THE REAL REDLEGS STORY
I couldn’t have been more wrong when I first arrived and thought the waterfront/Redlegs scene was a cult. It was not a cult, a commune, a “tribe,” it wasn’t even a deliberately organized or planned neighborhood, although it contained elements of all these things.
Members of real cults and organizations were sometimes confused or threatened by the waterfront because it had a perceptible solidarity with no dogma, rules or required form of behavior. The occasional Christian preacher looking for converts never got anywhere. Converts were made by ferreting out and playing on dissatisfaction and emptiness in peoples’ lives, and it frustrated the hell out of missionaries and crusaders when they were just ignored.
There was no stated unifying principle at work. The Redlegging ritual, while seeming to strangers like a precursor to some terrible initiation rite, was nothing more than you saw: getting a red stripe painted on your pant-legs.
It was John Stephens who named the Redlegs. Actually, he recognized the Redlegs. Stephens was an itinerant jazz musician and writer, an intellectual with a keen perception of society’s absurdities and a stinging wit. He was often referred to as the “Godfather of the Redlegs.” When someone referred to the drydocks gang as “a bunch of rednecks,” John replied, “They’re not rednecks, they’re Redlegs.” The name stuck, and the red stripes appeared. What John Stephens knew, and the Redlegs themselves did not, was that Redlegs were a historical phenomenon.
Pete Retondo originally came to Sausalito as journalist on assignment for San Francisco magazine, looking for “hippie vegetarian pirates” on the waterfront, called “Redlegs.” Retondo had done some research, and discovered references to “16th century Celtic mountain men with sunburned legs, known as Redshanks.”
The name was appropriate, given in allusion to the colour of the bare legs by exposure...
...The Yrische Lords of Scotland, commonly [called] Redshanks...
...The other part of Irland is called the wilde Irysh; and the Redshankes be among them...
...I will rather wed a most perfidious Redshanke...
...By thir actions we might rather judge them to be a generation of High-Land theevs and Redshanks.
...That Red-shank sullen, Once challenged for stealing beef... ...The mountaineers of Wales, and the Redshanks of Ireland... ...There might be knives again, these Redshanks are...grudgeful...
(Oxford English Dictionary, various sources)
There was a secret military society organized in Kansas in 1862 called Redlegs because of their red leggings, who numbered fifty to one hundred; their predatory activities rivaled depredations committed by Missouri guerrillas, and they served as federal scouts in border conflicts.
( L.W. Spring, “Kansas, The Prelude to the War for the Union.”)
And, a certain advance guard of the Bengal Lancers in India were called Redlegs.
But for the real Redlegs story we have to go back to the Celtic mountain men and Highland thieves. We can deduce from the Oxford quotes that the original Redshanks didn’t enjoy the best of reputations, so it’s not surprising how some of them wound up in the New World.
While European speculators and businessmen were setting up their enterprises in the Americas, their agents, hired thugs, were kidnapping boatloads of black Africans and taking them west across the Atlantic to be sold as slaves to work on the new plantations. Although it’s less generally known, the same thing was going on in the streets of Scotland and Ireland. Drunks, vagrants, criminals and other social undesirables were waking up with hangovers or large bumps on the head to find themselves chained in the bilge of a westbound ship. And many of these were Redshanks, or Redlegs. The only difference between them and the Africans was that the white slaves had been coerced by threat of death to sign an agreement, or indenture, binding them legally to their abduction.
These “indentured servants” didn’t take kindly to their condition, and often became troublemakers, joining forces with their black brothers-in-chains in open rebellion and escape. To this day, in the Caribbean Islands, there are still people known as Redlegs--black, white and all shades in between--social outcasts on both sides of the color fence, living in their own ghettoes.
JOHN STEPHENS, “GODFATHER” OF THE REDLEGS (In his own words)
On musical performance...
First, make your audience uncomfortable; then, relieve them of their discomfort.
Anybody can hold a crowd, it takes a genius to clear the room.
I will have no patience with rich assholes any more, and as a publisher I will fight to maintain my right to insult, deflate, ridicule and generally bug people who inflate petty selfish interest and gossip into issues that get in my face.
On the rich...
They are concerned with themselves for no reason other than to perpetuate the great idea at the root of their behavior: It is a terrible burden to have money.
Naturally you should never mention money around these people. Why? Because you might see how they could give you a bunch and not be in danger of running short. But it’s so awkward. I mean, the rule is that the poor just don’t understand these things.
