67 Baracuda

Bohemia in America

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 31 Mar 2022


As I look back upon this seven-month long excursion and gauge it, I can easily see that this was the apogee of my Bohemian days, the meridian sunshine of carefree and reckless youth. I don’t recall if I’d already purchased an old, ragged copy of Murger’s ‘Scenes de la vie de Boheme’, but it was around this time I read it in earnest and often carried the book in my pocket, like a bible, a template for real living.
In my last years at school I developed an interest in the subject, reading Hunter S. Thomson and ‘Dylan Thomas in America’, then bio’s about the lives of Gerard de Nerval, Poe, Bret Harte and the bohemian writers in New York city in the twenties and thirties. Then, on a wider scope, ‘Le Libertinage Erudit’, by René Pintard, a fantastic description of youths in Paris in the sixteen hundreds who defied religion and social standards by their Classical learning, (a book no one reads), Carlyle’s essay on Heine, Valeriani’s ‘De literatorum Infelicitate’, (on the unfortunate lives of writers) a book not one in a billion reads. All these books I dipped into, but Murger was the gold standard and I read him whole, like a Turk, fervently, with sweat on my brow.
And what I read I was eager to imitate. This is the only way to account for the scenes that follow, and so I preface it.
Bones’ new girlfriend, May, had a long and sad history of abuse and drug use in the sex trade. A runaway at fifteen from a very affluent Boston family, she was soon a hooker and heroin addict in Vancouver, where a few years later she had a son which her parents somehow found out about and managed to take from her and raise without any rights of visitation allowed her. This made her permanently bitter, as she’d raised the boy in perfect sobriety for several years, quitting drugs and prostitution when she knew she was pregnant. But such are the privileges of money and corrupt judges. When her one reason for living was ripped away, she fell back into the gutter. Now in her mid-twenties she was trying to straighten up again, leave the trade, and Bones was there to help her. She still had a radiant, blond beauty and they were both deeply in love.
Bones had formed a new band with a female lead singer named Annie. They had a gig that very night I arrived at the Plough. She’d been told a lot about me, probably much exaggerated, and Bones was playing matchmaker, so it wasn’t long, in a dark corner of the bar after their first set, sitting at a table with Bones and May, Kim and his latest flame Brittany, (a rich college girl), that Annie was in my lap and we were kissing wildly, a trio of lovers.
It proved to be a long, hot August night, thanks to a few lines and many beers. When the bar closed Bones and May went upstairs, but Brittany had a car. Her father had originally bought her a Beamer, which she promptly crashed. So then, to punish her, he bought her the most expensive Volkswagen money could buy, a convertible with all accessories, painted purple. In this we took a long moonlight drive, top down, Brit at the wheel, Kim in front and Annie and I in the back now trying to set a world record for continuous kissing. Our random destination, strangely enough, was across the bridge to Marin, a place we would soon end up, that is, me and Kim and Bones and May, by different routes. That night we just drove there, turned around and sped back to our impending trysts.
So I ended that night in Annie’s bed and woke up in her odd household which I’ll describe later. My trip was starting out with a bang, so to speak, or fireworks. I still had my room paid up at the Plough for the next three weeks, until the end of August, when Bones and May planned to move.

