

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Chapter 12

THE WATER YOU DRINK

We headed up into the Sierra De Juarez mountains, on this little one lane road about an hour after we woke up. It was mid-day, and the temperature was up over 100 degrees, I’m guessing, maybe way over. The sun was closer than I’d ever seen it, and we couldn’t escape the burn. Through hills of scorched brown dirt, and dead blonde grass, on this tiny jagged line of a road, Eric pushed the Corolla through the turns, taking the bumps full on, driving as fast and as hard as he possibly could. His eyes looked slightly mad behind shades or like he was angry. I didn’t know why, and I figured there was nothin’ I could or wanted to do about it.

The batteries in the cassette player died the night before in Tijuana, turning Jagger’s “let it loose, let it all come down” into a dirge, finally a croak, then conking out completely. Oh well, there was a song in my head anyway; I was writing one of my own, so I’d brought the guitar up into the front seat with me, where I was strummin’ it sideways facing Eric, but then turnin’ my head to the window to sing, where my words were lost in the roar of the wind. I had the music, and I was singing nonsense words, just sounds and syllables, like another language almost.“Rock French.” One thing was for sure, it wasn’t Spanish, I knew none of that, and I was feeling the lack. I was starting to feel very far from home.

The pattern on the guitar turned and wound back into itself, a riff like a mobius strip. Kinda like the road we were on. The song changed from a jungle strum to a tropical dance, then to a beach ballad with the Three Big Chords. Over and over, through the noise of the engine and the grind of the gears, I kept playing it. But even miles wouldn’t finish the song for me, and finally I laid it down.

We needed water, but there was no water in sight. It was so fuckin’ hot. There was nothing  but sun, mountain, dirt and dead grass blowin’ around. No towns, no farms, no people, no cars travelling in either direction that we could see. Hot, dirty, dusty, and dry. Dazed, amazed, unfazed in the rays. I had a pen somewhere but that wasn’t worth writin’ down. I figured it’d come.

Eric pulled off the road to the left, onto a deeply rutted dirt road that led up onto a bare rugged hillside. As we climbed over the ridge, past some withered trees, we saw a tiny little wooden shack about 50 yards away, paint worn off, roof all ragged open boards, and some tar paper. There was a broken down, old, rusted flat-bed farm truck up on blocks, parked like junk, off to the left side of the house. Pails and tools were everywhere, spread on the ground, stacked on the crooked porch. A little red rooster fled around the corner. A bumper, some fenders, an old flywheel with broken gears: and a whole garage-worth of abandoned metal and wood lay in the

grass. Gasoline and kerosene cans, funnels, chains, and lots of farm wreckage. There had to be some real Mexican hillbillies livin’ in this place, I figured. I turned to Eric and said “I hope we don’t scare them. That might not be too cool.”

They saw us from the house and came out on the porch. Two very thin older men, of maybe 50 or 60 years. They weren’t smiling, just watching very quietly. Eric braked the car, shut it off and got out. He was grinning, trying to look friendly, nodding his head and making faces, walking around their yard like some kind of a jokester or mime, but instead of conveying harmlessness, he probably just looked like a freak to these guys. They didn’t respond at all, hardly moved, just watched.

Eric was going through the full sign language routine, with a bit of Brooklyn style thrown in. “Water.” He smiled and made a gesture towards his lips, as if holding a dipper. “Agua?” His eyes were wide, he was hamming it up, trying to get across, nodding his head up and down. The men looked at him there, in his jeans and t-shirt, sandals and shades, and they saw this scarecrow of an American, with a bowl haircut and a goofy face, trying to look innocent at them. Then they looked over at me.

They weren’t going for us, that was clear. They pointed to an ancient trough, over on the side. We went over and looked. It was full of water, alright: brown, brackish, dirty, oozing, swill-like water, suitable for overheating radiators maybe. There was straw and mud and pebbles in the trough, which was rusted red and orange.  Almost. Nah.

Eric turned back to the two: “The water you drink. Can we have some of the water you drink?”

The men just gestured at the trough and went back into the house, and after a minute or two, we left.

We didn’t have any cash left. We’d gone through it all in Tijuana. We’d gassed up the car on the card right before we crossed the border the day before, so we had nearly a full tank. I guess we figured we’d just have to rely on credit to get by the rest of the trip. I say “I guess” ‘cause we hadn’t really talked about it.

The day was wearing on, but we didn’t see any more opportunities to get water. It was starting to get seriously uncomfortable, but there wasn’t anything we could do; it seemed there were no more people anywhere on the whole mountain range. We just kept driving.

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Chapter 11

CUT THROAT ANGELS 

We crossed over into Mexico at Tijuana, in the afternoon a day or so later. I don’t know what we thought we were doing in the meantime. None of it made much sense.

