I met with David on Anderson Valley Way where he lives with life-partner Regine Schwenter. We enjoyed a refreshing cup of tea and sat down to chat.
David was born in 1941 in New York City to parents William Jackness and Rosalind Schiff who were both first generation Americans. His paternal grandfather was from a small rural town in southwest Russia and he met David’s grandmother in a shtetl, a small Jewish town, in Romania. Both had been previously married and they eloped to the States in 1903, arriving at Ellis Island where his grandfather’s papers could not be read clearly and Jochnis became Jackness. They probably only spoke Yiddish and settled in Brooklyn where the grandfather practiced his trade as a glazier. They came with three of their children and had five more in this country, including David’s father.
Maternal Grandfather Henry Schiff was from Austro-Hungary and his parents spoke high German. David’s grandmother was from Lithuania before moving to Poland and then on to the U.S. when her family decided her tuberculosis was not going to lead to her finding a husband in their town. She met her husband in the States, living in Queens, N.Y., and they had two children — David’s mother and her brother. “My father saw my mother ice skating one day and fell immediately in love. It was not necessarily reciprocated as my mother had high ideals of marrying high. They were married in 1937 but she was seven years younger than he and not super-enthusiastic about it. They were of non-religious Jewish descent and had both gone through the Depression and had to find work to support their families so chances of college had passed, their aspirations curtailed. They were together for 21 years — probably 21 more than they should have been.”
David’s father had a series of non-descript jobs from door-to-door salesman to accountant, while his mother did some bookkeeping. Her uncle owned one of the big cab companies in New York which meant he had an ‘understanding’ with Al Capone’s mafia. He taught my mother how to juggle the books and sometimes she had to meet strangers in a luncheonette with a bag of money. Later on, when Capone was on trial, her uncle had to leave town as he didn’t want to have to be a witness.”
David came along in 1941 and his sister two-and-a-half years later. They now lived in row house in Queens, in a predominantly Irish/Italian neighborhood. “I was regularly beaten up for being Jewish — these people were pissed off at the Jews for killing Jesus — it had nothing to do with me! When I was about four I was basically adopted by a local German couple who showed me a whole new world, They were very kind and generous and I remember thinking I wish they were my parents. The Jewish culture was certainly a part of my upbringing but I was not forced into the religion or its practices. On high holy days we would sometimes go to Temple but Christmas was my favorite holiday. I did have a bar mitzvah but that was it and apart from the occasional wedding or funeral I never set foot in a synagogue again. We were not a close family and had few gatherings even though the Schiffs were close by. My maternal grandmother died in 1947 and my paternal grandfather had died in 1925 way before I was born — not a very nice man apparently.”
By the age of two I was showing musical ability and by four was considered a child prodigy on the piano. My mother thought she had a little Mozart on her hands. The Julliard School tested me but despite doing well they did not accept children under seven. My mother would not let it go at that and she managed to get me a scholarship to attend the Mannes Music School, one of the other two Conservatories in New York City. I was four and twice a week I went there with her on a bus, a train, and then a walk in Manhattan. I enjoyed it at first as they groomed me to be a concert pianist or composer. She really pushed me while my father was more laissez-faire. He supported all of my endeavors but was emotionally cold and when my sister got polio, that had a huge impact on her life and us around her, he had no ‘use’ for her. My involvement in music meant that I had a far from normal childhood, often inside practicing while other kids played sports etc outside. I was always afraid of making mistakes with my music and that affected other areas of my young life. It also resulted in me being very timid and always having sweaty hands.”
As far as his regular schooling went, David did well, but socially he was always a year behind the other children. “I was neurotic and shy. I enjoyed the sciences and excelled at French. My father was very honest and honorable and was doing well as a sales representative and we moved to suburban Queens when I was twelve by which time I was losing interest in the piano so my mother made me take up the flute and I studied with one of the top flutists in the country. I was the President of the school band and the Vice-President of the Orchestra — this was a big deal. I also had a little jazz band although I was never very good as at the back on my mind were my classical influences and the metronome rhythm that does not go well with jazz of course. My interests had moved to electronics and I became very involved in amateur radio.”