I made two new friends in that short period who would change my life, and began a part time job as doorman for the bands that played at the Plough, twice a week, the off nights, Wednesdays and Thursdays so I rarely made more than ten dollars a shift. But I enjoyed the work and the bands liked me because, unlike other doormen who would just turn people away if they didn’t have the cover charge, (usually a few dollars) I would bargain, as most of our clientele were poor but had drugs. So at the end of shift, besides the money I collected I would give the band a whole potpourri of joints and pills and sometimes little bags of powders, which they greatly appreciated.
Owen Murphy, a tall, talkative, sometimes crazy Irishman with a strong accent had moved into the apartment across the hall and we became good friends, that is, whenever we found ourselves in the same room together. We were two mutually understanding, empathetic souls in a sea of strangers. I wrote a poem about his wild character soon after meeting him and read it to him. A few months later he hooked up with Suzanne and she moved in with him there, where they had a very stormy and loud love-hate relationship for several years.
One strange fluke of fate, one of many strange coincidences that happened to me, I’d met him once before and only once, about five months earlier on a rainy February night at the Plough. It was near closing time and I wanted to get to Suzanne’s for our one night together, some eight blocks away. The two of us were the last patrons there. I didn’t know him but we were finishing off our beers standing next to each other at the bar. I asked if he had a car and could give me a short ride as it was really pouring down. He agreed and dropped me off at her doorstep, waiting to see if I would get in. He didn’t know her at the time or that she’d be the woman of his life a year later. She opened the door for me and he pulled away, looking at us. A case of meetings barely missed.
But at this time he had just moved in alone across the hall, leaving his wife Cora, a beauty, a five foot tall Filipino woman with long straight black hair reaching to her hips. She was a schoolteacher and they had a six-year-old son, Breeze, an unusually smart and lively boy whom I’d play with sometimes when Owen had him.
I remember one day I was explaining to Breeze the pleasures of fishing, 'a la' Izaak Walton. To demonstrate my points, we went out back, cut off two sticks from the tree next door, whittled them into poles, tied on strings and from the second story bay window overhanging the busy street, we pretended we were fishing and that the passing people on the sidewalk were fish. Imagination and children make for the most delightful pastimes. Breeze agreed. After that day his father was glad to let us play together. Even his mother once thanked me for the ‘education’ as she called it.
An even more life changing encounter took place on one of those hot August nights right in front of the Starry Plough, right where Breeze and I had been fishing. It was a Friday evening but still early. The Plough had no parking for customers, only street parking. There were a few spots on Shattuck avenue right by the entrance but most had to settle for the side streets. That section of Shattuck was a dangerous spot at night, with many poor, black youths roaming along it. It was only a few blocks north of where I would say the real ghetto began, in Oakland. I lived on Prince street and the street next to it, Woolsey, for over two years and can honestly say I only ventured in that direction, day or night, a few times. There was nothing that way besides one great barbecue restaurant featuring ribs, two blocks away and always open, convenient for us, till 3a.m.. The rest was all ghetto and crime.
So on this fine evening as I’m strolling downstairs to the bar, just about twilight, I notice a beat up, red, 1967 Barracuda parked nearest the entrance, right under a streetlight. The car had the large bubble shaped rear window. Inside the window and easy to see is a little four or five year old girl curled up on some blankets, sleeping. Now as to degrees of impropriety and danger this seemed to me to be a shocking example. I stepped into the bar, there were only about ten patrons inside as it was still early, and said in a loud voice: ‘Whose kid is that in the car outside?’

acd4178e5a9dbd2e10f86b9bb50670dfaeb669e52e5e886b2e59443667b84267.pngNorma, ten years later

A tall, slender blond with long curly hair stepped forward. In her very southern accent she told me her name was Norma Baker. She told me she was from Marin, loved the band that was to play that night, loved dancing, couldn’t find a babysitter and was going to check on her daughter every few minutes.
I introduced myself, told her I lived right upstairs and that I had a much better solution. In a few minutes we were tucking the child in a bed. Norma was introduced to Bones and May, who were more than happy to babysit. Norma got to dance to her heart’s content, worry free, through the last set. After that she came upstairs to gather her daughter and thank us, and there she met Kim, sitting on the couch, having dropped by a few minutes earlier. She sat down with us and within two hours of warm conversation she was smitten by Kim’s charms, and in love. Kim himself was not a little bit taken by her looks and genteel, southern manners and accent, her very long shapely legs, (she was six feet tall) and glad to exchange numbers and meet again, soon. Kim had a number of pet phrases he would use frequently and after she left I remember him saying: ‘the plot thickens and sickens’.
I’m pretty sure that Kim didn’t fall in love with women, from the large number I saw him go through. But he gave certain attractive ones a favored status and let them monogamously take care of him for a while. He was always honest and open in expressing his feelings, what they might expect of him, the degrees of his attachment, and charming and kind while it lasted. So it wasn’t a bad bargain or a sad one for them until the day he left. This didn’t happen with Norma for the next year and a half. Perhaps it was Kim’s world record in partnerships. He sometimes referred to himself as a ‘gigolo’.
At this juncture he still had a part time carpentry job remodelling a bar on Shattuck avenue and she worked at a copy center at Larkspur landing in Marin, living in Fairfax. So they were only weekend warriors at first, she coming over the San Rafael bridge to whisk him away to her house for the weekend, returning him to us in Berkeley for the week. None of us had cars.

