I interviewed the late Peter Berg at his San Francisco home in November 2006 with David Hollander for a documentary film project.
Berg was reluctant to speak yet again about the Diggers — he had given many interviews through the years, and dreaded what he called “the 7s” — years ending in “7,” which always marked a numerically significant (10th, 20th, 30th, on and on) anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love and for him meant yet another round of fielding media asks for interviews about the Diggers’ role in the Haight-Ashbury scene.
In 2020, the Diggers are little-known. But in 1966-8, such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight — even, memorably, a typically dyspeptic Joan Didion, for the Saturday Evening Post—included the Diggers in their account. “A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. “A cross between the Mad Bomber and Johnny Appleseed,” said future Yippie Paul Krassner in The Realist, “a combination of Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X, the illegitimate offspring resulting from the seduction of Mary Worth by an acidic anarchist.” The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor would write, “[The Diggers] were in my opinion the core of the whole underground counterculture because they were our conscience.”
In the decades afterward, everyone wanted to interview Peter Berg because he had been there, he had done things, and most of all, because he had remained brilliant and charismatic, post-Diggers. Berg was a playwright-dramaturge and anarchist tactician who had a street sense, a sense of history and a sense of humor; a short, sometimes brusque guy with a big, creative, poetic mind who gave tremendous quotes.
Born in 1937 (another “7”), Berg was in his late 20s as the Haight-Ashbury “uprising,” as he called it, rolled into being in 1966. He was somewhat older than the drop-out “flower children” and teenage runaways of the time. He was also somewhat younger than the Haight-curious North Beach bohemian poets, painters and beatniks, most of whom were in their 30s and 40s. Having coined the term “guerrilla theater” during his productive time in the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe, Berg found his role in the Diggers, manifesting maximum social joy and welfare through a set of deceptively simple ideas whose range of application seemed boundless.
After many phone calls, emails, postcards and a shipment of Arthur No. 13, David and I scored an audition with Berg to conduct an interview. We passed, and, not long afterwards, on camera in his kitchen, Berg gave us — performed for us — one of the best, most comprehensive interviews regarding the Diggers that he ever did. He was on for two hours, and he knew it. I hope the following text, basically a transcript with extremely light editing for clarity, gets that across.
Berg died in 2011. Planet Drum, the San Francisco-based bioregionalist non-profit foundation he started with his wife (and fellow Digger) Judy Goldhaft in 1973, continues to the present. Berg’s contributions to bioregionalism were foundational and visionary; his work persisted across decades, and was a natural continuation of his Diggers work. Read more about Planet Drum here.
This is the sixth interview in my series of Diggers’ oral histories; the others are accessible here. An interview with Judy Goldhaft on the Diggers era is forthcoming. For more information on the Diggers, consult Eric Noble’s vast archive at diggers.org
I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
— Jay Babcock (email@example.com), Sept. 16, 2020
Jay Babcock: What kind of family did you grow up in?
Peter Berg: My mother used to call herself a ‘parlor pink,’ which was a variety of Red. My father was known for being able to recite whole pages from H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. At that time that sort of indicated that he might have been a leftist, but I’ve called him a barroom socialist because my father was also an incredible drunk. My own feeling is that they were immigrant folk socialists. My brothers enlisted in World War II as Navy fighter pilots. They called it the “War Against Fascism.” [That kind of language] was in the air at the time. It wasn’t theological. Sort of FDR/Socialist “New Deal,” that kind of thing. That’s the kind of politics that were around.
You went to University of Florida to study psychology…
I didn’t go there to study psychology, I went there to be a college person. I think I was 16 at the time. 15 or 16, because I’d been skipped ahead at school. I had to choose a major, and by sophomore year I’d decided that one of the least venal things to choose was psychology.
It was a fairly large university, 10,000 or so, but the group of people who were ‘alternative’ was so small they all knew each other. It wasn’t more than a couple dozen. There were a group of us who wanted to provoke, to insinuate, that integration was overdue at the University of Florida—it was 1957, three years after the Civil Rights Act— so we pasted up posters with the slogan ‘Integrate in ’58.’ We pasted those up at night. We didn’t want to be seen. It was not public.
You put them at night because you had to, or to …?
To avoid being censured. To avoid being beaten up by fratboy football fan types. In fact, the editor of the school newspaper made his reputation by posing as queerbait, getting propositioned by homosexual professors, developing a list of them, and then outing them and getting them all fired.
How did you get to San Francisco?
The main thing I did academically in college was to read novels. I read all the authors straight through. One of the things I picked up was there was an American ethos, and I wanted to go search it out. So I made hitchhiking forays to different parts of the country. One of them was to the Midwest, to see the “real” America. I worked in a factory that made flexible metal tubing. I hitchhiked to San Francisco. San Francisco was a destination for me because I had read ‘Howl’ in college, shortly after it came out. In fact, I read Howl the night that Fidel took Havana. I know because we were in a bar to read Howl together, my friends and I, and somebody came in with a shortwave radio and threw the aerial up in the air and in Spanish it said, Fidel Castro has taken Havana.
So, I made hitchhiking forays. I went to the Pacific Northwest, I was on Whidbey Island in Washington. I jumped a lumber freight and came down to the Albany trainyard, in Berkeley. I met some people, took some LSD, decided to go to Mexico. Spent a month in Mexico, broke. Came back to San Francisco, pretty shredded mentally. A lot of reverse culture shock, coming back to this very materialistic California culture from Guadalajara in 1963, maybe 1964. I got a job with the City of San Francisco, and while I was working for them I heard about the San Francisco Mime Troupe from someone, I forget who, and just walked in and told them I was a writer, director and an actor. And the very adventurous director Ronnie Davis—R.G. Davis—handed me a book that was a translation of Giordano Bruno’s late Renaissance play Il Candelaio [The Torchbearer, 1582], which was really a philosophical treatise in the form of a play—a very old way of writing. It’s Greek dialogues, a five-act play of dialogues. Absolutely unplayable. It was not theater. But he asked me to make a three-act, free Commedia dell’arte from it—it’s the form of theatre Ronnie had pioneered in this country. It’s a Renaissance, Italian form of acting where there are stock characters: the doctor, the clown, etc. And I did. And we rehearsed it; one of the lead actors was Luis Valdez, who went on to form the Farmworkers Theatre (El Teatro Campesino) for the grape strike in Delano in 1965.
Well, while we had been rehearsing it, a dispute had occurred between the city and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The dispute was whether or not we would receive our share of the San Francisco hotel tax, which is a form of promoting the arts. The city decided not to give us the hotel tax money that we’d gotten the previous year. So, the director’s response was to not apply for a permit to do a free play in the park. And we knew we would get busted. I mean, by the time we were all in the truck, headed for the park, we more or less highly suspected that the police would be there. And somebody, or several people, invited most of the people who were later to be called the New Left in the Bay Area to come and be an audience for the play, and react if the police attempted to stop it, if there was a dispute about attempting to perform without a permit. We arrived, and of course I’m all involved in the idea that I wrote this thing and it’s going to be performed, and frankly I’d never written a play before in my life, and I was very excited, very ego-identified with it as the playwright, and we show up and there are black mariahs—paddywagons—all over the place.
The director, who did not possess a tremendous amount of physical courage, but was kind of playing to his troupe and to this New Left audience, said, Give me the costume for the lead actor, I’m going to be the one who jumps on the stage and announces the play. So we set up the stage. Still nothing from the police. Got into costumes. Still nothing from the police. The audience gather around, anticipating that this is going to provoke a riot or something, an arrest. And the director jumped on the stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the San Francisco Mime Troupe presents—a bust!” And the police, on cue, came forward and arrested everybody. Or, arrested him, dragged him off. There’s a great photo of all of us looking kind of stunned. Me, looking like, What happened to my play? Or at least that’s the way I see it.
The New Left people were just galvanized. It was a polarizing event that made a unity out of this group of people who were old Communists, Beats, gays, proto hippies, musicians, the underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb, all these people were suddenly made the same people, by that event. And all yelling, Stop, stop, you shouldn’t do this. And also all knowing that it was staged. You hear that word “staged”? That’s kind of key to what happened with the Mime Troupe next.
That event led to benefits for the Mime Troupe, who had no money. And our business manager was Bill Graham who at that time was called William Grajonca, he had his Polish name still. He wanted to be Sol Hurock when he grew up, Sol Hurock was a big promoter in New York. And he had this idea of having the benefit. It had an incredible array of performers: Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention—I requested that they be there. Lew Welch, the great San Francisco poet, was there. Timothy Leary. Some of the San Francisco Sound people, I think Big Brother was one of the groups. And others. And people lined up. Thousands of people lined up for a dinky studio on Howard Street that only held 200 or 300 people maximum. This was incredible. And suddenly this event was not only the creation of the New Left, but it was a statement of the counterculture. Bill Graham saw it, and he had a revelation: Whooooo, herein my future fortune lies. And we looked at it and thought, we’re really doing what we’re supposed to do as a radical theater company: we provoked an arrest, it annealed the New Left, and it created a focus for the new culture, which some of us who lived in the Haight-Ashbury had seen developing around us. We were pot smokers and acid rock-oriented. We listened to Sandy Bull, and Billy Higgins, Ravi Shankar, getting all those Eastern half-notes and quarter tones, all of that. Janis Joplin was walking around on the street of the Haight-Ashbury at the time. I was in a commune at one point with Chet Helms, who founded the Family Dog. He was a dumpster-diver who lived in the Haight-Ashbury.
Anyway, we knew this new culture was there, we knew this phenomenon was occurring, centered in the Haight-Ashbury, so after this event, we dramaturges sat together and tried to think it out. What is this, in terms of breaking down the fourth wall? How is this a historical follow-through for Antonin Artaud on one hand and Bertrolt Brecht on the other? How did these two come together in this? What do you call this, when you provoke riots and use the audience as members of the cast? When you can stage events that brings the audience on the stage—but there is no formal stage? But it’s a theatricalized event…? It’s all new. So I called it ‘guerrilla theater.’ And Ronnie heard that phrase, and wrote an essay about doing Left provocative theater. That wasn’t what I saw. I saw it as being deeper than that. And I began writing plays that now were for sure plays except that a lot of the dialogue was spontaneously derived from the performers—we had some really great performers at the Mime Troupe at the time, I’d say there were at least a dozen good performers, and a couple who were really brilliant. Anyways, put these people together, I gave them a context, and we began improvising dialogue.
At the same time I had in mind a couple of ideas. One of them was based on a short story by a former German prisoner of war who was a literary hero of the postwar era in Germany, Wolfgang Borchert, he wrote a number of short stories, one was titled The Dandelion, based on his experience in a Russian prison camp. It was about military prisoners who craved so much to have some sort of human contact that they will take extraordinary risks, and one of them risks getting out of line to run over to where a dandelion is blooming, to look at the flower. And is beaten to death. It must have actually happened. So I wrote a play titled ‘Center Man’ about a military prisoner of war, a German prisoner of war who’s in an American prisoner of war camp, and I thought people will look at this as being exotic but it’s actually what’s happening in Vietnam. So it was a way of talking about Vietnam without directly talking about Vietnam. The guard has the prisoners do exercises. One of them reaches out to grab the flower, and the guard beats him to death. And a friend of mine designed a set that was made out of exhaust pipes, the whole exhaust assembly, rusted out, as the background. And as I was rehearsing this play—this was more scripted than the ones that followed—as I was rehearsing it, Ronnie, who had this directorial brilliance, looked at it and said, ‘These guys are just talking to each other, we’ve gotta have them doing something.’ I had them running around in a circle. He said, Put shower shoes—clogs—on them. Make it really loud. So now they’re going [claps stridently] [yelling] “Run around!” and they had “P. O.W.” written on the back of their fatigues, and the guy’s got a white helmet and MP [Military Police] on his arm, he’s smacking them while they’re running. Well, by the time he hits this prisoner and kills him, it was a pretty profound, emotional thing. A lot of it derived from the sound of these shower clogs banging on the stage.
So where do we bring this, as guerrilla theater? The Free Speech Movement (FSM) is in full bloom at UC Berkeley. Free Speech Movement: students have a right to say whatever they want to say. You can’t control speech. Students aren’t going to school. Nobody’s going to class—there are no classes. Even the professors have walked out. There’s a huge stage set up in Sproul Plaza and all kinds of FSM people are giving speeches— Communist Party people, civil rights leaders, anti-war, student freedom, Mario Savio. That day when we finally get over there is at least a couple of thousand students around the stage.
So we show up in a VW van. No idea what we’re gonna do. None at all. We’d just heard that the FSM thing was going on. None of us had been there. I go out and I suss it out, and I see that there’s a big stage with people on it and a lot of people in front of it and a big plaza. So I come back and tell the actor playing the guard, ‘March the guys out into the middle of that crowd. Clear the crowd—push the people out of the way—and start doing the play, without any announcement. Just start smacking these guys around and having them clog in a circle, and then kill that guy at the end.’ The actor asked, ‘And then what do we do?’ ‘Well, then we leave. We’ll just get back in the van and drive away.’ ‘Well, who’s going to know it’s a play?’ ‘Nobody’s going to know it’s a play, or if they do, they’ve never seen any kind of play like this before. It’ll be an experience. They’ll participate in the cruelty of the guard. They’ll observe it, not knowing if it’s true or not, they will observe the murder of a prisoner, not knowing if it’s true or not, and we’ll see what happens. This is guerrilla theater.’ [chuckles] We hadn’t ever done it before, but we’re pretty highly trained spontaneous performers.
So the guard on the way out, he has them pick up cigarette butts. He’s shoving people out of the way, saying, Get out of the way, get out of the way of my man here. Pick that butt up now! You know what’s gonna happen if you don’t. So people start clearing this path. And they clear the path until the four actors—the guard and three prisoners—[actors with] no set—go into the middle of the plaza. The guard had the authority to begin the play whenever he wanted. So he begins the play. And people start backing away from the circle, physically getting away from this behavior and saying to each other, What’s going on? They can’t allow this, can they? Is this like ROTC? What’s happening here? Does anybody know…? Is anybody in charge of this? Uh, who let them here? That’s American military isn’t it? Uh, who are those guys? W-what are they doing? I was there in the crowd, I heard these comments. I couldn’t believe it! I was delighted. My ears were about to spout blood. It was extraordinary. And then they killed the guy. And people start yelling: You can’t do that! Does anybody see what’s going on here? And there was sound with it. You know, when he kills him, he hit his club on the ground so it goes POW. And then there’s this sucking in of breath, screaming, girls are crying, students… the people on stage have stopped talking. This is like prohibited criminal behavior going on in their ivory tower, and they’re witnessing it. And they don’t know how to respond. What do I do when I see a military man murdering somebody? So then the guard orders the other guys to pick up the body. He walks them off and back to the van. And we drove out of there.
We get in the van and we’re saying to each other, WOW. [laughs] It was like throwing a stick of dynamite into something. This isn’t show business man, what are we doing? We gonna get away with this? That’s what we’re saying on the way back to the place. So then we tell the people at the Mime Troupe about what we did. Mouths dropped open. It was like, You didn’t tell them it was a play? You didn’t tell them it was the Mime Troupe? No.
So now this is more than free theater in the park, this is this guerrilla thing. We’re gonna be doing this guerrilla theater thing. And Ronnie at the time, to his credit, allowed me to do whatever I wanted. He gave me a position there. After that we did a guerrilla theater piece… Well, one of them was to take a scene out of a Jean Genet play titled The Screens, and do it in the bus station, without telling anyone it was happening. It’s full of criminals of various kinds, and we just had it done, and a cop saw it going on, and just from the behavior of the play, said, Y’know you gotta stop doing that, you can’t do that in a bus station. You can’t shoot drugs sitting in a seat waiting here for a bus. [chuckles] That’s the way he treated it. But that one wasn’t really so sensational.
One other play we did was called ‘Search and Seizure,’ at a rock club called the Matrix, on the same bill as Country Joe and the Fish. The guys in that band did not know what else had been booked, so the first night we did it, they watched along with the audience in the club. It was largely improvised dialogue—improvised in the studio, and then written down so people had their speeches. Some notable things about it: the characters were a doctor strung out on heroin, a hippie who had dropped a tab of acid, somebody with some marijuana and somebody on speed. They’re pulled out of the club group and put on stage by two people who purport to be narcotics detectives. So they’re pulled away from the tables they’re sitting at, put on stage, and face the audience, where this interrogation begins. If you did this one quickly, nobody thought different: it was real. If you had any pauses or laughed, you blew it, but if the actors acted like, what’s going on, where’s Country Joe, if they were like that, the detectives were hard cop/soft cop, and you got into the rhythm of it, people watching, they thought they were watching the real thing. Or if they weren’t watching the real thing, this was the realest thing they’d ever seen! Country Joe told me it made him paranoid, he was never going to watch it again. I mean, that’s how effective it was. [laughs] Emmett Grogan was one of these people. I think he was the speed freak. Anyway, they all get busted, they tell their stories of why they’re there: what are you on, what does it make you feel like, why are you doing this? The cops insult them, they call them enemies of society, etc. And then they lead them off at the end, they lead them to the back and out the door. Nobody says anything to the audience—nobody says, You just watched a play, or, Now it’s over and now we present Act 2. That was really good, that one. Like 15 or 20 minutes. The actors would improvise on their own improvisations, they would improvise on their own lines. Some of them got very involved with their lines—it was their chance to be a playwright.
You mentioned Emmett Grogan. Who was Emmett Grogan?
Emmett Grogan was one of the people that walked into the Mime Group the same way I did. He came in and purported to be an actor. He claimed to have been to a film school in Italy, which I doubted, because he didn’t pronounce “Cinecittà” correctly, so I thought he had not actually been there. I would learn later that almost everything that came out of Emmett’s mouth was at least an exaggeration if not an outright fabrication. But that was somewhat forgivable, considering his charisma; his charisma was substantial. More than substantial—he was probably the most charismatic person that I had ever met. And he was enamored of that ability. He was not a good actor, onstage. He was an extraordinary life actor. I created the term ‘life actor’ to describe him. It’s part of that thing about lying, or misrepresentation or whatever. He would bring things off to see them happen. What if somebody moved like this? What if somebody said this as an answer? That’s the way he operated. And he was, I don’t think he was fearless, but he was stronger than most of the people he ran into in San Francisco. He was from Brooklyn or Hell’s Kitchen, New York, I’m not sure which. Had a New York attitude. Tough, New York, gang…? I did meet some young mafiosa that were his acquaintances, so he had dipped into that life to some extent.
I cast Emmett in ‘Search and Seizure’ and in something I did only one time in a Berkeley coffeehouse that was about the impact of cybernetic culture. This was sort of prescient to do this because almost nobody was even writing about computers in 1967, and the best things I got a hold of [on the subject] were by philosophers. There was an essay titled A Prolegomena to Androidology [Michael Scriven, 1960] that had a dozen tests for whether or not something could only be done by humans or could also be done by machines. The conclusion was that machines could do anything that humans did. So I wrote a guerrilla theater piece called “Output You” and in it there were a woman programmer and a man who worked together in an office around computers, and they each had doubles—they had dopplegangers, dressed in black who were beside them all the time, or laying down or whatever, and while they conversed with each other about [robotically, flatly] ‘Do you have the program Catherine?’ ‘Yes I do but there are some bugs in it still that have to be worked out.’ ‘Well could you get that to me as soon as possible so that we can set it up and process some data?’ While they were talking like this, their doubles were doing all kinds of things—taking their clothes off, they were attempting to have sex with each other, they were rolling around, they were pulling out bottles, they were the sublimated computer programmers. And at the end of that one, the real people and their doubles become enmeshed together in an unresolved mass. People watching it thought at the beginning that it was about two people in a computer room. They didn’t know that there would be doubles and that the doubles would upset the reality of the ‘real’ people. Well, Emmett and Billy Murcott were both in that play. Neither one of them were very good performers—onstage.
Who was Billy Murcott?
Billy Murcott was a Greek American from New York who had run into or come west with Emmett Grogan. He had very curly black hair. He was new to drugs but he was very enthusiastic about taking drugs, believed drugs would change human identity, that he was in the forefront of that. Marijuana, LSD. Billy when I first met him was pretty interesting. Very verbal, vocal, so forth. For some reason over time he became less so. I’m not sure why. And his contribution was enormous. He wrote the essay “Mutants Commune” that was published in the Berkeley Barb. That’s Billy. And he named the Diggers. He was taking LSD and smoking pot, living in the Haight Ashbury, and began idealizing a future society. So he read a book on anarchism. And in it, the Winstanley group in England [the original Diggers group in the 17th century] was described. And he just thought the name was terrific for “I dig you” and “dig up the park”… y’know, the Haight Ashbury is right near the Panhandle of the Golden Gate Park. So we had the Park as our commons—the Diggers in England had a commons—and we had this idea of being free that is brought about through LSD. Free of precepts, prior understandings, etc. So Billy thought it was a terrific name for a group that would be, in the New York language and perspective that he and Emmett had together, they wanted the white equivalent of the black rebellion. Y’know, Why shouldn’t white people be able to have this too, whatever black people were doing. So they formulated an idea of starting a group called the Diggers, although they didn’t know what it would be like, on a roof watching the Fillmore burn during the Fillmore riots—the Fillmore was the African-American part of San Francisco—in 1966. They wrote together something that was like Martin Luther’s 99 Theses. They asked me what to do with it and I said, Tack it to the wall of the Mime Troupe office. I had just barely glanced at it. I was working for the Mime Troupe at the time. And so everybody came in one morning to the office and there’s this sheet that says [chuckles], this list of things: Fuck the country, fuck capitalism, fuck the civil rights movement, fuck the Black Panthers, fuck this, that, fuck pop music, et cetera, and the last one was: Fuck the Mime Troupe. It was signed “The Diggers.”
And I saw that and thought, Now these are two guys that have been through my guerrilla theater thing, where I’m trying to move theater from being on the stage to being in the audience. They are moving things into the street of the Haight-Ashbury. We could have a street theater where the street is the theater—where the street is the stage. And we can cause things to happen, because I’ve seen this, I’ve witnessed this. And we can do it on a large scale with all those people pouring into the Haight-Ashbury. (I lived in the Haight Ashbury at the time.) So I left the Mime Troupe, without very much commentary.
During that period, I had been down to Delano to see the way the Grape Strike Theater was operating. The Tulane Drama Review mistakenly advanced me some money to go down and write an article about the Teatro Campesino. I went and I saw that they had made a village. The strike was a description of the society that the union hoped to create. It had a free clinic, food, education, etc, housing. They were taking care of people’s needs. The union movement was always that—a strike was always supposed to be the theater of the achieved society that the union would bring. The strike is a struggle between the working class and the ownership class. It describes that struggle. It takes form in the strike, and then strike assistance to workers is the forecast of the future society that the union movement can bring about. Well, I was aware of that, and I saw it there. There was a theater, of course—the Teatro Campesino. But the strike itself was extraordinary theater. So Luis Valdez was busy promoting himself to me and to other people as a wunderkind of theater, and in a way he was, but the grape strike itself—la huelga—was the theater. [chuckles]
So I opened a free store in the Haight Ashbury. It was named “Trip Without a Ticket.” It was a store to exemplify the Digger credo, which was: “Everything is free. Do your own thing.” And we’re pulling now off of Anarchist history. We are being the Anarchist movement of contemporary American society. We’re exemplifying what anarchy could be in American society.
So, the free store is named Trip Without a Ticket, and I wrote an essay about it titled “Trip Without a Ticket,” which was one of the Digger Papers, which was later reprinted in The Realist. I sent it to the Tulane Drama Review, and said, I don’t know what happened to your money, but I know what happened to the article: this is it. Print this, and don’t be surprised. Well, they didn’t print it. [chuckles] They didn’t know what they had in their hands. And they resented me too for failing to fulfill my contractual obligation to be a journalist, which I wasn’t.
So now the Diggers are underway, and the approach is put “free” in front of anything you can think of and that would make it ‘Diggerly.’ How do you be a Digger? Well, think of something and put ‘free’ in front of it. For example, food. Put ‘free’ in front of food. Or, housing. Put ‘free’ in front of housing. Or energy. Or art.