When meeting a rich person at a party:
Ask if they’ve heard that the ink used in hundred dollar bills causes cancer.
Ask how much they pay for their friends. (Example: “How about your buddy Bob over there? A tight partner like that must be worth several grand just to keep his mouth shut, right?”)
Tell them the story of your friend who has decided to “break the toys” of the rich. His plan is to put plastic explosives in the cups on all the greens of the Augusta National Golf Club and blow up all eighteen holes at once during the Masters’ Golf Tournament.
Tell them about hunger, about dumping products to Third World people who die from their use, about unsafe cars, about slavery as practiced in the name of “having a job,” about unsafe drugs, about oppression of others because of sexual politics and preference, just about anything except poverty. They think Poverty is a fat Italian opera singer.
Three hundred years of selfish behavior dies hard, and may be forever with us.
When your people treat me bad
It hurts me
When my people treat me bad
It hurts me worse
When people are treated badly
They have a way of finding out who their brothers are
Look for the man who has been treated badly
His name was Jere Peacock, and he looked like a truly desperate man. One of the Truly Rank Motherfuckers, he scared the shit out of me at first, and was the “burly man” who had stumbled into the Texas party with Maggie. He sported a thick mane of salt-and-pepper hair, set off by black eyebrows and a thick black moustache. He always wore bluejeans, pants and jacket, and usually had a bottle of something potent. He seemed to me gruff, coarse, and potentially violent. The first time I talked with him was at the bum fire in the Gate Six parking lot. He told me of his dream, to ride across the American West on a horse, carrying a brace of six-shooters on his hips. He handed me his bottle of Jose Cuervo and insisted I drink with him. I didn't drink much then, but it wasn’t hard to see there was no way out of this one. The tequila loosened me up, and my fears began to dissolve. He said he admired the fact that I could play the guitar. He had always wanted to learn, and asked me how I had mustered the discipline to become a reasonably good player. Obsession, I replied, and the perhaps neurotic need for recognition. I told him I always hid behind the guitar for fear of facing the world without it. Well, that did it. He bolted up and embraced me like a long-lost brother and shouted, “My Paranoid Partner! Somebody who understands...”
Peacock and I became great friends, and I laughed at myself for fearing him. He was nothing more than a gentle bear, a tortured soul searching for something to sink his teeth into, a romantic on a quest for answers and adventure. I learned he had published a novel in the 50’s, a Korean war story called “Valhalla.” The book was to be the first in a trilogy meant to end all war on earth forever, but the enormity of the project overwhelmed him and drove him to drink, drugs and dreams of disappearing into the wilderness.
He was still receiving royalty checks from his publisher once in a while and when he did it meant Party Time. Whatever you wanted you got. He preferred small gatherings and chose his guests carefully. His favorite song was “Hey Joe,"” the one about the guy who shoots his “old lady” in a fit of jealous passion. One night he showed up with a brand new pair of Colt 45’s, two bottles of port wine and a jar of Nembutals. We sang “Hey Joe” for an hour or two, an then went outside and spent another hour emptying the guns at the moon.
Peacock began to go away more and more frequently. Nobody knew where he went, or when or if he would return. He seemed unhappy, despondent. He would send typed letters to waterfront from locations far and wide. The last one was called “The Wretched Mess” and was a depressing account of his continuing, degenerating sadness and disappointment with humanity in general. Shortly thereafter we got word that Peacock shot himself in the head with one of the 45’s, in his mother’s Seattle apartment.
Real name, Greg Myers from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Tried once to get a job at the Gibson guitar company and was turned down because he had no high school diploma, but he could repair a typewriter blindfolded, or carve a gracefully curved boat plank with ease. The name “Dredge” came from his living on an abandoned harbor dredge, a barge equipped with a “clamshell” scoop device for digging boat channels in shallow water.
Dredge had an almost eerily atavistic sense of his identity as a Redleg. When Pete Retondo asked him about life at the drydocks, he said, “It’s pretty loose out on the water, something like the old frontier times,” as if he knew from personal experience.
Like Peacock, Dredge’s outwardly gruff and intimidating appearance was a thin disguise used to protect a vulnerable and world-weary soul. Heroin got the best of him in Sausalito. He went north to Oregon to clean up, succeeded, married a woman named Joy and moved to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. Not long after the birth of his daughter, named Maggie after Maggie Catfish, Dredge died of a wound from his own gun. The details and exact circumstances are still unknown.
