Alan Watts Befriends Me (1969)

My first few weeks living at Waldo Point made me realize that I wasn’t going anywhere else anytime soon. I liked hanging out on the Sausalito waterfront, meeting Becker’s friends and neighbors, mostly boat people, and partying on the back deck of his old sunken potato boat almost every afternoon.

When he was ready to party he’d say, “Gibbons, let’s prime the pump!” This meant the first beer will get us going the way a little water will get one of those Portigee hand pumps working. Usually a few others had already arrived, maybe with a guitar and a six-pack, or at least a willingness to walk over to the Bait Shop and buy more beer. Sometimes he’d just crank up the music on KSAN, which blasted out the back door, alerting the neighbors that it’s party time.

But I needed a place of my own, a little privacy, and to do that I needed a job. I applied at the Tides Bookstore and the Sausalito Post Office, which required a written test, and depending on your score could take anywhere from one to three months before they hired you. But I was broke now. I was down to my last dollar, and though I pretty much knew what I wanted to spend it on, I remembered the example my high school sociology teacher used to show us unworldly students how low some people will go by spending their last dollar on alcohol. So I thought for a minute… what would be the best way to spend my last dollar? Open a bank account? Invest in the stock market? Donate to charity? That just brought me back to my original choice—a cold beer!

On my way to spending my last dollar on alcohol, I ran into Greg Baker, Bill’s shop mate, who told me an artist named Jean Varda, aka Yanko, needed someone to do clean-up work in his studio and would pay $2 an hour. Two dollars an hour was what the Bookstore paid, which was normal for a service job in 1969. Greg went on to explain that Yanko shared a houseboat with Alan Watts, called the Vallejo, which was docked at Gate 3.

This was the real Alan Watts! He introduced the beat counter-culture to eastern philosophy with books like “East Meets West,” “The Way of Zen,” “Beat Zen, Square Zen,” and many more. I especially liked haiku poetry, which I believe he, along with Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Phillip Whalen, to name a few, helped popularize here in the west.

So Greg took me over and introduced me to Yanko, already in his 70s, with a background that would have really impressed me if I had ever heard of him before. He showed me his cluttered studio, with scraps of colorful cloth and paper scattered all over the floor and all over his paintings. His main thing was collage, sticking these scraps onto painted plywood sheets of different colors and sizes to make seascapes, village scenes of women adorned in colorful clothes, and a few unfinished pieces that looked more like, according to my old journal, “…a 6th grade art class project.”

Of course I didn’t know at the time how impressive his artistic history was. Born in Greece but formed as an artist in Paris where he roomed with Braque and Miro, just two names I remember from my college Art History class. Had a one-man show in London in 1929 that was so successful he claimed, “From then on I lived on my painting…” He moved to southern France and was frequently visited by numerous artists, including Pablo Picasso. In 1939 he came to New York for a one-man show that sold out! The next year he got a studio in Hollywood, eventually moving up the coast to Monterey and Big Sur, where Henry Miller came to hang out for a few weeks before he found his own place and wrote his Tropic of Sex trilogy. Then in the early’ 50s Varda came to Sausalito and bought the Vallejo. Watts came on board ten years later.

Varda told me I could start tomorrow morning at 9am, so suddenly spending my last dollar on a beer became a celebratory act that even my old sociology teacher wouId no doubt approve of.

First Day of Work

The next day I showed up on the Vallejo on time and spent the morning picking up and cleaning up after the artist while he put the finishing touches on a collage that looked like a woman wearing a peacock on her head. I met his house girl, a young blond, whose name I forget, who seemed to come and go with the tide, her long maxi-dress swishing behind her like a wave.

Lunch was something else, with people from all over stopping by with wine and cheese, sharing stories of their worldly adventures, and according to my Journal from April 17, which was my very first day, I mention that we had four bottles of wine between seven of us. Yes, I got to eat with him and his guests, mostly artists and writers who lived in the Bay Area and down along the California coast. When Yanko was ready for his nap, people politely said adieu and left. My next job was to stand outside on the back deck and make sure nobody bothered Yanko while he was napping. Tough job but someone had to do it.

The best part of this job was when Alan Watts, who lived in the forward half of the old ferryboat, would come out during his “writing break” and chat. Said he was working on several projects, one being his autobiography (In My Own Way), and a looming deadline on the intro to his book of essays on man’s relation to the material world (Does it Matter?).

I mentioned that I read a few of his essays in Playboy magazine, which elicited a grin, saying he liked and respected “Hef” and what he’s accomplished with his “intellectual girlie magazine.” And yes, they would be included in his book of essays.