For example: the tie-dye craze of the hippie generation. I know where it started. It started in that Free Store. It started with a woman who had been studying Indian fabric techniques. We were starting to get a lot of white shirts. People were dropping out and they were leaving their formal clothes at the door of the free store. So we would walk in in the morning and wade through these piles of white shirts. We had a super-abundance of them. This woman, whose name was Luna, said, We can make tie-dyes out of these. We said, What is tie dye. And so she showed people what they were. The Digger women looked at them and said, These are fantastic. We can make them ourselves, we can do it to all these shirts. So we began showing people how to do it. That became a standard activity at any Digger event after that, off in a corner somewhere someone would have boiling pots of dye and people, men and women, would be tying up shirts and tie dying them. And then this miracle would happen, you’d undo the cords and BOOM, these cosmic and amoebic bursts would occur. That was free art. Take the white shirt: it’s free. Do this technique with it: you can learn it, and it is art when you’re finished.
For me, the highest form of our free art were the street events that we did. We did events that were pageant-oriented events, but the audience didn’t know it was a pageant. They didn’t know they were in it. It was just happening all of a sudden, and the material to do it would show up, or the characters of it would move through the crowd.
Can you talk about doing free food in the park?
If you ask people who were there during the middle ‘60s in the Haight–Ashbury, during the advent of the Diggers, what they were doing, you will get different stories, depending on what their perspective is. Some men were there to hit on girls. That’s all they can think of from that period. Some people were there to be politically idealistic, and everything they’ll talk about will be framed in political idealism. I saw everything as theater. So from my point of view, giving food to people in the park was not just feeding the waves of liberated people coming to the Haight-Ashbury to identify themselves with the psychedelic revolution that was underway. It wasn’t just that. It was also a demonstration of an attitude—that food should be free. All food in the society should be free. It was a guiding ideal. From my point of view, the left didn’t have a guiding ideal—there wasn’t a place it wanted to go. We wanted to give it a destination. So we would give it a destination by enacting the destination. So everything we did, from my perspective, was a demonstration of this future world—in the present. It was like, Walk through it. Feel it out. How does it fit? What’s wrong with it? What’s good about it? The food should taste better. Yeah, right, okay, it should taste better. It should be fresher. Right. It should be organic. Those kinds of things. It should be homemade. Digger bread…should be made in a recycled coffee can. You should make it yourself. That would be part of the coming world, the new vision. The guiding vision.
So it wasn’t just enough to have food in the park. [smiles] The food in the park should be served inside a 12-foot square frame…that is, a picture frame, one that is so large that the human activity inside it will always fit. It will always seem to be part of a deliberate painting. And this frame should be aimed at the cars that are coming to work in the morning, so the commuters coming down Oak Street would see people getting free breakfast out of a milkcan within a 12-foot orange frame that we would call the “Free Frame of Reference.” Right? We really wanted to lard on the language and the symbolism and the theater of it. [laughs]
Everything we did was like that. We would set up situations at the Free Store where one magazine writer is interviewing the other one, and they’ve both been told that the other one is the manager of the Free Store. And they actually are going at this for five minutes, undoing this confusion for our benefit—they were performing for us. [laughs] Or people would walk in and say, Who runs this free store? And we’d say Well as a matter of fact—you do. Someone was running it, but now that you’re here, we’re leaving. [laughs] And we’d walk out. Wha—couldn’t I just take anything I wanted??? Yes, you could. Well, what if somebody wants to pay for it? Take the money. What should I do with it? Keep it. [laughs] The idea was not just to give away things free, but to create a theater where people could explore this notion of a free store. What would it be like if things didn’t cost money? How do you relate to them? How do you get them? How do you decide about them? Do you share them? How do you use it? Quite amazing to me, there were African-American women on welfare that would just sit there and wait for people to bring donations and quickly go through the donations as fast as they could to get the best stuff out of it and pack it in their own bag to take later and sell. And they were like, Do you people know you’re just giving me everything I need here? And we’d say, Great! Or, I actually saw this: we had a changing room that was really a place for sex. It was done in velvet and mirrors—it had a couch, it was really [chuckling] a very decadent changing room. Somebody came in, in uniform, regular Army, pulled men’s clothes off various racks, went into the changing room, came out, walked out of the place. I went over, opened up the changing room. His uniform was there. He’d deserted the Army, on the spot, and got the clothes for it: that’s how he used the Free Store. To me, that wasn’t a political act, it was a theater thing. He came in a solider and he went out as a civilian. [laughs]
I tended to see most things in terms of theater. I think most people, if they’re exposed to that perspective, can see this acting out as theater, without thinking it’s fraud, without thinking it’s fake. Nothing I ever did was fake, none of it was phony, but the name I gave to it was “life acting.” It was creating the condition you describe, which is a phrase that I read in a book titled Thespis [Ritual, myth, and drama in the ancient Near East by Theodor Gaster], about the annual journey the pharaoh of Egypt took up and down the Nile as a way of uniting the two Egypts, the upper and lower. He had a barge, and it would go up the river, and incidentally collect taxes. But people would bring symbolic things onto the boat that represented the area that he was in, or the nationality of the people, because you know the Nile is like 3,000 kilometers long, it’s really an enormous body of water. So people would act out who they were getting on the barge, and the pharaoh would act out the creation of Egypt as a unified kingdom by his presence. And they would give symbolic things while the tax collectors were actually picking up the bags of grain, they would bring a handful of grain to the pharaoh. So it’s all very symbolic, and the writer of this book said, and by so doing, the pharaoh would create the condition that was described: he would make a unified Egypt by unifying it through this trip, this ritual pageant.
Well, that became my ideal, to create the condition we described. And for me, the street events, and sometimes we did them inside, in buildings, but the ones I really liked best were street events. One of them was called “The Birth of Haight and the Death of Money.” And that one in particular had elements that were just unbelievable. It was unbelievable to see it happen on Haight Street. The entire street would be thronged with people who knew they were participating in some event, were not exactly sure what it was, but would see various elements of it pass along the street or the sidewalk. For example, a coffin, painted black, with oversized gold and silver coins, carried by black shrouded, animal-headed people. The animals are bringing a coffin full of money down the street, singing ‘Get out my life, why don’t you babe’ and people just cracked up. It was so funny, it was so them, they identified with it so much. They all got it. Think about the elements: they’re a little to the side of normal behavior or imagery. Black shrouded characters wearing enormous animal heads carrying an oversized coffin full of oversized money singing Chopin’s Death March, with pop lyrics, walking down the sidewalk, and everybody bowing in front of it, people spontaneously doing that. While people on top of rooftops are flashing the sun with rear-view mirrors that we got at a junkyard and passed out to people and pointed them to the tops of buildings, blowing penny whistles that we passed out to the crowd. And these things would come in waves. Suddenly the people would appear with the bags of pennywhistles and pass those out, and then you would start hearing pennywhistle music, where before you didn’t hear it. Or the rear-view mirrors would get passed out and suddenly light is bouncing around the street. And this is ten blocks of Haight Street [laughs] where this is going on. Thousands of people are involved in it.
One time people were in the park, and we urged people, Leave the Panhandle, go to Haight Street, we’re going to be doing this event. I printed up something that said Carte de Venue [“your card to go someplace”] and Street Menu, and it was what was going to happen when you got to Haight Street, what was the course of events. In order to get to Haight Street from the Panhandle, people had to run through, and destroy, newsprint-sized, three-feet-wide paper…not banners, just newsprint. Bands of paper that were beautifully decorated with Paisley-style paint drippings. You had to break these—you had to destroy them—to get onto Haight Street. It was like that was the entrance fee, that you had to break your conception of what was a good or beautiful thing to get onto the street to do this new kind of theater. And nobody was told that. They just assumed I was right about that. They broke these things… [laughs]
One time at one of these events, women were on top of the buildings with a poem of Lenore Kandel’s, holding it up — this is above the street, three storeys up, very large, the same three-feet-high newsprint—we got this newsprint free, it was the end of a roll, when they make a newspaper they have hundreds of feet of this stuff left over, anybody can go to any print place and say can I have the endrolls, and get it for free—and the women are wearing incredibly gorgeous avant garde outfits. Avant garde: we knew they were avant garde because they were one-of-a-kind outfits that Levi Strauss had been trying out. They were like silver lame Levis, that kind of thing. And they’re reciting this poem of Lenore Kandel’s from the rooftops, holding it up so the people down below could see it and read along with them. [chuckling] Now that’s literature. Is that literature or what?
There was a certain point in time where the focus of creative energy that used to be in North Beach was no longer in North Beach—it re-emerged and it was in the Haight-Ashbury. There were so-called Beat poets, the San Francisco poetry scene, who retained all of their integrity, all of their critical viewpoint, and suddenly saw this psychedelic rebellion and quote hippie—that’s a phrase I do not like, ‘hippie’—emergence as being the children of their desires. It was what they wanted instead of the negative society that they had criticized. So we became the pro-active manifestation of the protest of the Beats. And it was very attractive to Lenore and Richard Brautigan and Mike McClure, Gary Snyder, they saw a lot of hope in it. Allen Ginsberg saw it as the manifestation of their idealism. You know, Americans have a continuum that goes from idealism to disillusionment. We all know what this is. We all have had both of them. And we all keep both of them to various degrees. And the Beats were already disillusioned, and were more disillusioned by Vietnam, the horrors of the civil rights scene. And all of a sudden, there’s this group of people saying everything is free, do your own thing, who have their own music, have their own art, have their own dress, and they saw them as being the people they created. So, they were very participative.
Kirby Doyle wrote a magnificent essay, titled The Birth of Digger Batman. Billy Batman [real name: William Jahrmarkt] was the person who owned the Six Gallery, which is where the reading of Ginsberg’s “Howl” first occurred. [Berg is in error here: Batman did indeed own a gallery, but it was called the Batman Gallery, it was located at 2222 Fillmore, and it did not open until 1960; its first exhibition was Bruce Conner.] That was Billy Batman’s gallery! And he and his wife had a child during the middle Sixties that they named Digger! You see, the connection is very, very clear. The Beats saw their children as the Diggers.
And there was Ken Kesey with the bus Furthur, parked along the Panhandle. That sort of manifestation.
How important was LSD for what was going on?
I don’t think the psychedelic rebellion would have happened without LSD. I don’t think the proactive manifestation would have had the courage to occur. The Beats would have done it, if they could’ve. The hippies did it, because they had LSD. LSD was so undeniably a consciousness-changing agent, and to go on that consciousness change, to undergo it, and to come out on the other side, and not be ravingly insane, meant that you could turn reality upside down. Reality could be turned upside down, and good things could come of it. It could be done. The Beat ethos lacked a magical ingredient. It would’ve taken an act of magic to change society. That’s why so many Beats were enormously depressed. By the Civil Rights phenomena — not the civil rights, but the repression. And the war in Vietnam. It was like, How could this happen? How could you have a Democratic president and be crushing black people on a daily basis, and bombing, and poisoning a whole nation? How can you change that? It would take an alchemical act, or substance, or magic wand, to change that. [gestures, here’s the answer:] LSD.
I never will discredit LSD. I won’t join the legions of people who feel that for some reason having lasted through the Sixties they can now join the mainstream and repudiate LSD. I will never do it. It was a magic wand. I thought the Diggers were social LSD. I called the Diggers “social acid.” Everything is free/Do Your own thing — everything can be turned upside down AND BE BEAUTIFUL. In our society, everything costs money, there’s no free lunch, and you’re not supposed to be a total individual—you’re supposed to cooperate with society and be productive, in corporate terms. To say ‘everything is free’ repudiates that. [To say] ‘Do your own thing’ gives you the authority to be an artist—[to realize] that everybody is an artist, which, you know, we all believe. At least, I believe. What is it, in Bali, someone asked the Balinese ‘what is your art?’ They said ‘we have no art, we just do everything as well as we can.’ So LSD gave people that authority, it authenticated that positive possibility. And everybody that was involved with that thought — that, there, was a revolution of consciousness afoot.
“Civilization is up for grabs”: Berg gives a brief, explosive exposition of the situation in Summer 1967, starting at 33:16, with a second one starting at 41:58. (From CBC documentary series, “The Way It Was,” directed by Don Shebib)
Were the Diggers missionaries for LSD?
The role of the Diggers at the Human Be-In was to pass out 3,000 tabs of LSD. They were given to the Diggers by Owsley. Not personally. Owsley wasn’t a person you saw. He knew that everything he was doing was at great jeopardy. As a matter of fact it was two very large African-American men who came over to the Free Store with the 3,000 tabs of acid, like a pie box full of it, and said, [in deep voice] This is from Owsley. [chuckles]
Chester Anderson was a Beat consciousness type who was in total rebellion against his Navy/military family. I believe his father was high-ranking, maybe an admiral. He had dropped out, and he was older than many of the other people who were involved with the scene. I would imagine the age range of the Haight-Ashbury was about 20 to 30. I was a little older, he was at least ten years older than I was. And he was a Sexual Freedom person. He had his own sexual preference issue. And he had acquired a Gestetner machine; Gestetner was an early Xerox-type printing machine, very well made by the way, that used color. At that time, Xerox was not in color, but Gestetner was. [smiles] I think he had obtained it under a false pretext. Anyway, he and someone who worked at Ramparts magazine, Claude Hayward, began something they called the Communications Company. They were struck by the Digger ethos, and they were going to be the ‘free’ printers. The form that they used was to produce daily or occasional 8.5 by 11 or 8.5 by 14 sheets of paper with various messages on them, some of them very helpful to people, like numbers to call if you had an overdose, or numbers to call for social assistance. But a lot of them were ones composed for example, for street events, or composed for expression, or had poems. When Martin Luther King was killed, David Simpson made one that had a splash of red, as blood, and the words, “Goodbye, brother Martin. Today is the first day in the rest of your life.” And we passed that out in the street. A lot of Brautigan’s poems first appeared that way. A poem that was rejected by the Oracle newspaper for its overt political content, written by Gary Snyder, was titled “A Curse on the Men in Washington, a curse against the Vietnam War.” A curse on the men and their children, by the way—that’s why the Oracle thought it was too far out. Anyway, we first published it as a street sheet—I know, because I got that one published. I imagine they did several hundred.
What was the relationship with the Grateful Dead?
Some of the Diggers, including myself, went to their house. They had a house on Ashbury Street, everybody knew where they lived, and we invited them to come to a free event that we were gonna do in the park. We’d begun doing free events, along with free food. We took over the park! We acted as though it was our park. The Panhandle was our commons. So we told them we had events there and that we were going to have one on the weekend, and that if they would come, we would do everything we could to accommodate them. We’d get a truck for them. If they wanted a sound system, we’d find a sound system so that they could play. But they did not want to play. The members of the group that I heard conversing about it were saying, Why should we do this? Why go out there in the middle of the day? I don’t get it. What is this all about? Won’t we get busted? That kind of talk. As I recall it was Danny Rifkin, who was one of their road managers and started their fan club, who said, This is it. This is why you are a band. This is going to engrave you in people’s memories. We’re gonna get so many fans from this. You’re going to get your dream of audiences. Get on that truck and go to that park and PLAY. And all that happened. We wanted them there; we invited them; we helped them get there; Danny convinced them; and they showed up.
Then after that, they were sometimes available for free concerts. So was Janis [Joplin]. Janis was at an indoor event we had called Free City Convention. We had a Free City Convention [like a conventional political convention], where people had signs that said things like State of Innocence; y’know, State of Grace. [laughs] We burned money. And I remember all that going on and Janis singing at the same time. And Stanley Mouse painting on the pillars inside the Carousel Ballroom. That’s where it was, the Carousel Ballroom. And everything from teenagers from Hunter’s Point to people in Army uniforms were at this event. Wonderful.
What about The Invisible Circus event at the Glide Church?
While I was still at the Mime Troupe, a group of us thought it would be a very good idea to start an artists’ organization that would make statements about social change that artists supported. We called it the Artists Liberation Front. The Artists Liberation Front had a couple of events. Small-scale benefits. There were some notable people involved. Brautigan was one, Ferlinghetti was at some of the early meetings of it. I’m sure that’s how Lenore Kandel got swept into the Diggerly Do. At any rate, the Artists Liberation Front morphed through a couple different identities, but at a certain point the idea was that there should be a massive event—a city-shaking event—and it would be called The Invisible Circus. And at it there would be people who were poets and musicians and actors and writers and painters and members of the general public and it would be to manifest this free, creative identity and it would have a Digger overlay. So essentially the Diggers brought it about. And the Diggers worked for it in concert with various artists, who thought of themselves as artists but also as social/cultural activists, among whom, primarily, was Lenore Kandel.
There was someone at Glide Memorial Church—there was a person there who was very straight—blue suit, short hair, but he was teaching the congregation about ‘sexual deviation’ and he was showing pornographic films and he had lecturers that were gay and lesbian lecturers, and he wanted to have a major role in this. He thought this would be good for changing the identity of Glide Church. On its own, the Methodist body in the United States decided that this church in San Francisco would begin serving minority groups and the poor. They made that decision. And they got rid of the top personnel and anointed a blue-suited, short-haired, thin, African-American preacher from somewhere in the South named Cecil Williams. It was going to be one of the first mainline, previously white churches now overseen by a black minister. So in this interim period, Glide Church is available and one of the key people operating it is the man who’s trying to teach about deviant sexuality, or ‘alternative’ sexuality. We approach him and say why don’t we have this event in your church. Glide Church is a really large building. It takes up maybe a quarter of a block, or, a corner of a block, both sides of the block for some distance. It’s really quite large. Had a lot of spaces in it—several floors. An elevator, going from floor to floor. And over time, mostly because Lenore Kandel convinced them they had a sacred, spiritual obligation to serve the liberation of people and that the Artists Liberation Front and the Diggers were doing that, that we were on a mission to accomplish the liberation of people, and that this was the spirit of the Church, eventually convinced them that we could have this church for 72 hours to do whatever we wanted. And every time they’d say, “well, no such-and-such,” Lenore would say, ‘Now wait a minute, that isn’t liberation. [pointing finger, speaking gently] Every time you say no, you’re not liberating. Come on, get used to it. Loosen up. You must liberate.’
So now they turn the whole Church over to us, for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And we went absolutely mad. I decided that every pet annoyance I had with society, I would turn around. I was annoyed with the space program, so there would be a room that had newsprint, completely as an artificial wall. People would be brought into this room. They would not know that this was an artificial wall. They would watch NASA footage of the earth, and at a certain moment, belly dancers would crash through the paper, bellydancing to the music of the Orkustra. The chamber Orkustra. Who are playing Middle Eastern-sounding music. And the bellydancers would move amongst these people, who, moments before, had been watching the space program’s vision of the earth.
That’s one of the things I wanted to do. The other one was, I wanted to have an obscenity panel. I remember convincing the church people that this would be a great thing: an obscenity panel where a minister, an ACLU lawyer, a writer on sexuality, someone else, would start talking about censorship and pornography and obscenity in front of a glass case that was in this wall. On the other side of this wall was an actor who took his clothes off and began playing with himself [laughing] so the audience is watching this panel and seeing through this panel to seeing somebody being obscene, because you know obscenity panels never had anything very obscene about them. And in the middle of all this, someone who was a fireeater would walk over to one corner and start blowing flames out of their mouth [laughing]. I think I was dressed in scrubs, hospital scrubs, as the doctor, you know, to talk about obscenity.
Lenore was saying, I want to do something but I’ve been so busy organizing things, I haven’t thought of something to do yet. I think what I’ll do is be a palm-reader. I said, You know, it’d be much more interesting if you did foot reading. Why don’t you have people take off their shoes and put their foot up in the air. And we’ll have a foot [diagram/poster] that says Happiness, Joy, whatever, and you’ll be a foot reader. Just pass yourself off as a foot reader, convince people that you can read feet. So of course she was totally charmed by it. She did that. She also—it turned out that in the Church there was a room where brides get ready for weddings, and Lenore took that room and put KY jelly there, and candles, incense, silk and satin, and low lights, so that it was a seduction room. And it was used for seduction. Emmett filled an elevator with shredded plastic. So you pushed the button [laughing], the elevator door opened, it was like waist-deep in shredded plastic. I think it was clear plastic, and white plastic and red plastic, shredded, in bands. [laughing hard] And you had to fight your way through the plastic to ride on the elevator. Brautigan decided that his event would be to have an instant publishing service, called the John Dillinger Computer, and for this he would use a Xerox machine. You would write a poem, he would run in, put it in a form that could be read, and turn out copies of it and pass it around, at the same time encourage somebody else to write a poem. Everybody writing poems and then publishing them on the John Dillinger computer. Someone else got a hold of all the films of the sexual variation class and opened up a blue movie theater in the church, a pornographic theater, that just ran continuously.
And I have not yet mentioned most of the activity. I didn’t see it all because I was involved with overseeing these events that required coordinating the fire-eater with [laughing very hard] the person playing with himself. Takes a lot of coordination. So I didn’t see it all, but at various times I saw Mike McClure walking around with an autoharp, singing his poems. Hells Angels moving through it. There were a lot of military personnel because Lenore had decided that the primary target for this should be militarism. Because militarism was so anti-liberatory. So she put out flyers, she had them distributed at Army bases, Navy bases, Marines, to come to this event, in order to experience liberation. So Hells Angels and poets and semi-naked or fully naked people, there was one gorgeous woman who took all her clothes off and did belly dancing, people made a circle around her, she was just so beautiful that no one touched her. It’s so interesting to see that phenomenon: that if someone nude was sufficiently in it, that they could have transcendental manifestation, and people, instead of grabbing at her, would stand back and just look at the beauty of it. Which happened. In fact there are photographs of her with people standing in a circle, just staring at her.
The place started crowding up with sailors, both in and out of uniform, soldiers of all kinds, everybody from the Haight-Ashbury. It got very hot. This was in the winter. It got very hot inside the Glide Church. So we threw all the doors open. So now you’ve got all the people in the Tenderloin coming in, which is homeless people, and people dealing hard drugs on the street. They’re coming in. Cops got interested in this. [chuckles] In the spirit of helping to manage this event, I go to the door where this cop is standing, door’s wide open, he said, What’s going on in here? I said, It’s a church service. It’s a church social. It’s a social event of the Church. He said, Uh huh. [squints eyes] You know, the doors are wide open? Anybody at all can come in and there are a lot of characters in this neighborhood. I said, Indeed. Yes, I believe this church’s new purpose is to serve the neighborhood. He said, I just want to make sure you know what you’re doing, cuz there’s some really scary types out here. And all this time he’s looking over my shoulder, looking inside. One thing about San Francisco, when the cops relax, they do relax here. They’re not on 24-hour fascist duty. And he’s trying to see in because there are naked people in there, and all of that. And eventually he says, Well just as long as you know what you’re doing. I said, We do. We will be doing this all weekend, and it’s serving a valuable purpose. And he left it alone.
So it goes on into the night. It started at something like 7 o’clock. For us it started during the day we had to get underway, and all of us laughing because we’re going to be pulling this off. They let us have the Church for this! And we know some of the things people are planning and can’t wait to see them. Some of us would run from one thing to another, say [waving hands] Is Brautigan doing the Dillinger Computer yet? Is Lenore doing footreading, I gotta see this! Have you been to the bridal room? Did you see what Lenore did in there? Wonderful, wonderful event.
It got to be something like midnight or 1 o’clock, and it’s too much for the Church authorities. They somehow get wind of what’s going on, and they want to close it down. Well, closing it down means you’ve got to go to every room and pull these people off of each other that are having sex, go into these rooms full of Hell’s Angels and sailors and tell them to put down their whiskey bottles and [laughing] go home. So it took the rest of the night to clear the place out, and then there was an incredible mess, from their point of view. Lenore was still, We did a very good job of liberating the people, here. And she’s sincere! I mean, there was nothing insincere about it. From the outside, if you were looking at it, you’d think it was almost like practiced that she would do this. But it was coming from her own integrity.
So by Saturday, dregs of things are happening. By Sunday, it’s closed down. And Cecil Williams shows up—Cecil Williams, the product of the Civil Rights movement, in a very anointed position now, to be running this formerly all-white church, in a mixed neighborhood of the city, he’s going to be the integration personality, he has to get his schtick somewhere. It’s not going to be Bible-thumping. Y’know, you’re not gonna Bible-thump for the drug addicts and hippies and whatever are coming to Glide Church. We felt we had loosened the church up for Cecil Williams’ eventual renown. He has a tremendous amount of renown for wearing African costumes, having choruses that are mixed race and of course giving away free food. Quite an indentation into that Church scene.
Can you talk about the SDS meeting in Michigan that you and other Diggers attended?
