The Starry Plough long agao

New Friends

By Diomedes | Robert O'Reilly | 28 Mar 2022

Low River.

Low River.

Her name was ‘Low River’. She wasn’t an Indian but a thorough hippy. She’d been a stewardess for many years but now with three kids she was a mom. She was about ten years older than me, in a long robe with bead jewelry, a lovely face framed in very long, straight, light brown hair. We were talking in a dark corner of the middle bedroom so packed with people we were pressed into one another against the wall. I don’t recall what I said but at one point she grabs my shoulders, kisses me hard on the lips and says, “you’re coming home with me”. I smiled.

The next morning I remember sitting on a couch and talking with her ten-year-old son. She lived in the bottom flat of an old Victorian house above College avenue. They split these grand houses up into two or three units. She had the main entrance with its veranda, a beautiful, spacious living room with bay windows and then a few smaller rooms with a kitchen tacked on.
Her son was showing me a picture he’d drawn on a large sheet of paper and had spent much time on. It was the battle of Hastings with William on one side, mounted, with spear men and archers around him and Harold likewise on the other with the arrow in his head. We were talking excitedly about the battle all the while mom made breakfast and even after. She had a younger son and a very cute daughter, perhaps five, playing by themselves quietly and well behaved on the wooden floor.

What a curious thing is memory. It’s both fickle and dilettante. It will keep a major event but along with that a flood of insignificant details, as if they were precious pieces to a puzzle we can’t quite comprehend or complete. I remember parts of that day well. The day after not at all. Our little flame lasted only a few weeks, with three or four more visits and what we did or said or felt is all lost, except for one other crazy snapshot.

I remember going to the café Med. one night and reading for several hours in the mezzanine. I had several books with me. The one I chose that night was a blue, hardcover copy of Milton’s complete poetry. It had notes below the poetry on many pages. I was just beginning the book. I recall that night walking the long way to her house, her small bedroom, the single bed and the lamp on a flimsy night table beside it. This is where I placed my books. We turned out the light and made love and were supposed to fall asleep on that narrow bed wrapped up in each other’s arms. I couldn’t sleep, having done a few lines hours earlier. I could lay still but my mind was racing away.

Worse, I was thinking about the Milton book and my thoughts fixated upon a specific footnote in it and all of a sudden it dawned on me in the pitch-black room that the footnote had an error in it. But how could that be? It was an Oxford edition, a standard school text, the most carefully corrected editions that exist.

This bothered me to no end. I was on the lamp side of the bed and the book was right there. I thought if I could turn on the light for just a few seconds I could check it, (I even remembered the page number) and settle the matter and turn the light out again without her noticing. I spent several minutes revolving this plan. I could tell from her breathing she was sound asleep. I smoothly rolled over, turned on the light, opened the book and sure enough, “what are you doing?” fills my ears. I turn off the light and mumble some incoherent apology, very embarrassed, turn back to her and somehow manage to fall asleep. The next morning I found out I was right. It was a typo, an error of a page number.

Now going back to that first morning I remember so well, with Low River and her children, a chance event occurred through a simple act of forgetfulness that introduced me to a new friend that blessed and enriched and changed my life for years to come.
After breakfast Low River said she’d give me a ride home. The children could be left and were frequently minded by an ex-boyfriend (not the father) who lived upstairs.

As we came to the car and she noticed them she exclaims: “Oh my God, I’ve completely forgotten. I was supposed to return this laundry two days ago.” The depth of her emotion in this statement surprised me. It sounded as if some disaster had occurred. So I asked her what the big deal was. “These are all his clothes. He has nothing. We have to go there right away”.
So we drove quickly across town to a rundown house only a few blocks from the Plough (on the ghetto side) and knocked on a side door. “Come on in, I can’t get up” was the reply. We entered the small room and there on a bed against the wall sat John Seebach, naked, a sheet pulled round him for modesty, a paperback in his hand.