In 1958, when David was 17, his parents went through an ugly divorce. His sister went with her mother and soon after, when David graduated, he went to engineering school. “It was always on the agenda that I would go to college although my flute teacher was devastated when I stopped my lessons with him. I was not really suited to math and physics at the engineering school as it turned out and I wound up at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Lutheran Church. I did see some anti-Semitism there and I remember a bunch of the students getting drunk — the drinking age was 18 then, and defacing the Jewish cemetery in Staten Island. I never felt at home there, but I really wanted to leave home and had thought I was ready for college and the lifestyle it offered, but I wasn’t as it turned out.”
David still played the flute in the college orchestra and also organized a local recorder group that played Elizabethan music, for which he wrote some of the arrangements. His degree was now in psychology but he also studied minors in music and math and graduated in 1962. “I had also fallen in with a ‘rough’ crowd, discovered drugs for the first time, and had done a lot of growing up but I stayed in school and that had helped me avoid the draft to that point, although the war in Vietnam was heating up. By this time I had discovered the work of Wilhelm Reich, Freud’s prize pupil, which has been a major part of my life ever since. His work grabbed me like no other form of psychology but many think him of as a ‘nut’ and his work is not widely accepted even today. I did a short spell of graduate study at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan but dropped out of the program in early 1963 believing that there was not much work in the psychology field unless you had a Ph D. Then on April Fool’s Day that year — I should have realized that something was not right — I took a job as a social caseworker for the NYC Department of Welfare working in the worst areas of the city from Brooklyn to the Spanish Harlem.”
David was passionate about his work despite the dangers and depressing work conditions but he earned decent money with good benefits and by 1965 he became the youngest supervisor in the department’s history. “I felt I was doing a real service in the community and became involved with the radical union that represented about 5,000 caseworkers throughout the whole city. I discovered various degrees of corruption with some caseworkers and management accepting money from landlords to place people in their terrible buildings. It really offended me and I turned in an inspector at one point. As a supervisor, my work with the union was frowned on by management and they began to move me around the department and after four years I realized that I would always have problems there and so I quit.”
It was the late sixties and David had moved from the West Village and was living on the Lower East Side. “It was more to my taste and budget. There was a lot of stuff happening there at the time and I was spending most of my money on drugs and listening to the jazz greats who played in the city. I was really enjoying the city lifestyle and while I did not have any long-term relationships during that time I definitely had a good time. I dabbled in all aspects of the counter culture — politics, music, drugs, and had developed a new passion by this time — photography. I worked for some photographers both as a shop and darkroom assistant and on some of their shoots. By 1967, I believed that I could run my own place and, with a partner, I opened a small photo business on Avenue A and 5th Street, selling equipment, doing darkroom work, and processing film for professionals and the many tourists who visited the area.”
The business went well for a time but his partner fell in love and left town so David was left alone to run the operation. “I had to do seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, in the shop and then do the books after we closed. By that time I had met Ellen and we lived above the shop, getting married later and I adopted her son, Daniel. Then came some the street riots and the tourists stayed away.” David ended up selling the business at a loss to a group that helped under-privileged kids. “I was only ever a mediocre photographer — doing weddings and bar mitzvahs, and there were 50,000 out of work good photographers in New York so that alternative was not going to work.”
“New York was getting worse and worse and I left to pursue a dream of going to Taos, New Mexico. We left town in 1968 but the car broke down in Sante Fe, and with my mother, her second husband, and my sister in nearby Tucson, we went there and stayed with them for a month before renting an apartment. At first I thought it was beautiful there, so exotic — little did I know.”
David found work as an apprentice carpenter, a passion of his since his younger years, in the copper mines in the mountains outside Tucson. “I worked with some roughneck guys and we’d start at 5am — I’d never had ‘5am’ on my watch before in my life! It was freezing at that time but later in the day boiling hot — sometimes 124 degrees! A miserable shift, and most of the people were as prickly as the cactus around them. I quit and found a non-union job in a cabinet shop. I learned a great deal but by the late summer of 1969 I was done with Tucson. It’s not hell but you can certainly see hell from there!”
David thought about returning to New York “with my tail between my legs, but my wife and I thought how could we forgive ourselves if we did not get to San Francisco, considering we were over half-way there and we knew people in SF so we ‘escaped’ from Tucson.”
