My Greyhound Bus ride from Milwaukee to Madison cost one dollar and ninety cents. The date, according to my old journal, was March 24, 1969. Madison was the first leg of my journey to California. I had about a hundred bucks in my wallet and that was it. No bank account, nothing of value, not even my shitty old canvas back pack I toted all over Europe the summer before was worth much.
My reason for leaving Milwaukee was not a vacation, but an escape. I hated the cold winters ever since I froze my nose one night tobagganing in below-zero weather at Smith Park when I was in high school. I recall going down this large slide several times with 3 or 4 girls sitting behind me. I sat in front, I guess, because I’m a guy, and none of them wanted to freeze their faces off on the descent.
After the last time one of the girls pointed at me and said, “Your nose is pure white!” I took off my mitten and touched my nose but didn’t feel anything. It was numb. I ran into the lodge men’s room and looked in the mirror. It was white! I splashed warm water on it until it turned red and started to throb with a burning pain.
A short time later a wart grew on my nose. I’m not saying frostbite was the cause, just that my nose has always been a pain, from hay fever to asthma, sinusitis to rhinitis, and warts! The medicine I had made the wart turn white. It was so embarrassing going to school with a white booger on my nose. As it turned out, the wart came off in a few weeks, but still, once you see someone with a white booger on their nose, that memory will stay with you so that every time you see that person you see that booger on their nose. I ain’t kidding!
But that’s not all. It soon started growing back, so I went to a doctor who burned it off. I still remember the awful smell of burning flesh. The result being my nose was a tad smaller and never grew any bigger. You know how older people’s noses and ears grow bigger with age? My nose never got any bigger than when I was 16-years old. I’ll do the math: 54 years! Yep, a 70-year-old body with a 16-year-old nose.
When I arrived in Madison I called an old fraternity brother, Steve Dilly, who let me crash at his pad before taking off the next day. But the next day was still too cold to hitchhike, so I hung out in the student union, located on the shore of Lake Mendota, a great spot for socializing, and right next to the Rathskeller, a German pub on campus! That’s right, Madison was the first public University to serve beer on campus, and the drinking age was 18. You can understand why I hung around for a few days.
The second day I ran into Gene Messina, an old high school scholar-athlete friend who led our cross country team to a City Championship. He joined me and bought a few beers, but Gene was on a bummer, partly because his wife divorced him last year, but mostly because the draft was hanging over him since he was recently reclassified 1-A.
It didn’t help when I told him I was drafted just a few weeks after I dropped a class, leaving me with eleven credits—just one shy of keeping my Student Deferment. I told him about the 7 am physical and how I got my 1-Y with a letter from my allergist, but he didn’t have asthma and hay fever or anything wrong with him. Speaking of allergies, that’s the other reason I wanted to get out of Wisconsin. Every spring the ragweed and golden rod and other pollens had me sneezing and blowing my nose until it turned red and sore. I’d had enough of that, too!
As much as I liked hanging out, talking to old friends, and drinking beer on campus, I really wanted to head west, and with the relatively cheap bus fair, it was worth not having to stand in the cold for who knows how long. So I bought a ticket to Iowa City. Why Iowa City? Well, it’s just off Highway 80, my main route west, and that’s where Iowa State University is located. I figured that the best place to crash if you don’t know anyone is in a college dormitory lounge.
That evening on the Iowa State campus I found a dorm, but the entry door was locked, so I waited until a student resident came and I followed him in. He turned and looked at me like who are you? So I told him I’m meeting Bob in the lobby, which satisfied him and he went to his room. Of course I didn’t know a Bob, but I figured there must be at least one Bob in the dorm. There was no one over by the lounge area so I laid down behind a couch and fell asleep.
The next morning I stuck out my thumb and got picked up by Gary in a Jeep going to Denver. The bad news was his heater was broken and the cloth top was flapping right by my ear, with cold wind blowing on my face. And more bad news: The western sky was grey and once we got out of Iowa we still had the length of Nebraska to drive through, over 500 miles before even entering Colorado and heading up to even colder mile-high Denver.
