“We’re gonna do economic activity—without money!”: Inside the criminal glamour of the San Francisco Diggers with Kent Minault

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In this infamous early counter-culture photograph from November 1966, (l-r) Robert LaMorticella, Emmett Grogan, Kent Minault, Peter Berg and Brooks Bucher celebrate the dismissal of charges brought against them (and two 8-foot-tall puppets) for participation in a Diggers street event in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Photo courtesy diggers.org

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.

This is the third in a series of interviews with Diggers that I am presenting online for the first time. The others were Phyllis Willner and Chuck Gould. More to come.

If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!

— Jay Babcock (babcock.jay@gmail.com), Feb. 26, 2020

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Kent has a think at Eureka Street, circa 1968.

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.

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Scene from A Minstrel Show: (l-r) Julio Martinez, George Matthews, Willie B. Hart, Jason Marc-Alexander, John Broderick, Malachi Spicer, (back of) Robert Slattery. Photo by Neil Robert Miller via SF Mime Troupe.
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Program for A Minstrel Show. Kent is listed as musician and understudy.

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.

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Brooks Bucher, mid-flight. Photo courtesy Kent Minault

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.

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The San Francisco produce terminal

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.

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Haight tourists encounter a hippie in his habitat. Photo by Michael Alexander.

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?

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Broadside for the Intersection Game, written anonymously (probably Peter Berg) and printed/distributed by the Comm/Co.

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.

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Haight-Ashbury street chalk work. Source unknown.

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.

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Robert LaMorticella (right), at a demonstration with the puppets that would later be arrested in the Oct. 31, 1966 Haight Street incident involving the five Diggers. Source unknown.

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.

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The exuberant reaction of the five Diggers to the dismissal of their charges made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

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.

ChocolateGeorge
Chocolate George of the San Francisco Hell’s Angels. Photo by Gene Anthony.

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.

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People head to the SFPD station to free Chocolate George and Harry the Horse. Note Michael McClure with autoharp on right. Photo by Gene Anthony.

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.

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The Park Street police station is surrounded. Source unknown.

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.

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Scene elders: poets Michael McClure and Richard Brautigan, San Francisco, circa 1968. Photo by Rhyder McClure

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.

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Emmett Grogan, early ’70s.

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.

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Emmett, New York City, early ’70s.

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.

Melvin Belli and Arthur Lesch/SF City Hall Steps
Infamous tort attorney Melvin Belli (center) with Arthur Lisch (in plaid, holding sheets) on the San Francisco City Hall Steps, 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould.

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.

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Diggers/Free City broadsheet, 1968.

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.

Nina Blasenheim, Kent and Angeline Minault
Nina Blasenheim, Kent Minault and their daughter Angeline, early ’70s. Photo by Chuck Gould.

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.

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Kent in Pierre Le Truck guise.
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Digger truck, circa 1967. Photo by Jim Marshall.
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Arthur Lisch driving the same Digger truck on Haight Street, 1967. Photo by Elaine Mayes.

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.

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Calvin “Calvino” de Filippes: He had a solid rap. Date/location unknown. Courtesy Phyllis Willner

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.

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At Altamont: school bus with “Hells Angels Frisco” banner. Still from Gimme Shelter.

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.

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The Dead play in the street; Kent goes home. Source unknown.

[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.

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Kent in 1968, in his early 20s: already one of the older guys on the scene. Still from Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

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.

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William Thomas, aka Superspade

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.

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Shirtless Brooks, date and location unknown. Courtesy Kent Minault.

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.

“For the Duration of Our Parallel Flow”: An epic interview with Phyllis Willner of the San Francisco Diggers

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1966 in the Haight-Ashbury in a single image: caped teenage runaway Phyllis Willner rides with Hell’s Angel Hairy Henry Kot, yelling “Free!” to “Now! Day” celebrants and onlookers. Photo by Gene Anthony.

Explainer
Later that day: Phyllis Willner (left) explains herself. Photo by Gene Anthony.

In October 1966, Phyllis Willner arrived on motorcycle in San Francisco as a teenage Jewish runaway from Jamaica, Queens. She quickly fell in with the Hell’s Angels, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and, most crucially, the Diggers, who were just getting their street radical thing together in the Haight-Ashbury.

The next two years would be eventful: many extraordinary highs, some really terrible lows.

Anyone familiar with the ’60s Counter-culture knows the key role* the Diggers played in its birth and adolescence; the general outline of their influential group praxis; and may even be able to recall a name or three associated with them: actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual ones that come up, as they’ve written books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio is the most notorious. Although Phyllis Willner’s name and image exist in contemporaneous news accounts and later histories of the era (see especially The Summer of Love, by Gene Anthony), she is one of many essential Diggers whose story — and unique, fascinating perspective and insights — has 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 conversation I had with Phyllis at her home in Arcata, California in 2010. There has been some editing for clarity, but for the most part this is how the conversation went over three hours; it has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. 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 Phyllis. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.

If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!

— Jay Babcock (babcock.jay@gmail.com), Jan 1, 2019

* The Diggers were often referred to as the worker-priests of the Haight. San Francisco Chronicle columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason famously wrote that the Diggers were the city’s “true peace corps;” a local Episcopalian minister called them “the executive branch of the hippie movement.”  The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor said, “They [the Diggers] were in my opinion the core of the whole underground counterculture because they were our conscience.” A vast archive about the Diggers is maintained by Eric Noble at diggers.org

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Jay Babcock: You’re from New York City, right? Where did you grow up?

Phyllis Willner: My father’s origins were fruit and vegetable sellers. His family had had a sidewalk stand on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They had immigrated, did what a lot of Jewish Austrian-Polish people did—they sold roots: parsnips, horse radish… When my father got back from the War he found a job in the garment district as an unskilled worker. It used to be called the rag trade, and it was round 34th, 35th, 36th. Macy’s and Gimbel’s were the stores. But the places where the tailors worked? Just like the diamond district, there was a garment district, and that’s where he worked. He was an order clerk. He put things in boxes. He worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He went to auctions. In those days they’d seam-strip clothes from Lord and Taylor and Sacks Fifth Avenue, send the seam-stripped clothes, or make patterns out of them with less fabric, cheaper buttons, and send it to Japan, to be mass-produced to be sold to people that couldn’t afford to buy clothes from Taylor’s or Macy’s or the better stores.

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Phyllis Willner’s father Jack and mother Louise are the couple on the left. Location and date unknown. Photo courtesy Phyllis Willner.

We lived in the Bronx, on Tremont Avenue near the Zoo for a while. I have a half-sister Barbara from my mother’s first marriage, she’s 12 years older. My mother worked at Bergdorf Goodman as a saleswoman and a model during World War II. And then she married and had some kind of psychotic break, and was in a mental hospital for quite a while, got out, met my father when they were both 40, had a marriage but then collapsed again. She spent a lot of her adult life in the hospital. She wasn’t really available that much. In those days they diagnosed everybody with schizophrenia, and the only drug was Thorazine. And she didn’t like it, wouldn’t take it. She was probably bipolar.

We moved to Jamaica, Queens, what they called a “One-Fare Zone”: 15 cents and the subway took you to Manhattan in twenty minutes. Doctors and lawyers in Jamaica Estates, Black people in South Jamaica and where my family lived were mostly Irish, Greek, Italian, German immigrants and first generation Americans. Young people with planned trajectories would remain in school, follow thru with what was expected. There were also gangs, zip guns, knives and heroin.

I left home early, maybe 15. I went to San Francisco in 1965. I didn’t complete the ninth grade. I went as far as the seventh grade, then I went back for a little bit of the eighth grade, and then I went into the ninth grade and just… I didn’t know what they were talking about. I couldn’t get it. Instead of going to school, I’d spent a lot of time in the museums of New York. I used to go to the Museum of Modern Art, because it cost one dollar to get in. And they had film festivals. And there would be a horror film festival—Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, and you could just watch Dracula movies all day. And there I learned about sex, because they had a Sophia Loren festival. I saw Two Women and got, you know, saddened by it, but… I learned a lot at the Museum of Modern Art. I had my favorite pictures I’d go and visit by myself. I’d find an occasional friend that would play hooky, but they didn’t want the consequences. I didn’t have consequences, so I just did what I wanted. But there’s consequences for everything.

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Phyllis Willner, age 16 or 17, location unknown, 1965. Photo courtesy Phyllis Willner.

How did you get from New York City to San Francisco?

