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Welcome to Northern California

I first heard that word “scamming” when I wandered out to the hills of Northern California as a hitchhiking teenager. I learned it meant to do or get something by sometimes sneaky and probably illegal means to survive outside the system by scamming the system. (It turned out I already had been a scammer-in-training. The previous year I had hitchhiked on the Pennsylvania Turnpike with a friend after first hopping a freight train. We pretended to lose money in cigaret machines at Howard Johnson tourist plazas, then got the “refund” from an employee or manager. Later in Bloomington, Indiana one afternoon I did that scam for an hour, netted fifteen bucks, and bought a lid of weed.)

Food stamps was the basic scam when us dirty hippies first got to the Garberville area and were camping out at Needle Rock or Nooning Creek. The word spread that if you got a campfire permit from the BLM office near Whitethorn Junction you could take it up to Eureka as proof of residence, with mail at General Delivery, and Humboldt County gave you $42 a month in food stamps. (Little Stevie Doyle went up to the food stamps office in Eureka and told them he had five dependents. When they caught up with his fraud he got six months in jail.)

Later living in nearby Mendocino they didn't hand out food stamps, only commodities, nasty yellow cheese and dismal white flour products. I borrowed my sister's cabin for the afternoon across the county line for my home visit with my Humboldt food stamp outreach worker, a requirement for the scam. She was quite a sight: a pretty hippy lady with long blond hair and a home-made blue jeans skirt. (Forty-five years later I'm still friends with her. In fact yesterday she called and I told her I was featuring her in this story. She asked to edit it and I told her I had already edited out the part where I fantasized about her for years after that. She said I probably wasn't the only one.)

Food stamps was just the beginning. If you had a baby or a kid or two you could apply for AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, as long as the father was absent. He was probably an able-bodied man who made himself scarce on home visit day. Many hippie mamas netted two to three hundred a month on that scam, commonly known as welfare.

Another big scam was ATD, Aid to the Totally Disabled, later called SSI. You went into Social Security, told them about your mental or physical disability (it was better to have both), and usually you would be denied your claim at first. It was called Crazy Money in the community. (Joke: Did you hear that Bill Wallace took his monkey in to try to get AFDC? Instead they gave him ATD.) 

For awhile there the hills were littered with these ATD/SSI victims getting $200 to $300 a month which was a lot of cash back then. Social Security would get you an appointment with a shrink and you told him your sad story. Once turned down you could appeal and the appeal process would take months or even years. The benevolent government almost always approved you in the end and you were issued a big first check with back pay all the way to the day you first applied. Hippies, scammers, were getting initial checks for thousands of dollars. 

And every month another check came, pretty much forever. It was pretty funny seeing these healthy hippies in their twenties deemed officially totally disabled. (I hear it's a lot harder to pull this scam today.) If you had it somewhat together you could come up with a good story, navigate the system, make all your appointments, and convince the social workers and shrinks that you were crazy. (You might say that to actually attempt this scam you probably were at least a little crazy.) 

The ones who were really mentally disturbed, who really needed help, were probably too fucked up to even make it to the first appointment. (The scammy stories were legion and colorful. One woman for example, who in real life had a radio show, went into her shrink appointment and pretended to be mute, only able to vocalize a few unintelligible syllables. She got paid. Another local woman famously got her check for having diarrhea.) 

The handful of people who were on crazy money in my neighborhood stayed on it for a few years then all got off when they bought land. They didn't want that legal complication, or maybe they just got a dose of self-respect? Most back-to-the-landers in that era only got food stamps, and for a family of four that was almost $200 a month, a great help in the early days. (Richard and Nonie Geinger refused any government assistance so we called them “hard core hippies.”)

Then in the mid-seventies came the Royal Scam: Marijuana growing…


  1. Gary Smith November 9, 2020

    Good times…
    Thanks for the memory of Little Stevie. He was a mess, but a true seaman. He fished some with me. We loaded a pickup with ice and albacore off the boat and Stevie took it to the gulch and sold it all. Didn’t even have a driver’s license and the truck didn’t belong to me or Stevie. I had converted it from a bum with a bad debt. About 1980. Good times

    • Paul Modic November 10, 2020

      thank YOU for the memory…LIttle Stevie, you know how people turn their back on the crowd to pee? Not Stevie (I remember once at a softball game at Whitethorn School)…Here’s the first piece (March 1987) I ever (self) published, a story about Stevie and drugs:

  2. Douglas Coulter November 13, 2020

    For run away kids, some type of scam is required because you are already a criminal. It is against the law to aid, abet, or shelter a minor under America’s evil child protection laws.
    Steal or sex are the only choice if you are under 17. You cannot hold a job without SSN. You cannot vote! But you can be charged as an adult, that is far too common. Try to get emancipated? Talk about legal loop holes.

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