We usually talked about local stuff, or the smog you could see across the Bay on days when the wind died down. This was before lead was taken out of gasoline. He’d complain about the smog between puffs on his fancy old pipe that was not filled with marijuana, even though he liked his experience smoking pot and taking LSD. He said because pot was illegal he and Varda agreed that no pot should be smoked on the Vallejo.

He felt psychedelics helped “induce the mystical experience and users are entitled to some constitutional protection.” He was angry he couldn’t continue research in the field and called it a “barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom.” I couldn’t have said it better.

I made $38 in three days, and was offered to stay on the Stuart and Jeanne, a small houseboat anchored out on Richardson Bay, which included a skiff to row back and forth to shore. Here’s a quote from my journal from early May: “Been on the Stuart and Jeanne for three days. Life is good. Got laid twice in the last three days! And get this--to Norma Riddle and Nora Riddell. Norma has a houseboat anchored nearby, who I got to know a little better when I heard a muffled scream the other night. I jumped out of bed and went out on deck to see her standing on her stern watching her little rowboat float slowly toward Strawberry Point. I jumped in my skiff and rowed after it, brought it back to her boat, and she thanked me by inviting me in for some hot tea, then rewarded me for my chivalry with…”

Rather than finish this journal quote, I’ll let the reader’s imagination run wild, and move onto Nora Riddell, Bill’s tenant on the Oakland, who got me stoned on LSD and according to my journal it was “not that enjoyable. I didn’t feel very sexy and let her do most of the work. I just want to be her friend, not her lover. I should just stick to beer and pot.”

By the end of May, Varda said he “didn’t need my services anymore,” which was fine with me because I had fifty bucks in my pocket, a free boat to live on, and figured I’d be hearing from the Post Office or the Tides any day. Then Jeanne showed up and wanted to move back on her boat again, said she had broken up with Stuart. No problem, as Becker had recently acquired a 22-foot steel lifeboat that he’d sell for $100. I gave him a twenty for a down payment and became the owner of a boat I named Cowpie.

Everything seemed to be happening with perfect timing. A week or so before Jeanne returned, Becker heard there was a finger dock floating in Richardson Bay after a big storm. We jumped in the Loafer, found it and towed it back, replacing the old rickety walkway with a floating dock that connected the parking lot to the Oakland. I tied the Cowpie to one of the fingers, and now I had easy access to live and work on it.

Then on June 6th I started working at the Sausalito Post Office. I was on the night shift, from 2am to 10am, which gave me the daytime to work on my boat, and I could still party at night if I wanted to, but getting enough sleep then became my biggest problem. I had worked the graveyard shift in Milwaukee at the American Can Company back in ’66 while taking a full load at UW-Milwaukee, so I knew what to expect—less sleep.

What I didn’t expect was Watts showing up at the Tides Bookstore about a year later with a clean looking 16-year-old blond he introduced to me as his son, Ricky. I should mention that I lasted ten weeks at the Post Office before they fired me for not shaving my beard or cutting my hair. I even included the termination letter in my book, Prime the Pump…but I’m getting ahead of myself. After losing the Post Office job I got the job at the Tides Bookstore.

Alan asked me if I’d show Ricky around and introduce him to some of my waterfront friends. I hadn’t even seen Watts more than once in the past year and now suddenly he introduces me to his son as if we’re old friends? Fact is, Alan hardly knew anyone on the waterfront. He knew people of different cultures all over the world, but the best friend he could come up with where he’d been living for the past ten years was me? Suddenly we were old pals?

I agreed to take Ricky with me after my shift, which was almost over, so Alan thanked me and disappeared, while Ricky browsed around the bookstore waiting for me. Turned out Ricky’s mom back east sent him to his estranged father because he had gotten into some trouble, typical teenage rebellion stuff, as I recall. He seemed like a nice enough kid, but I really didn’t like feeling responsible for him; I didn’t want to be his surrogate dad or even his friend.

We went down to the Gates and ran into a few people I knew hanging out in the Arc parking lot. These were not the type of guys a parent would want their child to befriend, but what was I supposed to do? There weren’t any kids his age living at the Gates that I knew, and since these guys were being real nice to him I figured my job was done.

Over the next several months every time I’d see Ricky he looked a little funkier, as if he hadn’t changed his clothes or combed his stringy hair since that first day. I was particularly bothered by some of the guys I saw him with who I knew were either alcoholics or drug addicts. Two names come to mind, Peacock and Toothless Tom. I’m quite sure that they befriended him because he had money. Yes, my other guess was Alan gave him an ample allowance to get him off the boat so he could finish writing his autobiography.