I’d met Shawn on the Santa Barbara boardwalk. She was about my age, a nice hippie girl, pretty, and very friendly. We met by arrangement later that night, down on the beach again, and after some talk, flirtation, and fooling around, Eric drove us to a nearby park, gave me a blanket, dropped us off, and split. Shawn and I spread the blanket back amongst the trees in the pitch dark and talked. She was telling me about the boy she had just broken up with, and how she was going to go to London now, and meet her friend, and travel across Europe. Amid the chatter of crickets, and beneath a million friendly stars, I listened, bragged a little, and chain-smoked a few cigarettes. After a while, we started to kiss, and were working ourselves into some sort of a hot corner, when all of a sudden there was a loud noise in the bushes, and something big and white was coming our way. Shawn grabbed her blouse back up, smoothed her skirt down, and shrunk back in fear. I stood my ground, then looking closer through the dark, and, tipped off by familiar giggles and mumblings, saw that our midnight intruder was Eric.

“Put your clothes on,” I told him.

I was kinda pissed off, but that was that. He was lonely, didn’t like being the odd man out. Shawn immediately said she had to go home, so we gave her a ride, said goodbye, dropped her off out front of her parents’ house and got back on Highway 101 South.

We pulled the car off onto the gravel at a roadside rest area near Ventura, and slept a few hours in our seats, just passed out, we were so exhausted. I woke up in the bright sunlight, all hot and sweaty and disoriented, punched Eric awake, and we pushed on for LA.

From what I’d heard up in San Francisco, I had every reason to be afraid of L.A..  Eric had given me the run down: When you go out with “friends” in Los Angeles, the people in the front seat of the car will hold conversations about the ones in the back seat, putting them down, just quiet enough so they can’t be overheard. Everyone there is on the make. It’s Cut Throat City, with rich people, movie stars, crazy little actresses, power freaks and vampires of the special, tan So Cal variety, and everybody else, working arcane scams, climbing over each other in their abject mad desire for a place at the top. From the way it sounded, I didn’t think I’d dig it. I

could never be happy living in a place like that.

Somehow we found our way up to “The Strip,” Sunset Boulevard. I kept looking around for Lloyd Bridges. I half expected him, at any moment, to come running down the street in full scuba gear, like on the 60’s TV show Seahunt.

There were only two places I wanted to see: I had Eric go by 77 Sunset Strip, home of “Kookie,” hepcat hero of my lonesome childhood TV nights. We drove by Phil Spector’s offices and had a good look, but no one was around, and then that was it.

At Tower Records we pulled over and parked. I watched as a phony—looking Beverly Hills type guy with coifed hair, in a stupid brown leather shortcut jacket and wrap-around shades, parked his Mercedes and hopped out. He reached in his pocket for change at the parking meter, and when he pulled out his hand, a whole wad of silver coins jangled out and spilled in the gutter. He stoked the meter and split, not even bothering to pick up the dropped coins.

I went over and gathered the money. Almost 75 cents. That kinda said it all for me.

We drove through Beverly Hills, but I didn’t see anything, just big mansions surrounded by palms and hedges, one after the other, nothing to it. Back in West Hollywood, I strummed a few songs in front of a Cala Foods, out in bright empty sunshine, trying to impress the morning shoppers in their fuzzy slippers and silk pants. It was slow going; no one wanted to hear their favorite song, but I finally made a few bucks, one quarter at a time, and we headed out to the beach.

The Venice Boardwalk was foggy, ghostlike. There wasn’t much of anybody around. Eric got into a rap with a couple of clowns passing by. Of course, they weren’t really clowns, though that wouldn’t have been all that surprising there—the area looked like an empty amusement park—but they were just ordinary, bored Southern California hoods. I don’t know why, but there was a lot of hostility between them and Eric, especially when he challenged them to a car race through town for pink slips. They said, “Yeah, sure, you got it.” That was fine with me, but I was a little nervous in the car on our way over to the agreed meeting spot. For some reason, Eric didn’t seem worried at all. Guess he thought sure we could take ‘em, maybe ‘cause he was such a good driver from being in the cab so much. He said he was a professional. Anyhow, when they didn’t show up for the race, we were both disappointed. “Fuck it, man,” I said. “Let’s get the hell out of this place. It’s giving me the creeps!” So we split LA toot sweet.

 

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Chapter 10 Southbound

 

 

 

SCOTCH AND SODA

It was late in the day before I came to, and we pulled ourselves together enough to go. We left SF, Eric at the wheel, driving south on Highway 101, with no idea if, how, or when we’d be

back. For funding, we had my earnings from the street corner the night before, about 20 bucks, as well as Eric’s Bank Americard. He had decided that since he couldn’t meet his credit card

bill, he was gonna burn it out, and this trip was to be the last big flame. Then he was gonna ship out with the merchant marines. He had an uncle in the SF Maritime Union who could get him his card, he said, and a place on a ship. He figured he was bound for Hong Kong.