We took turns driving, only stopping for gas and snacks. When we stopped in Ogallala, Nebraska, the headline on the Ogallala Tribune Herald read, “Ike’s Dead.” We talked a bit about our memory of growing up in the fifties, before finally stopping for a real meal in Brush, Colorado called The Skylark Restaurant, which had a woodcut of the Mona Lisa hanging in the lobby. The tag under it read, “$20 -- Call Wayne at 845-2945.” Sure enough, and Gary agreed, her eyes followed us across the room. I picked up the Denver Post and the headline warned, “Ike’s Condition Worsens,” prompting Gary to ask, “What’s worse than death?” To which I quipped, “Driving through Nebraska in a Jeep with no heater.”
When we got to his place in Denver, I was reminded by his roommate that I wasn’t even half-way to Frisco—I had forgotten about Utah. He suggested I take a Student Standby flight, so the next day Gary took me to the Denver Airport and I bought a Western Airlines ticket to San Francisco, which according to my old journal, cost $33.60.
I remember coming into the Bay Area on a clear afternoon, seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and then identifying Alcatraz sitting in the middle of San Francisco Bay. If someone would have told me I’d be sailing my own boat all around that Bay, past Alcatraz to San Francisco, Berkeley, under the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond in the next few years I would have said that’s crazy, but it happened.
I had two addresses, one was a friend’s brother in San Francisco’s Mission District, and the other an old high school acquaintance, Bill Becker, who I’d run into recently at a favorite bar in Milwaukee called Hooligans. Bill had been visiting family, but was returning to California the next day. He told me to visit him at Waldo Point if I came out. He said it’s just north of Sausalito, which is just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. That really encouraged me.
I went to Jimmy Mallon’s address in the Mission first. He was surprised to see me, of course, since he didn’t know I was coming and we hardly knew each other back in Milwaukee, but was nice enough to let me stay in his warehouse until I “found my own pad.” The warehouse was an upstairs room with a shower, toilet, FM radio, and a mattress on the floor with two dirty blankets, but for me right then it was perfect. There was also a narrow workbench along the wall with a hot plate, plus a few beakers, and what looked like a Bunsen burner, sort of a makeshift chemistry lab. My guess was he was making LSD, and maybe other drug combinations, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out for sure, although he did ask one favor of me before I left for Waldo Point.
He said he’d give me $20 if I would deliver a package to a house in Oakland. He gave me the name and address, a Kleenex-sized box, wrapped snuggly, and the keys to his ’59 Black Cadillac. I was on my way. My directions were to go over the Oakland Bay Bridge and hang a right. I didn’t know what was in the box, but I had an idea, and somehow I found the place, parked, and rapped on the door. A black dude opened with a big smile, invited me in and introduced me to a few friends. When I left and went back to the car I noticed another afro guy sitting shotgun. I had forgotten to lock the doors, but he smiled and treated me like we were old friends. When I asked him if he needed a ride somewhere he said, “No man, I was just digging your car,” and got out and said, “Drive safely.”
The next day was Sunday and I heard there would be a Be-In at Golden Gate Park, so I had to check it out. Speedway Meadows was packed with long-hairs, which made me a bit embarrassed because my hair was short. When I said goodbye to my Mom before leaving Milwaukee she offered me $20 if I would let her cut my hair. What a deal. The other thing I noticed and mentioned in my journal was that most of these “chicks were braless,” not a style very popular in Milwaukee, but definitely had its appeal. After all, what’s a better symbol of freedom for women, one that really gets a man’s attention, than braless bouncing breasts?
The first band to play was the Shag, which just happened to be a group from Milwaukee that I didn’t like. At one point the crowd separated magically as Hell’s Angels on their Harley’s rode single-file right down the middle of the grassy field. At some point I had had enough and decided to hitchhike or walk if I had to, over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and find Waldo Point. Becker said he lived behind an old paddle-wheeler called the Charles Van Damm.
The first person I saw behind the paddle-wheeler was a lanky, long-haired blond whose nickname, I would soon learn, was Bitchy Margaret, Bill’s old lady. I asked her if she knew a Bill Becker, and she looked at me somewhat unapprovingly, and growled, “Yeah, he’s my old man. Follow me.” And she climbed onto a rickety old walkway from the parking lot to the Oakland, a sunken, but beamy old wooden river boat that once carried potatoes down river to the Bay Area.