In early 1966, the Mime Troupe had become a bastion for the New Left. In fact, the New Left Review magazine was sharing space with our studio. Things from the New Left were always passing through the office, including the Port Huron Statement, that had been written by Students for Democratic Society [SDS]. I actually read it. Most of the actors in the Mime Troupe did not. As far as I know, none of the Diggers ever did. But I read it. I thought it was watered down. It was progressive, like the Progressive Party had been, in the U.S., whereas most of us felt that a revolution was underway. By the time the Diggers were rolling in the Haight six months to a year later, we were sure we had part of the answer for the alternative society to be. And at that time SDS was going through a leadership and affiliation crisis. There were SDS people who wanted to be violently active, and eventually the Weather movement came out of that as well. Well the people who remained behind in Students for Democratic Society and did not become more militant wanted to re-define themselves, and they had a conference that they called Back to the Drawing Boards. And I learned that it was going to be held and I thought this is where we should have our New Left encounter, for the Diggers, should be at this event. So I convinced Emmett, Bill Fritsch and Billy Murcott to go with me to Denton, Michigan and present the Digger alternative as part of the future that Students for a Democratic Society should strive for.
Somebody supplied a rented car, a very large station wagon. So off we head for Denton, Michigan, and along the way Billy Fritsch and Emmett Grogan got into a “man” competition type of thing, about who could drive better, who should drive, etc. It bored me. Billy Murcott was smoking pot in the back, he didn’t really care. At that point Billy has settled into his ‘happy hippy’ role. And so we hit a small rural road, and the argument is how fast you should drive on a road that’s mostly gravel, and they’re screaming and yelling at each other. Emmett was driving and he hits a hill, and the car partially took off and we ended up in a creek, with water coming in over the sides of the doors, and the four of us sitting there, and Emmett and Fritsch begin yelling at each other about whose fault it was. You made me do this by yelling at me. You did it because you can’t drive worth shit. So I’m looking at Billy Murcott like These guys are completely out of it, let’s get out of this car. [laughing] So we crawl out of the windows and we wade up to our waist to the bank. I’m looking at a white station wagon with two people arguing in the front seat in the middle of a running creek in a part of the Midwest that I know nothing about, the Northern plains somewhere. Murcott and I are yelling Get outta the car, get outta the car, it’s gonna fill up with water, it might float away. So they finally get out of the car. Now the argument is whose fault is this and who is going to take the blame for this, with the police and whatever. I want to get to the conference. I don’t care what these guys are yelling and screaming about, I want to get to the conference. I want to make some kind of presentation there. Heroically, Fritsch says, or maybe to one-up Emmett one more time, he says I’ll take the bust, I’ll say I was driving, I’m going to go to a phone right now, tell ‘em where we are, tell ‘em that I was the driver. We all knew that he had a record. Prison record. He was a felon, which meant that that would come into the consideration—a crime had been committed, and a felon had committed it. So I said Okay, if Fritsch takes the fall for this accident, and he gets into some scene about it with the police, obviously they’re gonna have a lawyer of some kind at this meeting, so we’ll get a lawyer and get him out immediately, maybe before the police find out about his record.
So, we get a ride in a tow truck, we go to the conference, the three of us. Billy goes to jail. We walk in the door and say We need a lawyer immediately. At the time Tom Hayden was giving one of those puerile speeches that Tom Hayden is capable of giving. And Todd Gitlin is recording everything into a tape recorder—Todd Gitlin of the book The Sixties fame—and people are sitting around staring at their star, Tom Hayden. I’m stating it the way we saw it, because we’re having this real-life drama occurring, and there’s something crucial involved, which is how long Fritsch is gonna go to jail. So we come in there, We need a lawyer. Well, people are talking here, you can’t just come in, who are you? We need a lawyer. One of you must be a lawyer. If you’re a lawyer, raise your hand. Somebody raises their hand. I say Okay, here’s the deal. There’s a rented car in the creek, our guy’s in jail, he’s a felon, if they find out they’re gonna give him a lot of shit. The political act right now should be to get him out of jail. So that guy goes off.
Now people say, Who are you people? And I say I’ll tell you if the guy with the tape recorder turns it off. You, will turn off your tape recorder. But I’ve got to record all this for the purpose of history! No. You’re not going to record anything that I say. I’m just going to talk to people here. Turn off the tape recorder. It wasn’t that I was afraid, I just didn’t want it to be historicized that way. It looked ridiculous to us to all be sitting around, pretending to be this political organization. It looked ridiculous. [chuckles] Right, so the Diggerly act was to turn off the tape recorder. The guy did, very reluctantly.
Now I asked Emmett, what do you want to say. He said, Nothing. Billy Murcott said, I wanna play tambourine. I said, Okay I’ll tell you what we’re doing in San Francisco, and this is what we think is a good direction for SDS to go down. You should become Diggers. This is what we do. I gave this long rap. Well the one who wanted to record it was really furious now because he wanted to have recorded that. The guy next to him, in an Army fatigue jacket, says, That’s fantastic. I’m going to do what you do. My name’s Abbie Hoffman. I’m tired of this civil rights plain existence. We should be having fun. We should be dressed up, we should be doing these things, you guys are on the right track, you’re fantastic. I’m going to go back to New York and do what you do. The rest of you—you should go back and do what they’re doing. So he became [raised eyebrows] a little bit of a creepy ally.
Hayden was really disinclined to have anything to do with us. We must have smelled like the devil, like sulfur and brimstone. Fritsch gets out of jail, he comes in. He starts crawling around on the floor, saying ‘Which – one – of – you – girls – wants – to – fuck -meeee?’ [laughing] And he’s talking to social workers and elementary school teachers? Oh, Billy. That was his way. [laughs] Anarchy by act! Anarchism by the deed. So then we got back in the car and argued our way back to San Francisco. And to a large extent, the other three really didn’t know why they’d done it, and what they had done. They weren’t following it. Fritsch was in a state of rejecting communism. He’d been a longshoreman and a merchant seaman. And his best friend’s mother and father were figures in the English Communist Party. They were looking for an alternative to Communism and anything that sounded remotely political put him off. Emmett was apolitical. I think he’d been subjected to too much Irish Revolution stuff. Probably his family was IRA supporters. They were working class Irish. And Murcott, it’d never been part of his life. On the other hand, I saw us as having a historical anarchist role to play. I’m not sure of everything that came out of it. I know in the book The Sixties, Gitlin says that I personally destroyed SDS, which I think if true, that means that anybody could’ve pushed it over. [laughing] If I pushed over that entire organization, it was ready to fall.
Almost all the Diggers made forays of one kind or another. For example, someone gave us a piece of land that we called ‘Free Land.’ There was a trip up to take a look at it. There was a trip to see the land that was going to become Black Bear Commune. People made trips to fields that had been harvested to glean them for vegetables and produce that would go into Digger Stew. I wanted to go to the East Coast after we had done the Denton, Michigan thing. We knew that we would start having a presence on the East Coast, and sure enough a group called the New York Diggers started with the painter Martin Carey and his wife Susan and Abbie Hoffman and for a while Keith Lampe, who later changed his name to Ponderosa Pine. They were all members of the New York Diggers. And they did similar things. They had a free store on the Lower East Side, they did some events, etc and we wanted to check them out to see to what extent we were kindred.
At the same time, word came that Alan Burke, a particularly aggressive TV shock jock for that era, who had a program called The Alan Burke Show, on which he performed vivisection on the guests, wanted to have a Digger show up to represent the hippies. Somebody on his staff had researched hippies and come up with the Diggers. Nobody felt particularly able or capable to do this, but I thought it would be a great event, I thought there was a way that I could twist it around, once I got the lay of it, which I never really got to do. I met Paul Krassner, he knew about the Diggers in New York, he wanted to know about us. He got very turned on with us and later put together the Digger Papers out of various Communication Company publications.
Anyway, eventually it’s go on the Burke show. I brought as a prop an antique pistol. The kind of pistol that’s a cap and ball, Revolutionary War-era pistol. I kept it in my jacket, with the butt sticking out. I also arranged to have one of the women Diggers be there with a pie that they would throw in somebody’s face at some point. So I go on the show. The first thing that happened was in the green room for that period, there was someone who was promoting himself as a representative of the hippie generation. He wanted to be, he was a New York hustler type who wanted to be a media personality. So he was asking me questions: Do people really smoke banana peels to get high? That kind of thing. So I saw that this is the image that the staff had of who we were, and they were not going to be ready for anything that I was going to do. So they say Come on the show and I come on out, sit down. ‘I’m Alan Burke.’ ‘I’m Peter Berg.’ And I looked at the audience and said I’m going to be talking to the audience all the time that I’m here. Never looked at this guy [Burke] again. So he’s asking me questions and I just began talking about what I wanted to talk about. I don’t remember all of it. A certain amount of it was repartee, like I would take off on something he said and say something completely different, so that people could see that I could be a free individual, even within his format. I felt that television was extremely coercive. So what I wanted to show that. At one point he says that he’s not having any luck getting his questions answered, maybe if people in the audience ask questions, I will “deign to answer them.” So a woman comes up to the microphone, says I think you people are making a lot of noise about nothing in particular and I think you should tell us why should you be free, I don’t get this. Burke says, Don’t you have a leader named Emmett Grogan. I said, No, there is no Emmett Grogan. There is a woman named Emma Goldman, and she happens to be here tonight. Emma, would you come and explain to this woman with a pie what we stand for and why we should get what we want. And the woman, Natural Suzanne, a particularly strikingly good looking woman who liked wearing fur coats for reasons I’m not sure of, it was winter, comes up with the pie in the box, opens up the box, takes out the pie and pushes it in this woman’s face. [laughing] So the whole audience is outraged! Just an innocent woman asking questions, but by the way being very demeaning, about who we are. And Burke is, What just happened on my show? So I looked at the camera and said to the cameraman, would you come over here, would you put the camera on me, Hey!, [whistles], You got me? Good. Now turn the camera up to the top of the room. Up to the top of the studio. Let everybody see the girders. The guy’s going okay. He moves the camera up. I’m looking at the monitor and he’s showing the girders and the lights and everything that’s hanging, all the wires. This is what the television studio is, it’s actually like your television SET! People watching this: this is a television SET, that we’re in, that you’re watching ON your television set. Do you get it? They’re broadcasting a television set to your television set. Now, would you, bring the camera on me now, put the camera on me. Got it? Good. I’m getting up, and I’m going to walk out that door. Would you show the door that says ‘exit’? Show the door. That’s it. Okay. Good. Back on me. Thanks.
I’m going to walk out the door, and when I walk out the door, I want you to turn off your television set. So I’m going to walk out of this television set, and you’re going to turn off your television set. See, we can do this. We have the power to do this. Here we go. I’m getting up—keep the camera on me—I’m walking toward the door. You got the camera? Thanks. I’m opening up the door. Goodnight! Goodnight, everyone. Opened up the door and walked out.
I have no idea what happened afterwards. I didn’t stay. I asked Natural Suzanne, and she said she felt she had to get out of there fast. [laughs] Then I thought, This guy asking me if you can get high smoking banana peels in the green room, [laughing] he’s going to come on, and he doesn’t have the wit to know this guy’s gonna take him apart.
What was the relationship between the Diggers and the Hells Angels?
As with asking anyone about the Diggers, you would get different answers as to what their purpose was, the relationship between the Hells Angels and the Diggers were similarly a hugely…It had a huge range of possibilities. For example, some of the Digger women had affairs with Hells Angels, so to them, some of the Hells Angels had been their lovers. Anything else about it didn’t particularly matter, that was the relationship.
My relationship with them was that I knew we had to be heavier than we were. The Diggers called themselves ‘heavy hippies’—it meant they weren’t flower children. We were capable of carrying out acts and confrontations with the police that were above the level of flower children. We deliberately provoked the police on occasions. I designed a street event that stopped traffic deliberately for which all the characters were arrested. And went to trial. And we were acquitted. The acquittal made the front page of the Chronicle and became sort of a totemic image of the psychedelic rebellion. Flower children didn’t do that. Flower children didn’t have anarchist history, or connection with the anarchist political tradition. It should be clearer than it is, that when the overthrow of kings was a prospective activity for the French, what would replace the monarchy was as often thought of as an anarchistic option as a democratic option. Anarchism had a very good reputation in Europe for at least 150 years, as a real option. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is an anarchist; Jean-Jacques Rousseau is considered to be the founder of the philosophical idea of liberty. So anarchism had a tremendous reputation and a huge number of adherents, especially in places that were more peasant-dominated than others: Russia, Italy, Spain. The anarchist tradition still survives in those places.
What was going to happen ultimately with authorities, and in fact happened, was that the police were the agency that closed down the Haight-Ashbury. You will read euphemisms, or excuses, for the demise of the hippie rebellion as being the introduction of hard drugs, or ‘the bloom was off the rose,’ or blahblah. The police closed down the Haight-Ashbury. They brought in mercury vapor lights that burned all night, bright orange. It looked like the Berlin Wall on Haight Street. They made the street one-way, so that traffic barreled through it. They put paddy wagons through it about every 15 minutes, picking up people from the street.
So they militarized Haight Street. And there was a reason for it. It was because we had withdrawn this neighborhood from the control of the city. [laughs] We had taken over the Haight-Ashbury! We could shut down the street anytime we wanted. We could take over the street. People were walking DOWN Haight Street six and eight abreast; if you see footage from that period, it’s unbelievable, it looks as though there’s a parade in progress. And that was normal, daily activity. Everybody’s passing each other, giving things to each other, passing out joints, tabs of acid… You’d get off a bus at the Greyhound bus station, make your way to the Haight-Ashbury. Food, a place to stay, your dream of smoking marijuana suddenly realized. The Grateful Dead, playing for free in the park! Right? It was all going on. It was an incredible magnet, and it was our neighborhood.
The HIP [Haight Independent Proprietors] merchants thought that our “1% Free” poster meant that they were supposed to give one percent of their income to support the Digger activities. [smiling] They thought that our poster was extortion. It amuses me that they thought that. And some of them in fact volunteered to pay the rent on the free store.
What did the slogan mean for you?
Only one percent of the population can bring this off, at this time. Only one percent of the people are capable of acting out the Digger vision. “One percent free”: [the term was there] to provoke the rest of the population, to make them want to be part of that one percent, until it was a hundred percent. We put one up in Chinatown and someone made a balloon coming out of the Tong men that’s on the poster, a little balloon saying ‘White guys are only 1% free. Chinese are 101% free.’ [laughs] I’m not sure what that meant, but I thought it was wonderful.
Today Vicki Pollack is known as the legendary founder and director emeritus of the San Francisco Bay Area-based Children’s Book Project, the non-profit organization that has provided over 2.9 million “gently used” books to local kids since 1992. But in late 1967, Vicki was a directionless, 25-year-old college graduate and Civil Rights activist who’d left her welfare worker job in New York City to move to the Bay Area in pursuit of something more.
She found it in February, 1968, when she walked into an extraordinary old Victorian house on Willard Street in San Francisco. Some Diggers were living there, plotting to expand the audacious social liberation work they had spontaneously begun in the Haight-Ashbury district just 17 months prior. Now they were setting their sights on the whole of San Francisco.
Actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual names associated with the Diggers, as they wrote books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio is the most notorious. But there were many others, like Vicki, who participated in the various Digger initiatives of the time, and whose stories — and unique perspective and insights — have never been told at length, or in any detail, in public.
With that in mind, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to share this interview with Vicki, constructed from two conversations I had with her in San Francisco in 2010. There has been some editing for clarity, but for the most part, this has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. As always, my advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you’ll like the next part.
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Vicki. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated. This is the fifth interview in my series of Diggers’ oral histories; the others are accessible here. For more infromation on the Diggers, consult Eric Noble’s vast archive at diggers.org
Please note: I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
— Jay Babcock (firstname.lastname@example.org), June 21, 2020
Jay Babcock: What is your background?
Vicki Pollack: I was born in 1942. I grew up in Virginia, which I loved, and then we moved to Maryland, which was much more rural than it is now. My mother was a housewife and my father worked as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest. I was a typical ‘50s kid, except that I was Jewish in a school where people were prejudiced. Otherwise all my goals were the usual teenage girl goals: get good grades, be popular. I would love to have been a cheerleader.
My family lived in a community that was basically a housing co-op. During World War II, there had been a food co-op in the area, and after the war, the members decided they were going to do a communal housing co-op. There was a golf course that was up for grabs, so they bought it. The community, which was called Bannockburn, wasn’t just Jewish. At the point that we lived there, it was probably 50/50. Every family there knew each other. They had meetings, they built a community swimming pool, they had this clubhouse. [See this fantastic 1986 Washington Post article for more about Bannockburn’s history.] I lived there from the time that I was 9 til I went to college. The people in Bannockburn were radicals. My parents were Democrats, but they were never big radicals. My mother gave some money to help the Spanish Civil War. That was all.
Nothing really seemed different about me growing up except that I was Jewish and I was living near areas that were very prejudiced against Jews. I did care a little bit about others, but I always thought I’d be a typical ’50s-style housewife, a mother. There was nothing growing up that would indicate that I was going to go in a totally different direction.
Where did things start changing for you?
Interestingly, Bannockburn was surrounded by areas where Jews weren’t allowed to live. The whole region was segregated. And in 1960, right before I went off to college, students and activists from Howard University started picketing the segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park, which was so close by we could hear the rollercoaster from our house. The whole Bannockburn community took part in the picketing and in supporting the demonstrators. It was part of the Civil Rights movement that was in progress then. It was dramatic: there were Black activists, there were American Nazi Party members, there were police.
I started that fall at the University of Wisconsin and came home for Christmas vacation, and got further involved in civil rights activism. There were plans to start doing anti-segregation sit-ins in Baltimore, which I wanted to participate in. I went to the workshop ahead of the sit-ins that was held in a small meeting room in a local church. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught the workshop.
At that point, he was just a person — he wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. yet.
When I started being on picket lines, at 18 years old, it was very exciting. I would participate in them all the time. But sometime later, when I was back at the University of Wisconsin, I found myself at a picket line and all of a sudden I realized I didn’t know what this picket line is for. I looked at myself and said, You better step back and think about what you’re doing: You’re picketing not for a cause but because being on a picket line is exciting…
I ended up graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English. While I was there, I’d been hanging out with one of my best friends who I grew up with, who was living in the Haight-Ashbury. It wasn’t yet the “Haight-Ashbury” but it was starting. The summer before the end of my senior year I’d gotten engaged to a guy in Washington. We broke up, and I moved to New York. I was a welfare worker there, and got involved in an activist group called the Real Great Society — there were amazing people at these meetings. Linn House, who later changed his first name to Freeman, was there. Abbie Hoffman was there.
But still, I didn’t really like New York that much. I thought there’s got to be more to life than this, there just has to be. And then one spring day, this guy comes in and he said, Come with me, you’ve got see the music and dancing going on at St. Mark’s Church. We got there. I smoked weed, and I just went out of my head, dancing. That St. Mark’s Church event made me realize I had to get back out to San Francisco. I broke up with my New York boyfriend, because he didn’t want to go, and came back to Berkeley in ’67, and got work in North Beach clubs. One day, around Valentine’s Day, 1968, I was walking down Haight Street and I bumped into Linn, who I hadn’t seen for two or three months, and he said, Oh we want you to work with us. [laughs] He and David Simpson, who I knew, were producing the Free City News and they needed help. He sent me to this really big, absolute stunningly beautiful communal Victorian house on Willard Street that had a whole extra lot for a yard. And that’s when I started meeting everybody.
To me, it was a magical world. I’d experienced some of it in New York and some of it in Berkeley and I’d experienced some of it in San Francisco. I was there at Death of the Hippie. But I’d just showed up at that event; at that time I didn’t yet know guys like Ron Thelin and Jay Thelin from The Psychedelic Shop, who were part of organizing the event. Frankly, when I’d got to the Haight in late ‘67, I was pretty disappointed because it looked grimy to me. But when I got to Willard Street, I met the people that I wanted to know my entire life. They were me. Linn was living there. Ron Thelin was sleeping in the living room. The Free City News was being produced in the basement. I got there, and I thought, Oh this is my home. This is where I belong. I said, I don’t care if you’re filled up, I belong here. I moved into the house and I became the dishwasher because I didn’t want to cook. We made dinner every night for maybe 40 people. It was unbelievably exciting. I’d lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a little while in 1966 and thought, If I’m going to do something like this, I’m going to do it in my own country. I wanted to see what was possible. And now, here I was, doing it.
We did everything together. Nobody had regular jobs. We were sharing money. And we were partly living on welfare — I would get this welfare check for $45 every two weeks and buy my cigarettes and toiletries and give the rest to the house. We’d be living without money — and it was okay. We were sharing, especially the women more than the men.
The people that had got the house were Rose Lee Patron and Patty Davis. There were four or five women, and a man named Tom Dury. You don’t think of them so much as the Diggers, because Black Bear Ranch started soon afterwards and they went to live there, and then they went on and did other things with their lives. They were such remarkable women. They made sure the rent got paid. You always hear about Emmett Grogan, but do you hear about Nina Blasenheim? Nina was the person who made the food happen. She was very capable. And so beautiful. She’s not in very many of the pictures, but everyone wanted to marry Nina.
By 1968, the Diggers had evolved into talking — and being — the “Free City” Collective, or “Free Family.” There was the Free City News. They were planning a Free City Summer Solstice celebration, a Free City Convention. What were these “Free City” concepts?
When I got there, everything was already in process, and I had to figure out what it all meant. “Free” this, “free” that. They were going to the food market to get the food that would be prepared for free meals in the park, they were starting the first Free City Convention… There was so much going on, and everybody took part in different things. People just did what they wanted to do. For example, for a while we’d go every single day to the City Hall steps and read poetry, and pass out leaflets.
You have to understand how crazy we were. Ron Thelin and Ama got arrested for wearing those scarves, pretending to be Billy the Kid or something.
For the big Summer Solstice event, I helped with some of the advertising. Somehow I managed to get up really early, get a truck, and I got somebody to drive me around. I got helium tanks, and then I put way up in the sky bunches of balloons at each site. Up on Twin Peaks, and all over, there were balloons that I had put up, advertising the solstice—because the concept was we were supposed to be going into Eternity on the Solstice. Somewhere you’ll see it in one of the Free City News pages, it shows the different parks, the schedule.
And so on the day, we went to each one of these parks, singing and playing and Ann and Bill Lindyn would do their Punch and Judy show… Just having a wonderful time. That symbolized how much fun those days were.
I was one of the bellydancers on this big bellydancing flatbed truck that was going through the Financial District at lunch hour. Lenore Kandel and Judy Goldhaft and Jane Lapiner were really good trained dancers. They led free dance classes at the Straight Theater. They were good dancers, and they had dancer friends, and some of them were on that truck. I was not one of the stars there, but I went out on this truck. I could not believe that people were actually going to work. I thought, What are you doing? How could you be going to work? It’s the Summer Solstice! Here, come, join us! We had so much fun.
Someone had got a cable car, and Bill Lindyn and I were on that, it went all over… I think it was before the actual day. It was just amazing, it drove around all the parks, people would get on and off. People singing.
We did a free bakery. We were doing masses of bread baked in big coffee cans. I organized that at one point, made sure the flour was there. There was this big ranch down in Sonoma—maybe Novato—called Oampali, owned by Don McCoy, that had become a commune, and somehow we got involved with them. They had ovens. We went there and bake bread and swim nude, basically. Immense parties. And then we’d bring the bread loaves back to the city and distribute them for free.
You see burning of money in Nowsreal. Was that a common thing?
Not really. Back then, it was just the freedom—Oh, let’s burn the money. It was just like a symbol. But… You should do it. Try to burn a dollar. It’s an interesting thing to do.
The Diggers were a pretty amazing heavy duty group of people. ‘Heavy’ was a compliment. Other people would be like ‘Oh you guys are so heavy’ —they were more like ‘We’re light, airy-fairy’ kind of stuff. You have to understand: People like Emmett and Bill Fritsch were so impressive. Peter Berg was probably one of the smartest people on the planet. And Freeman [House] was one of the most remarkable men I ever met. To me, he was pure, just…good. I am probably the most impressed with him. Just incredibly impressive, charismatic people. So they could get a lot from people. They started going down to L.A. for money.
