I was working at the Tides Bookstore in Sausalito in the spring of 1970 when my book came out. I had been a Milwaukee Poet, and with my friend Chuck put out a little poetry magazine we called Pretty Mama, using the English department’s version of a copy machine. The best part was probably the cover, always eye-catching art done by my wife Lois. It was through the magazine I met Ed Burton.
Ed had obtained an old letter-press that he planned to restore in his basement, and invited me over to check it out. He had seen Pretty Mama and asked if he could print a future issue once he got his press working. When he did, he named it Morgan Press, after his 6-year old daughter, and Pretty Mama was the first thing he printed.
It was such an improvement we thought about selling it at the local Head Shop, but Lois and I had gone to Europe that summer (1968), and when we returned I sort of dropped out of the poetry scene, though I was still writing and visiting Ed occasionally. Since I didn’t want to do Pretty Mama any more, and Chuck had graduated and moved back home to Upper Michigan, Ed continued with some of the same poets, but changed the name to Hey Lady.
My brief marriage to Lois broke up — in retrospect I blame myself — and after refusing to go to class at the beginning of the spring semester to finish my BA in English, I finally decided to head for California. There were numerous reasons, but I liked telling people it was because of a popular ad on TV for an allergy medicine that gave the viewer two choices to relieve the suffering: 1) Take an ocean voyage, or 2) Take Allerest. I chose a version of the first one.
The waterfront was heaven for my sinuses. I could breathe through both nostrils most of the time, and since I’d quit sneezing and coughing up phlegm, I would forget about my allergies until I returned to Wisconsin for visits. I remember once driving over the Mississippi River from Iowa to Wisconsin and sneezing for the first time in months…“ACHOO!!!” Oh yeah, I have hay fever.
I missed my friends and family back in Wisconsin, but Becker and I were not the only ones from Milwaukee. Besides Becker there was Ed Hantke, known as Ebbie, one of the earlier anchor-outs who loved working on anything mechanical, but mostly seemed to like doing nothing. We often did nothing together. I’d stop over for coffee in the morning, then we’d hop in his outrigger canoe and paddle to shore, maybe go for a bike ride along Gate 5 Road, stopping to chat with people he knew, which seemed to be everybody.
When I needed a bicycle, Ebb took an old frame, turned it upside down, welded on support pieces, and extended the seat and handle bars. Whenever I would ride into Sausalito tourists would snap photos of this hippie on his weirdly tall bicycle. (see photo and poem)
My book, “Prime the Pump,” was mostly poems I had written in Milwaukee, some of which embarrassed me, but others I still like, especially the ones I wrote on my boat. I was really pleased to have my own book, and since Ed did it as a Labor of Love, I just gave it away to my new friends on the waterfront. I did, however, give the Tides some copies to sell. I still remember coming to work a few days later and there in the window was a display of my books. It certainly was a pleasant surprise, made all the more surprising because they didn’t tell me they were planning to do that.
One thing I learned was giving my book away rather than trying to sell it was the best way to connect with people and get positive feedback. One woman told me she read my book on LSD while soaking in the tub and laughed so hard the book got all wet, so she hung it up to dry.
Now I was known around the waterfront as a poet, and among the people who gave me positive feedback was Shel Silverstein. I didn’t really know Shel, but one day I was leaving work with a few books in my hand when I ran into Shel on his way to the No Name Bar. I stopped him, introduced myself, told him how much I liked “A Boy Named Sue,” the hit song he wrote for Johnny Cash, and gave him my book. A week or so later I saw him again and he told me how much he enjoyed it, and invited me over to his boat for a get together with a few other local writers.
This was a chance for me to meet other writers and perhaps advance my literary career, but on the way over that afternoon I ran into Sparky, a frizzy blond with Keene-like eyes and perky breasts under a see-through blouse that mesmerized me and made me forget where I was going.
She said she had some really good mescaline, and a few hours later we were in a cabin on Mt. Tam making waves on a water bed. Yeah, I know, I missed out on a rare opportunity to meet other writers, but what was I supposed to do? I just couldn’t turn down this sweet flower child’s kind offer to share a tab of mescaline? That’s just not the way I rolled.
Then a few days later, I really don’t remember if it was days or weeks, I saw Shel walking toward his boat with Bill Cosby. I’m not saying Cosby would have been there the day I was invited to join the group, but just that I can’t believe I turned down a genuine invite by Shel Silverstein because of a hippie chick. Yeah, sure, Sparky and I had fun, but that kind of fun was becoming commonplace, and to this day, not going to Shel’s boat is still way up on my long list of regrets. If I had a regret-o-meter, it would be right up there with…oh, there’s so many. Forget I mentioned it.
I should mention that Bill was friends with another Milwaukeean named Bill Olsen aka Ole. Ole also knew Ed Burton, and one of his hobbies was photography. He and his girlfriend Meryl came out to visit during Christmas vacation. His photos of the waterfront scene were in my book, and Ed chose one of Greg Baker for the cover. Greg liked to dress like a 19th Century Navy Captain, and he wore his military outfit for that photo.
Greg became my self-appointed mentor. Besides helping me get that job at Varda’s when I was down to my last dollar, he lent me books to read, helped me in the shop, and sold me an 8-foot dory he built himself for just $50. One of my favorite books of Greg’s was SAILING ALONE AROUND THE WORLD by Joshua Slocum. When I mentioned the book to Becker, he said, “I want to sail around the world and NOT write a book about it. Haha.” I recall telling Becker I wanted to write a book called SAILING ALONE AROUND ANGEL ISLAND.
It was Christmas Day of 1969 when I first sailed the Cowpie. Here’s a quote from my journal: “Well, I told myself I’d sail by Xmas & sure enough it happened. I found a 9 X 12 tarp in a vacated Xmas tree lot and used it as a square sail. Ole and Meryl , Bill and I sailed away in a perfect west wind under a beautiful blue sky…only problem was I couldn’t come about, so I threw my new Danforth mud anchor overboard and now I’m anchored out near Clipper Harbor. Only problem is I don’t know how I’ll get back to the dock.”
Ebbie built this bicycle.
I thank Heather for the fine paint job.
People smile & point when I ride by.
It’s twice the height of a normal bike
With a view those short bikes lack.
Some think it takes special skill to ride
Or figure there’s a trick up my handlebars.
They often stop me & ask.
“How do you get up there?”
Not usually being in a hurry,
I show them.
I toss open my hatch cover
Breathe thru both nostrils and yell
Seagulls continue their usual noise.
Fog rolls thru the Golden Gate.
Cloud halo over Mt. Tam.
Blue ski straight up.
Think I’ll visit Ebbie for breakfast.
He’ll smile and say,
“Climb aboard and have some cawfee.”
One of my favorite visitors was Sue Wilson, an 18-year-old ex student of Lois’ who graduated from high school at sixteen and was taking classes at UC Berkeley. Sue would show up in her mini-dress sans underwear and smile seductively as she climbed on board, so to speak. One time she spent the night with me out on the Cowpie, and in the morning while I was making coffee, she lounged on the deck naked picking at her crotch. Finally I said, “What are you doing?”
She replied nonchalantly, “Picking crabs, but don’t worry, they’re organic.”