I was seeing Annie every few nights. She was busy with a daytime job, I forget what, something secretarial. I fell back into my old habits of checking out the libraries and bookshops and reading in coffee shops after each day’s finds.
When September first came around I moved in with Annie. She rented a small, upstairs bedroom in a Victorian era house with four other lodgers, two women, both plain and skinny, quiet and self-effacing, living downstairs. Then there was Zach, the chief renter and household manager, a loud and long-haired hippy who smoked pot constantly and had a distinct resemblance to the Zig-Zag man, and lastly his Hungarian friend, a burly long-hair in his forties who had a heavy accent and a pot farm in the hills somewhere so he was gone most of each week. This was his city residence and this made up our strange menagerie.
Although I enjoyed Annie’s company and was always glad to sleep in her bed, (a mattress on the floor) I was not in love with her. We could sit and talk for hours like children holding hands. But my thoughts, most of the time, were far too distant and bent on other matters to pay the adoration that one’s sleeping partner deserves. My real love, heart and mind, was sequestered in books, a bookmark in the leaves, always moving about through different volumes each day. No one but I could find it or follow it, or understand me, or the language of the rare volumes I poured all my interest into, and I think she began to see this after a few weeks of cohabitation.
At first she was in love with me. I could see it in the sparkle in her eyes. But it wasn’t me, just the representation of me that Bones and others had painted for her, a pure mirage that disappeared as one approached it.
She had a fine, alto voice and a large repertoire of blues and rock songs. She was a private, self-assessing girl with periods of blues and low self-esteem. She wrote long entries into her journals each week, (she must have had twenty of them lined up on a bookshelf next to her bed). I glanced into a few one morning after she left for work. The topic seemed always the same, her mixed up and ever-changing feelings about herself, about how others might see her and rate her at each moment, in a turbulent sea of conflicting and confused emotions, like a vessel buffeted by fickle waves and changing winds. As a diary is a sort of mirror to the soul, I imagined her to be sitting in front of a mirror, applying makeup, but never happy with the results, always wiping it off and trying again, and never satisfied.
If you try to fathom what others think of you, how they rate you and see you, and then attempt to change yourself to please them, you’ve just taken on a futile, never-ending and losing battle. It’s self-destructive as you sap your energy for them and get pennies in return for the dollars you put into it and the time. You mutilate yourself, prostitute your face and soul for someone else.
I’ve noticed this in many women with average looks. Those with stunning beauty never need make-up, or only apply it to win all the more, to tease men’s attentions, to overpower them. But women with lesser charms often enter into the fray and try to compete in a competition they’re bound to lose. They primp themselves, dress in costly attire, strut in high-heals and red lipstick and bought jewelry and are repeatedly heart-broken when a natural beauty walks by and steals the show. All the heads turn towards her, all the empty-headed male heads. 
The only way to change yourself for the better is to improve yourself for you alone, with inward satisfaction, with no other people’s fickle opinions affecting your self-image. And the only way to enrich yourself is with knowledge. I was blessed in this because my mentors were all dead authors, tried and true, not the magazine vogues that might be blasé in a year. And I could chose the parts of them I liked and discard the rest. You can’t do this with living people, at least not easily. You can’t throw them down (like you can a book) when they grow boring, put them back on the shelf for months or years. You can’t simply ignore and despise whole troops of people you meet like you can books, like I do whole sections of libraries, without the slightest qualm or apology, walking by with a sneer. You’d be confronted and slapped too often for the obvious insult. Books have no feelings. You pluck out what you like and throw the rest away. A few times, in heated debates, I’ve treated strangers this way, telling them I liked a few points they made but the rest was ignorant bullshit. It never went over well. Feelings were hurt and remembered. Debating with friends I was always more polite. But I still felt the intellectual restraints, words on the tip of my tongue I never said, with invisible, loving tenderness.
Annie’s low self-esteem made her look to others for approval, but in a sort of begging way, which never works. They see your weakness and exploit it. I suppose she dreamed of becoming a famous Jazz singer. But that mattress on the floor and her drab housemates and dead-end job didn’t bode well.

