San Diego, 1980
In the first days of the new decade Kim and I packed up and drove the Barracuda to San Diego, which to our surprise made the trip without a hitch. I had a friend there from the dorm years, Doug, with an apartment on Pacific beach. He was moving out at the end of January and was glad to let us sleep in the living room until then. I started my new job, enjoyed the perpetual summer of the place and gorgeous bikini clad women on the boardwalk every day. Kim loved it even more.
And luck favored us. We had to be out of Doug’s place by the thirty-first. We did nothing till the evening of the thirtieth, when we bought a paper and looked at the rental ads. They were listed by price, cheapest first. What caught our attention was the first one, a one-bedroom house in Ocean Beach for 150 a month. The next add and all the rest started at 300 or a lot more. So we called and quickly visited an old lady. She took us to a small but fixable cottage a half block from the beach, a perfect spot. We showed huge enthusiasm and told her we’d fix it up, gladly. She told us she’d had many applicants but liked us best so it was a deal. We moved in the next day.
Pacific beach is a middle-class beach, with rows of nice apartment buildings facing its boardwalk. Ocean beach is the older bohemian beach, closer to town center, with run down cottages and hippies and all sorts of miscreants, but still clean enough to draw large numbers of beach goers every weekend. Our house was on a gateway street to this beach and the porch, which we quickly built at the front door, was a place to sit and enjoy a parade of people ten feet away on the sidewalk, talking to them, sharing a beer or offering the use of the bathroom to pretty girls, a perennial party machine.
It was slow at first, the rainy days of winter, and my eight to four, five days a week job. Kim worked on the house and porch and as Spring began the number of our acquaintances grew. Our front door was almost always open, too often. Our porch and living room became the hangout for all types of people, not all of them good. Boisterous nights ensued. It was like the “Rake’s Progress” by Hogarth, and by early summer and more and more visits by the police, it all came crashing to an end.
But to go back to the idyllic beginnings, I was happy at work and Kim at home. My wages supported the both of us easily. Like in the idyllic days of our purest friendship the year before, (unforgettable to both of us) we shared whatever we had, equally. I paid the rent and utilities, the groceries, and whatever was left of the check split it evenly between us, with a smile. Kim worked a little each day on the house, smoked cigarettes and read pulp fiction. In a small apartment two doors down he met two cute sisters, twins, who shared everything with him, their beer, their food, (making him dinner), and finally their bodies, the three of them in their queen-sized bed.
I had a desk in my bedroom and began to make notes for a novel, some thirty pages of them. There are a lot of ideas and quotes but it never got past the first few pages. It was to be my own “Crime and Punishment” set in San Diego. I had just chanced to read that novel and was so taken by it that when I finished it I set it aside for two weeks, waited in anticipation, and then read the whole thing over again, doubly fascinated by it. It’s the only novel I reread so quickly and eagerly, so much was my rapture. But the bar was too high to emulate. If I had just described in detail the scenes and conversations in my living room a few months later, hour by hour, I would have had a colorful stream of characters and wild events, and a contemporary novel.
The first and best of our new friends, in every way, was Harry O. We met him at Doug’s but he also knew Phil, who also moved back to San Diego that Spring. Phil moved in with his grandmother and somehow scored a great job at a science facility, dealing with Uranium. Harry O. lived in his white windowless van. It was an extension of his body. He ate at a drive through. He did his banking at a drive through. If he needed to make a call he would pull up close to a phone booth, roll down the window and make it. He had his whole music collection beside him in eight tracks, all three Van Halen albums and eight Led Zeppelin ones and nothing else. He was a purist in this musical genre, excluding all else. In the back he’d built a bed-couch where he shagged many a girl and slept. He only needed to get out for a bathroom and for work and that’s where we came in. He parked in our driveway each night and used our facilities.
He loved to roller blade along the boardwalks and meet women, which he did in just his shorts and socks and blades. He had a dark tan, curly, long, beach blond hair, a muscular build and a handsome, chiselled face girls went wild over, and bright blue eyes. He could easily have been a billboard model. He was so compact and sure on his skates he used to knock cyclists off the path and make them go flying through the air, landing in the grass when they got in his way. He could do this with ease, with just a shoulder blow, without missing a stroke on his skates. He didn’t like bicyclists. He thought they took up too much of the road. Anyone he didn’t like he called a ‘sissy’. Just as his music collection, his vocabulary was limited. But we both saw his raw energy, his pure honesty, his heartfelt devotion to friends, his general probity even, (with the one exception of shagging teenage girls). We immediately invited him to our house and became fast friends.
He worked on and off as an assistant to a tile man. He brought us all the colorful, broken scraps of tiles each week from their garbage bin and we made a beautiful mosaic on our unfinished bathroom floor, a piece of art. His money went to beer and pot, food and gas, that’s all. He had a southern accent from somewhere in the Carolinas. He had little education but a keen and sharp interest in conversation which revealed itself in the intensity of his voice when talking and his flashing blue eyes, staring you straight in the face, when listening.
He had one amazing story, oft repeated. He was witness a few years earlier to the famous crash of the passenger jet that went down on the San Diego freeway near center town, from just a few blocks away. It was a Sunday morning and he was outside on a driveway working on his van. He’d dropped acid the night before and had a hangover. But he was right at the edge of the steep embankment which went down to the freeway, where the desperate pilot was trying to land. It flew right by his head, so close he could see the frightened and screaming faces of the passengers in the windows, just seconds from their deaths, not one or two faces but many, that whole side of the plane as it screamed by, only a few hundred feet away. I think those faces haunted him the rest of his life because he always described it with a similar, frantic distress.