Poetry by Dredge
This here story in fact is true
Happened like this - may happen to you
We was high as the sky
Last Fourth a July
Getten real tore on ol’ Redeye
On our Island in Frisco Bay
Just havin’ a ball for Independence Day
Sure fire strate shootin sons a liberty
Goddamn glad just to be free
Twas just my waterrat pals, my dog an me
When a unfriendly boat came inta site
Twas that little punk cop who’s naturally uptite
Looken so hard ta give us the frite
Now he flashed his gun an spoke with a sneer
Said “I’m the law an yer finished here”
Tough and bad behind that badge a tin
Startin shoven an’ came right in
What a fool shoulda seen’m freak
Lost his balls to a yella streak
For when he saw our guns his knees went weak
Sat right down had no color in his cheek
He couldn’t stand an he couldn’t speak
We sure let him know, made him see
Way out here we live to be free
An he just ain’t GOT authority
If only he could he woulda run
Lookin’ down the barrel of a free man’s gun
Weren’t his idea of havin’ fun
This is our islan’ yella belly man
Get it together, find where ya stand cuz
Grudge fightin’s done here man to man
He went all limp an lost his fite an just stayed like that
Till he drifted clean outa site
Tonite the sea is calm as I sail silently
Tward the open sea
A seagull cries a mighty boast
An tells the nite he’s feelen life
A flickeren splash
Fish feeds fish
Blue nite an black water swallow up the sounds
A lite fog becomes a misty shade to make
The moon a soft blue glow
Now again the whirling living dream
Roaming the earth on this living sea
Sailing where I please
I am the ancient seaman an know the
Boatmans skill an’ grace of a thousand years
On the sea the wind is up to fill
The sails, the swells roll high
And once again my restless soul is free
THE DESPERATE SCUFFLE
The waterfront was new and frightening, but I began to learn nautical skills and get my sea-legs. Joe and Maggie taught me sailing on the Hwang Ho and Yipes Stripes. I learned to tie a bowline by untying the knot step by step and seeing how it worked. This process was a revelation to me. Playing the guitar and cooking were the only practical things I’d ever really paid attention to, and until now I hadn’t much considered learning anything else.
One aspect of waterfront life familiar to me was the Desperate Scuffle -- living from moment to moment, hustling for daily survival. Nobody had any money, or if they did, kept it a secret. After a while, Joey liked to bitch about the “closet rich people” at Gate Six, getting their kicks from slumming it on the waterfront.
The easiest way to get a good meal together was to have a party. Somehow, money for food, beer and wine always appeared if music was happening. Jesse “Crocodile” Bolton was a great chef and hustler. Once the decision was made to have a party, it only took him a few hours to put together a feast for a hundred or more people.
The next big party happened for no particular reason, except that Jesse had managed to hustle enough money and food stamps to feed a huge crowd, and everyone was ready to cut loose. We set the band up on the Access Barge, a sunken hulk whose deck was still above the high water line. Jesse produced a typical feast of chicken teriyaki, barbecued ribs, various salads, plenty of beer and wine.
To this day I can’t figure how the word got out so quickly, or where all the people came from. Everyone on the waterfront was there. The only holdout was Greg Baker, who stayed on the Oakland, working on his mast, muttering curses and casting murderous glances at the partygoers.
My resistance to being there had faded, and the music was coming alive. My first impression at the Fairy Factory had been right. I was the catalyst in an already volatile situation, and the scene was beginning to explode. The notes rang out from the guitars like an electric Anvil Chorus. People danced and swayed as if in a religious trance. All my years as a musician had been spent getting ready for this.
“Bells,” commented Ray Speck later, “It sounds like giant bells.”
A new term entered the band’s vocabulary: Stage Creep.
Either we were making it look easy or we sounded too sloppy to be a real band, because every jerk with a harmonica, flute, or anything else capable of making noise felt compelled to jump on the stage with us and start “jamming.”
Our first outstanding stage creep was the Sun King, an acid casualty from New York who had heard the Beatles song of the same name and decided he was not only Sun King, but the second coming of Christ. Rumor was he had drunk a chocolate milkshake with eighty hits of LSD in it, and “never came back.” Modesty prevented him from insisting on being called Jesus, but he had a large sign in the window of his Heliport studio that said, “THE CHRIST.” He had also published a book of pseudo-cosmic gibberish in the vanity press called, “One Way to the Light.”