He was seven or eight years older than me, with black, curly hair, pudgy, a little overweight with a round, dimpled face, like a young Dylan Thomas. He was very happy to see us, not over the clothes situation but just as visitors. Low River was all apologies but John just brushed it off: “I knew you’d come back sooner or later”. There were empty pop cans and candy wrappers all over the floor. The only other furniture in the room was a lamp and a chair. The curtains were drawn and he’d been reading by lamplight even though it was bright sunshine outside.
“I’ve been fine, don’t worry about it” he told her. There were stacks of at least fifty, old, dog-eared paperbacks on the floor all around his bed, mostly pulp fiction and detective novels and I imagined that he must have read them all.

Low River, as an old friend, had come by three days earlier and offered to do his laundry at her house and as the opportunity was so rare he gave her all his laundry, down to his last socks and underwear. She was supposed to return it the next morning but forgot. Luckily, he had a supply of junk food laid in and to him a day in bed with a cheap novel was pure nirvana. She brought in his clothes, we turned our backs, he dressed and we talked for a while. She had to get back to her children, so we kissed goodbye. I could walk home and wanted to stay longer as we were very much enjoying each other’s conversation. Our friendship had begun.
Now that John had clothes again and could ramble about, we decided to head over to my place. I could show him the pad. Bones wasn’t home. It was becoming habitual lately for anyone entering our apartment to offer him or her a line. This I did in the living room and now our conversation began in earnest.

John had the sharpest mind and was one of the best conversationalist I ever met. And with him as with me, ‘speed’ always doubled the effort and the intelligence we put into it. We talked like athletes sparring with each other in the ring. I remember to this day that afternoon as I recounted to him, (both of us sitting on the floor by the front window next to Bones’ loft,) in great vividness with arms waving, the final battle scene from Sallust’s ‘Catiline Conspiracy’, and him listening just as intently. I remember how he clapped his hands just as I finished describing Catiline’s noble death in pure delight.

I paid him the same attention with his stories and he had a huge fund. But more important, we would analyze each matter, ask questions and debate answers. Bones joined us a few hours later and he too fell under John’s spell. John played guitar and piano with a Tom Waits-like voice and knew many songs, so they too became fast friends.

Over the next two months we had four or five more large, late night parties, ending when the speed ran low. I remember one was so large that we had three bands playing at the same time, one in the living room, one on the roof deck behind the kitchen and one in the hallway outside our apartment.

Because we were right on the border of the ghetto of Oakland the police never bothered us. Even back then there were areas they simply would not patrol. The other tenants of the building (there were five other units, two upstairs and three downstairs) never complained. Across from us lived two lesbians who rarely showed themselves in the hall and never spoke to us. Only once did the old, black landlady come up and complain.

But she liked Bones so much, as he often talked and joked with her, that it was a halfhearted attempt. The amazing thing was, with so many strangers involved, and drugs, we never had a bad scene or altercation at any one of the parties. I remember one time two very scary large black fellows showed up around four a.m., wearing sunglasses. They had brought conga drums with them and joined in the jam. Everyone seemed to respect what we were doing, along with our generosity.

We even had Will Scarlet from the band Hot Tuna show up for a few and play harmonica. Even though he’d sworn off drugs he accepted a line I offered him one night in front of everybody, out of deference. He invited me to a party of sorts at his house around this time. It was a group of hippies, mostly women, sitting in a large circle on the floor of his large living room, drinking beers or whatever, discussing issues. One woman brought up the point that we should all be vegetarians. She was sitting next to me. I refuted her by pulling up my lip and pointing out my incisor teeth, a palpable, contradictory argument which won the moment.

After each party people would show up the next morning to help clean up. Red-haired Russ, the poet and an enthusiastic participant at all our parties would even crash on the floor behind the couch that night to be there for the cleanup. Our parties were famous, the talk of the town.

The morning after our second party as we were just starting to clean up around noon, we found we had another red-haired guest. She was short and petite, light-skinned and looked about eighteen. She surprised all of us as she stepped out from the closet, fully dressed, rubbing her eyes. She told us her name was Mary Beth and that she’d slept there because she had no other place to stay and no money.

Neither of us had noticed her the night before. She was very cute, so Bones and I told her she could stay with us as long as she wanted. But in the next few days we both perceived that her mind was not quite all there. Whatever her age, she had a child’s face and the mind of a five-year-old. She would sleep with Bones in his loft one night and me in the middle room the next.