On a motorcycle. I had a friend that I worked for on the Westside. He had a store called The Glass Bead Game or Magister Ludi, after the Herman Hesse book. His parents died and he took the money and went to Germany and bought a BMW motorcycle, and invited me to go to California. I didn’t know what California was, basically. I really was… Peter Berg used to say I had native intelligence, but I had no… I mean, when people told me they were “going to the country,” I thought they meant France or Spain or Italy. I didn’t realize there were open areas where people didn’t live. I wasn’t curious, I guess. I was self-absorbed. Whatever. So when he said ‘California,’ I wasn’t sure what that was, or where it was. And then I met someone else who had been there, who said, ‘You’ll love it. Everyone dresses in costumes, and they’re acting out stories. You’ll meet the Mad Hatter, you’ll meet Cinderella, you’ll meet all the fairy tale people. All thousand and one Arabian nights are there.’ It just sounded great!

I had a purple shirt that was also a dress, a pair of jeans, a blanket. I didn’t have a sleeping bag. And off we went. We traveled all summer on this very comfortable motorcycle. And we met others, and we rode with them. It took three months to get here.  I was amazed when we saw New Jersey, the expanse of Connecticut, then the Rocky Mountains. We stopped at the Grand Canyon. We took our time, and became good friends, and arrived in San Francisco and went our separate ways.

I had an address in San Francisco. I had sent all my stuff to this address, and I was going there to meet this fellow, who had told me how great San Francisco was. The address was on Taylor and Ellis, in the Tenderloin. The person was long-gone when I arrived in the Tenderloin. Now, I knew about 42nd Street, I knew about hookers, I knew about transvestism, and I knew that I wasn’t in the right neighborhood. I wanted to be where the beatniks were. That would’ve been North Beach, but when I asked somebody, they said, You might like it better over on Haight Street, the younger people are there. So I hitchhiked over to the Panhandle, and there was food and people. See, the [Diggers’] Free Food had already started.

I was pretty clueless. I just wanted to see my friend, and wanted to be in California. I had a lot of bravery in a way, but I wasn’t remembering what I was supposed to do. I was inspired to be in this theater company that I thought was huge. It sounds funny but it’s true. You know, in New York, aside from visiting museums, I had been enamored with Greenwich Village. I didn’t know where to go, exactly, but I got to Greenwich Village and I started hearing the music. And that’s what it was all about for me: folk music. I loved all the old songs — the Weavers, the songs of Appalachia. I loved Bob Dylan, I wanted to marry Bob Dylan. I went to Town Hall and saw him in concert. I made friends with John Sebastian, who played the harmonica, like his father before him. And we went to a recording session of Bob Dylan’s. I met Edwina—Edwina was Jack Elliott’s girlfriend, she was a ballerina. I smoked real pot for the first time. I’d been smoking seeds and twigs and oregano — God knows what I got from my friends for five dollars a lid, an ounce. These people had real pot. So I remember staying in the bathroom for a long time, playing… Bob Dylan was out there recording Highway 61 Revisited and I was in the bathroom playing with toilet paper—no, paper towels—and these French girls came in and they thought I didn’t speak English, and they were talking about me the whole time.

But anyway, that was one street corner incident. Another street corner incident was, Hey you want to be in a movie? Sure. Like, hey you wanna go to a recording session? The movie was at Millbrook. So we went to a forest and it was a million-dollar estate, owned by a man named Bill Hitchcock. And Tim Leary and Richard Alpert were all there. Charlie Mingus was there too. And there were horses. The horses were white, but they had dyed them different colors with food coloring. And there was an upstairs part where you could put on any costume you wanted. But then there would be filming where they’d tell you what to put on. So for the ‘any costume you wanted,’ I got into facepainting. There was also as much LSD as you wanted to take. That was available, to take.

So I just decided to be a bird. I had a lot of black feathers. I painted my forehead. I was probably 16 or 17 in that picture, that’s all. Then I put on a costume that had sagging breasts with a white bun, and I was Tim Leary’s secretary. And we were talking about all the students taking LSD at Harvard.

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Phyllis Willner in costume and facepaint, possibly on LSD, for Timothy Leary’s movie being filmed at Bill Hitchcock’s estate in Millbrook, New York, 1966. Photo courtesy Phyllis Willner.

And I met [future Digger] Chuck Gould there, when I was… There was a lake on this property and I was in a boat and I didn’t know how to row it. And he was this person on this bridge, instructing me how to row, so that I could get back. I was very high on acid and I couldn’t… I’m laughing, but I also couldn’t get back to shore.

So that’s my story: I waited — that happened. I waited — Bob Dylan was there. I waited in San Francisco on a street corner, and somebody said, Hey you want to see a play? And I went to the Mime Troupe’s theater, and there was Harry Belafonte. He was supposed to be a person viewing the play, to take it on the road. The play was The Minstrel Show. The cast was black and white, black people wore blackface but so did the white people, so sometimes you couldn’t tell who was black and who was white. It was for Harry Belafonte, but the Mime Troupe and Ronnie Davis and all those guys were so outlawish that they went out on the street and picked people up to be in the audience, with Harry Belafonte. And I happened to be one of the people because I was a street person, I was hanging out, and they said, Come see the play. That may be when I met Peter [Coyote] for the first time. No—I met Peter and Emmett [Grogan] at the Panhandle for food. But [in any event] it was another time I ran into them.

Think about it: World War II is over. There was this plethora of young people—some were educated, some weren’t. They were all hormonal. Everybody wanted to play. I mean, what I did in New York is I joined the Civil Rights movement. Did I believe people should have civil rights? Of course. But did I want to dance? Yes. Did I want to meet boys? Of course. Did I love the music? Absolutely. So it was social. So what was happening, in my view anyway, in San Francisco was similar. Here were a bunch of young people that were… It was just street theater and social theater, and it all made sense.

People in the Haight-Ashbury would tell me, Let’s go dancing. I’d say Well I don’t know how to dance. And they’d say When you get there you’ll see, you’ll know how to dance. So I go to the Avalon Ballroom, and people are dancing in circles, they’re dancing around each other. I said: I can do this! And I danced and I danced, and it was over and the group of people said Oh come to my house. I went to their house and the fellow that I gravitated towards, his name was Gut. When he opened up his shirt, it said ‘Gut’ right on his gut. It was his house. And in the morning—I’ve always been an early riser—so I got up before anybody else and started sweeping, which is what I like to do, and I’m doing the dishes and being useful, and I open his closet and I see a Hell’s Angel jacket.

After he wakes up, I ask, Are you a Hell’s Angel?, and he says, Yeah. And I said Well I’m a biker, y’know. I came all the way here on a motorcycle. And I told him it was a BMW and he said it’s not the same thing exactly, but we do have a club. And I said, Well I would like to meet them. So he gave me the number of Pete Knell, who was at that time president of the Hell’s Angels. (And Gut designed this poster.) Anyway, I called Pete Knell when we were doing an event. It was called ‘The Death and Re-Birth of Haight-Ashbury,’ and I asked him if he would come. I said that we have a lot in common: that we love each other, and I know that he loves all of his brothers, and that we like to do drugs, and we don’t really get along with policemen and won’t he please come to Shrader Street. And he said, Sure!

So we were at Shrader Street and Tim Leary actually was there, and Richard Alpert, and I don’t know if Allen Ginsberg was there. Michael McClure was there. And: vroom vroom —up come the whole San Francisco chapter of the Hell’s Angels, and they ask for me. Because I had called them! And I came out and I looked at them and they seemed okay, and they came in. Half the people left—because they were afraid of them. And there was reason to be afraid: some of these men were racist, some of them were ill-ly educated. A lot of them were Korean War veterans that had solidified relationships that were just… And they were taking the same drugs we were taking. Some of them had been taken up to Ken Kesey’s place and given acid.

I got very tight with Henry Kot and Chocolate George, mostly. Those were my best friends. And Bruno. I don’t remember Bruno’s last name. And Freewheelin’ Frank. They were like friends. They would come… I would read to them. I was very interested in Oscar Wilde’s fairytales. They’d come up, I’d read them fairy stories.

They were protective of us. They participated in this event. Hank got busted.

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Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 18, 1966.

And we became friends afterwards. His wife, Lisa, you met at Lenore [Kandel]’s funeral.

I went to Golden Gate Park, and there was food. I met Peter Coyote. And I met Emmett. And Emmett, I don’t know how much… I think he loved Coyote, I don’t know how much he liked him. Emmett said, ‘Don’t bother with him, he’s Prince Valiant. Come with me.’ And off I went with Emmett. And started doing the food…with David [Simpson] and… It was all women, really. It was Nina [Blasenheim], Cyndi, Mona, Jane [Lapiner] I think, and I don’t remember who else. And we just went to the produce market, and created relationships with people that were either giving food to the nuns for the poor, or giving it to farmers for animals. We talked about, ‘Well, there’s lots of hungry kids in the Haight-Ashbury.’ Cooking every day. We made relationships with them. Pat was the chicken wing guy. The food was all good. It wasn’t bad food. And we’d get truck loads of it and cook it. That was something that we did, everyday.

