Ocean Beach main drag circa 1980
Back to Ocean Beach. I think my landlady doted upon me. She always wanted me to spend an hour with her, sitting and chatting, every time I drove to her apartment to pay the rent. She must have been lonely, so I humored her. When we first moved in she was busy helping us find cheap, used furniture. She went to the thrift stores every day. That was a major part of her life. She once showed me a room in her apartment that was packed to the ceiling with items she’d bought and stored away, like a pack rat, not for any use, just for the pleasure of purchase and ownership. After four months she changed our rent period to every week, thirty-five dollars at a time, and she changed the venue where the rent was to be handed over, from her apartment to the last pew of a Catholic Church just blocks away from our cottage, and exactly at five P.M. just as mass began, making me sit with her through it, and slip her the envelope at the end.
Being very much enamored with our residence and the ridiculously low rent, I graciously complied. At first I thought she might be trying to convert me. She probably was. But I had no fear of that. I found the mass tedious but brief. Had it been in Latin I would been all ears, however inane the topic. But no such luck in San Diego. I did take a good look around at this Gothic spectacle, admiring the stained glass windows, a few sculptural reliefs and then peering through the semi-darkness to the front pews found an unexpected surprise. There were always twenty to thirty participants whenever I came. I was the only male and far in the back.
The rest occupied the front pews and there were twenty empty rows between us. Though far ahead and the church dimly lit, I could make out two distinct groups. The old, wrinkled, shawled women in black, and then a set of young, colorfully dressed women who looked to be in their twenties. I could only see their backs from where I sat or glimpse a profile when one of them turned her head. But when mass ended they all filed out a side door into the broad daylight, a sight I stepped out to see. I remember many were absolute knockouts, with all their hats, hairdos and makeup, dressed to the hilt, as if God noticed such things. They’d stand there a few minutes in groups, on the sidewalk, exchanging greetings, till their rides came. And I would politely make my way right by this flock with nods and smiles, the only male leaving the church.
It was on my way straight to my favorite bar just down the street, a passage of sorts, brief but pleasant. At the bar, beer in hand, I told my drinking buddies what a set of beautiful, young women I’d just seen, all dressed up and perfumed.
None believed me at first, but with the church just a block away, I convinced a few to meet me at this corner the next Friday at exactly five thirty, wagering a beer if I was lying. A week later my wide-eyed friends gawked and stared from across the street. I greeted them, slapped them on the back and demanded my beer. All agreed some were knock-outs. A few probably weighed the idea of joining the church just to mingle in that crowd. There are perks in all sorts of unexpected places, even for an agnostic at mass.
One other thing my landlady enjoyed was doing charitable work for the soup kitchens and homeless shelters. One Sunday at her place she introduced me to a friend of hers, a skinny, wrinkled old man who had the most sparkling eyes. For many years he’d been a homeless, street drunk but was now several years sober. He asked my last name and when I said ‘O’Reilly’ he went off on a vivid and picturesque tale about someone else he’d known by that name and how they’d rode the rails together during the depression. The lucidity and length and details of his narration stunned me. What amazed me most was the thought that he could recall his youth and describe it so well, after years of being in an alcoholic haze. But the mind is a wondrous thing, as I keep saying.
The first three months at the house were happy, with just Kim, Harry O. and me fixing many things up in our off hours. Kim built himself a little bedroom out of a storeroom behind the kitchen. The front deck, built from scratch, came out quite nice, with benches built into the railings and back wall, and a six-inch-wide top railing to set beers on. It could seat eight comfortably.
In April, Bones drove down and paid us a visit for a few days. He’d brought some Acid and the four of us took it one evening. The others went out on the town but I stayed home for some reason and sitting and mussing on the living room couch, in the gloom of evening, casually listening to the radio, when I heard the song ‘The World is a Ghetto’. This affected me in a profound way. It pierced my soul with sadness and I believed for a few hours that the world was mostly ugly and life a futile and negative experience. Luckily, such thoughts disappeared with the high. I went to bed and woke up to sunlight. But I decided to never do Acid again. That morning, I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air, and saw that Bones had gotten so high the night before that he’d climbed up several telephone poles near the house, (I don’t know how) right up to the wires, and put branches of palms in them, to ‘decorate them’, as he explained.
Just four blocks from our house on the main drag of Ocean Beach was the popular local bar to which Kim and I would resort every few days. This was the bar I’d go to after church. There were lots of steady’s there and we made friends. Some would occasionally drop by our place and as Spring advanced that happened more and more. The great advantage of our living room over the bar was that you could light up a joint in it and that happened to be the one pastime a great many residents of Ocean Beach enjoyed. ‘Fama volat’ (fame flies). Compounding this increase in company was that one of our new friends was a bartender who was in a position where he worked that he could regularly steal quite a bit of booze from a large storehouse, and he enjoyed our get-togethers so much he started bringing over cases of beer and bottles of whisky, for everyone to enjoy, gratis. This started attracting freeloaders and shadier types to our house, some of whom we invited back if they had pretty girlfriends.
I remember we once went on a trip to Mexico with this bartender, on a whim, Kim and I, he and another of his friends (I forget both their names) in his car. He had a friend’s house he could borrow for the night, right on the beach, some thirty miles south of Tijuana. We drove straight there, and with his free liquor in tow, had a raucous night.