So Harry O. was our first and daily guest. Both Kim and I loved him and he helped repair the house. The decor of our living room was rather Spartan. There was a couch, a coffee table, two small, cushioned chairs and a cheap T.V. on a cheaper stand, a few wall lights and that’s it, no pictures, no flair. So one day Harry brought in a small cactus in a tiny pot, maybe three inches tall. This was to adorn our barren coffee table. Now the coffee table was used primarily to roll joints, Harry O. most often doing the honors. He was lively in every way and when he talked, as he always did, his arms would go flying in many directions, to match his enthusiasm.
One afternoon as he was rolling a spliff and talking away excitedly, he brushed the back of his hand against the cactus. He withdrew it in a flash, cursed, nursed the stung hand like a wounded babe and cast a menacing and then sullen look at the cactus, murmuring: ‘my own cactus, how could you do this to me, bite me, after I watered you.’
We smoked the joint and time passed on. Several beers later he was rolling another spliff and in another flourish of speech and gesture he ran his hand again into the unfortunate cactus. This time he screamed, gave the cactus the eye of death, sprang from the couch and landed squarely upon it in his heavy work boots, squashing it and smashing the coffee table into several pieces. The coffee table was soon replaced, but not the cactus. That was Harry.
The company I worked for, Modular Mechanics, employed about fifteen people. On one side of a small court there was the office of Larry, my father’s friend, and rooms for three draftsmen and a secretary. On the other side was one large workroom where we made the machines the others designed. They were all sizes but most could fit on a table. They were all robot arms, meant to pick up some piece in an assembly line, turn it over or drill a hole in it or just change the orientation for the next step on the line, over and over again at a steady pace. The robotic age, along with the computer age, was just beginning.
I was the factotum in this shop, sorting parts, getting lists of materials for the engineers who were building these things, sometimes driving to stores for missing bolts, even helping put together some prototype. It was easy work for me and interesting. The people I worked with were always nice to me because in a way I was the boss’s pet. I remember once when things were going badly on a big project for G.M., a large machine to lift motors and turn them around, he came in the room hot and angry, the deadline was too close to meet and much of his own money was at stake. He reprimanded everyone there, one by one, then turned to me, the last, patted me on the back and told me what a great job I was doing. He sold his company that June for a good profit and retirement, laying me off so I could collect unemployment.
Now I was back at the cottage full time, with Kim and a crowd of more and more unwanted and unsavory guests. Even Harry. O. saw this worsening scene and quit coming by. As I contemplate the bad company I fell in with, unawares and naive, one explanation comes to mind. This place was not a university town. In a university population drug use is, believe it or not, for the purpose of education, self-discovery and sharing those experiences with others. My acid trips at Berkeley were exactly that, outings with small groups of good friends to interesting places with much conversation and laughter and even bonding all along the way. Doing speed on a Saturday night was synonymous with sitting around a table with friends, talking, playing music, pulling out books to show off a poem, discussing projects, futures and encouraging each other.
Without this guiding light of positive drug use, for the purpose of improvement, it’s merely a fleeting high. It becomes personal and selfish, desperate and ugly, and very quickly, an escape, and, like all escapes, private, secret and antisocial. This happens to people in bleak places with hard lives, ghettos, where they’ve never tasted the comradery of pursuing one’s dreams with a group friends, with well-off parents and a good chance of success. They distrust each other and they have very little or nothing to share, least of all ‘hope’.
The greatest benefit of a university education for most is not the book learning, it’s the friends you make, lasting friendships with people of similar, high-level goals and encouraging each other reach them, which makes even drug experiences a positive and exciting lesson to share, an increase in social skills necessary to growing up and coping with the job world.
Of the twenty-eight freshmen on our eighth floor of Davidson hall in 1972, I would say 90 percent of us experimented with drugs, and 75 percent frequently. Of these dorm mates I never heard of a single one becoming a drug addict. Some became doctors, archaeologists, lawyers, scientists and most quit drug use with graduation. Only one of us died young, in a car crash, and his name, by the strangest coincidence, was Rick Coffin.
With all my university friends, our drug use was a rosy adventure. But of my high school friends who never made it to college, several became drug addicts, Rich, Brad and many others, going through long periods of ugly, health damaging years. Some recovered, but with permanent scars. Without the college experience and the training to start a career, and the hope of steady improvement, drugs turn into an escape, a fleeting, solitary flight, which doesn’t work or last, and costs ever more.
What makes an addict is bad circumstances and low self-esteem, a hopelessness about the future that develops into an angry mentality and a suspicious, cutthroat attitude towards others. That’s why the most self-destructive, escapist drugs, opiates, thrive in the ghettos. Those in academia have none of these urges. I never heard of a single one of my classmates trying heroin. Joel didn’t sell it, and wouldn’t if he could, on moral principles.
But when I translated my happy, generous partying ways to Ocean beach, I found myself in the company of this second sort, and didn’t see it, because I’d never met such types before, impoverished characters with desperate ways and selfish motives. I was a lamb among wolves. I got into various types of trouble, even crimes, which ended in my precipitous flight from Ocean Beach one morning, driving off with my bags quickly packed, never to return.