And Willard House was the center. It was like the hangout. Everybody came there. You never had to leave if you didn’t want to, and you got to meet everybody. All the poets came there. Janine Pommy Vega and Kirby Doyle and Lenore Kandel were frequent visitors. Artists lived there: Billy Batman, Bryden Bullington. Hells Angels came there. It’s where I met Peter Coyote and Sam, and Peter Berg, and Bill Fritsch [aka Sweet William Tumbleweed]. And Tony Serra. Frank Oppenheimer came to talk to us before he created the Exploratorium! All the musicians. People like [Grateful Dead co-manager] Danny Rifkin. Whenever we wanted to go to a show, any one of us could go to a show for free. When they did Carousel Ballroom, we had free tickets. So whenever we wanted to go down there and see anybody, we could go.
The women did a lot of the stuff. It was very sexist—the men were all talking and planning, but the women were handling it. Handling a house with 40 people. Making sure there was food. Making sure there was laundry. And eventually there were many, many kids involved. Little kids. I guess the most wonderful thing was coming out of my room in the morning in this beautiful house and seeing so many people I loved to talk to and work with and travel with and play with. Vinnie, Gail, Cathy, John Glazer, Rosie, Ron, Holly, Phyllis, Emmett, Nina.
[Reading from a text she wrote in 1983] “My memories of Willard Street are so joyful. Learning how to tie-dye. I never liked doing it, I only did it once, but I loved to see the color of the tie dyes hanging everywhere. Learning how to clean squid. Eating whale meat on chocolate chip bread. Going on a motorcycle ride with Pete [Knell] of the Hells Angels…”
I’m going to throw some names out there of people who are gone, or who I haven’t been able to interview. You knew Richard Brautigan…?
A little bit. We did do things together. I put on an event with him in North Beach when he needed help. I really liked him. I loved his poetry. A lot of what went on at that point, was poetry.
How about Lew Welch?
I just liked him as a poet. He wouldn’t’ve known me, but I knew him. One time I want out to Oampali, I went out there and there was going to be a big party. I have no idea who I went with, but Lew Welch was there, and Magda his wife, and I was sitting at the table and whoever else I’d gone out there with. They were telling me about Magda’s straight son. You know who that was? Huey Lewis, who would become Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News. [laughs] And at this party someone had spread white powder out on the table and we were all licking at it, all evening long. When people came the next day for this huge party, we were absolutely totally out of our heads, psychotic. I was flashing in and out of consciousness. People were three feet tall, going in circles. And Bill Fritsch, for some reason, anchored me enough that I came back to some extent. We didn’t know what we had taken. I had taken LSD before, but this was something else… [laughs]
Was LSD a big deal for you?
I took acid here and there. LSD wasn’t that important. It was never really big for me. It just wasn’t. I had already dropped out! I’d already done everything I needed to do, without it. I really didn’t like it.
A funny thing is when I came back from that party, my timing was absolutely perfect. I’d be thinking, Oh I want to go to Ashbury Street, and somebody would come in a car and be there to take me.
Bill Fritsch was an amazing man. Bill was in and out of Willard Street all the time. And Lenore Kandel was on the periphery. I was so much in awe of Lenore that I couldn’t even talk around her. The first time I ever saw Lenore, she was reading poetry, and she was reading Word Alchemy. I was just floored, it was so beautiful, the poetry. It was the first time I think I ever enjoyed poetry in my life. [See Endnote]
And then I met her—and I’m still like this around writers—and I shut up, I’m in such awe, I put them on a pedestal. I never got over it really until she was old. When she got old and I went and helped her shop and everything, then I got over it, I saw her as a person. And Bill, Bill was just…Bill was Bill. I wasn’t involved, though. I just thought he was the most handsome, sexy man I’d ever seen in my life.
I went to her place where we prepared for this huge seder at David Simpson and Jane Lapiner’s. People cooked for it. Lenore made things like I’d never seen before. I just remember this huge table, filled with food, and we thought at one point it was gonna turn into an orgy, but it didn’t. [laughs] Allen Ginsberg was there. It was quite the event, amazing.
The poetry world itself was so magical, because you had so many people at the events. Imagine poetry readings that were filling up halls with people. They really drew a crowd. It wasn’t like a reading at a coffeeshop. People were getting so high and clapping and shouting…. It was Beat poets like Philip Whalen, or Lew Welch [click here to hear Welch read at a “raucous evening” at Glide Memorial Church on June 8, 1968] or Diane di Prima or David Meltzer or Gregory Corso.
Who was Emmett Grogan to you?
He was so beautiful. I still dream about him. By the time I got there, he was already more distant. But, right before he died, we spent time together. He stayed at my house. We weren’t lovers — we were good, good friends. I don’t even know what to say about him. He was a beautiful man.
How about Billy Murcott?
I didn’t really know Bill Murcott. The person who knows is Phyllis. I’m really good with dates, but she’s really good with subjective memory. She’ll go, Oh it was Endless Time. Because to her, it was.
I never knew how people were connected to each other, because nobody talked very much about their past. All I knew is I could tell the people that belonged and the people that didn’t, it was pretty obvious. People did not talk about their past. You lived from that moment, so the things that today, looking back, things you would think people would have known about each other at the time, they didn’t.
[Reminiscing] There was so much going on. I was involved in something in Berkeley called the Six Day School. For me to get there, I had to hitchhike into the city, and get over there by the entrance to Golden Gate Park, where they picked you up. And they took you on a bus all the way out to Glen Ellen, which is where Jack London lived. It was far. First time I ever learned about nutrition, about how to to can and preserve foods, about psychic games. Everything was free. They would give these classes, and then they would take you back and drop you off. I think I went twice.
Who were these people?
I didn’t know — and I went, anyway! We were living free, and living without money. Here’s a story I love because it just shows how absolutely crazy we all were. I had this one little welfare check and every month I would buy my cigarettes and some Tampax and whatever I needed and then give the rest of the money to the house, and then I would literally live the rest of the month without money. Now, this friend of mine and I decided that we were going to go to New Mexico together. She had a scene—it was her, her boyfriend and her little two-year-old son and a dog. And she said, Come with me, I’ll pay. We barely knew each other, and I had no money, but I was so into the whole idea of Free, that I went.
And I had incredibly mystical experiences for the first time in my life on that trip. I saw people before I met them. We went to all these ruins in New Mexico, and I would feel what was going on, the history of the place. One day we got to this ruin and I said, You know Sarah I don’t feel anything here at all, this is strange. She said, Read the plaque. Nothing had happened there. All these kinds of experiences were happening and I was reading Herman Hesse’s Demian and it was the first time I learned that psychic stuff could be real. I’d been raised by a father who was very scientific, who didn’t think any psychic stuff existed.
It continued when I got back to San Francisco. It got so that I could call somebody psychically from across the city and have them come over and they’d say, What are you doing to me? [laughs] I went to Big Sur and I met a woman who said, I just fell off a cliff and a doctor was at the bottom.
Did you go to Altamont?
Woodstock was so beautiful. The setting was so beautiful. My younger brother had gone early. He’d gotten food and camping stuff. I only went to Woodstock because I had a sister that was 16, and our mother had told her she couldn’t go unless I went with her. I was 27 at this point. We were up in the country with the family, and they dropped us off, 11 miles from the site. I loved Woodstock because I did nothing but sit there with my mouth open, listening to the music — I wasn’t a Digger, I didn’t help Wavy Gravy, I wasn’t helpful.
So, Altamont. Pete [Knell] didn’t go. Phyllis and I went down on the bus with the Hells Angels. There was this guy Moose, who we dropped acid with. We got down there at night, and remembering Woodstock, I was telling people, Oh just wait till the morning, you’ll be so surprised, it’s going to be so beautiful. Well, it wasn’t. It was California at its worst. Absolutely dry. Yellow. No water. I don’t know how much of it was intensified because I was on acid, but I just remember it being so ugly. They made you wait all day long for the music. It just went on and on and on. People were throwing bottles at each other. I think one of the things that got me out of there was I had to go to the bathroom and there weren’t any toilet facilities. I didn’t even hear [the Stones]. I hitchhiked out, because I couldn’t go back to the Angels’ bus by then. I knew that there was no way I could go back down there.
Afterwards when I came back, Pete said to me, You know you better stay away from the Angels for a while. I said Okay, fine with me.
Why didn’t Pete go?
A lot of people didn’t go. I never knew all the background of what went on.
Bill Fritsch was there…
Yeah. And Lenore was there.
What happened with Lenore in the ’70s? Was there some kind of accident?
Lenore was in a motorcycle accident. Bill was driving. I think what happened was her neck was broken but because she was with the Angels, they took her to General Hospital and then she went home and never really did anything with it. And I know, because I took her to doctors, to the chiropractor. Her whole back was crumbling. She was in really bad pain that seemed to get worse as she got older.
What do you think happened to Emmett? Was it a suicide, or…?
I was living with Peter Coyote’s lady Eileen at the time. Emmett would call her and get me on the phone and somehow he started to see I wasn’t just this dippy-dippy crazy person. So then he came to stay with us. We got to know each other. We weren’t lovers, we were just close.
I don’t know if he was killed. But I’ll tell you what makes me wonder. Months before he died, he stayed at my house, and we got really close. He was very paranoid. He kept thinking that people—government people—were after him, and he didn’t want me to tell anybody that he was there. And I didn’t.
Did you guys talk about the Diggers much?
Well no, because it was still so recent. He was telling me about his son, and his wife. He gave me his manuscript for Final Score.
When he died… Well, you can say, Oh it’s all drugs, he was crazy… But I don’t know. We’ll never know what happened. He was so convinced that they were after him. You can say that was paranoia but at the same time, who knows. He seemed pretty rational to me.
What happened to the Diggers? Why did it end when it did?
I don’t know why it didn’t continue. I think it doesn’t really matter. Some people got into drugs. A lot of people moved out to the country. A lot of people coupled off. People’s lives went on. But what stayed for almost all of us were the connections between us. I was meeting these wonderful people who are still my friends. Sister friends. People like Nina. It’s way beyond friendship.
But generally, people went on and did other great things, other good things. I really had hope in the ’70s, when the government was hiring artists to work with the poor, things like that, that’s when I really believed the change was coming. I’d studied socialism in college and I was thinking, Well gee, we’re in the synthesis period.
You know Richard Brautigan’s poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace? I really believed that, the idea that computers would come in and do all the work. The social problem then would be what are you going to do with all the leisure time. [laughs] Of course this is not what actually ended up happening; instead, computers have made it so a few people make a fortune and everyone else becomes poorer. But back then, ideas like this were in the air. Even somebody like Goldwater was saying everybody should have a guaranteed income. It could have happened.
How did your family back east respond to what you were doing in San Francisco?
I would go home and talk to my parents and my friends, and they just thought we were being totally unrealistic. I truly believed—and I don’t know if this had to do with dope or what—that we were going into the Age of Aquarius and we were going to change the world.
There was a paper that I wrote at the time called “Living at Willard State in 1968.” I intended to send it to friends who lived in New York, telling them about what we did and why they should either send money, or come be with us. It was a very logical paper. I never sent it and I never showed it to anybody, until much later. I was trying to figure out what people were talking about at this house. The way I saw it was that if you get a bunch of people together, living communally, and if everybody picks a job, you’re gonna get everything covered because everybody has different interests. And that general idea could be expanded further outwards. That’s the thing I got to. To me, it was all just some kind of an experiment… But at the same time, we were doing it.
People at home would tell me, This isn’t going to work. But I really believed it was going to work, that we could make a difference. I look back at it now, I go… Why did I think that? I guess it’s youth. The optimism of a 25-year-old is so unrealistic. Even though the Vietnam War and everything was going on, it was much brighter then, in that way, than it is now. When I look back, I see all that hope. And then I look around and see how sad the world is now. It’s just unbelievable.
I have friends today that say, Oh yeah I experienced the Sixties, I dropped acid, and all these things. And then I reply, But you were working a full-time job, or being a housewife — you weren’t experiencing what I was experiencing. When I got to Willard Street in February ’68, it was like I had entered a Technicolor movie. I couldn’t believe how beautiful everything was. What I was involved in at Willard Street was being with the women, doing the day-to-day operations, and more importantly, finding ourselves. And I think almost all of us did find out who we were, and what we were supposed to do with our lives.
By August 1968, some people from Willard Street were moving out to Black Bear. I eventually went to live with the Hells Angels, but these people from Willard Street have been my best friends ever since. Later on, when our children came, Joanie Batman and I did a free school. And that’s really what I learned about myself from that time, that I liked teaching and being with kids.
Vicki assembled the poems that made up Collected Poems of Lenore Kandel, published in 2012 with a gorgeous, haunting preface by fellow poet Diane di Prima.
Born in 1932, Chester Anderson arrived in the Haight-Ashbury from the East Village sometime in 1966 as a published science fiction novelist, music journalist and post-Beat, gregarious psychedelic counterculture scene veteran. During the Diggers period, he and business partner Claude Hayward ran the “communication company” (aka “com/co”), printing — and sometimes writing — broadsides submitted to them by Diggers and others, which were then distributed on the street. Chester departed the San Francisco scene sometime in 1967 for reasons not entirely clear, and died in 1991 at age 58. (For more on com/co, see Eric Noble’s diggers.org archive).
But unlike fellow Diggers Emmett Grogan or Peter Coyote, Chester did not — as far as I’m aware — write a memoir about the period. Through the com/co broadsides, contemporary news stories, a few personal letters to friends and various Diggers’ foggy memories, we know something of what Chester did and thought in the Haight in 1966-67. But as to how he later came to regard the period, with the wisdom that usually accrues from the passage of time? We’ve got nothing.
Or so I thought. Turns out Chester, who was gay, wrote two articles for counterculture newspaper The Seed in 1970. Called “The Revolutionary Gang,” these lovely, generous and typically Chester thinkpieces go into some detail about the workings of the Diggers, com/co, and the Haight. Chester ruminates on what worked during the period, and why. “The Revolution is the highest kind of fun,” he says, and “as a functioning social unit, the revolutionary gang has much to recommend it.” Here are some of Chester’s ideas on how to make the Revolution “in our new world borning.”
I’ve posted both articles below as PNGs. Click on each image for a larger PDF.
Siena Carlton-Firestone arrived in San Francisco in 1966, a 19-year-old working class Grand Rapids, Michigan native taking a break from attending university at Antioch in the midst of some personal turmoil. Before long Siena fell in with a group of fellow Antioch students living in the Haight-Ashbury who were involved in the San Francisco Diggers. The Diggers were a group of anonymous acid-fueled street anarchists — dancers, poet-playwrights, actors, mechanics, longshoremen, artists, runaways, bikers, etc. — who were building a communal urban community that avoided the use of money, one “free” public project at a time. Diggers provided free food; they ran a free store; they put on free public events; facilitated free housing and free LSD; and so on.
Siena took part in it all — this whirlwind of activity from Fall 1966 through 1967 and beyond, that helped midwife the ’60s counterculture — becoming “Natural Suzanne,” a nickname whose derivation is revealed below. Her boyfriend for much of this period was Emmett Grogan, the Diggers’ most notorious member, and the one most heavily mythologized, both at the time in the underground and mainstream press, and later, in his 1972 fictional autobiography Ringolevio.
I interviewed Siena one evening in August, 2010 at her Sacramento, California home. She’s had quite a life — at the time that I interviewed her, she was working as an attorney in the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office (she has since retired) — and the Diggers period was only a short, small part of it. Nonetheless, her time in the Diggers was formative and pivotal, and more than 40 years after the fact, Siena’s memories were sharp and often affectionate, her insights by turns loving, forgiving and — necessarily, given the subject matter — devastating. We talked for over two hours and it was clear to me that we were only scratching the surface of an extraordinary period in an extraordinary life.
The following text is a transcript of that 2010 conversation, which has been expanded on via email conversation in the last year. It has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. There are, inevitably, a few digressions. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, there’s a good chance you’ll like the next part. (For more about the Diggers, consult the vast archive that has been maintained for decades by historian Eric Noble at diggers.org)
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Siena. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with original San Francisco Diggers that I am presenting online for the first time, constituting a kind of collective oral history. Each interview is accessible here. More to come.
Please note: I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Siena Carlton-Firestone: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1947. I grew up in a very blue-collar, middle class family . My mom was a stay-at-home mother with seven children, and I was the oldest. My dad worked very hard to support our family. He and his mother owned and ran Carlton Catering Company. Their main customer was Capital Airlines which flew back and forth from Grand Rapids to Chicago. They created the cutest little petite-point sandwiches along with darling little cakes covered with pastel frosting and a frosting rose in a glassine box tied with a ribbon. Passengers loved them. Capital was bought out by United Airlines and Carlton Catering was over and done. After that my Dad worked in small local factories.
My dad was the greatest. He spent his childhood in foster homes even though his mother was alive and well. I don’t think he had the opportunity to graduate from high school but he had a mind as bright as anyone I knew. My mother and her sister and brother suffered a great deal during the Depression. My great-grandmother would take them to churches where they could eat if they professed to the church ministries.
I learned at age 17 that my dad was not my birth father. My dad had always included me in the loop with his children, my brother and five sisters, he’d never made me feel like an outsider. But I was shocked. The knowledge that I had been deceived by both my mother and my dad set me on a path that I might not have otherwise followed. [See Endnote 1 for more on Siena’s birth father.]
Jay Babcock: How did you get from Grand Rapids to San Francisco?
I left Grand Rapids in 1965, for Yellow Springs, Ohio to attend Antioch College. Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, had been a visiting professor at Antioch. My aunt had attended an outdoor summer theater production and fell in love with the campus. Antioch was the only college I applied to; it was as far from home as I could get.
My teenage life was very protected. I wasn’t allowed to date and I was limited to outings with the small group of girls who I called my friends. Life changed suddenly at Antioch: anti-war sentiments, poetry, literature from unfamiliar sources, walking through beautiful Glen Helen, meeting people, having my first boyfriend.
The Antioch experience had two basic twists on conventional colleges. First, the program was set up on pass/fail basis. That left me with time to attend foreign movies, to go to any seminar or presentation that seemed interesting, to spend hours playing bridge. For the first time, “school” wasn’t important to me.
Second twist was the work/study program. Time on campus was rotated with work at a job off-campus. I first spent time off-campus living in a Kentucky mining town. It was depressing. My favorite job was teaching at a winter school camp for sixth-graders in the woods on a small lake in New Hampshire, marching them onto the deeply frozen lake during the new moon. The sky was black and deep. The stars and planets were frozen in place. My job, using a flashlight as a pointing device, was to show them the constellations and the Planets along with the Greek Myths associated with them.
After that winter’s experience, back at Antioch, I met a young man. Together we hitchhiked together from state to state. But young love can rapidly fade, and one afternoon, looking out my dorm window, I saw him with his arm around the proverbial red-headed girl. Heartbroken, I switched from study to work session. I got a job in Chicago and lived in an apartment on the South Side with other Antioch students who were on work session. I did not like Chicago. Children threw bricks at me on my way to the El and one time I was held up at gunpoint on my way home from the East Dorchester stop.
At my parents’ suggestion, I flew to San Francisco to stay with my uncle, who lived in the Marina district. He was a commercial fisherman with his own boat who line-caught salmon. He became my surrogate father, since I was still angry and confused about the hidden father issue. He gave me his studio apartment on Jefferson Street and took up living on his boat. What a great guy. I miss him a lot.
So you were in San Francisco in 1966….
I hadn’t been in college that long. Time-wise, I would have been a sophomore but credit-wise, more like a freshman.
How did you come in contact with the Diggers?
One day I was walking along the sea wall at the Marina and I ran into someone from Antioch. He said, Oh you should come down to the Haight-Ashbury. There’s some people there from Antioch. Those people were Nina Blasenheim, Bobbi Swofford, and a man named John, whose last name I forget. They lived in a house on Ashbury Street — this is the house that was being used to cook the “Digger Stew,” which was the early mainstay of Free Food. On the night I visited, I met Emmett Grogan. He asked me to go with him for a walk in Buena Vista Park and from then on we were together until we were no longer together. (A sidenote: Emmett claimed that a poem written by Richard Brautigan, “Nothing Ever Happens in Buena Vista Park,” was written for us after Emmett told Richard that that was where we met.) [See Endnote 2.]
But I’d had another “first” introduction to the Diggers. One day in October 1966 I was on a bus coming home from my job downtown. Traffic was totally stopped, way down by Fillmore Street. I’m sure you’ve seen that picture of Emmett, Peter Berg, Brooks Bucher, Robert LaMorticella and Kent Minault on the courthouse steps. They were celebrating beating the charges that came from when they’d been arrested that day in the process of doing a bit of street theater, which was what had caused the traffic I’d experienced. They had handed flyers to the people on the corner of Haight and a cross street to play “The Intersection Game.” What the participants didn’t know was that there were several versions of the game resulting in complete chaos holding up traffic for miles. In addition, these crazy Mime Troupe actors were wearing gigantic three-dimensional masks on their shoulders confusing things even further. The actors were arrested, and the masks were taken into custody. The traffic slowly unraveled, and I made it home.
There was a third “first” introduction. I was just walking down Haight Street and somebody handed me a piece of paper that was all cut in curlicues — somebody had really taken the time to cut this elaborate design out of a piece of paper — and it said, Bring your bowl to the Panhandle for free soup. So I went to check it out: I didn’t have a bowl, I wasn’t hungry. And then I saw Nina there, with Bobbi Swofford and Cindi. And Emmett.
I started to go to all of the Digger functions and all the Mime Troupe functions with Emmett. There was the responsibility of Free Food, and we had a Free Store. Whatever needed doing, I did that.
Emmett was a very social person. Wherever he went, people loved to listen to him talk. He had a magnetism that was amazing. And so I just kind of went with him wherever he went — it could be anywhere, from one extreme of society to another. Which is how I met Richard Brautigan, and all the Beat poets: Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso. Michael McClure and Emmett were really good friends so I got to know him pretty well.
Where was Emmett living?
When I first met him he was living in a studio apartment on Fillmore Street. Another person from the Mime Troupe was also living there: John Robb. But John never really got into the whole Digger thing, he was a purist in terms of his acting and street theater. He would tear his Pall Mall cigarettes in half and save one half in his shirt pocket. Emmett had this little place in an incredible San Francisco building. I stayed with him there.
Before I met them, Peter Cohon aka Peter Coyote, lived across the street. Peter once told me how he met Emmett. He was having coffee at his breakfast table, watching a man on the roof across the street acting out some bizarre story alone and by himself. When Peter went into the Mime Troupe that afternoon, there was the same guy trying out for a job as an actor. Of course that was Emmett, and they were friends from then through forever more.
From there we moved to the Castro area, into something like a storefront with a kitchen and a bathroom in the hall. We paid $80 a month. It had no glamour or panache but at lest we were together. It was during that time Emmett introduced me to Billy Batman [Jahrmarkt] and his wonderful wife Joan. [See Endnote 3.]
What were your first impressions of Emmett?
I had never met anyone like him. He was from Brooklyn. He was a very unusual person. When I met him, he’d just gotten out of the Army. When he started in the Mime Troupe, he’d just gotten out of the army psych ward. He’d been stationed at whatever the Army base is that’s in San Francisco, but he didn’t like being there. So here’s how he was: the first thing he did to try to get out was during bazooka training, they’re all out on a field, and he just pointed the bazooka up in the sky and shot it. Everybody was running around trying to find shelter, and Emmett just stood there. After that they put him into the mental ward. First thing he did there was take all of the beds in the ward and tie them together in the middle of the room. So, that kind of added toward his reputation for lunacy. Then they had him doing some job xeroxing stuff and and he made like 1,000 xeroxes of himself. So they let him go. They said, We don’t want you. But it’s like, okay…what kind of a character puts himself in the range of bazooka fire?
The first time I stayed with Emmett he pulled a gym bag out of his closet and showed me hundreds of pills inside the bag. He told me they were the psychotropic medications that the army had given him while he was locked up in the psych ward. He didn’t take any of them. He saved them and took them with him when he was finally released.
The few years I spent with Emmett changed my life. Wherever we went, I was being exposed to something that I would never have been exposed to in my little other life that I came from, being wrapped in a cocoon. My life became an adventure. I read and I thought in new and exciting ways. I met poets and artists, geniuses and all manner of talented human beings.
It’s a pretty amazing circle.
Peter Berg, to me, was a certifiable genius. He was one of the directors at the Mime Troupe. When I first met him, he and Judy [Goldhaft] weren’t together yet. She was actually married to the father of her first child, Aaron, but they were breaking up. And, her husband was a really incredible artist, very experimental. When I was doing the Mime Troupe thing, I’d go to classes, just have fun. I always remember when she and Peter started going together, we were in a class and he came in and grabbed her around the waist and kissed her between the legs. Which, you know, was like, Whoa! It was sweet and all. Very sweet. Then after that, they were a couple, going together.