We’d stayed at his McAllister Street apartment, up by Arguello Gate, near the Golden Gate Park. That pad had become a regular crash for me and Danny, whenever Derek was on the scene. It sure beat the junkyard. At Derek’s there was a refrigerator, a record player, mattresses spread out on the floors, and other amenities, like a gas heater that never shut off. He had an interesting

record collection that I was checking out, too, not the stuff I was into usually. The main musical focus of the summer so far were the cassettes I’d shoplifted: the Stone’s Exile On Main Street,

Right Place Wrong Time by Dr. John and What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. We’d seen The Harder They Come and were king- size impressed, so that soundtrack was added to the collection. We played those albums endlessly, back to back, day and night, and I was playing songs from them in my sets on the street. I told Eric that I’d decided to be a reggae singer.

Eric was slipping from the upright world he’d maintained ever since getting out of that jam with the law in Morocco. Driving for Yellow Cab had been fairly lucrative for a while, when the tips were good, but insanely demanding: long days, lots of competition, and too many insane customers had worn him down, and set his nerves on edge, to the point where he just didn’t seem to care what happened anymore.

On top of that, Danny and I sometimes felt we hadn’t been the greatest influence on him. We’d come over and wreck his place, getting drunk, leaving his records spread out on the floor, out of their sleeves. We’d pull the bed apart, dragging the box springs into the living room, making another crash site. We’d jam all night or sit learning songs off his records. Sometimes we’d bring girls we’d met on the street, drinking buddies, or anybody else we felt like hanging with, over to his pad, where we’d carry on, hardly saying goodbye to him as he left to do his shift in the taxi. Every so often he’d put the foot down, yell at us, or we’d just get restless and head off to the other side of town for a spell, but it had been a fairly continuous saga all summer, Eric and his digs, a major stopping off place on our route. He’d had pretty much encouraged it, and after all, he was my manager.

The joke was, “Hey man, if you’re the manager, why don’t you see if you can manage to get us a bottle of whiskey around here?” or “Do you think you could manage to spring for some Chinese food?” That was just a joke though. Eric was no chump and always had his own angles working. He was nobody’s fool, if not his own.

Danny didn’t really get on with Eric, but I liked him a lot. He was from Brooklyn, East Coast in a way that I understood, with a lot of experience of life, sex, drugs, trouble, and survival on the street. He was funny in a very outlaw sort of way, and not everyone could dig it, but I got him 100 percent. At the movies once, I’d seen a short film clip of Phil Spector, and something about Eric reminded me of that. He was funny, a wise guy, and had a sly, rebellious, satirical sense to him. Most importantly to me, he didn’t seem to give a shit about the consequences of his actions. He was a gambler, a quality I most respected and feared.

He told me he was bi-sexual, that when he first stopped and picked me up in the cab, he had wanted to get something going. I told him I wasn’t interested, had no gay leanings that I was aware of and wasn’t about to start getting any. I didn’t mind what he did, though. It didn’t bug me. He accepted all this, but he seemed kind of confused, wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, with men or women. He liked ‘em all, but was striking out with everybody.

I wasn’t thinking about any of this as we drove down Highway 101 and stopped in Santa Cruz, checking out the Catalyst, the renowned rock club. Nothing was happening, so we just pushed on, driving through the night, blasting the cassettes on a little player he’d brought. It felt great to be driving south, like a huge weight lifting off my back. I rolled down the window and just dug the wind in my face. Life was a mess, but I didn’t care; I felt free, glad to be alive and on an adventure. All I brought was the clothes I had on and my guitar. That was plenty. I didn’t feel like I needed anything that wasn’t available for cheap. The picture of Mexico in my imagination was vague but exciting. Eric kept talking about meeting two women he knew in SF, that he’d been trying to introduce to me. They were down in Mexico somewhere on a vacation, he said, maybe we’d find them. That sounded like bull to me, but I humored him when he talked about it, and I sort of entertained the pipedream. I was ridiculously lonely, but there didn’t seem to be much in my power to do about it right then. On the long drives I’d remember girls I’d

known in Buffalo, back before my life fell apart. I dreamt about love in the past and future. Through the nights longing, I played my Yamaki, sitting there shotgun in the Corolla, dreaming of another world, hours on hours, miles upon miles and miles.

Our first real stop was in Santa Barbara, the next morning, a Monday. There was a balminess in the air, a hint of tropical atmosphere. This was Southern California. Somewhere in the night we’d crossed the line. We cruised town and quickly ended up at the pier. The first thing I did was set up on the sidewalk by the beach, right off the pier, and begin busking. Tourists were out in numbers already, and portrait painters and sunset specialists lined the walks, ready to serve. The ancient wrinkled skin of the sea spread out behind me, the breeze was having a calming effect, time seemed to stop, as I strummed and sang, songs like “Scotch and Soda,” “Satin Doll,” “Michelle.”

People chucked change, the odd bill landed in the cardboard case, and this attracted the attention of the Three Winos. We made friends, I took a break, and the five of us went and bought a nice big jug of Burgundy wine across the street, then we crossed back and headed off under the pier for a drink.

Red was the main man, a beat-up and weathered middle-aged white guy in a torn suit jacket and ragged pants. He was on the lam for some reason, had seen it all and knew everything. The other two of his team were Frenchy, a younger guy with a terrible sunburn, who, like us, had just come to town, he apparently riding on a freight, and the Skipper, who wore a peaked ship’s

officer’s cap, and who, it was clear, by their silent communication, had been a partner of Red for a good while.