He had a houseboat at Gate Six, and on sunny days he paraded around naked on his roof, raising his arms in the air, his face frozen in a brittle, metallic grin and shouting, “I’m HAPPY! I’m The SUN KING and I’m HAPPY! OH GOD, I’M HAPPY.”
Sun King sang in a terribly slow and irritating vibrato that sounded like Johnny Mathis’ worst nightmare. He was so incommunicably insane and insistent, we let him sing a song:
Come` on baby, stick out your can,
I’m workin’ Sunday, Part-time Garbage Man.
Two other classic stage creeps made their debuts that day: Angel and The Worm. Angel was a homeless Indian who had recently returned from a futile attempt to retake Alcatraz. He lived on barbiturates and cheap red wine, and his face was horribly disfigured with chronic acne. He played the drums terribly, but we were on a break and no one had the heart to stop him, at least for a while. While Angel beat on the drums, a small swarthy man had picked up the bass, and was writhing around so that Maggie doubled over with laughter and shouted, “A worm, he looks just like a worm!”
When it was time for us to play again, we asked them to get off the stage. Angel was polite, almost apologetic, but the Worm didn’t want to stop.
“Take a walk, Worm,” I said, picking up my guitar.
“Hey, don’t call me that,” he replied in all sincerity. “My name’s Rabbit.”
We were playing in the Ark one afternoon when an earnest-looking hippie came with an electric Indian sitar, an amplifier and his girlfriend. As our band played, this guy started setting up his equipment as if he were a member of the group arriving late. Joe talked to him politely, telling him to remove the stuff. The hippie walked offstage and talked to his girlfriend, who was directing him back to the stage. She seemed to be saying, “You’re not going to let them push you around, are you?” Indignantly he strode back to the stage, picked up his instrument and tuned it as if the band weren’t playing at all.
“I don’t know what you think is going on here,” Joe said to him over the noise, “But this isn’t a jam session. If we want you to play, we’ll invite you.” Oblivious, the hippie continued tuning, louder now. Joe’s politeness faded. He unplugged the hippie’s amplifier. The girlfriend ran up to Joe and screamed at him. To settle the issue, Joe picked the amp, smashed it repeatedly to the floor, and threw the pieces out the window. The audience applauded and yelled their approval.
Without saying a word, the hippie packed up his sitar while his girlfriend screeched at Joe, and then him. The band played on, with no more trouble from stage creeps that day.
Some people who came to live on the houseboats took to the water, and some didn’t. For many, the waterfront meant “low-income” housing, a colorful atmosphere or refuge from the law. For others, it was a gateway to real nautical adventure or livelihood. Joey the drummer didn’t take to the water; he was there strictly for the music and the permissive atmosphere. Maggie and Kim already had their own sailboats, and Joe lived on his Chinese junk. The ability to hoist your sails and move your home anywhere there was water was an intoxicating freedom which made even the wild life of the houseboat scene seem mundane.
The Hot Set-up hadn’t been the only sunken wreck at Whitey’s. Just under the Oakland’s bow, its tilted mast almost touching the barge’s deck, was a sailboat. It was a little sloop, eighteen feet long, lying over on its keel and filling up with water twice a day with the tides. Painted on the stern were the words “Frank Fong Boat.” I learned that it belonged, not surprisingly, to a man named Frank Fong, a Chinatown chef who came to Sausalito once every two or three months, stared at the little craft for a few minutes, and went back to San Francisco. For two months I too stared at the boat, every day, and thought about salvaging it. In a strange way it began to seem as if the boat were mine and just waiting for me to get off my ass and fix it up. And then one day it wasn’t there.
By this time, mobility on the water was becoming an obsession. With the little sailboat gone, I set out to get a good rowboat. Gibbons had sold me a dinghy, but it was a boxy, awkward thing, hell to row against the wind. I found a cheap, leaky plywood dory, patched it up with heavy duty marine epoxy and painted it green with white rubrails. It was sleek, light and fast, and its amidships rowing seat, or thwart, was set very low to compensate for its light construction. I named the dory Deep Thwart.
The Deep Thwart became my chief means of transportation. I could visit anyone on the waterfront, tie up at Gate Three and shop for groceries at the Big G, fill the propane tanks at the fuel dock, all with this little skiff. Sometimes I would row for the fun of it, just to be out on the water. It was on one of these aimless trips that I saw the Frank Fong Boat again.