Then one day I was hanging out in the Ark parking lot with some of the guys when Ricky drove up in a brand new pick-up truck with a new chainsaw in the bed. He got out and nodded to us as he quickly walked toward the clusterfuck of houseboats. As soon as he was out of sight, one of the guys, let’s call him Jeremy, walked over to Ricky’s truck, and with a big smile on his face, picked up the chainsaw, walked over to an old junked Chevy coup and stuck it in the trunk, then leaned against it as if nothing happened. The others grinned, as if this was so clever, but it pissed me off and I said, “That’s fucked up,” as I walked away. I felt guilty that I didn’t stick around and make sure he gave it back, which I found out much later he never did.

I first met Jeremy Conn in January of 1971 when he stopped at Waldo Point to see his friend Buck Knight on the way to British Columbia to start grad school…but he never left. He was an Irishman from Connecticut who went from being a U.S. Army translator to a UConn college grad to a waterfront drunk. But let him tell it.

“Most people have a few drinks and that’s it, but I turned into The Hulk, Mr. Hyde, Green Slime. My body would go on when my conscious mind shut down…black out…no off-switch.”

I remember late one night he was yelling really loud over and over again, “COON! COON! COON!” Turned out a new guy moved into a houseboat near him and his name was Jeremy Coon. So like Nora Riddell and Norma Riddle, now we had a Jeremy Coon and a Jeremy Conn. In the daytime when Conn was sober there was no problem, but that night was an example of “no off-switch.”

Jeremy continued his uncontrollable drunken behavior until 1977, when he finally realized he needed help, and started going to AA meetings. He credits Alcohol Anonymous with helping him stay sober, and hasn’t had a drink since.

Jeremy and I became friends over the years, before and after he was sober, and then in 2010 I decided I wanted to write about the waterfront and emailed him. In one email I mentioned the chain saw episode and how it bothered me for years. He told me he went to an AA meeting a few years ago and running the meeting was Ricky Watts.

“I went up to him and told him what I had done and offered to make restitution. He laughed and said if I spoke at his meeting we could call it even. It took the burden off my back. I love AA.”

I don’t recall seeing Ricky or his dad after that. I left the waterfront for Mendocino County in the late summer of ’71. Jean Varda died in January of ’71 and Alan Watts died in ’73.

I would like to leave you with a quote from the first chapter of Watts’ book of essays (Does It Matter?) that sheds a little light on his darker side, or his prescient prediction of the near future, that he called a “reasonably certain guess.” Keep in mind this was written 46 years ago!

“In the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2000, the United States of America will no longer exist. Why? Because the land and its life can now so easily be destroyed by the sudden and catastrophic methods of nuclear or biological warfare, or any combination of insidious means as overpopulation, pollution of the atmosphere, contamination of the water and erosion of our natural resources by maniacal misapplication of technology. For good measure, add the possibilities of civil and racial war, self-strangulation of the great cities and breakdown of all transportation and communication networks. And that will be the end of the USA, in both senses.”

Postscript: If anyone is interested in reading more about the colorful water squatters at the Gates, go on-line to: theredlegs.com. Jeff Costello, who also writes for the AVA, has done a fascinating and hilariously accurate portrait of many of these colorful waterfront characters.

7 Responses to "Alan Watts Befriends Me (1969)"

  1. Jeff Costello   January 21, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Damn, Gibbons, I’ve been meaning to write about that name freak stuff all this time. Took 30 years for you to beat me to it. There’s another one but I can’t remember it now…

    Reply
  2. Liz Johnson   January 21, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    very cool! I read his stuff in college, not Iowa State, tho, Jim. I graduated from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Iowa State in Ames, IA was very conservative! Not that that’s a bad thing……..

    Reply
  3. humbilly   January 22, 2015 at 8:30 am

    Alan Watts, yes, every Sunday morning on WBUR, Boston early ’70’s, better than a church service! Don’t remember much except his irreverent wit and wonderful smokers laugh…

    Reply
  4. Jim Gibbons   January 22, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks Liz, I thought I checked that…and Jeff, I’m glad I could find something you missed…

    Reply
    • Liz Johnson   January 22, 2015 at 4:02 pm

      Hahaha…….I think few would notice! Just a detail/too-literal brain like mine. I was so against anywhere but Iowa City when I was applying to colleges…..I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but it was the so-liberal atmosphere I craved. I just knew that when I visited, I immediately felt at home. I don’t think I’ve had that sense ever again, that I belonged there.

      Reply
  5. Steve   January 22, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    Alan Watts even made it into the show “South Park.” It is very….deep:

    ALAN WATTS: MADNESS

    Reply

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