How did you figure out how to cook for so many people?

Clueless. No idea. The closest we ever got to doing it right was at this church. We had access to a church at one point, a Methodist church. But prior to that we were using these milkcans. And I didn’t believe in them but they were using them already, and I think that a lot of the things at the bottom got burned. Then when we were doing things in houses, we’d rent these apartments and cook things and bring them to the park, already cooked. For so many people you just quadruple and druple the recipes.

We lived communally. We lived with a lot of people. So you cooked big pots of rice and big pots of beans. We didn’t know much about nutrition, either, so I don’t know how good the food was for anybody. We were better than the Krishna people. The Krishna devotees were giving away little balls of butter with sugar and powdered milk—it was Krishna candy.

We also got food donations from people. Somehow we got whale meat from some Marine biology laboratory. There was a bakery in Oakland that started teaming up with us, and they were baking bread. But the bakery was haunted. They thought they had a poltergeist—I never saw or experienced it. But we did some cooking in Oakland. And those were people from New York that’d come to the Bay Area.

I’m kind of wandering. Tell me what you want to know.

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Phyllis in the Drugstore Cafe, late 1966 or 1967. Photo by Gene Anthony

You were living in one of the group apartments…

Mmm. I lived at 17th Street. I lived at a house that was near Kezar Stadium, on Willard Street. [Gazing at a photo from scapbook] This was a beautiful guy that had a story that beat everybody else’s. He’d robbed a bank. He was shot six times. He survived it. And he was part of our little gang there too. I lived with everybody, in different places. I lived with Coyote. And Carl Rosenberg: Aaron’s father, Judy Goldhaft’s first husband. They had a place. I lived mostly with Nina, and Julie Boone, our friend in Florida. And at one point, Cyndi, Bobbi and Nina. We had a place. Many different places. We moved around a lot.

Clockwise from upper left: Julie Boone, Nina Blasenheim, Bobbi Swofford. Photos courtesy Kent Minault.

When I got back from overseas, everybody wanted to be my roommate [laughs]. Cuz I always worked. I always seemed to have a job, or some kind of income. I tended bar, or I’d do something for money.

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Phyllis. Photo courtesy Kent Minault.

The cooking: was it hard work?

Yeah! Yeah. It was hard processing the food—because everything you bought had to be cleaned and then it had to be chopped up. I remember being a little bit resentful. I remember thinking that the men were out doing public things—they were getting a great deal of attention, and we were doing a lot of labor-intensive things. And it was labor-intensive to keep providing the food. I remember this fellow showed up and he wanted to do all the cooking. His name was Troy. He was an African-American man, and as I look back on it now, I realize he was schizophrenic. He heard voices. He talked to himself all the time. And he was not a good cook. [laughs] The food was terrible! But I think we were so relieved to have somebody else cook for a while that we let Troy cook.

And then Diane di Prima moved to town. She had a house on Oak Street: big beautiful Victorian. And she always had helpers. She many children. And I became one of her helpers. With the kids, with food. And there was a man named Lee. Her helpers were mostly gay men. She liked gay men. Some women do. And Lee, I liked him. He was like a Persian princess. Nina would remember him. He tried to teach me to drive. We did a lot of produce runs in his Volkswagen.

That was interesting too: getting vehicles that ran, and keeping them running, to do the food.

Kent Minault was involved in that —

Yeah, Kent and Brookes had a van: “The Road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” William Blake.

The “Excess Express.”

And there was the Albigensian Ambulance, that was Peter Berg’s van. Different things had names. Knucklefunky was Peter Coyote’s truck. They worked on ’em. They weren’t run by chips [like now], they were like tubes on an old television — these cars were repairable.

Did you feed people in the Park?

First I was served. It was happening before I arrived, and I was served food. And the day probably that I was first served is the day I started preparing, and gathering and cooking. It seemed like the right thing to do. We were gonna support each other and help each other and I wanted to do that.

I remember I got arrested once for shoplifting. No, for petty crime. I had accumulated a lot of things, myself and two other women, in a car outside of Sears. We were arrested. We were surrounded by store detectives and they said, You need to stop shopping now. The place is closed, and your credit card’s no good. And they went out to the car and brought everything back. But what was in the car was baby clothes, denim pants, blankets, sleeping bags—there was no jewelry, nothing that was resellable, really. I mean, at that time. And I went to jail.

In jail, this woman came to see me, she said she was a sergeant in the Army of God, The Salvation Army, and that she’d noticed that the things I’d stolen were of no value. What was I going to do with them? I said I was going to give them away because there were a lot of people that needed the stuff. And she said, So you’re a freelance social worker? And I said No, but that’s what she told the judge. [laughter] And so instead of having a lawyer defend me—this is going to sound really contrived, but I couldn’t make this up—her name was Agnes Nightingale, and she was a sergeant in the Army of God. She sent me Christmas cards for a number of years afterwards. She got me out of jail. And I was definitely engaged in petty crime. I got a warning from the judge: Don’t do that again. Can you imagine? So, I’ve been very lucky. A lot of magical, trippy things like that happened. And I’ll never forget her, and that was a Digger endeavor, because I was… Just like when Kent and Peter and they all went and stole meat. There’s a kind of famous picture of them, I have it somewhere, in front of the meat truck. Well, this was my effort to be kind of like that.

[Looking thru scrapbook, at letter posted below] This is the first sort of thing that I wrote to my mother. Which, I mean oh my god, it’s just child-like. Cuz I am a child. Or I was. My mother, even though she was mentally ill, I would write to her. She saved all my letters. I have letters that I was going to throw away, that maybe I should. Or I was going to write a book saying what I wrote my mother, and what really happened. [laughs] Almost a scroll, you know, because… I wasn’t educated.

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Letter home from Phyllis Willner, handwritten on flipside of flyer for Feb. 3, 1967 Big Brother/Blue Cheer show featuring an image of Phyllis in cape riding on the back of motorcycle with Harry. (See below) Courtesy Phyllis Willner.

[Looking at flipside of letter, which was a flyer, image posted below] That’s one of those posters, with Hank. And you know what was happening there. It was a large poster. These were just handouts, these were free in the street for anybody who wanted, to go to the concert.

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Handbill by Gut featuring image of Phyllis Willner riding motorcycle with Harry. Flipside is handwritten letter to sister back home (see above image).Courtesy Phyllis Willner.

[looking at another photo] Yeah, this is Buddy. His good friend Ron Thelin and the Diggers went to start a free clinic. This is a picture of Ron Thelin. I got arrested with Ron Thelin, and I can’t remember who else, for reciting poetry on the steps of City Hall. I was reading Jacques Prévert. I was doing this Romantic poetry. It was during the Vietnam War, we were involved in the war being over [event]. We had little buttons that said, “The War Is Over.” “Vote for Me.” I got arrested. Somebody had a joint in their pocket. We were handcuffed. Ama got arrested for wearing an American flag. Ama Jester Fleming—this make-believe name. And Ama Jester Fleming later jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. And survived. He survived and said that he’d entered the House of the Porpoise/The House of No Purpose. He was probably quite mad. But, he was with us, so…. Y’know, we were handcuffed in the van, men and women together. And somebody says, I have a joint in my pocket. And I went and got it out of their pocket, put it in somebody’s mouth and they swallowed it. [laughs] And they let us go shortly after. The arrest was for disturbing the peace. Alma got arrested for wearing the American flag. After that, he started making American flag shirts, shoes, handkerchiefs—at that time, it was illegal to have a shirt made out of the American flag.

Did you know Kirby Doyle well?

Did you read the Kirby poem in Lenore’s book Word Alchemy? That tells you a lot. He was a poet. He had a wildness in his mind. His mind was wild. That was speed. And when he would take it, he would get very crazy. I remember once he called me the whore of Babylon. And he would get into a whole religiosity. But he was also very kind, and intelligent, and he loved his wife Tracy and the little baby California, and Shannon Doyle. I did not know him very well. I got to know Buddy better than I knew Kirby. So I can’t tell you much except that he was a friend of Lenore’s. There was a group of people that were a bit older than me, and they knew each other well. And that would be Lenore, Kirby, Gregory, Belle… and they were poets. And Diane di Prima also. They were in North Beach. Lenore and Bill had an apartment. They vacated it, I got it. It was on Chestnut Street. Then Gregory Corso and his then-companion Belle, who I think was from a very wealthy family, the du Pont family, Belle Campbell, she and her little girl moved in. They made a teepee in the living room for her, the little girl, I forget her name. And we all lived there, for a little while.