The two Peters—Berg and Coyote—and Emmett, I can’t think of anybody besides those three who was the real core intelligence of the Diggers. A lot of people participated, but they came up with all the ideas. I was there when they created them.
What about Billy Murcott? How did he fit in there?
Billy was Emmett’s best friend in the entire world. He worshipped Billy. They grew up together. Billy was there all the time too. He loved Billy. I don’t think there was anyone in Emmett’s life who meant more to him than Billy. They just were lovely friends.
Peter Coyote and Peter Berg… without Emmett, I don’t know if they would have done what they did. I mean, it wouldn’t have diminished them. But I think they would have been more traditional actors, even though they were doing progressive kind of stuff, it would have still remained in that realm, rather than going out into the streets the way it did, with Emmett’s ideas.
Sometimes when I talk about Emmett, people say, Don’t you ever say anything bad about him? Wasn’t there something that happened to you that wasn’t because of him? I just have to say, I don’t think so. While we were together, it wasn’t very long, but it was life-changing. Like for me to be an attorney right now, to stand up in front of people, to defend the rights of all these people who need defending, desperately, I don’t know if I ever would have considered something like that back then, because I was so insecure. And shy.
So you were this 19-year-old young woman from back east who was getting toured around…
“Toured around” is a good way to put it. Being introduced to life in its most pristine element. Because it was all about…Art. Visual art, the art of words, the art of performance, the art of thinking. Everything was put on a higher level. It was so intriguing. I just became fascinated and enamored by these people who could think the way they did, and have such a selfless attitude. That whole concept of autonomy — Emmett’s description of autonomy was standing on a street corner waiting for no one, which is actually a quote from Gregory Corso. Actually it might have been Antonin Artaud. Hearing that was a life-changing statement for me. Everything that they did was life-changing for me. I grew up in Michigan, which is very isolated, it’s surrounded by lakes. No one from the outside world goes to Michigan unless they’re going there to hunt or fish. There’s nice people there, there’s good people there, but of course it’s not cosmopolitan. And so when I met all these young people in San Francisco that were thinking about things that had never occurred to me, and when they would talk about it, everything made sense to me, it was like going to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or something: you could end up as a big blueberry or really come out of it in a positive way. That’s how I felt about it.
Also, everybody was really nice. Phyllis [Willner] was my very first girlfriend. I’d never had a girlfriend before. Well I had girlfriends in high school. But I mean a real friend, not just… I don’t know what we were in high school, but it wasn’t friends.
And I loved the poets. And that was one of Emmett’s things, that he loved the poets.
Did you go to poetry readings, or hang out with them in their kitchens, or…?
Both, both. Because one thing we would do at the free stores is have poetry readings. So I’d get to do that. And then, just hanging out with them, in people’s kitchens. Gregory Corso was a person that was easy to be around. He laughed and joked and wrote poetry and had these really wild girlfriends, that were sort of stereotypes of some kind, sort of Italian bombshell types. But I didn’t know him that well, I never hung out with him and his friends other than when I was with Emmett. Or with Lenore [Kandel]. Or with Bill [Fritsch]. Lenore and Bill were living in an apartment in North Beach. In the beginning we used to go over there and visit. They’d all met through Elsa Marley, a painter who was married to Richard Marley, who was a longshoreman. Bill, Lenore’s husband, was also a longshoreman. It was through the Marleys that Peter and Emmett and Peter met Bill and Lenore. And because Lenore was a poet, she knew all those poets, all the old Beat guys.
So we spent a lot of time with her and Bill, just being exposed to people who thought in very high-minded ways. Literally. And figuratively.
The free store was a scene.
It was at one of the free stores, I think it was on Sanford Street, that I met Owsley Stanley. It was a cold, windy, stormy night. We were having a poetry reading and showing avant garde-type films. I was sitting by Emmett, and this guy comes up and taps him on the shoulder, very mysteriously, and says ‘Come out with me.’ So Emmett grabbed me too, we went out and there was this big van. We went into the back of it with this guy, and it was lined with all kinds of shoeboxes. The guy opens one up and it is filled to the top with something he called White Lightning, thousands of hits of LSD, little round white pills. I learned then that the man was a chemist named Owsley and that the white lightning was his primo stuff. He gave the shoebox to us, free. So we took that and went back to Emmett’s place, divided it up into little baggies. The next day we gave a full baggie to the street people we knew with instructions that it could not be sold, and that it was to be given away. I heard stories that they would just go down the street see somebody they knew and say, “Hey open your mouth and stick out your tongue.” The city was dosed.
That was the one time I met Owsley. He was real quiet, real dark, an egghead chemist. Oh, the days. I’m glad the statute of limitations has run out!
How important was LSD for yourself, and the others?
I would say very important.
You hadn’t had any in Michigan?
No, are you kidding? I hadn’t had alcohol in Michigan. When I was at Antioch, that’s when I had LSD. And the first time I had marijuana, I was on my very first work-study job away from Antioch. I was in New Hampshire, at the winter school camp I described before. One of the other people who was there from another school that was similar to Antioch, called Beloit, received a little box with marijuana in it. I didn’t even hardly know what marijuana was at that time. Of course I thought, you know, that it was the devil or whatever. But I tried smoking some, while I was knitting a sweater. When I smoked it, I said, I don’t feel anything, what’s the big deal. And then the next morning when I looked at my knitting it was filled with holes and missed stitches. [laughs] But then, all he had was that little bit, so that was the end of it.
The first time I had ever heard about LSD was at Antioch when Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner came to our campus. They had a slideshow, and they presented it in an auditorium along with a lecture about their experimentations with the drug. The slide show was to give us an idea of the different kinds of visionary changes you might see when you are hallucinating. But at that time I still hadn’t even tried marijuana. My boyfriend at Antioch and his family had spent a year in India, and he had come back with some hashish. So he turned me onto hash. I was with him when I took acid for the first time. We had a lovely day walking around the beautiful Antioch Campus. And then, when it got dark, we went to the movies in town and saw the Beatles’ Help and A Hard Day’s Night. So it was a good trip.
It was just so much a part of everything going on. I never have a bad trip. I thought that it was a very enlightening drug — the things I would think about on LSD changed my life.
Here’s one thing. When I was six years old, on Halloween, my little costume caught on fire. I was burned very severely. I was in the hospital from Halloween til Christmas. Back in those days, the anesthesia they gave you was ether. A terrible drug. Terrible. And they gave me morphine for the severe pain. They didn’t have the other drugs that they have now. So here I am, a six-year-old kid, and I come out of the hospital three months later addicted to morphine, with ether nightmares. I suffered ether nightmares almost all of my life, well into my 30s.
When I became a young adult and I started using drugs… Well, the LSD kind of counteracted the effects of the ether in some ways—instead of having these horrible, horrible frightening things happen, it was more natural and pleasant. I always think that the early experience in my life affected my whole attitude towards drugs and everything. I practice Buddhism now. One of the reasons I practice Buddhism is because it reflects some of the things I learned when I was on LSD. That concept that everything starts with an idea. If you can conceive of it, you can make it happen. That’s a very Buddhist concept, and I use it as my guide during my life. As an added benefit when I started my Buddhist practice I literally faced up to the ether nightmares and chased them away.
So you never went back to Antioch, you stayed in San Francisco…
I had come out to San Francisco for a three-month or six-month stay, depending on how it went. But I got to where I was like, I’m learning more here than I ever would in a classroom, so why would I want to go back to campus in Ohio when I have this great opportunity.
The Diggers were really active.
I liked the idea that we were providing basic necessities for people: a safe haven to sleep in, clothing at the free store, and free food in the park. Sometimes I think the Diggers invented crash pads. There was the whole issue of the press, Life Magazine and other media sources really pushing the idea that San Francisco was some sort of haven for runaways — “Free Love!,” etc — so hundreds of young kids were coming out, with no directions, thinking ,Oh it’s sunny California and everyone is kind and friendly. But it can be freezing in San Francisco, and there were lots of predators lurking in the shadows.
Now, from the very beginning, many of the merchants on Haight Street were contributing money to the Diggers. The money was used to rent the Free Store, and we also rented apartments, and basically threw away the key. And the word got out on the street, if you need a place to be safe, you can go here. I went to one once with Emmett, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay there. I thought it was scary. But it was better than being out on the street.
The free food evolved. At one point they stopped saying ‘bring your own bowl,’ because they felt that that in effect made it not free food if you had to bring something in order to get something. So they took that requirement away. And later it went from being just big drums of soup in the park to actually having pickup trucks FILLED with produce, and just going down the street, and calling out, Free produce, free produce. People would come out to the truck and pick out what they wanted and take it home.
The person who I always think of with that is Vinnie Rinaldi. He came into the scene from Willard Street. Vicki Pollack, Kathy Nolan, Roselee, they all lived at Willard Street. And Vinnie lived there with a pickup truck. So he would drive us, mostly it was the women who went to the farmer’s market to get the free produce. He’d drive us there, we’d fill his truck with all kinds of fruit, vegetables, and even chicken, and then he would drive it very slowly through the area of the Haight-Ashbury. Anybody who wanted to come out and get some free food could come get it. It didn’t have to be Diggers. It wasn’t just hippies.
One time when I was working in the Free Store, a bunch of curious little neighborhood kids came in. I told them it was a free store. They went around the store asking, Is this free? What about this? This? This? This? And I answered, Yes, yes, and yes. You can take anything you want. They left with everything they could carry. I was working there a few days later and the same boys came in again, this time with a shopping cart filled with stuff. They told me, Our mothers sent us to bring this to you. I thought, That must have blown their minds. Here they’ve got all this stuff. And their mothers have actually participated. Diggers in training.
There apparently was some relationship between some of the Diggers and the Black Panthers…
I remember that the Diggers wanted to have a good relationship with the Black Panthers, but I don’t think that happened. I think the needs of black people were more dire than what the Diggers had to offer them.
The Diggers published a pamphlet called “Nows Real.” Emmett asked me to do a collage. He said, ‘You have to make a page to represent the Black Panthers,’ which I did. I have a copy of the ordinal pamphlet.
[Points at Diggers sheets] A lot of this stuff is written by Emmett.. He never signed anything. He did all the early writing on his little portable typewriter, in his apartment on Fillmore Street. I look at this stuff, and think, Oh yeah, that’s Emmett’s typewriter. Emmett would do real interesting things like that: move the type around…
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Can we say definitively that the Diggers coined that phrase?
No, I don’t think so. But I do remember it was from Emmett that I first heard it, and saw it written. It may be that it came out of the Diggers. It may be that Emmett invented it.
The “Natural Suzanne” nickname: what was that about?
That happened when we went to New Mexico and we stayed with this Pueblo Indian and his wife. I picked up on things easily they started calling me Natural Suzanne because I could do anything, whatever. I learned fast so I could repeat whatever I was being taught. That’s how that name came about.
Claude Hayward and Helene were in New Mexico at some point. Do you remember them?
Claude and Helene, I remember them very well. When my babies were about two years old, their father and I split up. He bought me a truck so that I could move away from him and leave Treat Street. My brother Dick Carlton and his wife Pat, along with our good friend Susan Keese drove us to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Helene lived in a seven-room adobe house. It wasn’t like we were super friends or anything, but she welcomed us in and taught me how to garden organically (of course in those days we never heard of organic anything). Claude lived on another side of the mountain but Helene’s children Claine and Haude lived with us in the 7 Room House. That garden was really incredible. She was out there. And from what I hear, she still is.
What about Chester Anderson?
I have a picture of Chester in my mind, but I don’t think I could do a good job of describing him. It would be a very general description. My recollection is all that stuff they had had been stolen. I remember going to their house—they all lived together—and going there for the purpose of getting something or other published. I never hung out with them.
Do you remember anything about the Invisible Circus?
You can’t really forget it. It was a lot of people. They’d opened up the entire church to us. I remember in the planning stage when we went to the Church and met with the second guy in command, not Cecil [Williams], but whoever was his second guy. We were in his office and he showed us his dildo collection. This was this Church guy. He was part of the Church. He had an office, windows, a desk, a door that closed. I don’t know why this happened. He showed us all these dildos. I’d never heard of a dildo, I didn’t even know what it was. So he pulls out, the only one I remember, if you looked at it, it looked like a nun, and if you turned it on the other side, it looked like a penis. [laughs] That was pretty shocking. I was a very naïve person. We went to a free dinner run by the church. After standing in line for our food I remember saying to Emmett, I’ve never seen women that big before. He’s like, Those are men! I said, What? They’ve got high heels on! It was really different. Those people that ran that church definitely were on the edge.
Everybody at the Invisible Circus was kind of insane. People were dressed up in costumes. So many things going on. You know, the Human Be-In, that was pretty much a single stage. The pure Digger stuff was: there is no beginning and no end. You couldn’t pin anything down, say this is where it’s happening, because when you’re saying that, it was happening over there…
One of the things I remember that I can testify to: They had these totally political type men dressed in suits and ties. They had been invited to participate in a panel on obscenity. While they were talking at a table Peter Berg was running the discussion. Behind them was a book case with open shelving. And during the serious discussion was Kent with his penis wagging. You couldn’t see Kent and the men didn’t have any clue that was happening. That was really disturbing but funny. I saw the whole thing. I can bear witness to it. Emmett filled a room with a whole bunch of plastic. It was maybe waist deep, just piles of shreds of plastic. A precursor to a game for children, for example a pool filled with colored plastic balls. I remember Phyllis dancing on the altar, where the priest usually stands to give a sermon. The Communications Company was set up right there on the scene. Then they had that room where the brides would go to get changed, I think they had that as like a honeymoon suite or something.
I thought the Invisible Circus was pretty chaotic. There were other events that maybe didn’t have that much impact that were more fun. I remember going to San Quentin [State Prison] with the Grateful Dead. They were going to play a free concert, but then the warden wouldn’t let them in, so they set it up on a nearby bluff so that the sound would travel into the prison yard.
I went to another event with the Diggers and the Cleveland Wrecking Company at the prison for the criminally insane in Atascadero. The warden did let us in for that one. We set up tie-dyed tents, we brought in food, showed the Nowsreal film and danced with the prisoners to the live music.
You were at the Alan Burke TV show…
That was so insane. I was supposed to be “Emma Grogan.” See, they wanted Emmett to come on their show. And he said, Okay, if you fly Peter Berg out here. So they flew Peter out. Peter was at the show. But Emmett didn’t want to go, so he talked me into going.
Why didn’t Emmett want to go?
He was very serious about not wanting to be identified as a leader. He was really into anonymity. The only picture that had been published of him at that point was in Ramparts magazine, and it was a little tiny picture, his face was in shadow, and he was wearing a cap and a plaid shirt. So I wore the cap and the plaid shirt. But I didn’t have the skills… I was like, Oh my gosh, what am I doing, how am I supposed to act. Phyllis was there. [Realist editor] Paul Krassner had brought this suitcase filled with melted pies. I gotta admit, I feel bad that I smashed a pie on some poor innocent woman’s face. It was fun when they were dragging me out. I had a guard on each arm, and they were dragging me out of the studio. But I don’t have that good of a memory of it— that one I’ve sort of blanked out. You don’t always want to remember everything.
You went to L.A. with Emmett and Coyote when they were hustling for money…
I went with them but I was never part of the hustling thing. They would go do that on their own. But I did get to spend time in L.A. and hang out with movie stars and producers and all those super fancy people.
Why were these people willing to meet with the Diggers?
I think because it was something revolutionary, and new, and hadn’t happened before, and the people involved with it were all really interesting people.
Diggers weren’t normal activists: they were poets, actors, etc.
Right. That was what it made it so different, because it was street art and street theater.
People were fascinated by you guys.
There was a nun who just loved the Diggers. She would go on the back of Hells Angels motorcycles and take rides. The nun was amazing. She loved us too. Life with the Diggers was really something. God, I was lucky. People who weren’t there, there’s no way to understand it.
Talk about the Hells Angels.
Oh, that was fun. They were always part of the thing. I never knew any of them until I actually lived at a house for a while, the same time Vicki did. Billy and Joanie Batman lived upstairs. It was Pete Knell’s house. He was the San Francisco king of the Hells Angels. To me the San Francisco Hells Angels were kind of like hippie Hells Angels. They weren’t like the Oakland people. I mean, I know, they beat each other up and did all this really mean stuff, but they also had this other side to them. They loved hanging out with us. There was a lot of guys in their 20s and 30s and there were also people in their 40s and older. But it seemed like the San Francisco Hells Angels tended to be pretty young. And we were all sort of wild, you know? They weren’t that much wilder than we were. Well, they were. Much, much wilder.
Were you at Altamont?
No. I know exactly where I was during Altamont. Coyote had a ranch in Olema and I was doing dishes and I had the radio on. That’s where I was when everything blew up.
I don’t really think of Altamont as a “Digger” thing. This is what I remember: The Diggers thought that what the people were doing was dangerous, and that it wasn’t being thought through carefully enough. I remember that at first they were involved in it and then they didn’t want to be involved in it anymore. I do recall very vaguely that it was Emmett, or Peter, or one of them that actually got the Hells Angels to be the bodyguards there, and obviously that was not too good of a plan. It was too big, and too out of control. I wasn’t at Woodstock, but Woodstock was smaller, and had water. And shade. And careful planning.
Did you know Richard Brautigan well?
Brautigan and Emmett were good friends. So, we would go to his house and he would come to our place. One cute thing I remember about Richard. He’d moved into a new apartment, and he had an open house. He had painted goldfish all around the inside the toilet bowl.
He was very intense and very crazy. Meth, speed — whatever they called it. Speed. He told me once, he said, ‘I have tunnels that have been burned through my brain.’ Now [we know] that literally is true. He knew, even though nobody had shown that yet, he knew that. He was very crazy. Very brilliant but the speed took over his life.
I’d met him but I never really knew him. I know he and Lenore were really good friends. Pretty much everybody that I knew was whoever Emmett was friends with. He and Lew Welch weren’t close.
What happened with you and Emmett?
Why did we break up? It was a lot of things. One was he really got involved in heavy drugs. Heroin. He wasn’t him anymore. He’d just be this person who was… the spark of whatever wasn’t there. Sometimes I think, Couldn’t I have been more compassionate? Couldn’t I have been more forgiving? Couldn’t I have been more understanding? But, if I could’ve, I would’ve, and I didn’t, so…
I didn’t have whatever kind of strength it took to stand by him and watch him… It was too much. It was sad. I’m so sorry about what happened to him. He never really wanted to live long. And I’d seen that with people, people who say Oh I don’t want to live past 30—they usually don’t live much past 30. And he was convinced he was going to die early, and sure enough… I think that was just part of who he was. That he saw himself as a bright flash, and then… Well, he spent those later years writing. He was always a writer. That’s what he loved to do, was write. And so that was good, he had a chance to do that.
One fall we went to New York City. Brooklyn was his hometown. To his mother’s dismay I stayed with him there until we actually moved into the city. I met his mother and father and his dear sister, Ellen. His mother prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for his entire family and I was included, so I met all his relatives including his cousin, a Catholic priest. His mom cried the whole time, which made me feel pretty bad, but I could understand her position. When he brought me home he introduced me to his mother as his “Indian Princess.” She wasn’t quite ready for her son hooking up with an Indian, even though it wasn’t really true. She tried very hard to be kind to me, and shared stories about how Emmett always acted the tough guy and got himself into trouble. In one story he ended up in the hospital in pretty bad condition. She said she sat at the foot of his bed, washing his feet, which I assumed was an analogy to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. She was afraid he was going to die.
What did you think of Ringolevio?
I was sad that my grandfather chose to read it—I think it was a contributing factor to his disinheriting me. What’s interesting about Ringolevio is that I am probably the only person who met the real-life person who became the Emmett character in the book. A lot of those stories that Emmett tells were not his story but this other guy’s story. Emmett might have fantasized about murder in the romantic sense of it, but no, I’m sorry, I’m very certain he never did that. Similarly, being a really high class thief of the cat burglar variety. That was his same outrageous friend. Emmett was a good storyteller. He had kissed the blarney stone long before he was even born. And he had such an interesting way of presenting things that… He could tell any story he wanted, and it’s like, maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, but it’s just for the story and the story is everything.
Heroin is such a deadening drug. Although I tried it, and I’ve got to say, when I used it, I felt comfortable, for the first time ever. And then I thought, why is that? And I think it’s from when I was the six-year-old burn survivor, hooked on morphine. And I went through all those years without it and then when I did take an opiate again, I was in a comfort zone that I hadn’t been in for 20 years, or however long. But what I saw with Emmett? It really ruined his life. And ultimately killed him…
Right now, I work with all kinds of drug addicts and I don’t know anybody who has one crumb of imagination. For five years, I’ve been doing two different drug courts, and it’s a bunch of people who are just, I can’t figure them out. I have one client who’s a really good artist — but he’s the only one. Then, I look back on us: yeah, we were all taking drugs, but we were so creative, we were thinking and acting and doing things. Nowadays the people are just dumb. When they say ‘dope,’ that describes my clients. They’re just idiots. On the other hand, who am I to call them dumb? Many of them are kind and big-hearted people who have no idea how to live a life of freedom. But for a stroke of luck, I could have been lost myself.
I went through this stage, a kind of autism kind of thing, if that’s the right word, I’m not sure. I couldn’t talk. People would talk to me, everything was going on in my brain, but I couldn’t connect between my brain and my mouth to say anything. I was living at Pete Knell’s house at that time. They were very protective of me. Nothing bad ever happened. I remember Peter Berg coming up to me and being like, Well how have you been? And in my brain I was going just like, How have I been? All of this stuff. How am I going to… And then finally he just said, Ah forget you, and walked away. And then my friend Susan Keyes, she also was an artist and a writer and a poet, I remember telling her, I don’t know what to say when people talk to me. She said, Well, just say ‘wow.’ So I learned how to say, ‘wow,’ in a thousand different ways. It was life-saving. I just needed one word to say aloud.
One thing I learned from all that is that I can survive. Another thing I learned is, if there’s something in life that you want, you can make it happen. I decided I wanted to be an attorney. I remember when I decided I wanted to be an attorney. I was living in San Francisco. Bryden Bullington was living with my friend Joan Batman and all of Joanie’s kids after Billy died. They were living in a house on Coso Avenue and I was over visiting. They were telling me about this situation where Bryden had been out on the street selling bunk or something to try to get money for his heroin habit. The police tried to bust him and he ran. They chased him. He ran home and the cops ran in after him. Joanie told me they pushed her against the wall, they picked up her baby and threw him against the wall, they terrified the children and then chased Bryden out the back door. It was so dramatic.
That’s when I decided I wanted to be an attorney. At that point I hadn’t even finished college. But I did I earned my cum laude degree from San Francisco State (with the help of my incredible children) and went on to get my law degree from UC Berkeley despite all odds. I had no one to pay for my education, because I’d burned out my family. But I knew I could do it. You have to focus on it, you have to really want it, and be willing to do whatever you need to get to it, but you can do anything.
Why didn’t the Diggers last?
Why doesn’t a comet stay in the air forever? It was a moment. It was like lighting a match. It was really special. I don’t know.
Was the deluge of kids coming in the summer of ‘67 too much?
That’s what inspired the Diggers. It was after ’67 when it burned out.
You know, it was all street theater. You put on a play, and when it’s on the street, you can’t put on the same play on every night, it’s always got to be a little different.
You’d burn out eventually.
Things changed. The house that I lived in when my kids were born was sort of infamous among us. It was a really fun place to be. It was wonderful. But at some point I left and Vicki was still there, and Vicki would tell me stories of what happened later that were just nightmares. These crazy drug people [moved in], there was no brilliance to them. There was no dream. They were just riding on the tail of it, but not really…revolutionaries. And I think that’s what happened to the Diggers, it just got mundaned out of reality. It couldn’t survive because it no longer had that spark of light to keep it going.
To me, the Diggers were a phenomenon. I don’t know that there’s been anything like them in history — yes, history repeats itself, so there probably was somebody at some time, I’m just not aware of it — a situation where you have a group of people whose goal is to help other people, to bring them not just the basic necessities you need to survive but the things that you need for your imagination, your brain, your growth on other levels. It was like an opium dream or something.
I just think I was so fortunate to be where I was, when I was. Because who knows when something like that will happen again.
1. Siena: After searching for 54 years I finally located my birth father’s children through DNA testing in 2018. He lived to be 93 years old, so I only narrowly missed him. As a side note I think Emmett could have met my father when Emmett had a guest role on a TV show called To Tell the Truth. My father, Leonard Firestone, was the producer of that show.