I was only there a little over a week when I was offered some work by Zack. He didn’t seem to do much at all but he had people working for him at all sorts of under the table jobs. One of these was delivering cords of firewood. When his regular driver wasn’t available, as it was in no way a steady job, I would fill in, driving a beat-up, mid-sized old truck up the winding, narrow streets in the hills of Oakland to deliver and stack up walls of firewood next to their mansions, then bring him back the money. He never paid me much, usually twenty dollars for a hard day’s work, keeping the other eighty, saying I owed him for my lodgings.
I wasn’t at this but a week or two when he had another job for me. In the backyard of the house there was an equally old, beat-up trailer home, something from the fifties, all aluminum with rounded edges. Into this went his Hungarian friend’s pot harvest. I forget his name. It was unpronounceable. I was directed into this relic along with the two girls from downstairs and another girl, each of us with a pair of scissors to sit and clip all day the buds from the leaves. It wasn’t a bad job, sitting and chatting with the girls, getting a good buzz from just handling so much pot all day long. But his payment policy with us was always the same. He would pop in every few hours to check on our progress, carry off the bags of manicured buds and at the end of each day pay us twenty dollars each and then kindly allow us to keep a little shake for ourselves, in a sandwich bag, while he’d roll up a cigar sized bud for himself and smoke it in front of us, complementing us on our good work.
I think he missed his true vocation in life by not becoming a factory boss in some Soviet-era, gulag, prison camp.
Anyways, this task lasted about a week and we had many pillow sized bags of leaf when it was over. It was a bumper crop and our overlords were happy. There was a music festival happening in People’s Park at the time and they decided to give away a few bags of the leaf to the people, mostly hippies, gathered there and sitting on the grass, enjoying an afternoon of music. On stage was a very young and talented guitarist, the son of John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival. Zack and I were the distributors of this bounty. We each had a paper grocery bag stuffed with leaf and we walked through the crowd handing out handfuls to anyone who wanted it, and many did. I was handing it out so fast, not even looking ahead, that I inadvertently offered a handful to two uniformed police officers sitting in the middle of the crowd. They smiled at me and nodded ‘no’. I quickly moved on and continued what I was doing, a little shocked. But police back then in Berkeley had a policy never to mind marijuana, the good old days!
Shortly after our pot harvest there happened a rift between Annie and me that brought an end to our relationship, and my days in that house. One of the girls downstairs, in her equally unhappy, lackluster life, resented Annie for having me as a boyfriend, while she had none. A few ugly words were spoken, and feelings hurt. But that girl wanted a more material revenge and I proved an easy tool in her plot. One evening when Annie was out and we were cleaning up the dishes after dinner, side by side, after the other girl had gone to her room, she asked me into her room on the pretext that she had an old book to show me, and as soon as I was in and the door shut, she began kissing me with passionate fury, one arm locked around my neck. With her other hand she was tearing off my clothes and her own, breaking buttons.
She’d never shown me any partiality before, no winks or hints of attraction, nudges or footsies under the table at dinner time. But I think I have this in common with almost every other heterosexual male, not in love or betrothed, that when it comes to an offer of sex, no strings attached, the offer is accepted.
In a few minutes we were wreathing in bed. In another ten we were done, putting on our clothes and I skulking up to Annie’s room to await her return, my tinge of guilt matching the dusky hues of her room in the twilight.