Red opened up the bottle, which had a screw cap, then solemnly poured a tiny drop of wine onto the sand. “For the boys upstate,” he said softly, then he took a sip himself. He looked at me.

“Well, Music Man, you’re pretty good with that box. What are you gonna do with it?”

“He’s a reggae singer,” said Eric. “He’s gonna be a star.”

“Well if you want to make it in music,” said Red, sitting there under the pier, making sure we were all paying attention, then taking another pull off the wine and looking straight at me.

“Listen to me now, and I’ll tell you the truth: you gotta have the music, you gotta have the looks, and you gotta have a gimmick. Like Elvis Presley, he could rock like a sonofabitch, the girls loved him, and he had a gimmick!”

“What was his gimmick?”

“What was his gimmick?! Jesus Christ, man! Pay attention!” said Red sharply, shaking his head at me. He took another chug and passed the bottle. Fun!

We drank the wine, rolled and smoked Bugler cigarettes, then Eric pulled out a little white stick, lit it, and after that we killed the afternoon discussing rock and roll with Red and his pals. Red had it all figured out; he was very impressive, but I already had a manager. I played some guitar, walked up every now and then to the sidewalk where I’d play a request for the promenaders who’d listen, then returned to my group in the cool shade of the pier.

The sun was goin’ down on the sea. After all that wine it was time for something to eat. The Skipper suggested we try the Rescue Mission, and all agreed. We picked up and staggered off, just like that.

The Rescue Mission was across the street and around the corner. It was an old California style building, with an entrance off a courtyard with flowering Magnolia trees, and what seemed like adobe walls with no windows. It looked cool and dark inside, and we went in. There were no candles burning, but it felt as if there should have been. A group of about 12 or so men were seated in the otherwise empty pews, scattered in small groups throughout the church.

I was drunk when I got there, but the sudden change of atmosphere had a dry, sobering effect. I wondered what was going to happen. “I thought you said there was food here,” I put to Red.

“Oh there’s food alright, plenty of that, but first you gonna eat a little food for the spirit,” he mumbled.

A man came out and started the sermon, and I immediately began to swoon with boredom. Now I felt dizzy, and I could hardly keep my eyes open. I wanted to run, get outside into the night air, move away from this god-awful harangue. The wine, the hours out in the sun, the grass we’d smoked, and the night without sleep had begun to combine with the dull talk, having a strange and powerful effect on me. I felt my situation to be very perilous. What in hell’s name was I doing? Where was I going? Who were these men I’d fallen in with?

What the fuck! I began to panic, sweating, squirming in my seat. I was completely shutting out the word coming from the dais. The preacher’s message seemed totally irrelevant. I was going crazy. I was going to die like a dog!

Something had to happen. The message of hope droned on and on.  It was exhausting. There was no end to it. The preacher was giving an altar call, asking one of us to heed the promptings of the spirit, and to come up front and be saved. No one budged, and the sermon raved on.

I was losing it, about to bail out the back of the church, when Eric dug me in the ribs. Up a few aisles the Wonderful Three were engaged in heated deliberations,  and an argument seemed to be going back and forth.. Finally, the Skipper rose up, worked his way down the pew, and walked up to the front of the church. He got on his knees and accepted the Lord right then, and as soon as they were done, the ordeal was over, the preachers were happy and everyone went down into the basement for a fine meal of soup and salad and bread and  some kind of meat, with coffee and everything.

Praise The Lord!

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Chapter 9 Night in North Beach, 1973

BROADWAY AND COLUMBUS 

The streets were teeming with celebrants. It was Saturday night, San Francisco, the second week of August, 1973 and about 9:30. An hour before, I was alone on the corner of Broadway and Columbus, right across from City Lights Books, singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” for no one, when a fist came out of nowhere and caught me upside the head: What the fuck, man! I looked up to see that my assailant was young and haggard, raging mad, glaring, ready to hit me again: “You signifyin’, motherfucker?!” I had no idea what he was going on about. A few feet behind him waited an old lady. He went back to her, took her arm, and crossed the street. That shook me up a little, but I decided to shrug it off.

Tourists flooded the sidewalks; sailors on leave came in small groups. Some rockers joined us. The strippers crossed the street, showing up for work at the Condor Club, the Roaring Twenties, and the Garden Of Eden. Carol Doda walked by, saying “Hello boys,” crossed over, and disappeared through the curtain of her club.

Nick, the cop, was making his rounds, slowly swaggering like John Wayne, blue cap at a rakish angle, holding his gun belt, looking for trouble. If he didn’t find any, he let me know with a glance that he was willing to make some. At the sight of Nick, old Harry the wino dodged into the alley, with his buddies. They came out a few minutes later.

Danny showed up. “You better stay out of the fucking case, Harry, if you know what’s good for you,” he said, good naturedly.

Harry laughed, “Don’t worry ‘bout me, Danny.”