2. Siena: I have since heard that it was Chester Anderson who wrote the poem so my memory is faulty or the new information is wrong.
3. Sienna: Joan was with me when my twins were born. My son nearly died due to callousness of the obstetrician and without Joan’s intervention my son would not have survived. I was with her when her son Digger was born. We are still wonderful friends.)
The San Francisco Diggers were meant to be loose, free and vaguely anonymous — or pseudonymous — but perhaps inevitably, some people’s names got out. Usually they were the ones who spoke to a reporter.
And there were a lot of reporters in the Haight-Ashbury during the Diggers’ heyday of 1966-8. Such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight — even, memorably, a typically dyspeptic Joan Didion, for the Saturday Evening Post—included the Diggers in their account.
“A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. “A cross between the Mad Bomber and Johnny Appleseed,” said future Yippie Paul Krassner in The Realist, “a combination of Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X, the illegitimate offspring resulting from the seduction of Mary Worth by an acidic anarchist.” Didion wrote, “In the official District mythology, [the Diggers] are supposed to be a group of anonymous good guys with no thought in their collective head but to lend a helping hand.”
Who were these guys? Actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual names associated with the Diggers (and their later incarnation, sometimes called the Free Family collective), as they wrote books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio (1972) is the most notorious. But there were many others who participated in the various wildly audacious Digger initiatives of the time.
Kent Minault’s involvement in the Diggers wasn’t a secret. He and four other Diggers, including Grogan, were identified by name in a photograph that ran on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1966 — well, kind of, as Kent gave his first name as Pierre to the Chronicle. Later, Kent appeared in Ringolevio as “Slim Minnaux,” and was featured heavily in Coyote’s 1998 memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall. When David Hollander and I interviewed Kent at his Los Angeles home in 2006 for a documentary film, it was the first time he had spoken on the record about his time with the Diggers. He had a lot to say — and, as a veteran stage actor, a wonderfully theatrical way of saying it. Details, color, context, insight: it’s all here in Kent’s vivid storytelling.
The following text is a combination of that initial 2006 interview and a follow-up interview I conducted with Kent and fellow Digger Harvey Kornspan in May, 2011. It has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. There are, inevitably, a few digressions. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, there’s a good chance you’ll like the next part. (For more about the Diggers, consult the vast archive that has been maintained for decades by historian Eric Noble at diggers.org)
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Kent. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.
Please note that in 2017, Kent presented a fantastic one-man performance, “Diggerly Do’s,” in San Francisco, detailing the early months of his Diggers experience. His script drew from the transcripts of our conversations. You can see a video of one of the performances here.
If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
— Jay Babcock (email@example.com), Feb. 26, 2020
Kent Minault: I’m an old man. [laughing] My memory may be destroying things. We must acknowledge this at the outset. Because I read the stuff that other people have written and things that they say in the interviews and I go, I’m not sure I remember it that way.
Jay Babcock: How did you become involved with the Diggers?
I came to San Francisco in ’65. I had been an actor in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. There were two rides, one going back east and one going out west. And I said, Ah, I’ll take the one going west. And so I ended up in Berkeley. I knew that there was a sofa, or a floor at least, that I could sleep on in Berkeley. I stayed in Berkeley for a while and I got a job as a traffic surveyor, cuz they needed to figure out where to build the BART. So it was kind of a pork barrel job, but the money wasn’t bad and I did that and I cast about because I knew I wanted to be an actor but I had no idea how to do it. So I got into some bad plays in San Francisco and was disgruntled and thrown out of the companies.
Then I was working on a paper for my college degree, which was belated, and I was typing away in this little cottage that I subsequently rented and there came a knock on the door. And this guy was there who I’d been in a little singing group with in college. I hadn’t seen him in years. He said, I heard you were in town. Listen we need some actors over at the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Do you think you’d have time? And I had seen the Mime Troupe a couple of nights before and I thought they were just amazing. They were intimidating to me—I thought I would never be good enough to be in a company like that.
So I went over and I did my Shakespeare monologue, my Biff Loman, and [SF Mime Troupe director] Ronnie Davis sat there, squinting at me, with the smoke from his last quarter inch Camel cigarette, and he looked at me and thought about me for a minute, and then he said, Okay, stick around. And he went back in the office for coffee. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. There were people hanging around, playing guitars, smoking and talking to each other, so I wandered around and got to meet people. It turned out that you could do stuff there on a Monday night, do little workshops. So I was a Mime Troupe actor, and within a year I was in the Minstrel Show.
So that was kind of my conservatory. But it was out of that that the Diggers really started. The Diggers was originally a performance of a kind. It was a piece of theater.
What was intimidating about what the Mime Troupe was doing?
Well, its physicality. They could sing, they could dance, they could act, they were funny. They created these amazing pictures. It was sharper and more disciplined then any theater I’d ever seen before. And y’know, I was sort of the big actor on campus in my college days, but when I saw that, all of that meant nothing because the skill level was really high. They were really good.
Who was the friend who knocked on your cottage door?
Ken Whiterow was his name. He was a stage manager at that time. I think he quickly left and began doing something else. And as I got involved with the Mime Troupe, I was in correspondence with my college buddy Brooks Bucher—he and I had been roommates in the University of Rochester. When I came out and got involved in the Mime Troupe, I had been passing letters back and forth with him. And he came west later on. And he sort of took over what Ken Whiterow had been doing, started doing stage managing and stuff at the Mime Troupe. He was never interested in being an actor.
Brooks and I had an odd relationship. He was my best friend, really, for quite a few years. But we had a relationship whereby we could dare each other to do things. And when we were in the university together, we dared each other to go to Europe, to work our way to Europe. We couldn’t get a ticket—which was fine, because we really didn’t have the money anyway. We had to get a job on a boat. So, in the middle of my senior year, we left the university, we went to New York City, we slept on a friend’s floor, we walked around to boats and just asked them if we could work on the boat and go to Europe. And people just laughed at us. They thought that was the stupidest thing in the world. Nobody did that. Maybe 20, 40 years ago they did it, but not now. But we persisted and someone said, You know so long as you’re talking to American or English boats, it is indeed a waste of time. But try the Scandinavians and the Italians. So we narrowed down our search a little bit and indeed after three weeks we found a job on a Norwegian freighter, and we went to Europe. So we did the thing.
And so our relationship was characterized by those things. While we were in New York doing that, he said, Let’s climb to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge—at midnight. And if you go to the Brooklyn Bridge, those cables go right up to those towers, and they have two little cables along the side so you can actually walk right up those. So we went at midnight and walked up to the Brooklyn Bridge, said Okay, let’s go, and we walked up to the top and took a few photographs to prove that we’d done it. That was the kind of thing we did.
So then when I was involved in the Mime Troupe, he came out, because this was clearly the thing to do. It was my little moment to lead the relationship, and dare him to get involved with this radical theater company. So he came out, and you know, had no acting experience, and wasn’t really interested in being an actor, but he could do lots of other things.
Let me give you a little background on Brooks. He came from a little town in New York called Painted Post, a little rural New York state town. I think he had been adopted because his father Jerry was actually his stepfather. He was the kind of guy who would wear broad lapel checked blazers and loud ties and things like that and shake your hand real firmly. I only met him a couple times. Brooks in college… I thought Brooks was just the coolest guy, because he had a great walk. His shoulders were utterly relaxed. He was a great looking man. And he was on the football team. He had football shoulders, a football build. He was on the Rochester football team, played a little bit. He also had a real uncanny sense of how to hustle something well. He got ROTC to pay for his education for three years and then dropped out. And somehow, they were appalled at him, at his lack of patriotism, and he just paid for the last year of his education on his own, and so got three years of free education. Totally pissed off ROTC but at least at that time there was nothing they could do about it. He didn’t see any reason why one shouldn’t do that, [because] they would pay for his education and then immediately consign him to DEATH. So he figured if they’re gonna play me that way, I’m gonna play them. So he thought that way.
He had that “special light that shone on him” quality, where you can do things like that and he was perfectly happy with it. Though some people might find it morally questionable, he never would. He had women climbing in his dormitory window at night, stuff like that. He was very attractive to women.
I think his romantic interest at the time flamed out and then he came out west. I assured him that there was plenty of romance and adventure in San Francisco. When I came to San Francisco in ‘65, I happened to move into the Haight-Ashbury, but it wasn’t because there was anything about the Haight-Ashbury, it was just a place where you could get a cheap room. The “Haight-Ashbury” had not started yet. But, by the time he came out a year later, it had. I think it was early ‘66 or something, we got this place together over in Noe Valley.
Brooks was no actor, and didn’t want to be an actor, but he thought the Mime Troupe was pretty interesting. So he became a stage manager, in charge of props and moving stuff around and when the truck would go to the park, he would be there with it, and so on. Brooks was a smart guy but I think he was really there for the adventure, he was just looking for a way to be a part of it all. Brooks and [the Mime Troupe’s] Emmett [Grogan] were just the kind of people who would get along with each other. They both had that cocky confidence. They had a similar walk and everything—it was like a relaxed swagger.
The Diggers began because this young black guy was killed by the police, and the next day, Emmett had done something where he’d gotten free food out there [in the park]. Because Emmett could speak a little Italian, and all the produce wholesalers were these old Italian guys. Unless they were Chinese. In any case, he went down there and got free food out of them, and that’s how it started. Now, Peter Coyote and I and a lot of the other people who became involved with the Diggers weren’t around at that time because we were on tour with the Mime Troupe. The Mime Troupe had gotten a lot of attention and some of us had got arrested. I remember when we came back to the airport, it was like the big media heroes. When we got off the airplane, news crews came up and shoved microphones in our faces. And we were being interviewed and everything like that.
And I remember Brooks is standing off to the side, looking around impatiently, waiting for us to be done. He was there to pick me up cuz we had a place together up on Noe Street. He took me back to the place. I said, Touring is exhausting man, I’m just gonna sleep for a week. He said, Well no, not exactly. You can’t. You’ve gotta go get the free food. And I said, What free food? He said, For the Diggers. And I said, What’s the Diggers? And he said, you’ll find out. But you gotta get up at 5:30 in the morning. I said no man, I’m not getting up at 5:30 in the morning, I’ve been getting three hours of sleep a night for the past two months, I can’t do that. He said, Just this once, then you can go back to sleep. And because of our characteristic relationship, he sort of had some right to insist. So I go Oh, okay. So he said, Here’s the keys to the yellow Volkswagen box. Brooks had bought this yellow Volkswagen bus—well, it wasn’t a bus, because it didn’t have the windows, it was like a panel van. A big tin box. It was a yellow box on wheels. It was like a camper van but it had no windows, so it wasn’t a camper. This was called the “Yellow Excess.” And a lot of our early adventures happened in this Volkswagen bus. I remember we spraypainted on the side, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.’ Anyways, it didn’t have the quote from Blake painted on it yet but probably would within a few weeks of this. So he said, Here’s the keys. Now you gotta get up at 5:30, so set your alarm clock.
My room just had a pallet on the floor, and an orange crate for the night table. And it was cold—it’s San Francisco, right? So the thing rang, 5:30, I got up, and I said, Now what am I doing? How do I get the free food? He said, Go to the produce market. I said, Well where is that. He said, It’s down on Army Street. I said, Well do you have an address? He said, Don’t worry, just go down Army Street, you’ll see. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I was disoriented and confused, and he just shoved the keys into my hand and pushed me out the door.
It was still dark. I staggered down, started up the bus, which slowly coughed into life, and I drove down the hill, and I found Army Street, and I went along Army Street, towards the 101 freeway. And sure enough pretty soon there was a sign, one of those green marker signs, that says San Francisco Produce Terminal and it’s got an arrow, and you had to follow the arrow and then there’s a U-turn and then you go around and pretty soon I’m in this new area I’d never been in before. I come out into this large open area and there’s a parking lot in the middle, and these big industrial tin siding buildings down two sides, and it’s the San Francisco Produce Terminal. It’s got a big sign there in the middle, and I’m unmistakably there.
I drove the Volkswagen up to this thing. Trucks are pulling up, guys with hand dolleys are loading in cases of food, they’re all busy about their day’s work. I walk into this place, look around, nobody’s paying the slightest attention to me, so I walk around and look at a guy and I say, Um hi, I’m from the Diggers and um we’re giving away free food to poor people up in the City. Could you spare anything? The guy looks at me, he said Nope! And walks away. So I went, This is ridiculous, what has Brooks got me into, this is just going to be an exercise in futility. When can I go back to sleep? So I pull the truck out, I decide to try again for the next one. So I pull up to the next place and this is Chinese. So there’s these Chinese people running around, same thing, and so I walk up to the guy and say the same thing. Sounds pretty good, and especially if I say ‘poor people,’ that’ll work. So I say, Hi, I’m from the Diggers and we’re giving away free food to poor people up in the City. Could you spare anything? The guy says, No, not today. He walks away. I go back to the truck again, and then suddenly someone whistles. I turn around and this guy says, he points to something on the ground, and he motions. Like, Take that. There’s a case of artichokes. So I said, Oh! Thank you! But his back is already turned, and he’s already doing his work. So I pick up the case of artichokes, I almost feel guilty, like somebody’s gonna catch me, but I put in the van. Okay, at least I got a case of artichokes.
So I go to the next place. Now things are starting to work. People are giving me things. Here’s a case of tomatoes. Here’s a little bit of lettuce, carrots, parsnips, rutabegas — vegetables that I actually seldom eat. But I’m getting them, and the truck is gradually filling up. I come to the end of the thing and there’s a place that has chicken! And they give me three boxes of chicken wings, packed in this heavy cardboard with a little ice in it. So I take the chicken and then I cross over to the other side of the terminal, and I continue, and indeed some places say No, nothing, and other places say Yeah, take that. And by the time I’m done, the truck is [buckling] on its springs with the weight of all the food I’ve got. I’ve absolutely packed it. And I go out of the terminal and I’m unsure whether I’ll actually make it back up the hill with this thing.
Now it’s daylight. I’m feeling pretty good! I actually went and got free food without the slightest idea of what I was doing. I drove back up, and Brooks was there, walking down out of the house with a cup of coffee in his hand, and he said, Ah! You got the food, good! You can go to sleep now. But come up to the Panhandle Park at like Oak and Ashbury or something like that, and we’ll have the free food there, you gotta see this. I said, So this is the Diggers? And he said, Yeah I’ll tell you all about it later.
So I go up and I fall asleep for another four hours, and Brooks goes somewhere with the truck. I wake up and I make my way over to the Panhandle park, and I’m standing around and here’s six or seven people standing in line with wooden bowls in their hands, waiting. I look around. I look up the street. And there’s a couple of people coming down the street and my god, they have bowls in their hands too. People are gathering. They know about this place! Pretty soon I hear a shout. Here comes Brooks, up the street, it’s like it’s a stagecoach, someone’s driving the yellow van and he’s hanging out the door, waving. The van pulls up, the double doors open, and there’s one of those big old-fashioned industrial milk pails. It’s about 15 gallons of stuff. Two people carry it. So he comes over and he and I muscle the thing out of the van and we take it over and plunk it on the ground. And there’s one of those soup ladles, and he ladles out chicken soup, made from all the vegetables and the chicken that I’d gotten from the produce market. And somebody’s got a loaf of bread. And they start giving away food to these people.
Scenes from the Diggers’ daily free food event in the Panhandle. Photos by Gene Anthony.
I said, What is this? And he then explained the history of the thing, of how Emmett had decided to respond to the murder of this black kid by giving away free food in the park. And, just because of the kind of time it was, the logic of that was apparent to me immediately. Somehow, that connected. I think it’s an important connection because there was always a rapport between the black radical community and what we were doing. Y’know, they kind of did their thing separately, there was a Black People’s Free Store down in the Filmore. We were always connected with them and did things with them. And the Minstrel Show was a black-white thing. We always did things together. I remember one time, for a rehearsal for the Minstrel Show, we had done this thing… Well, first some background. Some of the Diggers had gotten these Gestetner machines. It was an early form of duplication. This was basically the propaganda organ of the Diggers. We put out broadsides, which were basically a piece of paper that was handed around the street. One of the broadsides was about this thing which we just saw, where traffic was congesting on Haight Street. Haight Street was becoming a tourist mecca. People would sit in their cars going five miles an hour down the street, leaning out, taking pictures of all the hippies gathered on the street, as if they were some kind of anthropological exhibit. We didn’t like that. We thought that there was a better way to have our public life, a better way to have the street there.
And so…this broadside had been put out by somebody, promising that the Diggers were gonna show up on a Sunday afternoon and clear all the traffic off the street.
So we were in this rehearsal in the morning, I think it was like noon or one o’clock, we got out of our Minstrel Show rehearsal, and I remember Willie B. Hart and Jason Alexander were there with us, and then there was Peter Berg, and me, and I don’t know if Peter wrote the broadside or not, but I remember he felt enormously responsible, because it was like we had promised the people that this was gonna happen. And then we went up there. Peter had this old Volvo, so maybe we all drove up in his car. But we got out of his car, parked it somewhere and we walked out on the street, and it was just so intimidating because from Broadway all the way up to Stanyan, it was just packed with traffic, and the sidewalks were packed with all these people. There must have been tens of thousands of people on the street that day. Oh my god, what are we gonna do. We told the people we were gonna clear the traffic off the street, how could we possibly do this?
So we walked up, I think we were at Haight and Masonic, between Masonic and Ashbury, and there were so many people on the sidewalk that you couldn’t walk that fast on the sidewalk, but we made it that far and we were in consternation about how to proceed because we didn’t really have a plan of action at all.
Now, there was this song that we used as a warm-up in rehearsal in the Mime Troupe, which was a wordless round, very kind of stately. I remember always thinking that calm, stately music was a great way of organizing people, and during the Digger adventure, sometimes I would use classical music to offset the mad psychedelic frenzy of the music that was popular at the time. And this had this feeling. It was very ancient, almost medieval sounding. And I said, Let’s sing that. And the guys looked at me like I was nuts. Sing that? How’s that gonna compete with all of this psychedelic frenzy around us? I said, Well let’s just start doing it. So I started, and I remember I got Jason, Jason would agree to anything, so we started singing it as a duet, and it’s a five-part thing, and when you get the harmonies going, it’s kind of resonant, but it’s slow and stately. And we started singing this thing very quietly. And so we formed a group on the street and as people passed us on the sidewalk, they went, Whoa what’s this, what’s happening here? So they would start, and we would turn, and we would, just in pantomime, teach them the thing. We just simply proceeded to sing it ourselves, but got them to sing it along with us. And then Peter and everybody started singing it as well.
So there was a group of us on the sidewalk, and we filled the sidewalk, and when the sidewalk filled up, in order to get around, people had to go between the parked cars, or even walk streetside of the parked cars, out almost in the traffic. So there’s a little cluster of people on our side of the street, and over on the other side of the street, people noticed that something was happening. So they stopped and looked to see what that was. So then there got to be a cluster on the other side of the street. So we beckoned them, Hey come on over and join us. So people dodged through the slowly moving traffic and came to our side of the street and the cluster was bigger and bigger, until actually the cluster amoeba-like joined the cluster on the other side and so there were people moving across the street so much, that we’d actually in fact blocked the traffic. And, since the traffic was one-way, the street gradually cleared.
Then the police showed up, and they barricaded off the street so the traffic had to go up to the side streets. We had inadvertently just occupied a block of the street. We hadn’t cleared the traffic off all of Haight Street, but we’d cleared the traffic off one block! So then we looked around and suddenly the street was just filled with people, and they were all celebrating and happy. I remember looking over and there was some group had a long staff and on it was a big circle with some mystic symbol, and they had a live white rabbit with them. And I didn’t know what they were doing but they seemed to have their own thing, and they were intoning something of their own, because at this time, whatever songs had spread, millions of songs had filled the street.
I remember thinking in the back of my mind like a strategist, well if we’re clearing all the traffic off of the street, how do we get past the police? We have to take over another block, but the police have set up a line of sawhorses to contain us. And they had paddy wagons and all that stuff, almost like they were ready for a riot. And everything was so joyful and so wonderful in a way, that it clearly wasn’t a riot. But I didn’t know how to get past the police. I was really helpless to do anything. These people with the mystic symbol and the rabbit, they went up to the police and they started doing some religious ceremony of some kind, singing to them or something, with the symbol, holding the rabbit high in the air, they were doing this thing, I couldn’t hear what it was—something—and the police just looked at them, picked up the sawhorses, threw them on the back of the paddywagon and split.
And we moved across Ashbury, down toward the South, we started advancing, and the cars went off down the side streets, and we took over another block, so now we had between like Masonic and Clayton, two blocks of Haight Street, was completely cleared, filled with cheering people, and then the same thing happened at Masonic, and we went on further south and further south. Now the police were all the way down by Buena Vista Park, clearing traffic, and we went all the way down to Buena Vista Park, we looked back. Let’s go up to Stanyan, which wasn’t that difficult cuz since it was a one-way street, the traffic had sort of cleared itself. So we did, we walked all the way several times between Stanyan and Broadrick. We’d done it! We’d cleared the traffic off Haight Street.
I remember walking around and seeing Arthur Lisch. Arthur had found himself a box of colored chalk, and he was going around the street, creating a new environment, a vision of the future, this is what the street is gonna be. He would draw out a garden, with the carrots and the celery and the peas and the corn, and he would draw out a meditation center, and here’s where a little brook could run, and here’s where a park and a playground for children would be, the solar energy collectors, and all. He just drew it in chalk all over the street. That’s what the street is gonna be. So he just created that vision of it and people started doing that.
I remember we just walked back and forth and said, Well, we did it, and it was 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Jane Lapiner had a place on one of those streets off of Haight, south of Masonic, and we all went over there. And I think we heard later on that the police did sweeps of the street and clubbed people and arrested people and stuff. But I think after that, a permit for a Haight-Ashbury street fair was applied for and granted. So that was sort of the first Haight-Ashbury street fair. And I think they’re still happening today.
Do you remember what you sang?
Yes. It goes like this. [sings]. So that’s five of those and if you do it alternately than anything harmonizes and you’ve got a five-part round. It was something that somebody brought into the Mime Troupe and it was used as a vocal warm-up.
Can you talk about the street event in which you got arrested?
A lot of that was dedicated to confronting the issue of traffic on Haight Street. Now, we had this thing called The Free Frame of Reference. It was basically made out of four yellow 2 x 4s bolted together at the corner and they were about maybe ten feet long or something. Just enormous. It was just a big square. We called it the Free Frame of Reference. And so whatever was inside the Frame of Reference was, allegedly, free. And so, people would look at this thing and go, …Okay? So what is that? Clearly, unmistakably it was just a big square made out of 2 x 4s. It was nothing, you know? But then it was a frame, also, so you could put it around something and then look at it.
Did it actually say ‘free frame of reference’ on there?
I don’t think so, but I don’t really know. There probably is a picture of the damn thing somewhere but I don’t know.
Now, in that picture, which has us all jumping around on the steps of City Hall, there’s a guy with a beard—Robert LaMorticella, who was a master puppet maker. And he made these puppets that were about eight feet tall, and they’re all made out of the kind of dowling you use to hang your clothes on in the closet. There’s a big long piece of doweling, basically across, and the cross member would be the shoulders of the character, and then he would make this big papier-mache head on top and then there would be a piece of clothing that would come down in sleeves, and the sleeves were just hanging cloth. At the end of the sleeves on two pieces of plaster lathe, were the hands. So the basic art of the puppet was a head and two hands. He had these puppets which were originally made for Robert Scheer’s campaign when he was running for political office. His opponent was a guy named Jeffrey Cohelan , and at the time, Scheer was represented as a forceful guy who could make gestures like this [fist into hand]. He could go like that. And Jeffrey Cohelan was represented as a kind of dithering, insubstantial person who would go like this [makes motion of sad hands].
We had these two puppets. And you could put different kinds of costuming on them to make them different things, so we just immediately adapted them to whatever characters we wanted. I can’t remember exactly what we were doing with them but I remember I had the forceful Robert Scheer puppet.
So we were all on Haight Street, with the Free Frame of Reference. It was getting to be dusk. We were in and out of the Free Frame of Reference. So we would go into the Free Frame of Reference and act through it, then we would go around outside it and act outside of it. What I noticed was that the puppets were so huge that you could take a puppet and you could incline it down so that a person driving a car along the street would suddenly have this head looming down into their windshield. That actually seemed more fun than doing anything with the Free Frame of Reference. So we actually began intimidating the traffic with the puppets, and shaking our fists into their windshield!