There it was, under sail, rounding the Clipper breakwater into the Gate Five anchorage. Sitting at the tiller was David Buttry, who lived anchored out in a small houseboat full of odd musical instruments and tiny electrical gadgets. Buttry was one of the first to run an underwater power line from an anchored-out boat to shore.
Frank Fong had given up on the boat and turned it over to Buttry, who had bailed it out at low tide and jury-rigged a sail. It didn’t even leak. I brought the Deep Thwart alongside the Frank Fong boat and jumped aboard. With the skiff trailing behind, we talked about boats and sailing. As it turned out, Buttry had salvaged the boat not out of a love for sailing, but curiosity about how things work in general. He didn’t really want to take on the Frank Fong boat as a project. When I told him about my interest in it, he agreed to turn it over to me “temporarily,” under the condition that he would still have the option to use it. I accepted this condition readily and Buttry delivered the boat to me the next day. He seemed glad to get rid of it.
I went to work right away, studying the sail rig and scrounging blocks and fittings to fix it up with. Following the instructions in Hervey Garrett Smith’s “Marlinspike Seamanship,” I made a boatswain’s chair and hauled myself to the top of the mast to inspect and improve the rigging. Once the sail rig was tuned up, I took my first solo sailing trip to Schoonmaker Beach to scrape and paint the bottom.
Landing a boat on the beach for a bottom job is easy. You just run it aground and wait for the tide to go out. After the bottom was painted and the tide came back in, it was time for the real test. I would now have to return to Gate Six, which meant tacking against the prevailing westerly wind into a narrow channel and landing the boat without any assistance. Things went fine until it was time to land at the Whitey’s Marina dock. Not surprisingly, a number of people were lined up on the Oakland deck to observe my first try at negotiating the channel. Nearing Whitey’s and seeing the onlookers, I had an attack of self-consciousness but determined to make a good showing. With Captain Dredge’s advice that “no fast landing is a good landing” in mind, I loosened the mainsheet and brought the bow into the wind, hoping to coast easily up to the dock so I could step smoothly off the boat and secure the bow line. At the last second a gust of wind caught the jib, blowing the bow away from the target and I stepped smoothly, bow line in hand, into the water. The crowd on the Oakland let out a cheer of approval. Having unwittingly engineered my own sailor’s initiation rite, I was baptized.
THE BIG “G” MARKET
The unique insanity of the waterfront accompanied its residents wherever they went. The Big “G” supermarket near Gate Three was a common meeting place. It wasn't unusual to see strange-looking people with red stripes painted down their legs loitering outside the store with bottles of Green Death in their hands, discussing things totally alien or terrifying to the average shopper. Their behavior was often somewhat unorthodox as well.
There was a good deal of shoplifting at the “G.” For many it became a game, a challenge, and a form of entertainment. Peacock’s regular meal consisted of two barbecued chickens and a quart of Cuervo Gold tequila. He would steal the items, then drink and dine in the vacant lot right next to the store, which came to be known as Peacock Park.
Jack the Fluke developed a routine that served him well. He would buy a bottle of white port, drink most of it right outside the store, then smash the bottle on the sidewalk and run back into the market, complaining that he had dropped it, as if the store personnel were somehow to blame. They went for it every time. He always got a new bottle.
Inflation was measured on the “Lungs and Livers” scale. The Big “G” price of Camels and a quart of Green Death was the minimum survival money for the Truly Rank Motherfuckers and other hard core types. Eddie Crash was the first to report that it had gone over a dollar sometime in 1973.
My favorite thing about the Big “G” was the sign in the beer section. It was there to discourage customers from breaking up six-packs:
PLEASE GET LOOSE CANS OF BEER
FROM THE LIQUOR DEPARTMENT
Some local wit had altered it to say:
PLEASE! GET LOOSE! with CANS OF BEER
FROM THE LIQUOR DEPARTMENT
The Big “G” was where I first encountered dumpster diving. While some of the bolder waterfront people were walking out of the store with steaks stuffed into their pants, many more were raiding the dumpster in back, and on a regular basis. It was shocking how much perfectly good food was thrown out daily, and how well one could eat by “shopping” selectively at the rear of the store, especially if you had no image to protect. People may have been starving in India, but they were also starving in America while supermarkets discarded untold tons of edible food daily. Marin was one of the wealthiest counties in the United States, and full of individuals and businesses with images to protect. Consequently, the quality of food in the dumpsters was unusually high. You couldn’t find a ripe tomato in the store--they were all out in the dumpster.