Eric was leaning on a parking meter, watching the traffic, trying absurd come-ons with passersbys, like the barker across the street: “He knows every song! If he doesn’t know your favorite song, he’ll play another one with the exact same notes in it, in a different order!”

We started “Memphis, Tennessee,” playing and singing in harmony, doing the break like the Lonnie Mack version. I started singing in the phone booth on the corner, using it as a visual prop while Danny played slide against a parking meter. Somebody yelled “Mak Show!”  A crowd gathered. A girl was passing the hat. Drunks were dancing, arms waving in the air. “We’ll make some money tonight,” said Danny.

Across the street was the Swiss American Hotel, the beat up sign out front advertising “no vacancy, daily and weekly rates.” The sidewalk in front, under the awning, was getting crowded, as the residents came out for the night air. A young dude sporting a goatee, in a sharp suit and a newsy, was making some sort of cryptic angular hand sign, towards the street, then he split, dashing back into the hotel. Next, a very tall, elegant, African-American man, in his early 30s, slender, dressed in a beautiful white linen suit, emerged from the Swiss. He crossed the street, purposefully coming towards us with great smooth, rhythmic strides, weaving through the jammed-up traffic.

“It’s the Professor!”  Danny and I chorused in greeting.

“Good evening, gentlemen, good evening.” He took his place off to the side,  pontificating polished doubletalk in a profoundly deep and sonorous voice. We knew he’d be “tapping the till” as soon as he figured it was worthwhile, and then he’d head across to the Garcia Vega store for a bottle and some smokes, and we’d all share.

“It’s cool just as long as he asks” said Danny.

“Hey man, it’s fine with me.” I agreed.

It was like a New Year’s Eve party out there that night, but I couldn’t tell what people were so happy about. We were doing Elmore James’ “Sunnyland Train” with Danny on slide. On this one my voice was cutting through it all, loud enough to stun ‘em, and I knew you could hear it over the traffic, probably for blocks away. I’d sung it a dozen times already that day. I’d just learned it, and it was still full of juice.

The only time I felt alright was when I was playing this stuff. All the rest of the waking hours I was a wreck. We switchd to “Secret Weapon,” the Lazy Lester number. I was playin’ harp and singing. A car pulled up on the corner, stuck in the traffic. I recognized the driver. It was Malkas’, from Buffalo, with a passenger I’d never seen before. They rolled down the window.

“Hey Peter!”

I just kept playing, ignoring them.

“Are you Peter Case?”

“No, man, my name’s Clifford…Clifford Gifford,” I shouted back.

“You play harp and sing, just like a kid I knew in Buffalo!”

“Weird.”

They drove off shaking their heads.

Paddy wagons were pulling up in front of the Swiss, cops jumped out and pulled people in. We saw our busking pal Sitka Pat getting handcuffed, being thrown in the back of the wagon with some hookers. Harry ran by. “It’s a sweep!” Me and Dannny nodded at Eric, packed up quick and crossed over Broadway. We headed up Grant Avenue, through the mob, to the Coffee Gallery. A drunk on the corner was angrily shouting something about Nixon as we walked past. A group of Asian kids came up to us. They were from China, spoke no English, and talked with sign language. We began to get it: They were a table tennis team and wanted to buy some marijuana.

They started following us up Grant to the Coffee Gallery, which was packed like a rush hour train car. We worked our way up to the bar and ordered. A bluesman named JC Burris was on stage in the showroom, blowing harp, playing possum bones, and rockin’ the house. We all got our drinks and scrunched through the crowd, tryin’ to see and hear JC. A friend of ours, the great southern picker and singer Tom Hobson was there in the crowd. He told us, “There was just a brawl, the ambulance came and took a guy out who’d had a chair busted over his head. I think he might’ve died.” While we were hearing this news, I heard a splashing sound: A guy a couple feet away had pulled out his cock, and was pissing on the floor, right there in the middle of everything, in plain sight. The bartender jumped over the bar with a club, hit the pissing drunk, knocking him down to his hands and knees, then he grabbed the drunk by the tie around his neck and walked him out of the place, through the crowd, like a dog.

The revelry didn’t slow down for an instant. I felt like the whole bar was levitating, spinning, loud with music and people yelling, and it all began to swirl. Down at the end of the bar by the door, W.C. Fields came in, in a great stovepipe hat, an old tailed jacket, with a giant red nose, and a woman on each arm. ‘Yasss, yasss. Drinks for everybody, go away kid you bother me!’

I don’t remember what happened after that.

The next morning me and Eric decided to drive his Green Toyota Corolla down into Mexico. It was time for a break.

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Chapter 8 The Frozen Chosen

 

JUNKYARD LIVING IS EASY TO DO

Danny and I started playing together as a duo, with Bert often adding a third voice and guitar. It was a loose, almost jokey band arrangement. We had no serious intent to make records, play gigs, have hits, or go on tour. We were strictly street: happy to play on corners indefinitely.