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Poet Gregory Corso at the pinball machine, with Belle Campbell and friends. Photo by Chuck Gould

They had a lot of comings and goings. Then there was another poet, Philip Lamantia, but he wasn’t part of the Digger thing. See, there was a whole scene in North Beach, and then there was the Haight-Ashbury. And Berkeley was different.

I’d never been to Berkeley til Emmett took me. Somebody wanted to write something about the Diggers, and I went to Berkeley for the first time. That was amazing. Like another country, with better weather. As the Mission District had. The Haight was foggy all the time — the sun came out in September and October, that’s all.

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Emmett Grogan with parking meter, Long Island, probably early 1970s, photographer unknown. Photo courtesy Max Grogan.

You met Emmett early, at the Park. You were both from New York. What was he up to?

He was brilliant. My impression of him was like… I fell instantly in love with him. I wrote down things that he said. Even if we were at the movies, I would write in the dark. When we were in New York together, I met his mother and father and sister. His mother and sister and I became friends for our lives, our entire lives.

I loved him, and I wanted him to be wherever good things were because he was so creative. I felt like there was a tension between him and, say, Peter Berg, and Peter Coyote, and I always wanted to fix it. I wanted to make it okay, so that they could all be at the same place at the same time. I didn’t want him to miss the birth of a baby, like when Eileen had Ariel. That was one of our first births — maybe it was my first birth? — and I wanted him there and he wasn’t. And I would tell him, he always missed the party. And then he would chastise me and tell me to go have my own adventure. So I did.

I went to L.A. You know Sam Shepard? At the time he was doing movies, and he was a friend of Diane di Prima’s, and there was a group called the Living Theatre that came to stay with us. They were performing Frankenstein at the Straight Theater. Johnny Dodd was their make-up artist and lighting person. He was one of those gay men who likes to wear make-up. He’d come to breakfast in sapphire eyeshadow. He was also an astrologer. We had a talk, and he said: Sam Shepard. You’d be perfect partners in crime. And I had met Sam. Sam, Emmett and I actually had a room at Diane’s at one point. The guys took turns, they weren’t there at the same time. But, he gave me Sam’s address in Los Angeles and said, Y’know, see him, you’ll just be hot for crime. You’ll do crime together. Look, he’s Aquarius with Scorpio rising, you’re Scorpio with Aquarius rising, you both have… Y’know, We had our moons in Aquarius, Sagittarius, something, I dunno, but it was a good mix.

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Phyllis and Sam Shepard, circa 1967-8. Photo by Chuck Gould.

I called him. I said, Do you want to do a bank job? And he said, You mean actually rob a bank? I said, Sort of. You’ll drive the car and I’ll wear a disguise. And what we did was even more petty than what I did with the credit cards. This time, and this was also Digger money, I got my friend to buy traveler’s checks. Then I rehearsed her signature. Then, Sam had the car. I had a disguise. I went to the bank, and I cashed the check in her name. So each time we went to a bank, there was maybe two hundred dollars. 2, 4, 6, 8, 10. But this is 1968 or something, and it seemed like a lot of money.

And then we went to Zabriskie Point, and met Michelangelo Antonioni. And I said to myself, Emmett’s not here. Because he had been to Italy, y’know, and that was one of his hero-type people. But now I was there, with Michelangelo Antonioni, and they were making a movie called Zabriskie Point. Sam wrote the dialogue for it. It was so boring. Because over and over again, they do the same thing. So we went and made our own movie. I wonder what happened to that! We dressed up like sheiks and there were tents and there were sand dunes and all the nine yards. And that happened. Wow.

There’s a lot of side stories. Because people were so open. You know how I met Vicki [Pollack]’s partner Tony? I didn’t know Vicki — I knew Siena [Riffia]. Siena and I wanted to go to L.A. because our friend Lynn Brown was there. So, we were going down Haight Street and we met this guy and he had a redhead with him and he wanted to go to L.A. too. But we had tickets. And he said Well I have a limousine. Tony was a driver for rock n roll bands, that’s what he did. He got himself a limousine, and drove Jefferson Airplane, all these different rock n roll bands around. So he gave us his limousine hat, the limousine, and we gave him the tickets to fly to L.A. Did we exchange phone numbers? Did he know our last names? No. Nothing. So Siena and I started out on 101, and she’s gonna teach me to drive. We got stopped once. That’s the first ticket I ever got, for driving without a license. But we drove to Hollywood, to L.A., and we went down Hollywood Boulevard and there was a sidewalk café thing, and I hear Tony yelling, You guys! Running after us saying, That’s my limousine, that’s my limousine. And, we smiled, and gave him the keys, and gave him back his car, gave him back his limousine. That’s how I met Tony. So when Vicki showed up with him, he was Don’t I know you? And I said Yes. Yes, we’ve met.

So that was the kind of scene in Haight-Ashbury. Can you imagine that kind of trust? I mean now I have my pink slip, and my keys, do I know you, are you nuts… How is that gonna work out?

So, that really happened.

So you did end up having your own adventures.

Yeah, Emmett was vindicated in that he said go have your own adventures, and I did. I mean, when I first met him I was so enamored of him that I wanted to be with him all the time. And at one point, he turned around and looked at me and said, [laughs] You have to stop. Go away. Have your own adventures. And we remained… We did things together. If there was going to be an event, I was going to be part of it somehow. And I think that he let me in on some good things. Like the concerts, and things like that. He was inclusive. Siena was his girlfriend, aka Natural Suzanne. I was his lover for a little while, but not very long. And…I adored him. That’s where it was at. I think that other people… He was creative. He was very creative. He made a lot of things happen. And I know other people did too, but he really did. He was a generator of much energy. And just like stars burn out before the light can even get to us, he just exploded like a nebula. I mean, he… he couldn’t take it. His vision was just… He knew he wouldn’t live very long. Nor was he interested in living very long either, I don’t think. I don’t think he could imagine being an old man. I don’t know.

Emmett got in trouble a lot. [Later on] He took me to see The Band and Bob Dylan. I hadn’t seen Bob Dylan in years, since I was a teenager. But they were all playing at The Last Waltz here in town. And he picked me up in a limousine. He was drinking at that point Rainer Ale, quite a bit. And there was The Band. We were going to see Big Pink, and he said, There’s only one thing I ask of you: do not take any LSD. These are musicians, this is the real deal, they’re really artists, and we’re going to an artistic thing. There’ll be a party afterwards. Just don’t take any acid, okay? And that was just as the acid came on, he said that. [laughter]  There was a tuba player that I knew there who was a married guy, big round black dark-skinned guy. We hung together and watched everybody at the zoo, which was the backstage and the party at the Kyoto Hotel.

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Emmett Grogan (right), with son Max and wife Louise, mid-’70s. Photo courtesy Phyllis Willner.

Did you know Billy Murcott well? He’s a bit of a mystery…

Billy probably did as much creatively, in terms of figuring out how to make the Diggers happen, and how to stage events, as Emmett did. But unlike Emmett, Billy really wanted to be anonymous. He understood something that I don’t think other people got, and that was that it didn’t matter so much. That it was part of this vast, complex vitality and energy that we come from and go back to. And Billy maybe knew. Maybe from his first acid trip. He got it. [chuckles] And he knew that there was a connection to all of it and it didn’t matter so much. And he was more relaxed. He liked to have a good time. But, he wasn’t as wild. His mind wasn’t as wild. That’s my experience of Billy. Y’know, he liked to celebrate but he was more self-contained, and he wasn’t going to go on anybody’s bandwagon, or anybody’s ride. And he wasn’t that interested in celebrities. He didn’t want to meet the Beatles, I don’t think. He didn’t care about people with a great deal of money. He was pretty authentically put together. That’s just an opinion. I dunno.

How important was LSD?