The next morning, hungover and ready to drive back, we stopped in a little town near the house, walked into a small, corner grocery store and each bought a bottle of Corona. We asked the fat, middle-aged owner behind the counter if it was okay to drink the beer on the bench outside the store. He says it’s fine and cheerfully opens the bottles for us. We are barely on our second sip on that bench on a bright Sunday morning when a police car pulls up and the two, armed officers tell us to cram into the back seat. They drive us to their station just a few doors down. They confiscate our beers and put us in a holding cell. After a few awkward seconds they tell us drinking in public is a crime and they will let us out when we pay the fine. “How much is the fine” we humbly ask? “Empty your pockets and show us your wallets,” was the reply. We complied and the fine happened to be exactly all the cash we had on us. Kim had only a few dollars. I had over twenty, so did the other fellow. But our bartender host had a hundred-dollar bill which quickly disappeared. Then we were freed. I asked, since we paid the fine, if we could have our beers back. They were sitting on a table right beside us, still cold, little drops of condensation dripping down the necks of the bottles. ‘No’, said the head officer, grabbing one bottle and taking a swig, motioning to his fellow officers to do the same. We drove straight home, non-stop and fast, driven, one might say, by Mexican justice.
One day in May Kim and I decided to throw a large party. We told all our friends and asked them to invite theirs and arranged through our bartender to have a keg on ice. It was to be a Saturday afternoon backyard party, which we’d never used for anything. It had a six-foot-high stone wall all around it, the remains of a plot of garden, some tiles near the house and some long grass, which we cut for the first time that morning. Our short front yard had a low, waist high cyclone fence, with a large gate for the driveway and a small one for the walkway to our porch. The driveway led to the backyard, so people could walk through it to the party without entering the house, where we planned to have our own more ‘select’ party.
While we were preparing the yard that morning I noticed a few wasps entering and exiting a crack on the stone wall near the beginning of the yard. We had a hose so I thought I could flush them out with water. I let this run quite a while and many came out but they only swarmed around and went back in as it was a long crack. One of our friends now showed up to help and said he had it on good authority that vinegar would do the trick. A gallon was procured and dumped in. We waited, watched, and the little swarm didn’t change their pattern, flying in circles a few feet around, then crawling back in. I could tell by the jerkiness of their movements that they were getting angry. But it was now too late to do anything, people were starting to arrive. The beer was set up on the tiled patio. It was a beautiful afternoon, and if you were smart enough not to linger within a few feet of this swarm of wasps you didn’t get stung. Of the forty or fifty people who enjoyed our get-together that day only a few failed the test.
By mid-afternoon, our house and yard were full of happy strangers and the keg empty. I took a collection and set out and bought several more cases. Since our party had been advertised days in advance, someone had decided, without telling me, to invite two Hell’s Angels members to come to the party and act as gatekeepers for free beer, to which they agreed. When I returned, my arms laden with beer, the front yard and porch full of people, they wouldn’t let me in. They didn’t know me. It took several minutes of calling out on my part and almost lost tempers before I got someone to acknowledge me as the host. They grudgingly let me in. From then on I delegated beer runs to others.
The only private room in the house, besides the bathroom, was my bedroom. It had a lockable door to the living room, so this room was designated to our close friends as the place to do lines, as long as they shared, that is, with Kim and me. Harry wasn’t there that day, probably at work. Early in the afternoon I met a girl, short, pretty and with short black hair. She had just signed up for a Navy program straight out of high school, about to start in a few weeks. We were talking away in the backyard, both sipping on a beer, when I got a tap on my shoulder and word that there was something waiting for me in the bedroom. I invited her along, closed the door and sure enough there was a long line of coke half hidden between two books on my writing table. I told her I would split it with her. She tells me that she’s never done any drugs, not even pot, in fact the beer she’s sipping on is the second she ever had. Hum, how sad I think, a virgin to life’s pleasures. We shall have to remedy that. I tell her it might be a good idea, before the Navy whisks her across the wide oceans, to gain a little experience and not have the reputation of a child, which her other mates might laugh at. She naively agreed and snorted half the line. This perked her up quite a bit. We rejoined the party and grabbed another beer.
This gets me thinking and I say to her: ‘You know, when you get there, your friends are gonna ask you if you’ve ever smoked pot. You might want to try some here so you don’t have to answer ‘No’. She hesitantly agrees so I procure a joint, which we smoke in a corner of the living room, laughing and talking away, our faces now close together.
After many more hours, many more beers, a few more lines of coke, a very tiny line of brown, Mexican heroin (such were my guests) and two Valiums late at night to help us fall asleep in my bed, I was able to complete her education and free her from the horrible stigma of being labelled ‘inexperienced’ and also ‘virgin’.
In the late morning we both wake up, believe it or not, bright and cheerful. We make coffee in my trashed kitchen, giggling and gabbing away at what we remember of the night before. I walk her about a mile to her parents’ house and with one, long, parting kiss she thanked me for the wonderful time she had. She skipped in her front door, closed it, and I never saw or heard from her again.
I think she was the type of girl, by her naivety and her innocent, docile nature, that she never saw such a party again and had an upstanding, irreproachable career, becoming a model wife and mother. I hope the memory of that one party was enough to last her a lifetime.
On the other hand, she might have become a drunk, a slut, a drug addict, kicked out of the Navy and onto derelict streets, a prostitute. Who knows? Let’s not get romantic here. The truth always lies somewhere in the middle. And whatever path she took was determined by a lifetime of character formation, not by a one-day detour through my backyard and bedroom.