We needed a name for the outfit. Bert was voting for The Babies, but that didn’t seem to fit. I thought Beri Beri and The Incredible Symptoms had a nice sound, in a show business kind of way. But Danny came up with three: the Stumble Bums, the Gutter Dogs, and the Frozen Chosen, all fine names, I thought, but maybe the first two, though they fit, might sound kind of negative. So, the Frozen Chosen it was, for the rest of the year.

Danny had natural harmonization ability; he could jump in and sing on anything I was doing: We started singing Everly Brothers, Rolling Stones, everything with a harmony. He’d play lead solos; I held the rhythm down with loud open string/first position shuffles, chord patterns, etc. We’d started attracting a lot more attention out there, getting a few more quarters tossed our way and having a few laughs too.

I’d still wander off for days, doing whatever I felt like, exploring the city, leaving those guys to go on without me. I’d play solo, meet someone, just take things as they’d come, and get to a point where I just didn’t give a shit about anything. Fuck it.

I moved into the junkyard. It was right on the bay in Sausalito, a muddy patch of land jutting out into the water, a quarter mile past the last houseboat pier, way behind the Heliport.

The junkyard was lorded over by a long-black-haired outlaw that everyone knew as “Fish Trap John.” There were a dozen or more abandoned trucks out there, some up on blocks. Danny was sleeping all the way down by the water, in a broken VW microbus. It was obscured from sight by brush and a paltry tree on its last days. I moved into an abandoned yellow school bus, back up the strand. I got my bag from the Edward, stashed it there, and no one messed with it.

Up by the road was a free soup kitchen called “The Open Door.” It was in a tiny, weathered, white shack. The soup they served was watery, thin gruel, with no taste. A hippie in robes named Running Water was always there, maybe he ran the joint, I don’t know. There was an outdoor shower in back of the Open Door, cold water only, no towels, but it served in a jam to get clean, wash the hair, improve the image, before the hitch hike back down the 101 for a big day of street music in town.

Some days I’d start drinking before noon. I could do anything I wanted. Danny too. I remember crawling on our hands and knees down Beach Street in the middle of the day, draggin’ our guitars and drinking out of big bottles of whiskey and rum. It might’ve been somebody’s birthday or something. Though, maybe not. Tourists were walking around us, parting like the Red Sea as we came through, down on the ground, blind drunk, and caught in a laughing fit. I was laughing so hard that time, I died, I really did.

That night a bunch of us ended up crashing around Richie the trumpet player’s pad, in the Larkin Apartments. I woke up on the floor with a hangover the next morning and took a big pull on the bottle of 151 rum that I’d been cradling in my sleep. Rise and shine!

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Chapter 7

 

 

WOODSHEDDING 

I ended up sleeping in the back seat of Bert’s old blue Oldsmobile, parked in front of his pad in Bernal Heights. His car was becoming my new home. First thing each morning, Bert came out and drove, with me still in back, a few blocks, to the free breakfast at the St. Vincent De Paul’s, where the Christian communist workers waited on the tables of the indigent, bringing plates of eggs, sausage, toast and fruit, along with steaming cups of coffee.

I was playing on the streets every day, from about 11 a.m. until midnight, 2 a.m. or later on weekends. I’d lose my voice, get sunburned, play ’til my fingers bled, and I never made much more than a few dollars change, but I just kept singing and playing and learning new songs.

Sometimes on a break, I’d go stand in the book shop and read the display copy of Bob Dylan’s Writings and Drawings, with its pink cover, which had just come out. I loved the inscription in the front: “Dedicated to the rough riders, ghost poets, low down rounders, sweet lovers, desperate characters, sad eyed drifters and rainbow angels—those high on life from all ends of the wild blue yonder….” I’d started writing down lyrics to the songs in the book that hit me, ones I didn’t already know, like the blues called “California.” I put that one straight into my set. Another I learned right away was the epic “Long Time Comin,” a minor key ballad about a young kid ramblin’ the country alone.

When no one was on the street to listen, I’d keep playing for hours, anyway, trying to figure out favorite songs from memory, just guessing at the chords. Or with nothing close at hand to imitate, I’d make up licks or improvise a song of my own. Sometimes I’d just hate the way I sounded and the things I could play. My voice was thin, and I’d get self-conscious, feeling like the reedy little teenaged punk I knew I was deep inside. I had something I wanted to do, but now I just couldn’t get my head, or my fingers, around it. I’d figure everybody could see through me, could tell I wasn’t that tough, knew I was faking, could read that I lived in fear most of the time, scared of who would be coming down the street, afraid of my past coming to get me, and terrified of my own mind.

I ‘d lay the guitar down in disgust, put it away, walk across Maritime Park to the Bay, sit in the concrete bleachers and stare out over the water. I’d watch freighters passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, heading across the sea for the Orient. Maybe the Merchant Marine would be a better life for me.

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Chapter 5

 

 

YOGANANDA STREETFIGHTS

A few days later, after nearly burning through all my dough, I checked out of the Hotel Edward and hit the streets of the city for real. The Indian man at the Edward said I could leave my duffel in a closet for a few days—he was very fine with that—so I just took my guitar and split. I had no real idea where I could stay, just a couple of vague notions, but I wasn’t too worried about it. Something would turn up.