To me? Very, very important. I did not enjoy taking it that often, but I was what we’d call an acidhead—I would take it as often as I could, even though it wasn’t always pleasant. And the reason why I’d take it is when it was good, and it worked, I could see what I still imagine to be the nature of energy: the connectiveness of everything. That things that appear solid only appear so because they’re vibrating at a lower frequency than things that we can’t see. And that what there exists a microcosm and macrocosm. Now I could learn that from looking at a magnifying glass or a telescope, both of which I have, and the pictures from outer space have shown it to be just what I thought it would be. But LSD originally was a pharmaceutical to help people whose minds were… to help change their minds in some way. I think that originally they thought that it would help people that were mentally ill. I don’t know if the idea was for people who suffered from major depression, or if was gonna help a schizophrenic, but I think it let me know what it was like to be schizophrenic. To not have any filters. To have it all coming in, at once. And that was not comfortable. That was the difficult part of a trip, when people would say they were peaking on acid, that’s what they meant—all the filters were down.

So, it was a dangerous drug for people that were on the edge. I see clients now where I work—Oh, they took acid and they never came back. And I think, I took a lot of acid, and I never came back either, but I could function. I could still be a utilitarian. During the LSD trip, I could see that a chair was a utilitarian object—but I didn’t have to sit on it. I could look at it, and I could see that you were another human being, but I didn’t have to see the skin that separated us.

It was a very important drug to me. Emmett didn’t like it very much. And that was interesting. I don’t know why I think Billy did…

LSD makes people open to each other. I think there was some people that were very tight, and were holding their politics or belief systems tight. One of my very good friends in the Haight-Ashbury was Richard Hongisto — he became the sheriff of San Francisco! He was a cop. I wasn’t a snitch — he was a friend of my friend Bobby Marquell’s, and so I met him. And I liked him instantly. He was a policeman. There were other policemen I liked. My aikido instructor was a California Highway patrolman. So the polarity started to dissolve, for people that liked psychedelics, I think. It has to be polarity for there to be Us and Them, for there to be a Right and Wrong, Heaven and Hell.

But the Diggers weren’t about that—that was just an aspect. The Diggers were about theater. But the paradox—the first Digger event I participated in there were giant puppets. Michael McClure had his autoharp, and we worked out this chant. I say ‘we,’ it wasn’t me—it was everybody. Maybe Peter did it, I don’t know, maybe it was Emmett. But it was a growl. No, it was McClure—he was a growler. His beast poems. He did a lot of growling. So it was ARRGH UNNN Shhhh BE COOL. Now imagine a hundred people doing that. And then maybe a thousand people. Growling. Taking pleasure. Being quiet. And saying, Be cool. And that was how it started.

And then there was a rock n roll band called Country Joe and the Fish, and they were on the top of the Psychedelic Shop and they started playing music. And then these puppets, they were like 14-foot-tall puppets, and this was Robert LaMorticella and his wife Barbara, and it took a lot to work them. They had these rectangles of wood that they’d hold up, or someone was holding—they were called the Free Frame of Reference, but we had given out hundreds of them, we had worked HOURS making these little squares with colored rags and people had them around their neck and were looking at them and were talking to each other and the puppets were doing it. And was it better to be on the inside or the outside?

And see, I don’t know what they had in mind. I wasn’t included in that process. I didn’t write the play. I didn’t know if they were talking about politics or religion—it just seemed to me they were talking about how it was all one thing.

And there were other groups happening. There was The Family Dog. That was a whole tribal complex kind of like ours, and they were doing other things, with music. And dog is God spelled backwards and if you talked to them, you’d get a whole other story. Some of them were at Tim Leary’s also….

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Lenore Kandel, from “Les Gals” Magazine, 1967.

Tell me about Lenore Kandel.

Emmett introduced me to Lenore and Bill [Fritsch, aka ‘Sweet William Tumbleweed’] at the same time. When I met them, I was stunned. I fell in love with both of them. They were both dressed in leather. She had purple leather jeans on. [laughs] He was in black leather, and he was probably the most magnetic, handsomest, sexiest, dynamic-est person I’d ever met. And Lenore was just beautiful. I mean, just beautiful—like a Lebanese princess. I don’t remember if it was after I met them—yeah, it was after I met them that Julie gave me Lenore’s poetry. I hadn’t read it yet. Word Alchemy. And when I read it, I was just magnetized. I thought she was the greatest poet I’d ever read. It was better than Bob Dylan. [laughs] It was in the same ballpark. Nobody’s better. It was in the same ballpark. She was brilliant. She spoke my thoughts, and that’s what poetry does. It’s abbreviated language that says what you would like to say, for you.

They were involved in the planning of everything: the events, the food. And she did an astrological reading for events, probably, to make it right. Lenore had beaded curtains that she made—she made jewelry and she made curtains. And the curtains were astrologically correct. There were planets in them. She would make them based on somebody’s chart. Her mind was really like a diamond. You mention somebody being a gem, ‘this one is a gem’? Well, there was your diamond. She could do charts. This is before people had calculators and computers. So she’d look in an ephemeris, do the math, and then create with beads, Saturn, Uranus, all these different constellations. She was very accomplished.

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Photograph by Don Snyder, from his book Aquarian Odyssey. His caption: “Lenore Kandel, author of The Love Book, in her San Francisco boudoir. There are no way but love / but / beautiful / I love you all of them.”

We started seeing each other at different times. She taught me how to eat with chopsticks. I went to their house—that’s when they lived on Chestnut Street, and she made what she called fangooey. Everyone was eating with chopsticks and I said I don’t use chopsticks and she said Well there’s no fork for you! And so I had to watch her and learn. And I was with her and Richard Brautigan and Bill. And we were going to Gary Snyder’s house — the Mahalila house out at Stinson Beach. It was a party. I was quite young, and I just felt like I maybe was going to be getting into something more than I could handle. Boy, was it amazing. Bill drove—I think they had a Peugeot. Richard and I sat in the back, and Brautigan started talking in rhyme. He was getting nervous. Lenore started talking in rhyme. Cuz Bill was driving really fast. It was Stinson Beach. I think I dreamt about it before it happened. Because I dreamt I got high like I’d never got high before. And we smoked opium.

Anyway, we went to Stinson Beach. Gary Snyder was there, very welcoming, and Mahalila house was rife with sitars and tablas and people were dancing. And it seemed good to me—until they started taking their clothes off. At which point I curled up under a bed, and fell asleep. In the morning there were a lot of naked people, and I went out, and lay on the sand. And I woke up and Bill and Lenore were near me. And Richard was there too. I greeted them and I said, y’know I couldn’t … [laughs] There were all kinds of pot and I don’t know what kinds of drugs they were taking, but I was too young, I just couldn’t get with it.

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Bill “Sweet William Tumbleweed” Fritsch, date unknown. Photo by Chuck Gould.

Bill joined the Angels. Why?

It was pretty obvious. The Angels that we met—the men that I mentioned to you: Chocolate George, Pete Knell, Bruno, and Frank—were lovable. It was very easy to love them. They were macho. They loved each other. Bill was macho. He was a lover. Having something like that between your legs—the whole biker thing. And maybe he was so… Maybe he had an edge to him, and that edge had to do with a kind of cruelty, a kind of manly-man confusion about domineering attitude or something? See, Emmett didn’t join. Emmett got a bike. At one point I think Coyote bought him a bike. Coyote got all this money and bought everybody a motorcycle. All his boyfriends. But Emmett didn’t join.

Bill was more blue-collar. I mean I remember I had a boyfriend once that worked at the produce market. He was Italian. He had curly hair. He worked from early in the morning to late afternoon. Someone I met through getting the food. And Bill was so happy—he said, Finally, you’ve met a real person. So Bill believed in his heart I think that all of this was limp-wristed fairies… He had a Native American friend named Larry Littlebird, that he adored. And Larry Littlebird… That’s who he thought had cojones, were the Native people that were artists. The people that produced—the painters, the poets perhaps, he liked some of them too—and the blue collar people. And when I met this one fellow he said, ‘I hope you marry him and have kids, because this is the first normal boyfriend you’ve had, and I like him. He’s good.’ And he was a good person. And I was a flake, or whatever.

So that’s what Bill valued. And the Hell’s Angels worked. Most of them held jobs. They were mechanics. They had families. So maybe that’s where he was coming from. That’s why that seemed more normal to him than all of this stuff. Because we weren’t acting normal—we were acting unpredictable, and wild, and taking things to the limit.

You guys didn’t have jobs…

Yeah. Imagine the Angels being considered “normal.” [laughs] But I think that the Hell’s Angels were more normal than we were. And I can see his attraction on that level. So there was the macho thing, the affection they had for each other which couldn’t be construed as gay—they weren’t like the Kaliflower boys that were dressing up in costumes and being feminine. These were masculine. And there was symbolism, which he adored. Bill liked symbols. Magical symbols meant something to him.

Oh, jobs. I worked as a sales girl at The City of Paris, tended bar in the Tenderlion, did piecework making earrings, petty crime that I was good at. I don’t really know what every one else did. Some had trust funds, some parental support, some welfare scams.