We didn’t even ask her. She just fell into this pattern voluntarily, slipping into his bed or mine, often hours before we retired, as we did lines and talked to guests around the coffee table till four a.m. We took care of her, fed her and entertained her, but it was no easy chore. The rule we came up with was that the night you slept with her, you had her in your hands the whole next day. And by this I mean holding her hand when outside, as she might wander away at any moment, for no reason and not even aware of where she was. She was a lamb in a forest full of wolves.

Here’s an example: One morning (it was my turn) I took her to a breakfast spot across from a Walmart near Shattuck avenue. She had no conversation except on the most mundane particulars, exactly as if you were with a five year old. After eating she asked if we could visit the store. We wander around and stop at the photography counter. She asks the clerk to see a Polaroid camera. He hands her one then she asks about the film, how it works, how to load it and use it. He brings her a roll, shows her how to load it and then she takes the camera from his hands and begins snapping pictures, one after another.

I end up buying her the camera and film and dragging her out of the store in a hasty, embarrassed retreat. I’d take her to the Med. and she’d sit quiet for a half hour, sipping her coffee until done, gazing about. Then I’d walk her around campus. She was like Alice in Wonderland as I guided her by the hand, naming the buildings, explaining what each was for, while she didn’t seem to grasp a tenth of what I said. Then early back to the bar, where she was safe and I eager for the next day when she’d be Bone's responsibility.

We had another large party a week later and at this one, keeping her in my sights, I had to grab my friend Amira by the arm to help stop two black youths, a few feet away, from stuffing some kind of pills down her throat. She’d been sitting on a lounge chair talking to them for a while. I remember sticking my fingers in her mouth and pulling them out.

The next day Bones and I had a talk. She was too much for us to take care of. We riffled through her purse and found a Chicago number and called. It was her father. Bones told him the situation, he seemed indecisive but Bones said she had to go. The next day we borrowed a car, drove her across the Bay, bought her the plane ticket and put her on it. He was grateful in a return call and I think he reimbursed us. She was lucky to have wandered into our hands, such a leaf in the wind, somehow landing in that dark neighborhood into honest hands.

The few times we asked her how she ended up in our pad, she had no clear answer, except that she came in and went to sleep in the closet. That’s all she knew. We guessed she must have found it right upon arrival. Even Russ couldn’t recall seeing her there. She was so feeble minded I wondered if she should be in some care facility or had recently escaped one. She sometimes became chatty, sitting at our coffee table with five or six others, but it would have nothing to do with what the rest of us were talking about.

We’d be doing lines right in front of her and she wouldn’t ask for one. She never asked for anything. The only time we did give her one she started rambling so much we realized our mistake. In the bar I’d order her a water, while Amira made us dinner and set the plates in front of us. Then she’d eat. Other than that she had no volition. Even in bed she’d just lay there.

But we treated her kindly, as one of us, and so did our guests. She had no change of clothes so I asked Suzanne and she brought some over. Most men would have exploited such a human mannequin. That she gave me no venereal disease, seemed to preclude any such past history, after three nights together.

Some might say we took advantage of her. Show me any young man of twenty three who refuses the hugs of a naked, beautiful, silent girl, waiting in their bed. The fact that we sent her a long ways home after a week, at our expense, proves our basic humanity. On the other hand, so as not to depict ourselves as paragons of virtue, we were scoring so often with other, saner, women at the time, she was kind of in the way.

More Friends


Now I’ll describe her exact opposite, complete in every way, Amira. She worked downstairs most afternoons with a tall, skinny, black haired Swedish girl named Suzanne, both of them lovely to behold. There was a small kitchen past the long counter in the Plough which was leased out at a very low rate, and the two girls made veggie burgers so good you thought they were real meat. We often ate there and invited them to all our parties. She, like Suzanne, was here with an overstayed visa, like thousands of others hiding safely in Berkeley at the time.