I traipsed across town under the overcast, checking out all the usual haunts, and no one I knew was in any of them. Nothing was to be seen of Wilhelm or Eric, or my other new street singin’ friends, Danny Ray and Bert.

I’d met Danny Ray and Bert down on the wharf a couple days earlier, and we’d jammed a little. We’d all become friends, though they hadn’t been friends with each other before. I’d met them separately.

Bert, at age 22, was already a great singer and guitar player. He knew a lot of music, had a car, a place to live, and even had a life: he was studying film on a scholarship at The SF Art Institute. But he was lonesome, troubled, and had recently had someone vow to kill him over some personal situation. This kind of shook him up, it seemed, but he didn’t talk about it much.

Crazy Horse Danny was 25, a skinny, long-haired hippie dropout from Dallas, Texas, who, I soon found out, loved rock and roll as much as me. He was crazy about Little Richard, Brian Jones, Roky Erikson, Chuck Berry and Hendrix. These were his heroes. Also Eric Dolphy, Yogananda and Sitting Bull. He thought the Beatles were choirboys, but he dug Ringo and kind of reminded me of him, too. But Danny loved to fight. It didn’t take long to find that out. He really seemed to enjoy street fights with belligerent strangers. That was his specialty. He’d also taken a lot of LSD by this point.

Danny was on the run from the law down in Texas. He went by the name Crazy Horse, was incredibly cautious and frightened of police, and, for reasons he explained to me soon after we met, never wanted to be too much the center of attention.

He’d been starting a career as a hairdresser down in Dallas, working in his Cuban pal Armando’s hair salon, and things were going well. He was a young, good looking guy, with a flair for style and hair, and had a way about him that most all his female customers liked. On the side, he was playing music, making money and everything was going fine. I guess he was about 21 years old at the time. He had long hair for Dallas in ‘69-’70, though, and that was starting to cause problems down there.

One Sunday, he’d placed all his clothes in a washer at a friend’s house and borrowed a pair of jeans and a long sleeved work shirt, put them on, with the shirt tails hanging out, and went to a local shopping center. A security guard at a store started following him around, and when Danny went into the men’s room, the cop followed him in and caught a glimpse of an American flag patch on the seat of Danny’s pants.

The Dallas Police were summoned, and Johnny was arrested and charged with felony flag desecration. The Dallas District Attorney was up for re-election and decided to make an example out of Danny, so they prosecuted him to the full extent of the law. A guilty verdict held a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and the DA announced to the press that he would be going for the full penalty. A Marine Color Guard from Fort Hood was assigned to daily courtroom duty, and arrived each day in Full Dress Blues. They were just sitting there in the courtroom, the whole time of the trial, for the jury to see. Here are the good boys; there’s the bad boy. Here are the patriots…there is the traitor who deserves whatever punishment he gets. Nevertheless, Danny never told anyone that the pants were borrowed. His big brother was an East Side San Antonio gangster, and Danny hadn’t been brought up to be a snitch. He never even considered it.

Danny was out on bail for the duration of the trial, but right before the verdict came in, he freaked out and went on the lam. For the next two decades he lived as an outlaw, in terror of being apprehended and brought back to prison in Texas. That’s why he was singing on the corner of Walk and Don’t Walk, why Sewer Seven, Tube Eleven was his only address. He was ready to rock his life away, as long as he never got too big for the corner bar. He was afraid of the spotlight.  So anyhow, Danny was living in a junk yard on the Bay in Sausalito, and he’d invited me to check it out sometime, it was supposed to be a swell place to crash in a pinch. You could just pick out an old truck, get a blanket or two from somewhere and climb in. Sounded great, except Danny was not to be found anywhere. Neither was Bert, nor Wilhelm, not to mention Eric the Cabdriver.

I walked a hundred blocks, mesmerized by the city, and the nighttime caught me by surprise. I went into a Foster’s restaurant, sat at a table drinking coffee and writing—just playing with words. Hours went by. I was thinking ‘bout the trouble I’d left behind, wondering if

it would ever catch up…thinking ‘bout the people I’d never see no more: Jerry, Banana, Veronica, and Duffett. I’m thinking ‘bout what Bray told me: “You don’t have what it takes. You don’t have the depth of feeling.” I was thinking about how he said that I sold out the revolution, but I didn’t know what he meant. I hadn’t seen no revolution back there, only Bray taking unfair advantage over a bunch of street kids. What had begun with high hopes and great motives, had turned into its opposite, and now the picture wasn’t coming clear. I got confused like this when I was alone, and lately I was most always alone.

I went across the street to the Richelieu Theater, spent my last couple bucks on a triple feature: Performance, Charlie Is My Darling and The T.A.M.I. Show. When I got out, it was late, the bars were closing, the fog was rolling in. I had nowhere to go, so I just started walking.