What do you remember about the Invisible Circus event?

I was already connected with Glide. I loved spirituals, I loved to sing. I used to sing in the choir at Glide Church. Cecil Williams had a choir. And the choir was very funny—there was a lot of transvestites, and gay people, and hippie people.I had already brought this black girl home, Tasha, and she lived with us for a while. Then we got a call from Lloyd Watanabe, who was one of the ministers at Glide, that this woman Tasha called him from jail and would we please tell him how to help her. I didn’t know she was a prostitute—I was such a little… really really hippie. I wish I was a beatnik but I wasn’t! I was just like, oh yeah come to my house. And this girl was in jail. I remember going down to the jailhouse, and Lloyd put his collar on, and said that he was from Glide Memorial Methodist Church pastoral care, and we got Tasha out. The first time.

But yeah, I was connected to Glide, because of the music. I just loved it so much. Cecil let us have the church for a while to do a Digger event. The Invisible Circus. I was going to be part of the Invisible Circus—I figured I’d cook, I’d do something. And I ended up doing a lot, actually. It went on for days. We had use of the Church, plus Commedia costumes… The Invisible Circus, it wasn’t just Glide, it was in the rest of the city, too. People were dressing in Commedia costumes, y’know with the push-up bras, ladies in a chinoflinch, guys with the suits, with the feathers. Little suits, tights. Scaramouche, all the stock characters. And they were going into places like I. Magnin and City of Paris and the department stores, telling people to come to Glide Church. They were spreading out, and bringing people in. They were going to the Tenderloin, and bringing people into the Church.

Why do you think the Church agreed to do this?

I have no idea. Cecil, is he still alive?

Yes. He writes about it in his autobiography

So there were people going downtown, telling people: Come to Glide. At Glide, there was food, there was a celebration, there were different things happening in different rooms. And I, as was my habit, took LSD, so I cannot be a faithful reporter and tell you what happened. I don’t remember. I remember what I did. At one point I put on black lame tights and a black lame suit, and I had a veil that had jet beads but also iridescent blue beads. And I got up on the altar, and danced. I wasn’t the only one, there were other people dancing. What was I dancing to? I don’t know. There were musicians, and there was music, and it was live. I remember Bill Fritsch was there and he was watching. He said I can’t believe you did that. And I think I probably did it just for him. Or something like that. I don’t know. But it meant nothing to me, what happened there. It meant everything and nothing. It meant nothing in terms of I don’t know what we were doing. It meant everything in terms of, it was a party and everybody seemed to be starring as themselves: coming out of their whatever make-believe…

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Phyllis doing tie-dye at Willard Street house. Still from Nowsreal (1968), courtesy diggers.org

What I had thought, when I first got to San Francisco, was that a shirt and a tie, or a dress and stockings and a girdle, was part of a costume that people wore. It was a way to represent yourself to the world: Shirtwaist dress, Pattie Paige. The way everybody dressed was the same, sort of. But in San Francisco, people didn’t do that. Instead, they let their mind be present in the moment, and went with whatever that was. Now, when I went to Los Angeles, I started seeing people cloning each other. Like everybody started looking the same. They’re wearing bellbottom pants, they’re wearing peacoats. We wore peacoats because they cost four or five dollars to get at the Bowery, at an Army/Navy Surplus store, cheap. But then there were peacoats in Macy’s, and they were 14 or 16 dollars, and they had buttons and they weren’t the real deal. They would fall apart. They weren’t as warm.

Emmett told me about that. One time I asked Emmett, Have you ever heard of Sonny and Cher? They’re really great. And he said, You don’t understand. They’re dressed up. They’re in a costume. They’re not really like that. They’re entertainers. Oh. And then we went to L.A…. See, L.A. is where we went for money sometimes. I went on those trips. Siena went on those trips. Siena went to jail on one of those trips. Siena and Peter and Emmett, we all looked like bank robbers. And Peter wasn’t supposed to have a gun, but he did. And that was a bad move because they all got arrested. And Siena thought she was Lauren Bacall for a minute. [laughs] In those days, they didn’t wear jumpsuits, they had little cardigans, blue dresses. I wanted to get them out. Julie had money, but I didn’t, and she wouldn’t give me her money so I had Emmett’s book [of contacts]. And I started calling everybody. I called Marlon Brando. You should see the numbers he had in his book! I got entrance to see…who was the actor who had silver hair… The Smothers Brothers, they came through. The Smothers Brothers and this actor. He was playing tennis, grey hair… James Coburn! Emmett had these amazing phone numbers. And I, out of, as Richard Brautigan would say, true grit, called them all and said, Emmett’s in jail and so are his friends and I need money to get them out and will you help me with the bail. And pretty soon I had it. Albert Grossman also gave me money. The manager of a lot of celebrities that Emmett knew: Dylan, Ravi Shankar. He lived in L.A….  Benny Shapiro! I got money from him. Benny and Vicki Shapiro, they were producers and they produced Ravi Shankar. I just knew these were people a little older than me who had money. So I called them. Got everybody out of jail.

So you see where I’m coming from is not a very intellectual place. It’s not like understanding that we were changing the way people thought or behaved. It was more like living our adolescence and young adulthood at a time in America when there was a surplus economy. It’s very important, I think, in the context of time… A surplus economy let us have a kind of prolonged adolescence. Y’know, my father was not allowed to play around —  by the time he was 17, he was really working. By my time, there was a welfare state that had started, and we scammed that.

And there was a gigantic youth bubble.

Some with more tools than others to get by. Some streetwise people, and some not-so-streetwise.

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Richard Brautigan (right), with Michael McClure, 1968, somewhere in San Francisco. Photo by Rhyder McClure.

Did you know Richard Brautigan well?

His interest was poetry, and women. I think he loved young women. He loved writing about them. Brautigan poems just come in and out of my mind, almost always. I thought of one the other day. A friend was leaving work, for good, she’s retiring, and I wrote on her card, “Like a ghost/spinning at the bottom of a top.” Y’know, like a twirly top. “I am haunted by all the space that I will live without you.” Richard wrote that. Richard wrote, Gee you’re so beautiful it’s gonna rain. [laughs] He was a sensitive poet. I think he was a lonely man, that for whatever reason, he couldn’t connect with these women. I remember seeing him with all these women. They were all kind of blonde, and gentle, and I kept thinking he would be with one of them, and have a companion, but… I remember seeing him once, at like 8 o’clock in the morning, sitting on a stoop on Haight Street. He had a uniform, he always wore a peacoat and a pair of jeans and a funny hat, and his glasses. And he had a clock. And he said, Why don’t you set the clock? And I said, Okay. He said, Set it to your favorite time and I set it to three o’clock. Cuz that’s when school’s over. And he said, Phyllis, you’re like true grit. I didn’t know what that was. He said, Watch the movie. [laughs] There’s a little girl in the movie… I think he liked me. He had a bit of a crush on me, but I didn’t respond in kind.

There was a lot of sex going on. That’s where liaisons got made, and friendships too. And if you weren’t interested, sometimes you didn’t get to know a person beyond that. But then there were other people that you just… Like Billy. I loved Billy, I knew Billy, I trusted Billy. If I felt weird, or freaky, or scared, being around him I knew everything was great. He had good judgement. Nobody else did. I don’t think anybody else’s judgement was any better. But his was good.

Richard wrote an anti-abortion poem: Think of all the people lost inside you. He wrote a poem about girls getting overweight. He will be there, with Lenore, if people care for poetry, and remember, and pay attention to that time. The reason why is because it’s so universal. Unlike some poets where you read it and you wonder, Hmm, what’s that about?

Lenore poems constantly come to my mind. Like Bob Dylan’s songs. In difficulty or in curiosity, I’ll think of a line and it’ll be helpful, in talking about the kinds of connections people have and circles they move in. There’s a line in one of Lenore’s poems, “In Transit” that I repeat frequently: ‘For the duration of our parallel flow.’

Did you know Chester Anderson at all?

Not very well. He ran the press. He had the Xerox machine. Kaliflower was started by Irving Rosenthal, but Chester Anderson was the Communications Company. And Claude Hayward was part of that too. And Helene, Claude’s partner. What they did, which was great and generous, is they made things available. You wouldn’t know what was happening if it wasn’t for the Communications Company putting it out on the street. That’s what they did. Did I know Chester? No. I didn’t sit and eat with him. I saw him, he saw me. I may have collated things for him…

Apparently he was gay…

I think they all were. Kaliflower… Peter [Coyote] got a job when [Jerry] Brown was first governor — so did Kent — and they were teaching theater, and they did a thing with the Cockettes. I couldn’t believe they were getting paid for that. They had a lot of fun. But those were the people who knew Chester Anderson, the people in that group. I don’t know if any of them survived the AIDS epidemic.