We continued doing this, and then, the police came and arrested us. They collapsed the Free Frame of Reference, took it apart, made it into four two by fours. They took the puppets and stuff and they threw all this in the paddy wagon, and took us off to Park Street Station. So there we were, late at night, sitting in Park Street Station on this bench, and we just watched the life of the police department for a while. Police would come in, chat with each other, one cop would look at the other and say, Who are those guys, what’d they do? They said, They were giving a puppet show on the street corner. Puppet show? You arrested them for doing a puppet show?!? He said, Look at the puppets! They’re eight feet tall! Oh okay, well then. Because the puppets were so big, that meant that we must deserve to be arrested. [chuckles] So we just watched all this.
Who was in jail?
Brooks, me, Emmett, Peter Berg, and I think Roberto as well was there, cuz Roberto didn’t let those puppets out of his sight. So there were five of us. I guess we spent the night in jail, I can’t really remember. But the next day I remember out attorney was Richard Wertheimer, an amazing man. He had some disability where he was in a wheelchair all the time. He just had this quiet, loving attitude. He talked to us and said, Well I know the assistant D.A. so let’s go talk to him. There was a court date. We were arraigned and brought into court. I remember Dick took us into this guy, the assistant district attorney for San Francisco, his name was Artie Schaffer. He looked at us and he said, You guys. Okay. It’s clearly freedom of expression issue. We’re gonna get this thrown out of court, I want you guys to know. Now get out there and make revolution or I’m gonna bust your asses. These guys were old Lefties from the ‘30s that had gone into the Establishment and so there was a deep kinship between us. And this was the first time I really noticed that there could be something like that, that we could have a real kinship of purpose with people who are inside the Establishment and had positions like assistant district attorney and stuff. It was a very interesting thing.
So then what happened in court was really of no interest at all. The judge was told by the assistant district attorney that they were dropping the case. He was a little miffed at having the court’s time wasted and stuff like that but he couldn’t do anything. It was one of those miracles. We didn’t know what would happen to us. Strictly speaking, we were blocking the sidewalk. We were intimidating the cars. I didn’t know if they had witnesses or anything. Could we spend time in jail for this? We had no idea.
So we were absolutely delighted about the way things were turning out. It was almost like the world was saying, Just keep doing that. Even the assistant district attorney of San Francisco was telling us to go out and make revolution. To do what we were doing. We were doing just the right thing. It wasn’t a bunch of dropouts who got it, these were like major people in the society, who saw what we were doing and saying, Yeah, do that! This was important because as we were going along with this thing, a person might have some self-doubts, like, Is this just completely insane? We were used to protest. Clearly the Vietnam War gave a legitimacy to doing something different besides what was going on in society, but of course once you start actually doing something, you might question its value. A free store — is this just a dump? Sometimes you’d go in the free store and it would look great, you could see how somebody could walk in there and find a Harris tweed and have their mind blown. But other days you’d go in there and it just looked like chaos. And then a third day you’d go in there and something equally beautiful and amazing would be happening. So you walked around with this question in your mind. Clearly we were onto something, but where was it going, where could it lead? Everything we did had no plan at all.
And so doing something like that Free Frame of Reference puppet show, which was totally an improvisation without a structure, what were we really doing? And I myself was distracted from whatever play Emmett had in mind, cuz Emmett had this idea of the Free Frame of Reference and we’d do a play with it, and this would really be something that would change people’s minds. And maybe it did! I don’t know, I was distracted by shaking my fist at the windshields of the cars, and that’s what happened to me. Again, without it being planned, things happened. Would they be positive, would they be negative? I was never sure. I’ll tell you another story in a minute because it really brought the thing home, because when you don’t have a plan and you don’t know what you’re doing, you could actually do something really stupid. It’s possible.
So we were at this point with Artie Schaffer telling us to go make revolution, we were at the point of absolute exuberance, because it was almost like the stamp of approval. Yeah, that’s right, what we think up on the spur of the moment, is PURE GENIUS! So that creates the feeling that’s expressed in that picture. The outrageous thumbing your nose at the Establishment and my expression of…the King Kong of revolutionary exuberance. You could see in Emmett’s stance and everything, almost a criminality, is being expressed in the picture. All of those things were just sort of there. Here we are, we’re at large, free to offend again. And we will.
There was another event that came up… All of these things really had to do with taking over public space, and the space that was most available for us to take over was of course Haight Street. There was an event. We had started meeting the Hell’s Angels and talking to them. We found that the Hell’s Angels were incredibly sympathetic to what we were doing, and of course the ‘free love’ and everything like that we were doing was very conducive to their rapport. But they liked us, and seemed to be willing to give up a little bit of their violent demeanor in order to be around the hippies and enjoy the opportunities that our culture created for them.
There was this guy named Chocolate George, a Hell’s Angel, and, during one of these events, our friend Phyllis [Willner], got together in this magnificent white gown and Chocolate George drove her down Haight Street, STANDING, on the back of this motorcycle. Spectacular piece of theater. Just looked stunning. So Chocolate George drove down Haight Street with Phyllis like this, and when the police saw that—there’s certain things that push the buttons of policemen and that would be one of them. I guess the technical thing is, Don’t stand up on motorcycles, that’s illegal. But, she did, and so Chocolate George was arrested. I don’t know if Phyllis was or not, I don’t think so. But a couple of the Hell’s Angels, Chocolate George and Harry the Horse, were arrested. And that made me angry. The Hell’s Angels had this kind of more outlaw, more criminal image than we did. But this event, this was our event. This was our celebration. And yet they went and arrested the Hell’s Angels. They were arresting the thing most obviously offensive to that middle class sensibility. Let’s get those Hell’s Angels! Yeah, that’s it.
The news spread around the street. It was getting to be dusk on Haight Street. People all over the street. I remember feeling so incensed. I did this stupid thing, out of a B movie, but I was seized with anger about this, and I got up on to a roof of a car that was parked on the street, and I said THEY’VE JUST ARRESTED CHOCOLATE GEORGE AND HARRY THE HORSE! TWO OF OUR BROTHERS! LET’S GO DOWN THERE AND GET THEM OUT! And I got down off the street, off the car, and I started walking up Stanyan Street towards Park Street Station. And after I walked a block I turned around and by God, there were a bunch of people with me. I couldn’t believe it. It was again one of those things, Oh shit. I might be doing the dumbest possible thing in the world. I might be leading a whole bunch of unarmed people up against the San Francisco Police Department. But, I was already in movement so I kept on going.
And people moved through the dimming light up towards the stadium there and Park Street Station which was in the shadow of it. Park Street Station was right up against the stadium, and the stadium had these huge walls, so you could kind of…corner them. So actually, without quite thinking about it, this enormous group of people, must’ve been close to a thousand people, suddenly moved up to the station, and SURROUNDED it. We had them surrounded.
So now, this is the point where it’s good to have a plan, and we didn’t. So what happens when a thing like that occurs? The policemen were looking out the windows, Oh my god! Y’know? They were indeed surrounded. You could see the look on their faces. They didn’t know what the hell to do. I remember [poet] Michael McClure, coming and talking to me and he said, What are we gonna do here? And I was like, Uh I don’t know. I had no idea. But I saw that a bunch of the women were handing out candles. Somewhere they’d gotten candles and they were lighting the candles and so this candlelight spread out all down the line of this surrounding bunch of hippies. And goddammit, they started singing Silent Night.
And it was actually the perfect thing to do, cuz it has all these peaceful words and this peaceful sound to it. So suddenly they were surrounded by peace. And the event completely turned different. So then somebody went in there, it was either [poet Richard] Brautigan or McClure, somebody like that, and these guys were a little older, you gotta remember I was like 23 or 24 years old at the time, and these guys were in their mid-30s. They were already established writers with reputations and stuff like that, so they were more comfortable walking in and talking to the police and presenting the image of a mature person. They indeed said that we thought it was wrong to have arrested these guys, that they were part of a peaceful activity and they were in no way a threat to public order. And the police said, Well in fact it is illegal to stand up on a motorcycle, and maybe Harry the Horse had been drinking on the street, or something like that, but we established that the legal representation that we had enjoyed would be available to them as well.
So they did indeed have to spend the night in jail, but we also let the Hell’s Angels know that we were good hosts, and would be able to take care of them to the best of our ability. So we weren’t able to go down there and attack the police station and spring them out, which had of course been my initial impulse, frenzied fool that I was, but nonetheless, the event turned out well. So again, it’s just another example of how some insane impulse was made sane by just the social environment that we were a part of. And, violence and insanity were avoided by just the inspiration of somebody, I don’t know who, to light candles and start singing Silent Night. It was absolute genius to do so.
The Angels and the Diggers became close…
Lots of close personal relationships started happening. I remember later on Peter Coyote was over there, and he bought himself a motorcycle. Billy Fritsch [aka Sweet William Tumbleweed] bought a motorcycle. These guys helped them paint the tank. That’s what you had to do, you had to paint the tank, that was your personal statement. I never got into that, but I did visit with them, I was over at Pete Knell’s house a few times.
What are your memories of Emmett Grogan?
Emmett was an actor, and he was in the Mime Troupe with us. The whole thing started out of Mime Troupe activity. I remember Emmett being in Olive Pits and creating these characters.
One of the most interesting things that we created was a little play called Search & Seizure. This was the brainchild of Peter Berg. The idea was to do the play in little clubs and things. It was a police line-up play. The characters were four policemen and four people who’d been busted for different drugs. I remember I was a cop, and we all used our real names. There was somebody busted on downers, somebody who was busted on speed, somebody who was busted for grass, finally somebody was busted for LSD. The police were able to break down each person, but not the acidhead. The acidhead I believe was played by John Robb, a phenomenal actor. The acidhead, in this characteristic way, by changing the frame of reference, turned the police around and was not broken by them. The play came on completely opposed to the usual style of Mime Troupe plays. It was a piece of gritty realism, in which we actually created a realistic police line-up type of environment. I remember we did this at The Matrix. At the time there was a band playing there, Country Joe and the Fish, and so we shared the backstage with them. We would do our play and then they would do the second set. And I remember coming back there and them going, Jesus you’re supposed to scare the shit out of them, not us! So the play was this terrifying little jolt. Emmett played one of the police officers. And his forceful personality and his New York speech rhythms created a really terrifying character. In terms of being an actor, that was really one of the best things I’d seen him do. He was the one that created the jolt of adrenaline in the play, and he could really do that.
He had come into the Mime Troupe. His face was amazing. If he’d really wanted to be an actor, and maybe he did later on, because he came down here to Hollywood, I think somehow later on toward the end of his life there he was actually seized with the Hollywood thing… Anyway, his face was crooked, I think that his nose had been broken at some point. And he had this jawline and these goggly eyes, and he had a way of looking out of the side of his eyes.
And I remember when he walked, his hands faced straight back. It gave him this hunched swagger. If you look at Ringolevio, there’s a picture of him walking across one of those New York streets with the look of a guy whose jacket isn’t warm enough against the cold. And he favored military fatigues and things like that.
It’s a working class face. And he’d been in Italy, so he could speak Italian, and that was what gave him the cache to talk to those guys at the produce market and make the original foray into the free food thing. Something that I wouldn’t’ve thought to do. Once it had already been established that one could do it, even a guy like me who was half-asleep could blunder through it and get the free food. But Emmett actually went down there, and talked to them in some way… To have been a fly on the wall at that time, to hear that conversation, would have been incredible.
Who was Billy Murcott?
He seemed like almost the sidekick? Emmett would be the guy with the personality and the force. But it’s interesting, because Billy wasn’t the comic sidekick so much—he really was the brains. Billy had this gift of language, and I think he gave the gift of that kind of Digger poetry to Emmett. And together somehow there was a symbiotic relationship. When you read some of those Digger broadsides, the way they use language is very interesting. It has an inheritance from beatnik poetry, and indeed Emmett was pretty close to Gregory Corso. And he brought Gregory in, and Gregory hung out with us a lot.
DH: Emmett called Gregory his favorite poet.
Right. There’s a quality of incantation in the language. And what the Digger language would do would be to break up sentences and re-arrange words in a manner that was sort of like Beat poetry but also psychedelic, so it was like: “Take a cop to dinner. Cop a take.” And so he would take words like that and re-arrange them and create a different meaning of it. What was that? Take a cop to dinner. It was about bribery and corruption. Copping a take. Suddenly reversing it would make the language hip and streetwise. So street language had this almost coded or incantatory quality to it. They were able to write it down, on one of those broadsides, so that, passed out, it would really have an effect. It would create this thing where people were all communicating on the same level.
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Some people say the Diggers popularized that slogan…
Yeah, I think they may have. I guess if you asked me off the top of my head I would say Emmett made it up, but it could have had an earlier literary reference. The language trips, that is really what Emmett and Billy [Murcott] brought to it. You have to look past Emmett and see Billy as the source for inspiration.
Speaking of inspirations. There’s a Com/Co broadside that advertises a screening of the film Miracle in Milan at the Free Store.
I believe Arthur Lisch brought it to us. It was a movie that in some way was about what we were interested in that this guy [Italian Neorealist filmmaker Vittorio] De Sica had made, and yeah, we showed it. It was a movie about an essentially free activity. It showed what a free frame of reference would look like in actual practice. I think at some point in the movie the squatter village is oppressed by the authorities. At the end they fly off to heaven or something, an absurd ending, which by its very absurdity makes the point. Even that, the absurdity of the ending, helped, because again, it’s that kind of beatnik thinking, whereby taking something in a completely different direction, the mind goes where you want it to go. And that was a lot of what we were trying to do.
Arthur was very interesting. I don’t recall Arthur ever having really long hair. He came in from churches. He would always relate things to churches, and felt that churches should be doing things, so he had a spiritual component to the way he thought. He would always do interesting things. He would frequently be at our events dressed in a coat and tie, and would do things like sweep up. He would take care of the janitorial work and make sure that everything was clean and well-organized. He would basically take on that role of representing a clean, well-organized vision. It could be free, and clean, and well-organized! WHY NOT? He would think that.
Do you have any memories of the Invisible Circus event at the Glide Church?
The thing I do remember about it and was interesting politically, and this is really about Emmett, was that Emmett really saw something that…I don’t know… If you could, like, bottle this insight, and let everybody’s who’s politically active just drink it, it would make such a huge difference. He saw that it was all one thing, that we’re not separate political movements. He was really interested in making connections with everybody who needed to be liberated—that felt the need to be liberated. And that’s why he felt this kinship with the Black Power movement. There was a time when he went, and I remember him saying this to me, he said, We need to get together with the fags. He put it just like that. The fags, man, that’s where it’s at. Let’s go meet the fags. They’re down in the Tenderloin. And that’s what really brought us to the Glide Church. The Tenderloin has a big gay population. And he wanted to be closer to the gay thing. He felt that that was a real source of kinship—that they got something that we needed to be involved with, and that they needed to get what we were involved with. He really led that. That’s one of those things that would never have occurred to me, that he saw immediately. Gay culture had been part of a demimonde, an underground culture, and he wanted to share and participate in bringing that up above ground, making it part of the big dialogue. Of course, later on, that happened. But he was talking about that in 1966! That’s what’s interesting.
The gay population is a big part of the ministry of Glide Church. So I think that’s really what brought us there. Conceptually, again, we just didn’t have the framework for properly dealing with that or making the political connections. But that’s an interesting part of the Digger thing. As I look back on it, sometimes I think we made big mistakes. One of the mistakes we made was we were against voting. We had a big campaign: “Vote for Me.” So you’re your own representative. Okay well, I can see the logic of that, but being against voting? That’s stupid. We shouldn’t’ve been against voting, we should’ve figured a way into that.
The point was that the democracy was supposed to be participatory, and in order for that to happen, you had to de-ghettoize life. You had to break down walls that separated people into little groups: the blacks, the gays, the peaceniks, the hippies. You had to say, The hell with that. And so that was one reason why we had that big ‘Death of Hippie’ thing. We couldn’t be ‘the hippies,’ because that was a bag they put us in. We never invented that word anyway. So one of the things politically that I think the Glide event was supposed to do was to un-bag everybody. To get people in there together.
And in a way, the Tenderloin was more representative of that than the Haight-Ashbury. The Haight-Ashbury at that time was still kind of a white neighborhood. You look at the footage and yeah there’s some black people around, but the black people in San Francisco thought of it as a white place. And it was. The Tenderloin, however, that was GENUINELY multi-ethnic and multi-sexual, multi-EVERYTHING. So that was really the melting pot of San Francisco. And so if you wanted to have a political or social or artistic activity that broke down those walls then going into the Tenderloin was the way to do it. And I think the Invisible Circus, it actually did that in its outrageous way. I have no way of evaluating the consequences of it. I just don’t remember. It’ll be very interesting for me to read Cecil Williams’ book and see what the reverend thinks of that, because yes, we damn near wrecked his church, I think.
Above: Kent discusses his sizeable contribution to the Invisible Church event.
DH: Cecil Williams saw it a moment of affirmation for him… He insisted on the “fuck the church” graffiti in the bathroom wall be kept up.
I always thought Cecil Williams was such a cool guy. The forces that he brought into that church made it what it became. And, you know, a lot of things that we did continued there. They started a huge free food thing. So yes, Cecil Williams was definitely a kindred spirit there. The idea of “fucking” the Church I think was sort of part of a different kind of spirituality that was coming out of what we were doing. As Diggers I don’t think we really addressed that very much but there were later on many of those people went into various spiritual things. When we went on into the ’70s, people went into things that seemed really wacko to me but the thirst for a spiritual discipline or spiritual life definitely came out of that stuff.
You guys were thinking politically and economically, but you guys were actors, not activists.
The essential vision of the Diggers is economic: We’re gonna do economic activity without money. And that was sort of the point of it. So it started out with the free food. And then, we set up the first free Haight-Ashbury medical clinic — it wasn’t done under proper Establishment auspices, and subsequently I think they set up what they would call the ‘real’ one, but we had doctors there that were actually giving, prescribing medicine, treating people. Then we set up the free store.
Ronnie Davis connected us with a politically active tradition. Later on, the Mime Troupe became a blatantly Marxist company, although at the time we were there… I mean there were Marxists in the company, and SDS had a little office right next to the Mime Troupe’s studio and they had a mimeograph machine that churned out their broadsides. So we were in conversation with people in SDS, student radicals, Marxists, anti-war people who favored the idea of a possibly violent revolution that would overthrow the government. We would talk about that, think about it, but… I remember there was this British guy, Ray Davis, who would hang around with the Mime Troupe. And in the Mime Troupe we would have these big meetings sometimes where we would discuss very big things, and I remember he got up one night during the meeting and he said, ‘I think we should all agree that capitalism is the worst system ever invented by man, nature or circumstance.’ And the entire room burst into laughter. That was kind of the relationship that our circle had towards Marxist communism at that time, that it seemed something that was so filled with pronunciamentos like that was ludicrous. It would have been difficult during the ‘60s for us to say, We’re Marxists, or, We’re communists. It’s not that the ideas of a cooperative or a planned economy were somehow bad or anything, it’s just that it was a style of thinking that would just make us laugh. And Ray was part of a slightly older generation more conditioned by the ‘30s and so while he thought that was such an important idea, that if we could all agree to it, it would make us all so much more powerful… Nah. The thinking had moved beyond that. It just couldn’t be there.
At some point the two Peters [Berg and Coyote] and Emmett and I and a few other people were basically saying, We’re not gonna do another play with the Mime Troupe. We’re gonna go out in the streets and we’re gonna do Diggerly-dos because THAT’S what theater really should do. We don’t want to put on a play and then have people go home afterwards — we want to actually CHANGE the public reality that people are in. So at that point we were like — we took over City Hall! And did shit like that, read poems on the steps.
There was definitely a separation between the radical political thinking and what we were doing. I don’t know how healthy that was. Because I look back now on the antiwar movement and everything that was going on and it seems to me, when you look at it from the point of view of political history and you see, take ’68, the assassinations—Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King—all these people that got assassinated at that time, you think, King started talking about Vietnam. A few months later they killed him. And the same thing with Robert Kennedy. He was talking about peace in Vietnam and linking the antiwar movement to the civil rights movement. And it seemed to me that everybody who started talking about making connections between those two things got killed pretty soon after. That’s what they were afraid of, for it all to come together. Cuz all the pieces were there. And so if you were running the government and wanting to keep everything as it was, having all that come together as one thing, that was the threat for you.
Peter Berg talked about the importance of LSD as a catalyst, and a dividing line with the past.
Yeah, I think so too. And that was the point of that play Search & Seizure, is the final guy [played by John Robb], who is on LSD, he couldn’t be broken down because his point of view had changed. He had a new frame of reference for his life and his thinking. And that’s what we were all looking to do, was to let our lives incorporate a new frame of reference. Calling it a frame of reference is a little weird because a frame is a square box with defined borders and that’s exactly what we didn’t have. We didn’t know what limits we could have. Coming out of the Digger period, many of us left San Francisco, we went and we started a commune up in Ron Thelin’s house, and the women took over and said Okay now it’s time to make babies. So the next thing after that was really becoming a family, and having our own children, and raising our own children and seeing what that would do. Of course, the thing that it didn’t do was make us go back and become squares again. It actually forced us to bring up our children in a different way.
What was your family background?
My family background is quite normal. I’m an east coast boy. I was born in Brooklyn. My family moved around a bit when I was in my infancy: Virginia, upstate New York, Bingington, places like that. When I was 7, in 1950, we moved to a suburb in Boston and that’s when my parents really felt at home. My father’s an immigrant coming over from France when he was 17. He had a constitutional terror of poverty. He had been poor in France as a kid, and then he had been poor as a young man in the depression and he had worked his way out of that. He got here in 1929 and immediately the stock market crashed. He managed to wash dishes and get a mechanical engineering degree at Ohio State University where he met my mother, and then graduated from university with this great degree in the middle of the Depression, where he didn’t really have any employment options, and spent a few years that were fairly depressing for him. He was teaching French at the University of Chicago which is not what he wanted to do. He wanted the roar of the factory, he wanted to engineer shit. Then he got tuberculosis, he thought my mother would leave him just because he was a total wreck. But then, they came out of that and as the armament industry started gearing up, really getting ready for World War II… the armaments industry knew what was coming, so ’37-‘38-’39, somewhere in there, he got a call, and he got brought into a company called at that time Sperry-Rand, which was a big defense contractor, and so he was well employed from there on in. But he would go from a variety of companies — he was a very smart man — became plant manager and stuff like that. I was sent away to a prep school, Principia in St. Louis, and given a nice education by prosperous middle class parents.
During the ‘60s, when I was in San Francisco, having dropped out of society and become an actor… I remember, they saw me perform with the Mime Troupe in Detroit, and I remember they were really angry about that. They just thought that was an awful thing for me to be doing, to be doing theater, like that. My mother tried to be understanding and my father sat off resentfully by himself.
My younger brother Paul, who’s now an attorney, visited me at that time and I remember he expressed a traditional middle class horror at the way I was living. At the time he was terrified of the draft and he was hoping I would save him because of my ‘superior wisdom’ about that.
How were you avoiding the draft?
I used my acting skills. It was appallingly easy.
You’re often mentioned in the Grogan and Coyote books in association with the Digger trucks…
Yes! One of the things that happened to me was I became Pierre Le Truck. During the Diggers stuff, trucks became very important because the Diggers were always moving stuff around. There was a point during this time that I had no car, y’know. When we opened the free store, somebody came by and said, Here’s a free car. It was an old Studebaker Lark. So I got in it, started it up and it worked. Okay, I’ll take the free car for a while. I think it wasn’t a day before I piled the thing up. I wrecked the car and I walked away from it. To whom was it registered? I have no idea! Free cars, this wasn’t gonna work. Free stuff was great but free cars was an administrative hassle that we couldn’t handle. I was moving stuff around, we were borrowing trucks from people… It was clear that we needed trucks.
There was a guy named Jonathan Glazer — Jonathan and Sara, I remember they were close to us but I don’t quite remember what the source of the connection was— Jonathan had an old ’51 Chevy pick-up that he wasn’t using, there was something wrong with it, it didn’t work. And so I think Billy Fritsch went and talked to him and said You gotta give the truck to Kent. There’s something about Billy, when he used a certain tone of voice, you just had to do what he said. So they give me the pink slip, but the truck is on the street. I could have the truck—but I had to fix it. I had no idea how to fix anything. I had studied anthropology in college, how did know how to fix a truck?