The Goodwill box in the Big “G” parking lot was a rich source of clothing, shoes, and even things like radios or typewriters. Ironically, many waterfront people couldn’t even afford to buy second-hand clothing, so they bypassed the middleman and took the discards of the rich directly from the source. Sometimes the box was overflowing and surrounded by bags and boxes of last year’s fashions and goods of all sorts. Because of the “thievery” going on, Goodwill replaced the box with a guarded container and eventually abandoned the operation at the Big “G” altogether.
The bounty of the supermarket dumpster got me thinking. What else was being thrown away in “upscale” Marin county? What did I need, besides food? Marine supplies. I discovered the Sausalito Yacht Harbor dumpsters, and couldn’t believe what was there. The time to look was Monday morning, after the weekend yachtsmen had gone back to wherever they carried on their “real” lives. Apparently these people thought that an empty boat was a good boat, because every Monday morning the garbage full of what seemed like a veritable inventory of supplies. It wasn’t at all unusual to find six-packs of beer and soda with one can missing, full bottles of champagne, or untouched canned or other packaged foods, but the real bonus was the stuff like paint and hardware. Sixty-dollar cans of super-expensive deck and copper bottom paint with one inch gone, turpentine, epoxy, unused tubes of caulking compounds, brand-new paint brushes, screwdrivers, scrapers and other tools, cleats, running blocks, all chucked out for the sake of a tidy-looking yacht. For years I kept up to four wooden boats painted and maintained with materials from the Sausalito Yacht Harbor dumpsters.
The Gate Six Parking Lot
If we at the waterfront were considered fringe-dwellers by “normal” society, how would the straight world have perceived the Gate Six parking lot? This was our fringe, populated by the truly down-and-out, the genuinely insane, the flat-out weird.
There were a lot of drugs around in those days. If you knew who to see, you could get pot, hash, acid, speed, heroin, PCP, cocaine, opium, MDA, mescaline, psilocybin, depending on the season. Failing these, there was always booze or Nyquil. But for pure creativity when it came to getting high, it was hard to beat the Bee Junkie.
He looked like a medieval phantom, with his hooded coat (the hood always up), scraggly beard and inch-long fingernails. His home was a tiny cargo trailer by the Ark, maybe 4 x 5 x 3, just big enough to crawl into and sleep in a fetal position. This apparition never spoke to anyone, except to ask for cigarettes. “Can you spare a smoke?” “Do you have an extra cigarette?” This seemed to be his only way to communicate with his fellow humans.
But communicating with other people was not a priority with this guy. His intimacy was with bees, and his main activity was catching them and injecting the venom from the stingers. He was able to grab a bee, and with perfect timing jab the stinging mechanism into his vein just as if it were a hypodermic syringe. Why this didn’t kill him or cause severe discomfort, no one ever knew, but everyone assumed it was related to his odd behavior...
[Now, twenty-five years later, I’m watching TV news in Seattle and on comes a bit about people using bee-stings to cure arthritis or something. Some people are just way ahead of their time.
Eddie “Spam” was a bum who, like so many other drifters, vagrants, vagabonds and other oddballs and characters, just showed up in the Gate Six parking lot. This guy looked like a Hollywood caricature of a tramp with his dirty, rumpled fedora, long overcoat, and shoes with the soles flopping around like huge tongues. His long white hair and scraggly beard suggested a sourdough forty-niner or a burnt-out Santa Claus, but his rheumy, bloodshot eyes said only, drunk.
It was Spider who gave Eddie the name “Spam.” Spider, a part-time Grateful Dead groupie, had rather strange and limited taste in food. Whenever he’d come through the parking with a grocery bag, it contained Sara Lee cheesecake, and bacon or Spam. It became a ritual. “What’s in the bag, Spider?” “Cheesecake and Spam,” or, “Bacon and cheesecake.” That’s what he ate.
Eddie the tramp, naturally, was broke. He was always bumming money for a drink. He usually ate out of dumpsters, but booze was more important. Once in a while someone would get a bottle of whiskey or a six-pack and drink it with Eddie. Thus it came out that he had been an accountant, had held a good job for a long time. “I used to have money but I drink’d it all up,” he would say.
One night at the bum fire, Eddie was in good spirits, as a few people had given him drinks. Spider was there, and I asked if he really ate nothing but bacon, cheesecake and Spam. Sensing an opportunity to create an aura of mystery around himself, he said, “Well, I like those things.” He wasn’t going to commit himself,
“I mean, do you eat them by themselves, or do you combine them? Bacon or Spam and then cheesecake for dessert, or bacon and Spam, and cheesecake later?”