Gregory Corso: was he involved in Diggers stuff much?

No. Emmett loved him. That was a fact. And Emmett would pull people in that he loved. And they would get high with him, and they would hang out with him, and maybe brainstorm with him. But the Digger thing was kind of short-lived, intense, involving a little cadre of people.

There’s so much I don’t understand [about the time]. There was a group—the Living Theater was one thing, that was in New York. But in San Francisco there was a group called the Artists’ Liberation Front, and Peter and Emmett were in that. And they nominated Peter as president. I remember Billy Murcott, myself, Emmett, probably Kent, probably Brooks [Butcher], bringing in a bench from outside, or out from the inside—I don’t know if it could’ve been a park bench or what—to an ALF meeting. And whatever it was they were discussing was of such disinterest. Or the guys wanted to make such a statement that we didn’t just leave—we took the bench out. [laughter] I don’t know if I had to sit on it while they moved it. It was art, it was a gesture. They just wanted to do it in the street — they didn’t want to do it in the theater.

The conversations that I remember, the things that I wrote down that Emmett said, is this: Nothing is free. You have to pay for everything. So what we’re doing is a convention, it’s theater. There is a surplus economy here now. People do not have to be hungry, or without. They can get their needs met. And they can do art. No, it’s not Paris—the streets aren’t named after artists, and they’re not valued, but… Why not? Why can’t you just sit and do what it is you do? So the whole idea was theater. And the idea was that it shouldn’t be on the stage, it should be on the street. And everybody should participate in it because they were doing it anyway.

Or you could say it was a familial commitment: A tribal, familial commitment where people cover for each other, and care for each other. People breaking bread together. Very old, old human [activity]. Reptilian, actually! There was a lot of it. There was a lot of extra food. So much was thrown away. So much waste.

And the Free Stores were theaters too. There were a number of Free Store things… We got a big one that used to be a drugstore. I don’t know how long we had it, but I remember the people from across the street came over to say hi. They had a regular store, and they wanted to know what we were opening. As best I told them, I could say, We’re opening a Free Store. And they smiled benignly and said, ‘I hope you make a lot of money.’ [laughter] Thank you.

“Free” was a concept that traveled. Abbie Hoffman took it up. There was tension between Emmett and Abbie Hoffman…

Emmett thought that Abbie was a media whore. There was one thing that Abbie did that was shocking. There was a band called The Cleveland Wrecking Company. And they came to New York to play right around the time we did the Alan Burke show. And we got a phone call from them saying they’d been arrested, the whole band. Why? I don’t even remember. I think it’s because they didn’t pay their rent. So we went down to that Sixth Street Station, Lower East Side to see about getting them out. And Abbie picked up his foot and smashed a Police Athletic League case with all the trophies that the kids and policemen get. And then he was in jail. So now we didn’t just have to get out the Cleveland Wrecking Company, we had him to deal with too. I was with Paul Krassner then, that’s right. Paul was there, and Anita, Abbie Hoffman’s wife, and we were just like, What do we do now? Y’know it’s gonna take money to get these people out. Now it’s gonna take even more money. And when Abbie got out, I said to him, Why did you do that? What was your motivation?

“I wanted to be inside where I could talk to them.”

And he wasn’t a stupid man. But I think both he and Emmett were a little bipolar. And that mania of attention and excitement was alive and well in both those fellows. They got some nurturing from it. And it was too much. But Emmett had ambivalence about it, and he would hide out.

Emmett used a pseudonym at first: George Metevsky. Well, I guess more than one person used that….

Yeah, George. I was George Metevsky also. Siena was George Metevsky also. Emmett was George Metevsky. George Metevsky was an anarchist. It was a make-believe name for Emmett. There was a real person named George Metesky, he was called the Mad Bomber of New York. But we dressed up in drag like him, so that we could get back into the studio for the Alan Burke Show.

What do you remember about that?

I was in New York. I got a free ticket. I was stupid, I didn’t stay in the hotel with everybody, I stayed with my parents cuz I was using it as an opportunity to see them. I wish I’d stayed in that hotel. That’s why, that was the motivation. Emmett said you want to go to New York and I said, Yeah. So Emmett, Suzanne and Peter Berg… and we met Paul Krassner, and LSD—the League for Spiritual Discovery. They were on the show too. Their agenda was to promote the use of LSD. Our agenda was to talk about what a façade the whole thing was. How made up and contrived the whole thing was. Whose idea it was to get the pies, I don’t know. But somebody had the idea, and I think it was the League for Spiritual Discovery, to get cream pies and throw them, because that was what people did in burlesque and in that kind of comedy.

Peter Berg’s idea was the best of all. Alan Burke was a very—I don’t know who to compare him to now. Michael Savage maybe? He demeaned people on his show. A different kind of television where people get worked up. It was just not being nice to people, being insulted, and letting people insult other people. And Peter Berg said [on the show], Y’know, this isn’t really Alan Burke’s living room. And he got up, and the camera was just on him. And he started walking back to where the cameramen were that had no makeup on. And he said, Just so you know where we are. We’re not in Alan Burke’s living room. And then maybe set back down. And this lady got up and said, I don’t really care if you people believe in free love. I don’t care what your politics are. What I want to know is why do you dress the way you do. You look terrible. You look dirty. Your clothes are awful. Why do you dress the way you do? And one girl from the League for Spiritual Discovery got up and said, Well, you never know. I mean, you could be at a TV show like this in Alan Burke’s make-believe living room, and somebody could throw a pie at you. And she threw a pie at Alan Burke. Got him right in the face. And then there was mayhem. People were throwing pies everywhere. They cut to a commercial, because this was live TV I guess, maybe. Maybe not, maybe they were just filming it, I don’t know. And they threw us out.

So then we went to some bathrooms somewhere to change clothes and came back in, looking different we thought, but it didn’t work, I don’t think. I don’t remember much… That’s what I remember…  And then they broadcast it, and I got it from my mother. She said, You are always talking about the way the world should be, and what you wish for people and yourself, and here you have an opportunity, you had an audience of thousands and hundreds of people, and what did you do? Threw a pie. You were like The Three Stooges. That wasn’t very helpful, that wasn’t very smart.

Then, you know, I started to wonder about people who had—and Emmett did this too, and I think Bill also—there were people who had trust funds. There were people that had parents that had money. They were educated people. They were really raised… You could say there’s no class system and that’s not true: there is a class system. Depending on where you were born, where you’re going to go to high school, what your elementary school teachers were like, whether or not your family owned a car. Whether or not you went on vacations. And then, having an education is paramount. What do you know about the government?

I wondered about the drugs creating experiences that people couldn’t handle. There were people who hadn’t even had natural experiences yet, and suddenly they’re having drug experiences? I mean, that would happen to people that were 16, 17 years old. They’re still going through growth and development. To be in love, to be with a baby, or to be…any number of dilemmas. How do you know what that’s really like? Did you watch it on TV? And you think you experienced it? Did you read it in a novel, or see it in a movie? So what’s real? How’s it gonna go?

And then, I wondered about the people that were beatniks that knew about Buddhism. Because Buddhism teaches about sickness, death and old age. And that life is suffering. And here you have this youth culture that just wants to have fun, and dress up. I mean, I felt like we were looking after people. Taking care of people. And that that was somehow our job. And that other people would do the same.

I was amazed when my friends starting buying houses. At one point, when David and Jane bought their place, and Nina and Freeman House… Why do you need your own house? Why can’t we all have a house that we’re in? Why is that “your” house? But people started doing what humans do. They got into nuclear families, and they started having children, and of course they wanted their house. And I ended up getting one too. Amazing! [laughter] Who woulda thunk it? Not me…

PhyllisMomsKids
Family time: Andy Pollack, Julie Boone and child, Phyllis Willner holding one of Siena Riffia’s children, and Siena and child. Treat Street house backyard, sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Photo courtesy Phyllis Willner.

Were you into dancing, or yoga…? Are you one of the bellydancers on the back of the truck in the Nowsreal film?

I took dance classes with Judy and Jane at the Straight Theater. But no, no, I wasn’t one of the bellydancers, although I was giving out candies with hash in them to the businessmen in the Financial District. And little package poem books of seeds too that Richard Brautigan had made called Please Plant This Book.