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Chapter 4

NICKELS AND DIMES 

“Fixin’ To Die.” “Bury My Body.” “Yer Blues.” “Roberta.” “Heart-break Hotel.” “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” “The Teenage Death Blues.” This was my repertoire and my specialty. I was out on the wharf, singing at the top of my voice, fading away into it. I heard a jangle or two and opened my eyes. Someone had tossed a quarter in my open guitar case, as they walked past, without slowing down. Tourists in white shoes and flowered shirts passed, staring at me as if I were standing out there in my underwear. A couple of teenage girls stopped, listened, took my picture. I started putting on a little more of a show, making eye contact, bobbin’ and weavin’ to the music. Then their parents caught up, and they split, off together for a quaint family bowl of chowder in one of the dockside cafes.

I was about a minute into “Highway 51 Blues” when I noticed a strange figure standing off to the side, a Caucasian male, 30 some years old, sideburns, with mirrored shades, dressed head to toe in black leather, wearing high boots, and a big leather hat. He looked like a combination of Bo Diddley and Lee Marvin. He had a big, beat up hardshell guitar case that he was sort of leanin’ ‘gainst as he listensed. After a song or two, when no one else was around and I was taking a break, he stepped forward, shook my hand, and spoke with a very gruff voice.

“Hey man, sounds good. I like what you’re doing. You could be the singer in my band.”

This guy seemed like a complete outlaw. I got a little nervous. “What’s your band?”

“We’re called Loose Gravel. It’s rock and roll, and blues. We play a lot of biker parties and stuff. The way you sing, you’d fit right in. I’ve got a lot of gigs but my singer split. C’mon, pack your stuff, man, I’ll buy you a drink and tell you all about it.”

I packed up, and we set off down the wharf. A block or so down on the right there was a big sorta funky bar, and we went in. He ordered a pint of dark beer, and I ordered the same, but the bartender demanded to see my ID. I handed him my New York State driver’s license, and he shook his head: “Sorry pal, you gotta be 21 here.” First I ever heard about it. It was 18 in New York. “You’re in California now.”

The guy finished his beer while I sat there. He said “Sorry man, the places I play, you gotta be 21. I thought you were older.”

What a drag. I only gave a shit for a minute or two. I wasn’t expecting anything. He gave me a little of his story: his name was Mike Wilhelm. He’d started the Charlatans. I knew about them, a legendary group, the first SF psychedelic band. They were famous.

The bartender shouted over at us: “Hey bub, you can stay and drink, but the kid’s gotta go. It’s the law. Bye bye, sonny.” We cleared out, started walking towards North Beach, about a 20 minute jaunt. We trundled past the park, hung a left, continued up to Grant Ave. and turned right. Wilhelm kept yakkin’ the whole time in his hoarse rasp… “haw haw haw”… the inside story of rock and roll.

On the corner of Grant Avenue and Green Street, a large crowd was gathered. There was a big game of coin toss goin’ on, against the outside wall of a liquor store. The crowd on the corner was rowdy and spilled over into the street. The contestants were hipsters, winos, and street people, plenty of full time professional alcoholics, and from the looks of it, they’d really been getting the job done. There was a row of quarters that had been tossed up along where the sidewalk met the wall. A lot of the coins were within a few inches. One guy was the self-made  “master of ceremonies,” officiating and trying to get some passerby into the game, which would raise the stakes. There was really a high level of excitement going on, and some people seemed to have a lot riding on it. One beat-up looking dude, in flip-flops and jeans with his shirt hanging out stepped up, and with his toss leaned his quarter up against the wall, taking the pot. Must be all of five bucks. The crowd erupted in cheers and loud arguments, as the winner headed into the store for his prize.

We kept going, arrived at the Coffee Gallery and went inside. Wilhelm was going to be playing there in an hour or so. I got a beer. Nobody was asking for any ID in this joint. The juke box was blaring an Allman Brothers track. I checked out the room. The bar was crowded, even though it was mid-afternoon, full of people talking loud and drinking pints.

I looked at Mike Wilhelm and nodded towards a man at the corner of the bar, wrapped in a Mexican poncho, his afro hair leaning down, with little bits of things in it. He was intently writing, on a napkin, with shaky hands. “Oh, that’s Bob Kaufman, the poet, man” said Wilhelm, lowering his voice for once. “He’s a great writer, man, but he never talks.”

Mike got up and played an hour or so later, with a bass player and drummer, for some kind of afternoon session that they had scheduled there. He pulled a Gretsch electric out of the case, plugged into an amp on stage and starts rockin’ a song called “Styrofoam”: “LA Lady lives in a home, made entirely of Styrofoam!” He wore a pick on his right hand, playing bass, rhythm, and lead at the same time, using the thumb and fingers, playing loud and hard, and the audience ate it up, yelling drunkenly. Somebody threw a glass ashtray which shattered on the stage, but you couldn’t see where it came from in the darkened room.

That’s when I had a feeling, it was almost like a vision, that somehow, if I really practiced hard and played right, if everything fell together, I, too, might be able to play the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, someday, just like Wilhelm.

I knew I wasn’t ready yet.

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