“Actually,” he replied, “Bacon and cheesecake go quite well together.”
“What about Spam and cheesecake?”
At this point, Eddie the tramp couldn’t contain himself any longer. He limped up to the fire next to Spider and repeated, “Spam and cheesecake!”
“Well, what about bacon and cheesecake?” retorted Spider.
“You could have a sandwich,” I offered, “A slice of Spam between two pieces of cheesecake.”
Eddie countered, “Or cheesecake between slices of bacon.”
Spider: “Cheesecake with Spam and bacon.”
Eddie: “Spam with cheesecake and bacon.”
Spider: “Bacon with cheesecake and Spam.”
Eddie: “Cheesecake and bacon, bacon and Spam, Spam and cheesecake. Bacon and cheesecake with Spam, Spam and bacon with cheesecake. How ‘bout some Spam and cheesecake with bacon and Spam, and cheesecake!”
“Sounds good to me,” said Spider.
From that night on, Eddie the tramp was called Eddie Spam.
THE BAIT SHOP
Rotten Richie was a mean old prick, and even he probably would have told you so. What could anyone expect from a retired San Quentin prison guard? He ran the bait shop, Sausalito Boat and Tackle, by the intersection of Bridgeway and Highway 101, just across the Gate 6 parking lot from the Charles Van Damme. The largest and most prominent wall display in the place was a poster, a bright green, nasty, hairy cartoon ogre with a spiked club, and the caption read,
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil. Because I am the meanest son- of-a-bitch in the Valley.”
Richie had a scowl for everybody. He wasn’t prejudiced, he hated everyone equally.
You could buy live or frozen fish bait, rods and reels and tackle of all kinds, boat and marine supplies: chains, anchors, etc., and guns. Rifles, shotguns and at the back counter, handguns. Lots of them.
Oh yes, did I mention the bar? That’s right, you could sit down and drink a beer at the Bait Shop. Or two, or five, or ten, and then get a six-pack to go. As one waterfront old-timer observed, Rotten Richie’s bait shop was the only place he knew of where you could sit and get stinking drunk, and then buy a gun.
UP THE RIVER
On one of Joe’s whims we took a sailing trip to the San Joaquin River delta. A little fleet was outfitted with crews and supplies--the Hwang Ho as pilot boat with Joe, Joey and Kim aboard; the Loafer, the Redlegs’ tugboat with Captain Dredge, Jesse Crocodile and Toothless Tom; and Yanko Varda’s Cythera, with Maggie, Cici, Saul Rouda with his movie camera, and me. The captain of the Cythera was Roger Cowan, who had been Varda’s skipper and sort of inherited the boat when the artist died. Roger had the look of the storybook pirate, right down the patch he sometimes wore over his glass eye.
It was early spring. The westerlies were roaring, and all the way to Sacramento it was straight downwind. Dredge rigged the Loafer with a Navy Surplus lifeboat lugsail. We sailed out of Richardson’s Bay on a broad reach and caught the incoming tide through Raccoon Strait.
The Cythera sailed like a juggernaut. She was a steel lifeboat ballasted with tons of cement, had a deep keel welded on. The boat was also a kinetic Varda art piece. The hull was light blue-green with multi-colored patterns, and she carried a lateen (Arabic triangular) foresail, a Chinese junk-type mainsail with a sun-god face painted on it, and a bright red gaff mizzen. Before long we were into San Pablo Bay, leaving the mountains of Marin County behind for the flatter, oiltank-studded shores of Contra Costa.
Our first anchorage was in Carquinez Strait, near the town of Martinez, where we climbed the yacht club fence and helped ourselves to showers.
We entered Suisun Bay and cruised by the Mothball Fleet, hundreds of World War II vessels of every imaginable type rafted together in neat military rows. Despite the temptation, we stuck with the previous night's decision not to try at least a token “salvage” job, due to the height of the warships’ decks and the possible consequences of getting caught ripping off the U.S. Navy.
The San Joaquin River meets Suisun Bay at the dreary, lifeless town of Pittsburgh. The water here turns brackish, and a Mississippi-ish coffee-brown. In the sheltered water of the delta, we encountered the local boat population. They were mostly sportfishermen and weekend cruisers, and had never seen boats like ours. At Waldo Point, it was easy to forget that the boating world was mostly white plastic factory-made vessels piloted by “weekend warriors,” and to these people it must have looked like the circus was coming to town.