That night went smoothly. She came home to find me asleep and we slept in each other’s arms. But the girl downstairs made sure our ‘session’ didn’t go unnoticed. She had been so noisy that the girl in the next room, probably reading a book by her night-light, heard exactly what was going on. So she, equally sex-starved and jealous, ran up first thing the next morning, entering and spilling out every overheard detail, as I lay in bed beside Annie.
The house exploded. All five of us were home. Annie started by screaming at me that I would never sleep in her bed again, then, pushing the messenger aside, rushed to confront her nemesis, banging on that door with loud recriminations. I followed. She comes out and turns right away on her neighbor, like a wolverine, declaring her a vile traitor, and that girl responding by calling her a slut. The strange thing was that both of these girls were near perfect matches in looks and figure, skinny and plain to a fault, with straight, shoulder-length brown hair, shrewish eyes, bland characters, little education, no vocabulary and hopeless futures, which made them hate each other all the more, like looking in a mirror and not pleased with what you see. A few years older they would have perfectly matched the farmer’s wife in “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. They were even wearing similar pajamas.
I imagined that Zach must have found each of them by chance under some covered bus stop on a rainy day and invited each to live in his house, which they immediately accepted as the best offer they’d ever been given. I know he slept with both of them, being the ruler he was. And on this morning, hearing the commotion, he rushed downstairs to stop them before they descended to an all-out girl fight. And it was exactly like that as they were all in pajamas, in the kitchen, while we’d both pulled on our jeans. It was bedlam. He pulled me aside, secretly patting me on the back, (for banging two out of three) but told me I had to apologize to Annie and pack up and leave, never to return. He also whispered that I should come see him tomorrow when Annie was at work, as he might have another place for me to stay.
And so it transpired. I apologized to everyone, packed up my backpack in Annie’s room and left, with no plans, no place to go, and only the vague hope that Zack might come through for me. The three girls seemed content with this decision, at least placated, as if it were a victory of women over men.
I remember that evening and night with distinct vividness. It was the only night in all my life when I didn’t have a bed or a friend’s floor to sleep on. I still had money, over four hundred dollars, but I wasn’t going to waste a chunk of it on a motel room. The trailer was locked and too close to the house for comfort. I had slid my heavy backpack under it on my way out and walked away, hands in my pockets. I headed to Telegraph avenue but noticed a few blocks from the house, on a quiet street, a small car owned by one of Zack’s friends which I knew he hardly ever used, being a stoner and a recluse. It was unlocked and I decided that when it was late I could sleep in the back seat unnoticed.
It was easily, excluding illness, the most miserable night I ever spent. I repaired there after midnight and snuck in but without my jacket for a pillow or my sleeping bag. I decided not to sneak back near the house to get them, the recent fury of the women vividly on my mind. I thought I could just lay down and sleep. It was early September but cold and I passed an uncomfortable six hours in that back seat, in a fetal position, catching only a few minutes of half-delirious sleep. I supposed this was the price for infidelity. But the morning beamed warm and sunny. I bought myself a good breakfast, went to see Zack and the next chapter of my life began.

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B.A. in Latin and Greek from U.C. Berkley. Writer, Blogger and retired Electrician.

Robert O'Reilly
Robert O'Reilly

I am educated in the Western Classical Tradition, B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in Latin and Greek, English major, one year at U. of Toronto, studied under Alain Renoir and Northrop Frye, read most classics full time for many years after university in French, English, Latin and Greek to the modern day. I am interested in the near future of technology, what changes it imposes upon our heritage and character as humans. Short stories and Essays are my medium.

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