San Francisco was “a breath of fresh air” to David and he found a job in the Mission district, in a cabinet shop doing cabinets, remodeling and furniture-making. “A whole new world opened up for me. I worked in the shop and also did restoration in Victorian homes. It was like a dream; a really wonderful experience for a few years.” By 1972, as a result of a friendship with another couple that had come out of David’s involvement with the development of an alternative school, the two couples and their children were invited by a wealthy rancher to move to the town of Covelo in Mendocino County to ‘help save the town.’ The rancher owned 27,000 acres there and was hoping to encourage the healthy growth of the town — senior housing, medical center, support services, nature trails, etc. One of the things he felt was necessary was a restaurant and he asked David and the group to move up there and build it.
“I was always a country kid who didn’t know it. Ellen and I now had a second child together; son Damon, born in 1971, and we sublet our house in the City and moved the family up to Mendocino County, camping on the land for the first three months. The group included me, the other husband Mike, who was the architect of the whole venture, one or two others, and local laborers, each of us getting the same pay - $5 an hour. I was barely up to the task and it took one-and-a-half years but it was done and proved to be a wonderful project; a life-changing experience. After it was done, I realized that I had really taken to country living and stayed, taking on various building projects and establishing Covelo’s first building trades apprentice program, primarily with Native Americans in mind.”
Following his divorce from Ellen in 1975, David returned to San Francisco and opened his own cabinet/remodeling business. “I don’t remember exactly why. It probably sounded like a good idea at the time. Covelo is very remote and pretty dangerous at times with all of the guns and knife-fights — a place where nine Indian tribes had been forced to live side-by-side.”
The two children stayed with their mother and moved to Comptche, so David would drive up and take them back to the City for a day before returning them back home. Meanwhile, David had met his future wife and his business was going quite well. He also taught a home repair course for elderly Asians in the city and the first graduating class from that course began ‘The Chinaman Handyman Service.’ In addition, he had a short-lived home repair program on KQED public television.
“In 1978, I was popped for remodeling without a general contractor’s license so I decided to leave town and moved to Willits in Mendocino where we bought a home and where there was a construction boom, and I would be much closer to my kids. I also took care of my license situation — I got five of them, in general contracting, painting and decorating, plumbing, flooring, and ceramic tile. I was never great at any of them but I was a good businessman and organizer — it’s in my blood! I also taught an evening class at Mendocino College on how to build your own home, wrote a do-it-yourself column for the Willits News, and worked as a loan processor for the Farmer’s Home Administration helping lower income people to become homeowners. I have never done anything I am not passionate about but have just done it for too long sometimes.”
By 1981 David had re-married, to Barbara, and another son, Leland, had arrived. “We moved to Ukiah where I got a ‘real’ job working for the local housing authority, setting up and running housing rehabilitation programs for lower income homeowners. There were some tough years in community housing and I was involved with getting funds through grants from the State Department of Housing and Community Development to help these people whose homes needed repairs that they could not afford. I wrote the contracts and specifications, processed the loans, and put the jobs out to bid with contractors all over the county, spreading the jobs among different contractors. It was the longest straight job I ever had and although there was lots of paperwork I still managed to often get out in the field too. Throughout much of the 90’s I served as a Board of Directors member and President of the Board of The Ford Street Project. Based in Ukiah, the Ford St. Project deals with drug and alcohol problems, counseling, chronic mental illness, and homeless issues among others. It operates an emergency shelter as well as offering long-term transitional housing for those people reestablishing themselves in the community during or after going through rehab programs.”
In 1996, David and Barbara were divorced and two years later the job ended when funding ran out. “I had no job, a family house in Ukiah, and my kids had all moved on to college and beyond — they all went to U.C. Santa Cruz. In 1998, when Leland, my youngest, left for college, I rented out the house and moved to the coast. I lived in East Caspar and then in Cleone, just north of Fort Bragg and found work as the construction coordinator for a manufactured home dealer. Once a week I found myself driving through Anderson Valley. I would often stop for a savory turnover at Glad’s and often went into the Boont Berry store in Boonville. One day I spotted a woman there. She returned my smile and the whole world seemed to stand still. A few months later I saw her again and the earth moved. A couple of years went by before I saw her again, working behind the counter at Boont Berry, She was very busy and I left, but went back a few weeks later and we talked. For me it had been instantaneous. I asked her out on a date and we met in Mendocino Village, had coffee, talked, and we really hit it off. That was 2002 and we have been going strong ever since.”
