I first heard about “crazy money” when I showed up in Northern California and started living in the hills, another barefoot white middle-class hippie fresh off the highway from Indiana. It was called ATD then, Aid to the Totally Disabled, one of the “scams” people ran to get paid by the government.
What you did was go into the Social Security office and make an appointment to see a shrink. If he decided you were mentally or physically disabled then a check from your good Uncle Sam would come in your mailbox or bank account every month. In 1976 that was about $221, not including a rent allowance which was also available.
What put me in such dire straits? I had been fired from my New York taxi job for accidents. I had been waiting in front of Grand Central Station eating the sweet potato bean pie I had made a few hours earlier and hauled to the taxi company on my trusty blue Schwinn five-speed that had served me well in Indiana. I checked in at the garage and began a period called “shaping up” where I and my fellow cabbies sat around for two hours waiting for the day shift cars to come in so the night drivers could pick up their cars and head out. I got there around 1:30 so I could be out on the streets by 3:30-4:00 to catch the rush hour business. I often ate my sweet potato bean pies while shaping up.
We all waited in front of Grand Central though it was technically illegal and when the cop came by to move us along I put down my bottle of Louisiana hot sauce and drove over to Penn Station to continue my lunch in the officially sanctioned taxi line.
Usually we cruised the streets and were hailed by customers: Go around the block, stop at a red light, then turn onto a broad avenue and hope someone was waiting down the street with his hand in the air. I was so on edge that someone standing by the street would reach up to scratch her nose and I’d screech to a stop. There were also customers who only wanted a Checker cab, not my old Dodge--maybe they had a large group that could be accommodated by the Checker. I would stop for their hail but then they waved me on as the more desirable Checker cruised in behind me. (The last Checker left the streets of New York recently, though there are still a few scattered around the country in operation.)
On my way to Penn Station I was a bit frazzled from waiting half an hour only to be told to leave by the police and I turned down Broadway instead of 7th Avenue and came to a stop at the light. I turned right and broadsided another car, correcting just enough so our sides smashed together. There wasn’t much damage but when I saw that little kid in the back of the car it shook me up enough that I drove back to the garage and turned in my crunched car.
I never drove again. It was April and I got a ticket on the hippie bus called The Grey Rabbit, $40 to California. The seats of the old bus had been cleared out and there were just mattresses. As we headed out of New Jersey the bus began to groan up a small hill and thus began a journey including many stops at mechanics along the way. The driver assured us that everything would be fine but he was lying like Nixon about Watergate and it dawned on me that now that they had $40 from forty travelers they had the money to fix the bus.
They tried, but after many stops and delays the Grey Rabbit, cousin to the Green Tortoise, finally died by the side of Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas. Fortunately a step van pulling another step van soon picked us up and gave us all a ride to Los Angeles, although San Francisco had been the original destination.
I had become friendly with a girl on the bus named Francine Forim. She had a big yellow dog and played guitar. I was coming back to the hills of Whitethorn and Whale Gulch while she was headed up to Black Bear Ranch in Siskiyou County. We hitched together up the coast to San Francisco and stayed at the “town house” of her Black Bear friends. (I tried to visit her later that summer at Black Bear but she wasn’t around after I hiked six miles in.)
I arrived in Whitethorn on April 13, 1975 where a softball game was going on at the school. Everyone was on acid and Richard Enright ran the bases backward. I ran into Dale and Buffalo who let me rent the treehouse on their back forty for $25 a month. It seemed pretty cool at first but it got a little old going up and down those stairs for every little thing. (The treehouse had been featured in the book HandMade Houses which came out several years before.)
Dale and Buffalo had all kinds of scams going on. Dale was on ATD for diarrhea and when the rent was due Buffalo went over to the Four Corners house, removed some two by fours, hammered them onto the wall of their rental, and told the landlords that that improvement was good for the rent that month. I refused to go along on that board-harvesting venture and after a month couldn’t afford the rent for the treehouse and moved out.
I got on food stamps and moved into Elaine’s abandoned plastic house back in Thompson Creek above the Big House where I had lived the summer before taking care of incorrigible teenagers, a foster care situation run by Nicki and Tess. (The year before that I’d worked at their daycare center for room and board.)
Those teenagers were pretty bad, ditching us in town so we’d have to run around looking for them. Once Andre, who was dating Elaine, took us out for a field trip on his salmon fishing boat. (She was fifteen or sixteen and he was in his mid-twenties but the dating pool was pretty shallow in those days so no one thought anything about it, certainly not her mother who I romped with in the bushes one afternoon spouting extemporaneous poetry as she rode me. Today they’d probably clasp the cuffs on him and it would be all over Facebook and trending on Twitter.)
Andre didn’t catch anything until I started vomiting over the side, then he filled the boat with pretty silver salmon and I wondered if I had helped with that?
When we got back to Shelter Cove he loaded the dingy with fish and rowed us onto shore. We unloaded the fish and Andre said, “Okay, now go back out there and get those kids.” What? I’m going to row a boat in the fucking ocean? But I did it and brought those terrible teens back to shore. (They teased me about my hippie name Zukini, calling me Zu-weenie and other creatively rude variations.)
Nicki and Tess and her teenage kids were all gone by ‘75 when I moved into the plastic house by the creek. For drinking water I hiked up the spring a ways and got a gallon or two. When my clothes got dirty I put them in the creek with a rock on each, then the next day hung them up to dry.