It was a well known safe haven for such wandering youths because the police there were lax in enforcing any laws, always fearful of inciting another riot. Suzanne lived in an old, dilapidated Victorian house a few blocks away which was shared by another six or seven Swedish immigrants, all without papers. Then again, California probably had a million such guests from Mexico at the time, for whom you could gratefully thank for every fresh piece of vegetable or fruit produce you bought in a grocery store.

Amira still had a strong Greek accent, though her English was good. She wore pleated, colorful skirts. They might have been traditional Greek, wool skirts for all I knew, they were so similar. She was blond, with long, straight hair and had a three year old boy with her sometimes, who was also very blond. She was medium height, with a muscular build, square-shouldered, like some hard working Greek peasant woman, which matched her personality, fierce and strong willed. She ran the kitchen. I remember she never shaved her underarms and wore one set of leather boots that might have been steel-toed.

You wouldn’t want to get into a fight with her. Her eyes were like daggers, cold and piercing. That’s why I grabbed her that night to help save Beth. The two black youths backed off right away as she confronted them and they left, scared. In the few months we lived there I never heard of or saw a boyfriend or father to the boy and was almost afraid to ask. No one thought of making a move on her, though she exuded sexual appeal.

She was headstrong, willful, a force of nature, pure motherhood, like a wolverine, confident and calm, beautiful to look at and watch, admirably complete and compact, level-headed, someone you always wanted to be on your good side, because you could easily imagine what a fury she’d be if she was angry.

But she liked me and Bones. I think we were part of a very small set that lived in her favor. She would see us stumble into the bar, bleary eyed, just waking up around two p.m. for our first beer of the day and start making us veggie burgers. She knew we often skipped meals, (most of them) and insisted we eat, handing us a plate and keeping an eye on us from the counter, until we consumed them, like a mother. She came to a few of our parties but never did lines, consuming maybe a beer or two. I don’t know, but I never saw her even slightly drunk. Even our conversations were brief and light. She listened much more than talked. Yet we did consider her a close friend, or perhaps a ‘guardian angel’.

One rainy day in January she came up to our apartment to collect a pile of kitchen plates left upstairs. People were always walking out the Plough with whatever they had in their hands and leaving them in our pad. After a big party, the next morning, we found almost as many glasses as were downstairs, on every ledge and windowsill or table, dozens of them, which took many trips to return.

On this day I showed her one of my old, beat up pocket editions of a Greek play and told her I loved to read them. She took one in hand and examined the beautiful, familiar letters and smiled, handing it back to me without a word. I think she had a fondness for me, the way she smiled at me when she brought us food. I know Suzanne spoke highly of me to her. Bones noticed this too and told me I should ‘go for it’. But I never did, except in dreams. In real life I’d feel much on a par with her three year old boy, not from weakness in me but from her dazzling and imposing strengths. That’s why we never heard mention of any boyfriend. I wondered how she got pregnant, the scenario that is.

There’s one more scene too strange to omit, at one of our parties in late January. Ron D. and Barbara, still madly in love, paid us a visit, driving all the way down from Bellingham, Washington, a two day trip. We gave them the middle bedroom as it had a double bed. They stayed four days. We had one of our large parties per-planned during their unexpected stay and Barbara was ill. She’d seen a doctor up north and had been diagnosed with a flare-up of some venereal disease caught from Ron. So she spent most of the time there in pain, though in very good spirits, lying on that bed in her undies with her legs spread apart under a single white sheet, taking her medicine, day and night.

But the party had already been advertised and was on. That room was the walkway to the living room and the house was packed. I remember checking on her and seeing a whole group, all males, sitting around the edges of her bed, drinking beers, while she sat propped up on pillows in her bra, her legs covered by the single, white sheet, stopping at her waist, for ventilation.

She was sipping beers with the crowd, making brave conversation like a trouper, describing her embarrassing condition with at least fifteen others in the room, all high and inebriate, smoking joints and cigarettes, passing them to her out of drunken sympathy, staying and talking to her above the loud music from the living room, yet everyone treating her with respect and having a good time. The next day she even told me she had a great time. Such were our parties, strange scenes.