David had found the love of his life. He sold his sailboat and moved to Boonville. He retired from full-time work in 2003, at the age of 62, although he continued to do some consulting for the Contractors’ State License Board. He and Regine moved into the newly built house on Anderson Valley Way where they continue to live. Following years of back problems he finally had an operation that was a great success. “That was as a result of many years in construction and me being young, stupid, and believing I was immortal. Since that surgery in 2011 I have been much better.”
Since moving to the Valley, David has served for two terms on the board of KZYX local public radio as well as doing voluntary work there too. His interest in amateur (ham) radio continues to take up lots of his leisure time and he and Regine love to travel, visiting Costa Rica and much of Europe in recent years. “I also still like to play with wood and do various small projects around here. As for music, I’m slowly moving back into that — there is a lot of baggage. I do take out my flute once a week, polish it, and put it back. That’s a start. I am definitely going to start electric bass lessons soon too — I have committed to that.”
Other activities that David enjoys are dancing with Regine — “she make me look good”, watching good films, and doing T’ai chi. Two of his sons live in Santa Cruz, one a musician and writer, the other holds a position in a large vitamin company, while the youngest, Leland, is in Santa Monica where “he is a singer/songwriter, who makes a living repairing guitars for the rich and famous. I told him not to quit this day job.”
I asked David for a verbal image/memory of his father. “He was not physically abusive but I was afraid of him with his short fuse. I feel closer to him since he died and in retrospect I appreciate much of what he did.” And his mother? “She pictured herself as the ‘power behind the throne.’ She could be very warm and loving but just as often was the opposite. Many of my parents’ shortcomings I have come to understand, were as a result of their upbringing and then living through the Depression.”
What do you like about life in the Valley? “Regine. The sense of community. I have never felt as at home and with as much community support as I do here. It is a very special place.” And any negatives? “Not really, although I would like to get out to more diverse cultural events but it is a long trip to San Francisco. I miss the coast sometimes, too.”
I asked David for his thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation.
The Wineries? “They do a good job in providing jobs but some are questionable on providing housing for workers and they are not good on what they are taking out of the Valley’s earth with most of their product leaving the Valley. The water they take is not just in the summer either — many use it for frost protection.”
The AVA? “Well, I‘ll buy this issue! The paper is definitely well written. I do admire that. There seems to be some confusion between editorials and news reporting.”
KZYX radio? “The best and most important center of communication that we have in the county.”
To end the interview, as I do each week, I posed a few obvious and some not-so-obvious questions to David and asked him to reply as spontaneously as possible.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? “Regine.”
What annoys you; brings you down? “Laziness and messiness.”
Sound or noise do you love? “Music.”
Sound or noise do you hate? “Continually barking dogs.”
Your ‘last supper’? “Thanksgiving Dinner.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “Wilhelm Reich, one of the most radical figures in the history of psychiatry.”
If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “Family photographs; a selection of my rare books; my flute.”
Does anything scare you? “It frightens me to be incapacitated, paralyzed, unable to fend for myself.”
Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “Asia.”
Favorite film or one that has influenced you? “When I was about twelve, I saw ‘The Bicycle Thief’ at a movie theater in Queens. It was the first time I saw a really fine film and have been a film addict ever since.”
What was your favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? “It has always been amateur radio.”
Favorite word or phrase that you use? “Oh, shit!”
Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “A healer — healing by conscious intent.”
Profession or job you’d not like to do? “A lawyer.”
Age when you went on your first date? Where did you go? — “I took a girl called Bonnie to the movies when I was sixteen. It was ‘Pillow Talk’ I think — where both Doris Day and Rock Hudson were pretending to be straight.”
Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “In 2002 I had the opportunity to become a healer but decided not to. There is a definite thread of healing/teaching in my life.”
Moment or period of time you will never forget. “My trip to Cuba in 1996.”
Something that you are really proud of and why? “I like how I’ve lived my life. My sons have turned out very well and that please me greatly, but I cannot take any credit for that.”
Favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “That I am an attentive and able listener.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, if I believed in that kind of God, I’d like to hear him or her say, ‘What took you so long?’.”
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. The next interview will appear in the issue of the AVA to be published on the 4th Wednesday of the month — November 28th with Fred Buonanno, owner of Philo Ridge Winery.