Patti Lee was living in a plastic house nearby, making blackberry wine, and rearing her kid Orion. She hiked by a couple times a week to water her pot patch a couple hundred yards up the mountain. When she and some other Gulch denizens moved to Petrolia the next year I took over her garden. There was a spring just above the patch that flowed into a fifty gallon pickle barrel. The barrel was plumbed with an adapter screwed into the bottom, then black plastic hose ran twenty-five feet down to the plants. It was a sweet little setup repeated by thousands of hippie gardeners across the coast range in the years and decades to come.
Once there was a fire on that mountain and the community got together to fight it. It was the usual chaotic Gulch scene and though the most direct route was up the trail through my pot patch I shamefully led the group the long way around so they wouldn’t see my little garden. I grew that cute but shady patch for a few years then sold it to Mem for a hundred dollars.
When I left New York I was pretty rich—I had saved over $500 driving taxi. I had made about $120 driving three nights a week and saved half of that renting a slum apartment at 533 East 13th Street and then rooming with a succession of fellow cabbies. (For one year I lived at the corner of First and First with Heather and Liev Schreiber when the future actor was seven.)
When the money ran out I was getting $42 a month in food stamps. I somehow made another twenty dollars a month and survived alright.
I had become a classic dirty hippie, showering once a week and smoking pot whenever it was available. A neighbor, Nancy, offered her modern shower to the community including a little can in the bathroom which said “25 Cents.” (Adjusted for inflation it went up to 50 Cents in the ‘80’s.)
Winter came and I moved into the tiny cabin that would drive me legally crazy. It was a ten by eight shed and I convinced myself it was a good place to live. (It reminded me of the Jerzy Kosinski story about the poor young man working at the ski lodge. He felt demeaned and intimidated by the well-off skiers there and so he practiced a specific little jump every night when no one was watching. The jump landed on a precarious ledge but after much repetition he landed safely every time. He challenged one of the rich young skiers who saw what the poor guy did, scoffed, tried it himself and went down in a heap with a broken neck.)
The year before this guy named Jerry had lived there so I figured after he left I could move in. But Jerry had close friends nearby where he went and hung out in their comfortable house every day. I didn’t realize that and rotted away all winter in that little cabin.
The money ran out, the taxi company refused to give me unemployment, and said I had been fired for misconduct. I appealed and lost the appeal. Were accidents misconduct? I guess so.
So what to do for money? I had heard people talking about this ATD thing and knew a few people scamming it—it seemed like a good option. Crazy? Probably. I researched what to do or say at my appointment with the shrink and asked Tuna Jackson, a notorious ATD scammer, how he did it.
“Well, it’s not called ATD anymore,” he said. “Now it’s called SSI.” He sang the first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth: ESS ESS ESS eye. “I just told them ‘I don’t want to blow it’.”
“I don’t want to blow it.” It sounded like good advice. I went into Social Security and made an appointment.
My first meeting with the shrink went well. I walked in there and said, “I don’t want to blow it,” very seriously and dramatically. I told him that I had lice, scabies, and crabs and lived in a little shed in the woods. When he mentioned my mother I started crying, channeling my time a couple years earlier when I happened upon this “crying cult” in upstate New York called The Path.
I came back for a followup appointment a few weeks later and checked in at the reception window. Instead of finding the waiting room I walked into the psychiatrist’s office by mistake and there was my file on his desk. It was a one page indictment of this poor sad soul living in the hills in a little dirty cabin.
I took the page, left his office, crawled beneath the reception window, and snuck out the door. I found a copy place, made a copy, folded it up, stuck it in my pocket, and went back to the doctor’s office. I crawled back beneath the reception window, placed the original back on the shrink’s desk, and went to sit in the waiting room.
The thing about ATD/SSI was that they almost always denied you, then after your appeal they usually denied you again. You appeal again and by that time someone up there in the bureaucracy finally says what the fuck, stamps you crazy, and the checks start rolling in. The first one includes back pay up to the day you originally applied so all these scamming hippies were getting big checks for sometimes thousands of dollars.
I got the letter denying my request for benefits. I was a healthy, able-bodied young man twenty-two years old but I must have been somewhat crazy to even apply in the first place, right? Mustering a modicum of self-respect I decided enough, and didn’t appeal.
A few months later I got my first check from the government for $1066, which included about five months back pay. I was rich! Every month I received a pretty green check for $221, a princely sum back in 1976. No longer did I have to worry about somehow making another $20 a month by sewing bull rush mats or hoping for a small check from home.
I walked into the Pie-In-The-Sky Cafe in Briceland and announced that I had successfully gotten crazy money! I was met with disapproving looks from the denizens within, especially Autumn Wind. Oh. Maybe it wasn’t so cool. Hmm…
I got a bank account and for three years I was on the dole, the checks automatically deposited. My gardening career took off as I was able to buy all the chickenshit I wanted. When I found five acres in the hills to buy I phoned Social Security and told them to stop sending the checks.
Thirty years later and well-established I got a letter from Social Security saying that they had miscalculated my benefits back then and I was owed an additional thirty thousand dollars, or more. Really? All I had to do was come in and be re-examined. Hmm, I don’t know, it sounded fishy. I called them up and turned them down. “Are you sure?” they asked.
I was telling my mother this story last year and Googling welfare fraud. I found nothing to worry about. “Well, you’re probably a little crazy, anyway,” she said.