John Seebach, though he was my favorite new friend, was not one of our most frequent visitors as he had a job as a projectionist at a small Berkeley cinema four or five nights a week. It didn’t pay much, being only five hours a night but it was all he needed for his bohemian lifestyle. He could watch movies for free and sneak me and Bones in through a fire door, which he did occasionally. His single room and bathroom, being just inside the edge of Oakland and in a rundown neighborhood, was only fifty dollars a month. The rest of his earnings went to food and beer, and for that they were sufficient. The one commodity he valued was free time and in that he was rich.

John Seebach, from my personal collection.

He’d grown up in Berkeley, a native son. His father was a pot smoking jazz musician and his mother, (strange combination) a strict policewoman. He’d seen firsthand and joined in all the riots and changes of the late sixties, and had imbibed, like many do, a great deal of knowledge of literature and the arts by just living near the University, among so many bookstores and coffee shops and highly educated companions. He’d even worked at Moe’s bookstore for a while, knew Janis Joplin well and had shot up heroin with her a few weeks before she died.

I find it striking just how much knowledge disseminates and radiates from a good university. You could say it ‘pollinates’ the town. With all the bookshops, the coffee shops, the overheard conversations in restaurants and bars or on any public bench, it’s as if learning fills the air. I remember Larry Davis, whom we called Lawrence of Berkeley, a street person who almost never worked, living off some small remittance in near abject poverty, telling me one day in our casual conversation, as mine had drifted there, that he knew very well the history of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. Another friend, a house painter, read through Herodotus at my suggestion, when I loaned him the Penguin paperback edition.

How often does this happen in Minneapolis, or Miami, or Dallas? Never, I guarantee you.

Bones, from Iowa, picked up a good store of literature and history from our company. So, I would call John, with his sharp ear and mind and voracious reading, having never attended classes at the university, a highly educated individual, much more so than many of the students who did.

His complex character unfolds in future pages, as we were close friends and spent much time together over the next eleven years. About a month after our acquaintance began, John came to our pad one afternoon very excited and eager to introduce us to a friend of his who had just returned that day from San Diego. His name was Kim V.

Of all the many people one meets in life I was never so lucky or blessed with a truer friendship than the one that began on that day.

John and Kim, though best friends for many years, were opposites. John was heavy set, bearded, scruffy, a sloven in dress at best, a pure intellectual whose eyes and mind flashed conversing in any company, impressive to many intellectual women but rarely bedded.

Kim was handsome to a fault, well dressed, a would-be rock star who convinced everyone he actually was one, on first impression. He was very talkative in a Hollywood sort of lingo, (in fact our nickname for him was ‘Hollywood’ or sometimes ‘Wiz-Waz’). He was a lady killer, that is he could wrap almost any woman around his little finger in minutes with his persona, not deep in school learning but an open encyclopedia of current pop culture, with the dates and names and performances of even minor stars at the tip of his tongue, as he read the music magazines regularly and seemed to memorize them.

The success he so promised never did come his way. He was a part time guitar player with a few flashy riffs but never practiced enough to be competent in a band. He had been a tennis star in high school, from a rich family in San Diego, but an injury ended that and all ties to his family. He was wandering around broke doing odd carpentry jobs (at which he also excelled but never persevered) for just enough money to wander some more, often crashing on a friend’s floor or in some woman’s bed for a few nights or weeks, seldom more.

It was at this point in his ragged glory that I met him and even though we were more unlike than he and John, (for John was outgoing and gregarious as he was while I was reserved in many ways) we hit it off right away. Although his character, 'prima facie', seemed shallow, he had a talent of seeing, as they say, right through people in a minute and in me he must have perceived something deep and rare because we quickly became true friends.

For me it was his novelty at first. My first impression of him was what the French call a ‘Bon Vivant’. But soon I realized that his respect and attachment to me was far purer and deeper and more trustworthy than that of anyone else. And I reciprocated in kind with equal devotion to him. It was a mutual, deep respect for each other’s intelligence.

Strange to say, though we hit it off right away, I don’t remember spending any time at first with Kim alone. We were always in the company of others. By late January there were often five or six people dropping by, sitting around our coffee table each night, doing lines and drinking beers, talking, playing songs, smoking joints until the early hours of morning. Kim was a welcome part of this set for his lively stories and comradery.