In a sense, the circus was coming to town. As we sailed further up the river we began to see more boats, all decorated, with crews all smiling and waving. The vessels were festooned with flowers, banners, crepe paper, balloons, and anything else colorful or unusual the owners could find. One boat carried a 10-foot Mickey Mouse balloon. We had sailed smack into the yacht season Opening Day parade, and our unorthodox boats and gypsy appearance were taken as fanciful get-ups for the event.
Our destination was Bethel Island, which turned out to be the rallying spot for the parade boats. The social center of the area was the Sugar Barge, a retired molasses scow from the California & Hawaiian refinery in Crockett. It had been built up to look like a classic paddle wheeler and turned into a nightclub.
People lined the shore, cheering and waving as we neared the Sugar Barge. We tied up to the guest dock outside the restaurant. For the rest of the day we entertained curious locals and boat people from all over the delta, showing them around the boats and talking about life at Waldo Point.
The first sour note was a visit from the local boat cop. He boarded the Hwang Ho and demanded to see a registration certificate.
“I’m in the process of getting this boat documented,” said Tate. Federal documentation is for life, and it’s free. The catch is that the government can commandeer your boat in wartime. “You can't document a boat unless it displaces five tons,” said the cop, “And you know this boat doesn’t come close.”
“Like I said,” replied Joe, “I’m in the process of getting documentation. The exact displacement tonnage hasn’t been correctly determined.” The cop relented.
By nighttime the novelty of our colorful boats and characters had begun to wear off at the Sugar Barge, but we hadn’t broken out the guitars yet. Like any unusual strangers in mainstream culture, we were welcome as long as we kept them entertained but not threatened. This was a fine line, and in the end the Redlegs always managed to not merely step over it, but trample it brutally and gleefully in the process.
It went well at first. We used acoustic guitars so there could be no noise complaint. The favorite song in the Sugar Barge was “Proud Mary,” with its reference to riverboat life. This, repeated to death, and other familiar songs kept the drinks and cash tips flowing from the happy locals. It seemed we had conquered the place. Jesse Crocodile sensed this and went into action.
While the house cook sat at the bar drinking, Jesse took over the kitchen and began cooking for the whole crowd. When he emerged with the first plates of steak and french fries the owner, who was tending bar, went crazy.
“What the hell do you think you're DOING!” he yelled.
“Just making some dinner,” replied Jesse, “We haven’t eaten all day. Here. How about a nice steak?”
“Who the hell do you think you ARE! What do you think this IS?”
“I thought it was a restaurant,” deadpanned Jesse.
“OUT! All of you. Get out of my bar. And I want your boats gone in the morning, or I’ll call the police.”
That was that.
We sailed around the sloughs for a few days, but the good part of the trip was over. Food and money were running out and the voyage back to Sausalito would be against the weather all the way. When some Sausalito people showed up by car with news from home, Maggie and I jumped ship and took the easy way back, not because of the upcoming band gig at San Francisco State College, but because the Hot Set-Up had sunk.
Back at Gate 6 I saw the Hot Set-Up’s roof sticking out of the water next to the subchaser. After the tide went out I salvaged a few things but most of the stuff was ruined. The place reeked of low tide and garlic powder. I looked for the ten-dollar bill I’d stashed on a shelf before the river trip, but of course it was gone. I was standing in the sunken, pathetic Hot Set-up when Janice Speck appeared on the subchaser and asked if I’d left ten dollars. She’d seen it floating near the boat.
Joey had recently bought a 36 ft. lifeboat hull, and he offered it as a temporary place to stay. The Cruncher had no structure on it except a floor, but it floated and that was half the battle won. We borrowed a tent, set it up on the floor and moved in.
We tied the Cruncher’s bow to a cleat on the foredeck of the Oakland, and the stern to the subchaser. On most tides, access was easy from the Oakland. I became adept at walking the narrow, slippery gunwale of the steel lifeboat and was getting to be pretty proud of myself for really getting my sea legs. It got so I could almost do it without looking. Almost. One morning, stepping off the Oakland onto the Cruncher thinking how agile and cool I was, I slipped and fell face first onto the plywood floor, a drop of about ten feet including my height. There was a loud and painful crunch. There before my eyes were the bottom halves of my two big, white, distinctive buck teeth. My two front teeth. One vanity had killed another.