Billy said, Well you gotta get the repair manual. How do I get a repair manual? He says, Listen. Talk to [poet/Digger] Lenore [Kandel]. And she said, Go to the Reference Desk at the library! They’ll not only show you the thing, they’ll photocopy the pages for you and give them to you. See, Lenore did charts, she was an astrologer. When you’re into astrology, you have to get a thing called an ephemeris. If you were a really professional astrologer, you have to have all these books that show the position of the stars at various times to do your chart from where the stars were at your birth. She didn’t have them herself, so she went to the library. She knew how to use the reference desk. So she said, you could do the same thing for auto mechanics. Aha! The library was very cooperative. I ended up with this bunch of papers. Somehow we got the truck towed to a place. I had a friend who ran a garage nearby, and would help the Diggers with various things. So he showed me what to do. And I remember my friend J.P. Pickens had a hot Sears credit card. So we did this act of criminality. We went to Sears with this credit card, and I bought all these tools—the wrenches and the sockets and everything that you needed to fix the truck, outside of the machinist work. We were constantly fixing up Chevy pickup trucks. Everybody had to have a Chevy truck. They were all not working cuz they were 15 years old at the time. We became obsessed with machinery. We learned how to fix more and more components of the engine. And I would get more pages out of the library and I would build myself a little book. And that’s what made me Pierre Le Truck.
How well did you know Lenore and Bill Fritsch?
We’d go over and visit them in their place in North Beach. They had a North Beach apartment. They straddled the era between the hippies and the beatniks, so they knew a lot of the kind of older people. Like I was at that time in my early 20s, 23, 24, 25. And they were in their 30s, and they knew Brautigan and everything. These were all interesting people to us because they’d been kind of doing this for ten years before we’d even showed up. So it was always fun to go over there because she would have all those books from the City Lights bookstore on her shelf and she knew Ferlinghetti as a writer. She was one of them. She’d published the Love Book by that time so she was also, had achieved celebrity and notoriety as well with these kind of racy psychedelic poems. They were always very gracious. It was great to be there. They were almost, I don’t know, not the parent figures but something like that—they were the older, wiser people.
That day at the free store when someone had said, ‘Here’s a free car’? The old Studebaker Lark. I got it and we drove it that night over to visit Bill and Lenore at their place in North Beach. We sat around smoking dope and talking for a while. It got to be late, so Nina [Blasenheim] said, Eh let’s go home. So we said we’re going home. At that time, the intersections were not regulated like they are today. A lot of intersections in North Beach had no stop signs either way. So we were going through an intersection and we ran into the side of this poor old man’s pickup truck, with the Studebaker. Basically totaled it. I talked to the guy and everything and I was going to stay there and make sure he was okay and let the cops come and whatever. I didn’t know what was going to happen but I was gonna stay there. Nina went into a liquor store and called Bill and Lenore.
After about 15 minutes — I think somebody had called the police and everything but you know, the police take years to come — so we were standing around there with this guy and the side bed of the pickup truck had been stove in and the front end of the Studebaker was all crumpled up, water running out of it. And Billy came, walking up the street. He said, Hey man, you guys okay? Huh, yeah. We’re fine. He looked at the situation and he said, So what cha doing? Ah, well we’re just waiting for the police to come. He said, Uh I wouldn’t do that, actually. [laughs] I said, Really? He said No man, you see the situation, a free car and all that shit? You gotta walk away. I said, But the guy’s truck is wrecked. He said Yeah man but you can’t do anything about that. Just walk away. Let’s go, c’mon. So I just fetched a breath and we walked back to his house and they drove us home and we never saw the free car again. We did just walk away from that, and leave that poor guy with his wrecked truck.
You were saying the Diggers were always moving stuff around.
Yeah. Well, the food was one thing. But then we were starting to go out to the country too. This is probably a story from later on, in the ‘67 part. Brooks was living on Webster Street in the Filmore in a corner storefront that he rented. It was common in the SF area to have a storefront where the doors would not open on one street or the other, but onto the corner. That’s the way his place was. So he had a little bed in back. The hookers in the Filmore would come down and chat with him at night if there was a lull in business. He had some job working for a guy who had a chain of toy stores, five-and-dime-type stores around town. And the guy had entrusted Brooks with a big Avis rent-a-truck with a electric liftgate on the back.
So, the thing about everybody moving to the country was, they needed to BUILD. We were in touch with people up at Lou Gottlieb’s Morningstar Ranch, and there was a guy there that to this day I really admire, a guy named Calvino Filipas. He must have been about 60 at the time, but he was hanging out with us. He was an old Italian anarchist who would hand you a book by [Errico] Malatesta or one of these guys, full of anarchist principles, and say, Read that! It’s about just what you guys are doing!
He was up there, and he was talking to Lou Gottlieb and the people who lived on this place, all of whom were just looped on acid all the time. He was talking to them about … He’d say, The thing you need to do is organic farming. And to do organic farming, you must prepare the soil. So they’d go dig for mussels in Tomales Bay, and bring back the mussels and eat them, and then they had these shells. So he was out there, he would have sledgehammers, and we would stand on a concrete pad and we’d CRUSH the shells and shovel the crushings into the compost pit. He was preparing the soil because, [he’s say] We’ve got to be self-sufficient, we can’t rely on the pigs to feed us! He actually had a solid rap. If you go to the farmer’s market today, that whole thing that Calvino was talking about then is now happening.
Above: A contemporary look at the Morningstar Commune.
So these people were living in tents and Calvino was talking about how they need to have lumber to build the basic structures to house these people. Calvino had this idea of building this movement. I don’t think he was quite aware that these people did not have mental or emotional resources to build shit…but we weren’t aware of that either! We were persuaded by his thing. So alright Calvino, we’ll get you the lumber. It’ll be here sometime next week. He went, Alright.
We went back. Brooks knew he was gonna get this big truck from his boss. So the plan was we would take my little truck, the Chevy pickup that I fixed with the reference book, and we would go out to Diamond Heights, where they were building this housing development. They were building a new suburb on this beautiful hill. It was all like corporate housing and stuff, so it wasn’t so much stealing stuff from individual people who were building their homes. So we loaded up on essentially plywood and 2 x 4s. We used the little truck. We didn’t take the big truck up there because we didn’t want to queer his relationship with the guy. The big rig truck could easily be traced, anyway.
Oh, you used the big truck to take the stuff to Morningstar.
That was the idea. We were loading up his storefront, and then eventually we would take a big load up to Morningstar. That was our plan. So, we’d go and boost some stuff from Diamond Heights, then we’d load it up in the store, then we’d go home. And then the next night we’d do a little more. And a little more. So four, five nights we did this. One night, the cops pulled right up in front of the place and they come in. They say, What’s going on here. I say Well we’re just loading in some lumber. Where’d it come from? It came from blah blah, and Brooks had some thing where Calvino’s son or somebody was supposed to say well we brought this from his uncle’s place over in the East Bay—he invented some story. The cop said, I see. Call him up. Alright! Get the phone. We call up Calvino, pass the phone to the cop. Ring ring ring. No answer. Cop says, Okay, well… If we hear that lumber is missing from somewhere we know where to come. Oh yeah, okay, well…we’ll be here! They leave.
So. Um. I’m not telling the story right because this happened in two parts. I think it was like the next night, or two nights later, and we’re loading the lumber ON to the huge truck. Now the cops pull up and their headlights are shining in the door. And they come in. And I think this is where they asked us to call, where we ended up calling. So we were totally in suspense. We didn’t know if they knew that this lumber had been boosted from Diamond Heights. They could have been informed of that but evidently they weren’t. So this was a really close call.
But we did manage to get all the lumber, load it onto the truck, and then we got up in the morning and drove up to Morningstar Ranch, Sebastapol. I think it had been fairly wet weather so we drove it through this kind of mushy … And we said, Hi, where’s Calvino? Oh he’s not here. I see, well this lumber is part of the building for you guys’ houses. Groovy, man! Far out. Put it there, I don’t know, wherever. Far out! You know, people were walking around naked, tripping. And so, nobody even helped us unload it. But we unloaded all of this lumber, got rid of it, and then the goddamned truck was stuck in the mud! So we had to call a tow truck—and pay for it! To get the truck unstuck and get it back out of there. Nobody lifted a finger, they were just, they had no idea what was going on. Wherever Calvino had gone, we didn’t know. It was one of those things where it was like, WHAT THE FUCK are we doing? The risk we took to get what must’ve been thousands of dollars worth of lumber.
There were so many different episodes. This is just one. We would go out on runs with other people, with other trucks, and we preferred rainy, foggy nights, naturally. Nina would always be a little bit worried, you know, cuz we just had this lovely little boudoir there with our little bit of hashish in the pipe next to the bed—it was just so lovely. But then I’d go out at one o’clock in the morning. Imagine her feelings: maybe I wouldn’t come back or she’d get a call, I’M IN JAIL! By all rights, we should have been caught many times. Somehow, we just weren’t.
The pickup truck was really meant for light service. It was a half-ton pickup. But I was carrying around a lot of heavy shit in it, and it was too much for the springs, so I wanted overload springs. There was a guy named Don McCoy. Don McCoy was kind of a millionaire and his wife Paula had come from money. They were married but separated. Paula was a willowy beauty, stunning woman. Blonde and real lanky. Beautiful woman. I guess when they were separated Don set her up with a beautiful Victorian in the Haight. She was one of those well-born girls that liked to hang out with hairy guys like us. Romance and adventure, artistic and political something, who knows. Don, her husband, I guess he’d married money with her, but he’d also taken something and made something of it, because he had a houseboat-building business in Sausalito. He was part of the Sausalito houseboat renaissance, and so he made a chunk off of that. And then in ’67 or ’68 or something like that, he got hit with the free vision and everything and rejected the capitalist lifestyle but he had a whole bunch of money.
One of the things he did, he gave us his Shell credit card. This was not a hot card. This was a real credit card. And I went to this Shell station, run by these two black guys, I think it was like at Masonic in the Panhandle. Don McCoy’s fortune paid to have those put overload springs put on. He’d given us the card, and we passed it around. We put gas on it. I said, This is just for gas, right? And people said, he didn’t specify anything like that. So later on there was a huge contention between Paula’s parents and Don, because essentially Don was giving away the fortune that they felt that the children were entitled to ultimately so they sued him and I don’t know what the fuck happened. But his fate was not happy because he had this place called Olompali Ranch, and we would go up there and have nude baking parties and shit. People would be fucking in the woods, baking Digger bread to take back down to All Saints, and Don owned this very luxurious place, but ultimately I think one of the kids drowned in the swimming pool. His fate was not happy.
To be rich, to be rich on that level, and then to get SEIZED with the vision, like what do you do? It must be very difficult. I think that he and other members of the family must have suffered for that. Poverty can certainly fuck you up, I know people that have been fucked up by that, but wealth can also really do you. You can really get fucked up by money. Don McCoy’s tragedy is not necessarily part of your story, but he did spring for us in this extremely open-handed way, with no complaint.
Paula McCoy’s place was on the same block as where the Dead had a house. What was the relationship between the Diggers and the Grateful Dead?
A lot of these groups were around the neighborhood and if we had an event in the park frequently there was a rock band who was glad to play. I think many times they played for free. They were making money, they had concert tours and recording contracts and everything, and so as money started to move through the culture, rock n roll was really one of the legitimate ways it could start moving. The other way of course was drugs, which was not legitimate. Those were the two kinds of people who had big concentrations of money: rock bands, drug dealers.
Did you know [LSD manufacturer and Grateful Dead associate] Owsley?
Not really. As a Digger, I was the guy in charge of operations. People like Billy and Emmett and Coyote, they would come down here to Hollywood, they would talk to movie stars, people like that. I didn’t really get into that. I was Pierre La Truck—I fixed things. I did a lot of the moving and hauling and physical work, and things like that. I never met Owsley.
And I didn’t really have a close rapport with the rock groups either. I started noticing that I didn’t like the social environment that was created by rock n roll. It tended to be frantic and egoistic. I remember once when we doing the free food… You know, it had to rotate, so nobody had the burden of doing it all the time. It was like you got a call—We’d like to use your apartment for the free food. So somebody’s apartment would be devastated for a day because there’d be this shit all over the kitchen. The stove would be fired up, the kitchen would be unbearably hot, the women would be in there sweating away.
Anyway, at one point, I was living with Peter [Berg] and Judy [Goldhaft], right across from the free store on Cole and Carl, and I remember there was a point where we didn’t do the free food in the park anymore, we just distributed it as groceries. People were coming to the front of the house to get the groceries. A case of tomatoes would be put on the sidewalk, a case of artichokes, a case of carrots. So they’re just there in boxes and people would come and get stuff and that was the free food. The truck pulled up, the food was put out there, people were elbowing each other out of the way and it started to be this feeding frenzy. I thought, that’s not it! Don’t do that. That’s not a way to distribute the free food. Something’s sick and wrong here about this. And I remember I said, Try music. And I went up and put my stereo in the window, right above it. And I put on these Italian trumpet concertos—again it was something stately and measured and dignified—and I said like, listen to that. And I played the music. And pretty soon people started going After you. No go ahead, that’s okay. Oh there’s only one left? You have it. People started to behave like that because the music tended to create a different reality.
I remember watching that magnificent documentary Gimme Shelter. Gimme Shelter has Diggers in it, y’know. I remember seeing a picture of Billy Fristch in it. Because Billy started working with the Angels. He became an Angel. And, that concert was set up by Emmett. When you watch the movie, it’s like what’s being expressed in the music and the performance is an angry, cocky, egotistical projection. I remember watching it and people start shoving and pushing each other in the audience and Mick Jagger’s going, What’s the matter, people? Hey why can’t you be loving and groovy? Then he’d go back to the kind of thing he did in his performance, which is cocky and angry and confrontational. And so the qualities of the performance were being reflected in the activities of the audience. Coming out of the stuff we had done where we were Diggers, where we were basically arranging theater events, I mean that seemed so abundantly clear.
I remember one event on Haight Street, and this involved the Grateful Dead, I think. We had set up a street fair. Maybe it was a year after we had cleared all that traffic off the street. There was a street fair. And again Arthur Lisch had his colored chalk. We were setting up things. I was walking up and down the street. There was a string quartet playing music, and then there was somebody else playing one of those bamboo flutes, and here was a person selling these extremely imaginative color candles. So there’s all these hippie artists. People were selling clothing, artifacts, sandals, wall hangings, art and posters and things like that. And everybody was wandering around and it was this wonderful environment, where you could smell the pot and the incense, and it was filled with love, and it was the best kind of Haight-Ashbury event that you could imagine.
And then I looked up and right by the Straight Theater, this big U-Haul truck backed across the street. It was filled with these enormous amplifiers. And the Grateful Dead were on the truck. And as soon as the truck was in place… CHONG! This giant chord resounded down the street. And everybody stopped what they were doing and sat down and they watched. And so all of that interaction just stopped, and they were watching one hugely amped activity. And the music was very nice, the Grateful Dead were terrific musicians, but really the life of the place just stopped with that. And I thought, Eh I think I’ll go home. Cuz it was suddenly an event for people who were fans. And what had been going on before was an event for participants.
[thinking back to earlier in the conversation] Pardon me though, because I did come to Hollywood once with Coyote, but this was much earlier. Coyote had been a member of the Diggers for like a week or a few days when there was a guy in Hollywood called Zev Putterman who was a friend of Peter’s dad, or who at least knew Peter’s dad, and he produced a show, called the Les Crane show, which was a talk show. And Les Crane had this idea of putting on a guy called Bart Lytton. Bart Lytton ran a company called Lytton Savings and Loan. Litton was a colorful, articulate, handsome, silver-haired capitalist representing the Establishment. And Les Crane knew that Peter was this articulate guy, or maybe Peter had appeared on TV or y’know, he was an actor and doing the Mime Troupe stuff and all that. So, he wanted to get Peter down to L.A. on one of these debate things with the Les Crane show, with Peter Cohon versus Bart Lytton. But Peter has only been in the Diggers for a fuckin’ week! So Coyote said Kent, you gotta come with me on this, I’ll get you on the show. So we came down and were admitted into a studio. I remember walking in with Peter, and this guy Zev Putterman ‘Hey Peter, howyadoin? Hows your dad? Great to see you” and Zev was there and it was almost like he was saying So if you want to work in Hollywood, we can find you an agent and stuff. I was totally being pared off. People who were to the manor born were admitted and I was being asked to read a magazine. Peter wanted me to be with him on the show. And he told them, Listen, Kent knows so much about this, and the guy said, You know, we can’t. The lighting has already been set up. Sorry. So I was left to heckle from the audience. But it was a brilliant idea, because Peter was actually FAN-TASTIC at that kind of thing. And much better than I would have been, really. He has an unbelievable gift for that. He invented things during the conversation like “the equal-opportunity shaft,” stuff like that. Burt Lytton was giving all this liberal stuff about how organizations like his, they were the real things that were bringing people out of poverty and building the American dream, and the hippies were really a misguided… ‘not that I have anything against you personally, I’m sure you’re nice people but let’s face it…’ He would have to give the Establishment argument like that. Peter was fantastic, he totally threw a loop around his arguments and tripped them up and showed where the Establishment was actually creating poverty, the War was shifting money away from… He totally had the guy, he was running circles around him. It was a great show, it was very interesting. Questioning the very way that money works, to divide people into classes and stuff like that. He was terrific, just fantastic.
And we went to see the L. A. Diggers, they were a little bit different. They had none of the criminal glamour of our group. They were very much well meaning people who wanted to give food to poor people and ‘help.’ They were very nice.
What do you know about Altamont?
Emmett was really interested in doing that because Woodstock had happened, y’know? Woodstock had happened back east. The idea for Altamont was that we would have a Woodstock for ourselves here on the West Coast. I’m not close to the event. I wasn’t there. So I don’t really know what happened. But I think it’s really part of the whole story of Haight-Ashbury. It’s a story with a beginning middle and an end. It’s a story with an arc to it, because at the end of 1968, if you stood and you looked down Haight Street you saw Beirut. Plywood boarded up all the windows. It was a smashed and wrecked place.
And if you looked at it before late ‘67 or early ‘68, you saw a place that was bustling with life. People moving through it—It was really a river, because it was a river that was going somewhere else. People that came to the Haight were ultimately on their way to another thing. Y’know, it’s the old story, you look at the letters of the young kids that came through at that time, and in my early 20s, I was already one of the older guys, cuz it was a place really where a lot of teenagers came through, they would write home to their parents: I’ve met these really beautiful people. And those beautiful people would go somewhere else, and do something. And that was what it was really about.
There was another event I remember, at Winterland. We were starting to see these guys—big burly muscular guys, they all wore white turtleneck sweaters and sportcoats and they had cars with phones in them. We thought of them as the Mafia. I don’t know what they were but they were walking around, riding around, and right at that time, Superspade was killed, and we had other people that we knew who were drug dealers and they had to get out of the city.
I remember someone said, Get Kent, he’s always got a truck. I had to drive somebody out of town because they were in fear for their lives. So what had happened was that the drug traffic which had been this free-form thing was being taken over by organized crime. The sources of money were being grabbed, and controlled, by various people who were interested in those things. And people who were gonna stand in the way were gonna lose their lives. That’s what happened to the Haight-Ashbury. I think the story of Altamont is part of that story. I can’t tell you any details because I wasn’t there. The best I can do is try and put it into context. That’s what was happening in late ‘68 and early ‘69.
What exhausted itself was the hippie thing in the Haight-Ashbury. The Digger thing did not exhaust itself. Leaving town to have babies was a fresh lease of life for it. You might actually say it brought a real stability and power to what we were doing. We really didn’t call it the Diggers anymore, we called it Free Family, but it was the same thing, really. “Diggers” was an urban, quasi-criminal thing that was really about short-term theatrical effect. I mean, you could say we started the free medical clinic in the Haight-Ashbury and stuff like that, but really, that was David Smith, he was really the one that gave it staying power. We created theater that could have the potential for that but we didn’t have any of the skills necessary to really make a free medical clinic stay there for years. But when we moved to the country and started having kids, then it was different because people started talking about buying land. Black Bear. [David] Simpson’s place, Nina and Freeman [House]’s place up in Petrolia—those are examples.
What happened to Brooks?
Brooks seemed to me to be the most emotionally healthy guy—he was completely spontaneous, he was totally in touch with his body, he was adventurous, kind, resourceful. He wasn’t a big intellectual but he respected intellectualism, would read a few books like James Joyce and shit, just to keep up his end of the conversation. He had real intelligence and a great, great personal energy.
But as the time we had together went on, he would start to do things with drugs that were in fact a little odd. And then our lives went in different directions. I went on the road with the Minstrel Show and in ’68 I came back and then… In 1969, Nina and I were looking for the place to have the baby. We wanted to find Brooks because Brooks was kind of part of it for us. But Brooks had gone off, and we hadn’t seen him for a year or something. I heard that he’d been seen running naked on the highway up in Marin County around Bolinas. He was in Bolinas a lot. People in Bolinas knew him. Somebody said he was up in Mount Shasta. And I went there and found him, walking along the road with a 60-pound square honey tin on his shoulder. He said he was living with some other woman somewhere in a lean-to on the mountain. He had just gone totally out into the woods, to live in the woods. That was the last I saw Brooks for about 10 years.
So somewhere around ’79, I was living in San Francisco. I was working for the city, I had a job working for the arts commission, and also, I was starting to act in plays around town, and I got a telephone call from Brooks. I told him my address and said meet me there later on, because I had to do something with work. When I came back home, he was sitting on my front stoop. And he was emaciated. He looked like a concentration camp survivor and he had a big scar on his forehead and his glasses were like coke bottle bottom glasses. He had obviously injured his face in some way. Mentally he was absolutely shattered. He needed money. I had a very low income job but I did have money, so I helped him out. He tried to tell me stories of what had happened. He’d been in Canada, he’d been with some kind of commune, maybe Moonies or something like that, he had been with some very religious people and some adventure where he’d hopped a freight and been thrown off the train and hurt himself. I got the impression also that he had had drug experiences of some kind.
So I helped him out, and he was in and out of my life for two or three years there, around ’78-79-80. He would go to a psychiatric place down on Army Street — I remember talking to his doctor — he would take lithium. I would tell the doctor, Brooks says stuff like Rockefeller has a bank account with a million dollars for him. And he said, Don’t humor him in that—if you think it’s bullshit, you should go, Brooks, that’s bullshit. Okay, thanks, that’s good advice. I would start doing that and Brooks would correct his story, say Ah I was just joking. But he was constantly veering off into outrageous delusions.
He was crazy in what seemed to me at the time the best sense of the word. He was completely impervious to social conditioning. Later on I got news that he’d gone back to upstate New York, where he’d come from originally, and where his mother still lived, in Painted Post. The final word I got was that he’d escaped from a mental institution in upstate New York. It was cold weather when he escaped. And that he had drowned in a lake in the middle of the night.
It’s such a sad fucking story. The thing that Brooks and I both liked and were interested in, and I must confess I still like it today, it was glorious adventure. Romance and adventure. That’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to do really interesting, far-out things and get laid. And, y’know, have interesting relationships with the women that we got laid with. The Diggers and the Mime Troupe were interesting, especially to Brooks, not for any reason of political ideology like you’d get from interviewing Berg or Coyote, but because it was really exciting and sexy and fun. Now of course those things were interesting to those guys, too. Those were the kind of things that we were pursuing at the Noe House. We had various relationships with women. I remember there was one woman we both wanted to fuck, and I remember we were there, we were talking about who’s gonna take her up to their room, because both of our rooms were on the second floor, and I remember we both turned to her and said, Well how about it? What do you think? And she was totally intimidated by that, just by the frankness of it: Well, you decide. We’re obviously at an impasse, neither of us are gonna give up, so what do you wanna do?
She ran screaming from the building.
This piece of nondual Digger philosophy was published as a broadside by the Communication Company in 1967. It is unsigned, but in Ringolevio (page 404), Emmett Grogan reveals that the author is Bill Fritsch/aka Sweet William Tumbleweed, who composed the poem/manifesto in June, 1967 after he and other Diggers (somewhat infamously) ambushed a Students for a Democratic Society-sponsored conference in Michigan.
Scan courtesy diggers.org
If you were involved with the San Francisco Diggers and are interested in sharing your memories and insights as part of this oral history project, I’d love to hear from you.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org