As soon as he saw me he smiled and said, “Gibbons, you made it!” I gave him a few highlights of my trip, which made him laugh loudly and say, “Too much!” This phrase was a favorite of his, especially when Maggie would amuse him. Maggie, by the way, was his old lady’s preferred name. He showed me around the old “potato boat,” including a shop in the bow that he shared with a boat builder named Greg Baker.
The shop was full of tools, including a band saw, drill press, table saw, chop saw, a lathe, and plenty of work bench space, plus a shower, a gas heater and a narrow bed next to a wood pile in the back where Greg was sleeping until he got his boat livable.
The bathroom was off the kitchen by Nora’s bedroom. Nora, a zaftig blond who Maggie met while working at the Post Office in San Francisco, was renting from Bill for $75 a month. She let me leave my back pack in her room, and in our first private conversation asked me, “What’s your sign?” When I told her I was a Gemini, she smiled shyly and said, “I always end up fucking Geminis.”
This was my first lesson in how astrology can be used to seduce someone. Although I never believed that pseudo-science, I learned that if you want to have sex with someone you must play along. In fact, 9 times out of 10, just asking the question is like saying, “I’m willing to have sex with you.” The room on top was Bill and Maggie’s bedroom, and she also had an “art studio” in the Pilot House.
Bill’s project when I arrived was fixing up the “crapper.” The bathroom included a round wooden tub, which was big enough to fit six people, a sink, hot water heater, and a two-foot high wooden box with a hole in the top. He explained that they needed a toilet to put up on the box. I asked how he would flush it and he laughed and said the tide comes in twice a day, which makes it “self-flushing.”
I spent the first few nights sleeping on a bed in the main room of Oakland’s stern, which was also the entrance and living area, including the kitchen. Bill and Maggie shared their kitchen and seemed to know a lot of people, many of whom would stop in just about any time of the day or night. Not only was the door never locked, there was no lock on the door.
My second night at about midnight I was awakened by a friend of Maggie’s who sat on the bed, explaining that she sometimes slept here when she had a “fight with her old man.” Her name was Sheri, and although it was just a single bed, I moved over and let her join me. I had trouble falling back to sleep, and Sheri seemed to be jacked up on something, so we talked for awhile, and she told me the best way to fall asleep was to have sex, but quickly pointed out that she was not on the pill so she couldn’t help me out. I understood, and though I did have a condom in my wallet, I didn’t want to tell her. At one point I said something that made her laugh, which surprisingly led to hugging and kissing, before her head disappeared under the covers. It didn’t take long for her to relieve my angst, and although she got up and made some noise in the kitchen, I slept like a baby.
When Bill said I could crash in his little 20-foot tugboat, The Loafer, tied to the leeward side, I was ready for a little privacy. My first time out on the Bay was with Bill in The Loafer. We putted over to the Army Corp of Engineers property where he periodically checked to see if there was anything good to salvage, explaining that any flotsam the Army Corp finds they tow over to this beach, which often includes usable lumber and valuable marine equipment.
On my fourth night at Waldo, just before bedtime, Bill told me to come with him to get a toilet. I assumed he bought it or someone gave it to him, so we walked over to the Gate 5 pier, and about half-way to the end sat what looked like a white planter, filled with flowers. Bill turned it over, spilling out the flowers and dirt into the Bay, handed it to me, and whispered urgently, “Let’s go!” I quickly followed him back to the Oakland carrying what turned out to be a beautiful ceramic elephant’s head toilet. He didn’t even tell me till we got back that we stole it, though I was pretty suspicious. Only when Maggie saw it the next day did I find out it belonged to Dan Hicks, who with the Hot Licks, had just come out with one of my favorite songs: “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away.”
To sum up my first week in California: I delivered drugs to a black Oakland neighborhood in a black Cadillac; I walked over the Golden Gate Bridge without jumping off; I was seduced by astrology and put to sleep by a woman with, I found out later, a jealous, belligerent old man; I sailed out on the Bay for the first time; and stole a toilet from a famous musician. And that was just for starters!