He had a sort of aura of fame about him that captivated and impressed both Bones and me. We could see he was a very rare individual. He was sleeping on John’s floor most nights but we gave him our couch the nights he stayed late. After three a.m. it was dangerous to walk the ten blocks through the ghetto to John’s.

Our friendship quickly jelled in this group. Whenever either one of us said anything especially poignant or witty in a subtle way (which happened a lot) we would acknowledge it with a quick glance or nod to each other, like some insider joke, knowing we were the only two who got it, John excepted, but he was only occasionally there. So a secret bond and language developed between us. He called me Robert with the French pronunciation, a silent ‘t’. I rarely descended to nicknames and called him ‘Kim’.

Sometime in February he came over one evening a little early as it was his birthday. Just Bones and I were there. The occasion demanded a present so I laid out a gram of speed on a mirror, chalked it up and spelled his name in big letters with the razor blade. When I brought it to him, like a cake, he didn’t know quite what to do and thought it was incumbent on him to snort the whole thing, like blowing out candles. He started, to our horrified surprise and we quickly stopped him, handing him a bag to save it in as a private stash for weeks, as a gift. But in the first seconds he’d consumed almost a quarter gram, enough to keep him ripped the rest of the night.

Because of our growing local fame I was sleeping with many girls at the time, most ‘one-night stands’, at a rate of about one a week. There was one I was particularly interested in, Suzanne, the Swedish girl, with a cute accent who we saw and greeted nearly every day at the veggie stand, working alongside Amira. She came to most of our parties and loved speed, so she was so to speak ‘marked prey’. She started coming to our late-night soirees after she closed shop to do lines with us. Bones had her first.

I remember that first night after everyone else had left, perhaps four a.m. She was sitting on the couch between us, very high and drunk, and each of us groping inside her shirt at her small tits, one for each of us, she not seeming to mind, as we made very drunken conversation, all of us about to pass out. He carried her to his loft like a caveman with his prize. But a few days later she invited me to her pad, a room in the dilapidated Victorian house full of illegal Swedish travelers, all having long overstayed their visas but happy and fairly safe in Berkeley. We stayed up till dawn doing many lines, talked much at first but getting too high she began to scribble pictures for hours while I pulled out my pocket Seneca, a paperback of his letters to his younger friend Lucilius and must have read eighty pages with great insight and pleasure, lying beside her while listening to Bob Dylan records.

And here I’ll note a thing I experienced many times on speed, always late at night after tens of lines. Others fray and do the most meaningless repetitive tasks like scribbling lines on a sheet of paper till it’s black, or clean house to a neurotic, unnecessary degree, while I pull out a scholarly, hard to understand Latin text and dig in with clear focus.

This book, by the way, is transformative. It's one of the rare works which Thomas De Quincey would qualify in his three categories, as "Literature of Power". His other classes are literature of entertainment and literature of knowledge. This very small class, compared to the others definitely empowers you with daily, sage advice and wisdom because its lessons are practical, useful and wise.

My rag-tag pocket Seneca, so full of fascinating knowledge

I’d already read about ten of his letters in school, so it was not unfamiliar, but by the end of that night I had a much fuller understanding of him along with a fluid ability to read his terse prose. I wasn’t always this lucid. Some nights, tired and frazzled I would fret over an unfinished poem for hours, trying to make out a few lines but getting nowhere. Around dawn we went to bed and made love, both of us again on the same wavelength and happy in each other’s arms.

It so happened that Kim paid her the same nocturnal visit with his birthday gift the very next night and when I found out the day after, (as he announced it) I was a little bit peeved at him for following so swiftly in my footsteps into the same bed sheets.

I remember thinking about it that day as I set out to my coffee shops and libraries for solitary reading. But by evening, before I returned, I decided to hold no grudges against either one, that friendship was more important than transient love. Such was the simplicity of our innocent natures at that happy period. I told him that and we were better friends than ever. And for those of you who look down on Methedrine as a vice of selfish pleasure, try reading eighty pages of Seneca without interruption, with delight and instruction, laying on a hardwood floor, elbows hurting. I doubt anyone has done the same, in the last hundred years.

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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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