Sometime in that period I had got arrested. That was a big turning point for me. I was getting everyone airplane tickets, and I was doing that illegally by moving into an apartment, getting a phone number under the name of Fats Waller or Billie Holiday or something, and ordering airline tickets, and having them mailed to that address, and then abandoning the apartment and the telephone. That’s how Lenore got to Hawaii. That’s how a lot of people got a lot of places. It was a petty crime, it was like a small-time scam. It was a scam. Somebody gave me a ticket to New York, and I thought it was the same sort of thing. What I didn’t know is that it was a stolen airline ticket. It came with a serial number on it. It came from a group of tickets that were stolen. I didn’t know that. Somebody else gave me some marijuana, and I was going to bring it to New York to turn my friends on, because they didn’t have good Mexican marijuana. This was like, I don’t know, $500 a pound. Whatever, I had it in my suitcase. And I got to one of the airplanes and the stewardess held my ticket and said, There’s a problem, I’ll be with you in a minute. And then I turned around and there was a dog barking at my luggage. And there were two men. And they said, Please come with us. And they showed me their badges. We go to the little room, one of them is really nice, the other one is really mean. The mean one says, Do you have narcotics in that suitcase? And I didn’t want the nice one to think I had narcotics. And I said, That’s marijuana. And that was in the day of the illegal search and seizure, so if I hadn’t told them there was marijuana in the suitcase, they couldn’t’ve opened it. The dogs knew that it was in there. And I knew that there weren’t any drugs, because when they said ‘drugs,’ I said there’s no heroin or methedrine in this suitcase. To me, that was ‘drugs.’

So, not only was there marijuana, there was a felonious amount. So off I went to Bryant Street to jail, and I got my old lawyer, who had defended me when I read poetry on the steps of City Hall, at various—being a freelance social worker—he said, This is not popular. Terence Hallinan was my lawyer. He became the district attorney of San Francisco. ‘Terry Hallinan, Kayo’? His brothers were all boxers, and so was he. His father ran for president of the United States. The Hallinans were a family from Tiburon, California and they were politicians. Irish politicians. But Terry said, This is no good for me. So he gave me off to another lawyer. And this time, I couldn’t get off. Because, there I was, with a stolen airline ticket and a felony of marijuana.

You fit the profile of a professional drug smuggler.

Right. So nothing I said could convince them that I wasn’t going to sell it. I wasn’t going to sell it — I was gonna give it away, cuz it was given to me. So, I got five years’ probation. I didn’t have to stay in prison or go to jail, but the probation was very serious. I lived with Siena, the twins, Julie and Vicki. And the probation officer said that I had to go to these groups. The women in the groups were all hookers and heroin addicts. I said Look, I don’t really need to go to the groups because my friends keep me honest. We live together, we help each other out. I don’t need to do this. And she said, Fine. Then clear it with your friends because I will come over whenever I feel like it. I’ll come at night, I’ll come in the morning, I’ll come when you least expect it. I may look like a social worker, but I’m a cop, and you’re on probation, and it’s a felony probation.

So I went back to Siena and Vicki and Julie and said, This is the scoop: If I’m gonna live here, we can’t have any marijuana in the house. Or anything, at all. Otherwise I’ll go back to jail. So they agreed. And that was the house where Taj Mahal lived for a little while. And Julio Nueva, I forget her last name—a friend from San Salvador. Everybody lived there. And then the caravan went. Everybody else went on this caravan journey and I couldn’t go cuz I was on probation. I had to get permission to leave San Francisco. So I started getting bored. That’s when I went to Galileo, got my high school diploma, went to nursing school. Because, clearly, no one was going to support me and everybody that I liked was gone. And I loved my roommates but they were all pursuing things…

You got the worst deal of any Digger.

Felony bust. Even the ones with the guns didn’t get that. How did they get away with that? I mean, Peter had a gun. It was in the car, he put it under the seat. He got busted in L.A. with a gun in the car!

Why did the Diggers end? Or: when did it end, for you?

1968. Or a little bit before then. So it went for me from ’66 to ’68. I mean, there were other people that stepped in, doing other things. But at that point I wanted to go to Asia. I saw everyone going in different directions, with young families, and I wasn’t doing that. But I was going to do something.

Were you at Altamont?

I went with the Hell’s Angels. Of San Francisco. I was at Pete’s house. I remember they were planning to do Altamont. The Rolling Stones were gonna come and do a concert, and it was going to be like Woodstock. And Lenore did a chart for that day and that place, and said, ‘DON’T DO IT. That’s not a good place. It’s not a good day. Don’t do it.’ Nobody paid any attention to her.

It was just a dusty field. It wasn’t palatial, it wasn’t a meadow, it wasn’t anything but a dusty race car track. I don’t know when it was chosen, I wasn’t part of that at all. But I know that the Angels were going to be the guards of the Rolling Stones and the stage, or something like that.

I ended up with a girl named Shanti, at Pete’s house. Shanti was not a mama, she was like me, and we were gonna travel in the bus. They were giving out acid to everybody, and Shanti and I took some in our hand. And I cautioned her, Don’t take it. Put it in your pocket. Let’s see what happens. Because I was not comfortable with the Angels that started getting on the bus. I didn’t know them, and they didn’t look right to me. I didn’t like the way they looked at me, or her. So we did that, got on the bus, went to Altamont. And I started seeing other Angels that I didn’t know, but that I knew of. I saw Sonny Barger, I saw all the guys from Oakland. And I’d heard about them and I didn’t particularly like them. And so I grabbed her hand and said, Let’s go to the Dead. The Grateful Dead had a bus. We went underneath their bus, and there we met Lavelle. Lavelle was an African-American man that was a friend of Owsley [Stanley]’s, and he had a lot of LSD. He was just dropping it on the ground. Little golden tablets. Just salting the whole place with it. So there was a lot of LSD floating around. And then somebody else, I can’t remember who, was smoking some opium. And I decided to do that. You just chase this black tarry stuff around some foil. Because…I wanted to slow things down a little bit. Because it felt kind of frenetic.

What was happening was: They weren’t coming. The Stones weren’t coming. And other bands were playing and then there was waiting, and the people were weird, and the Stones weren’t coming. The Angels were getting drunk, and high on acid, and acting weird. And there was a racial thing. That was what they were known for, was being racist. That wasn’t my experience, ever. But that was happening for sure, just like I thought it might.

So I stayed under the bus. The Stones finally arrived in a helicopter. They got out of the helicopter, and it was creepy. The first song they sang was that ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ And that seemed creepy. The rhythm of it, the whole thing. I have no idea what happened because I stayed where I was ’til it was over. Really over. All the bands’ stuff starting to be pulled away…

And that’s when I met Emmett.

He was there!?!

Oh yes. This is a big deal, sort of. His eyes were full of tears. He said that he made this happen. And I said, what do you mean? And he said, I invited the Angels. It was my idea. Look what they’ve done. This is terrible. This is my fault.

I didn’t know that anyone had died. I didn’t know that anyone had been hurt. I actually left with him, on his motorcycle. We left Altamont as it was… And it looked terrible. It was so dirty. And so antithetical to Woodstock. It was like the flip side of the coin.

That’s what I remember about Altamont.

Robert Hunter, the writer for the Grateful Dead, he wrote a song about it [“New Speedway Boogie”]. That’s a pretty good song. You should listen to that if you want to know about Altamont. “Now I don’t know, but I been told / It’s hard to run with the weight of gold, /Other hand I have heard it said /It’s just as hard with the weight of lead.” I mean, that’s not so brilliant but there’s some really good lyrics.  Good song.

But yeah, that was terrible. It was too much LSD for people that didn’t know how to take it. They weren’t safe to take it. Not that I knew how, or was ever safe. You know what I’m saying? It was very dangerous. And Lenore, once again, I think she was like… People needed to listen to her more often than not. I mean, she could be wacky and she could be fun, she had a sense of humor and a joie de vivre, but she also had a knowing.

But maybe, you know, that was perfect. That Altamont was exactly right. They needed to knock it off.

Emmett took it hard.

He took it really hard, like it was his fault.

How well did you know the Grateful Dead guys?

The Dead, this is gonna sound funny, but I felt about the Dead kind of in the same way that I felt about Billy Murcott. They were nerds. They were kind nerds. And there house, and their truck, and their roadies, were safe people to be with. I mean, they were goofy, and substance-abusing… Probably later in life, I never knew them later, but when we were young, when we were kids, they were more normal than most people. So I felt good at their house, under their truck at Altamont, with their road manager. I don’t know what Lavelle was. Lavelle is a character that’s interesting…

You knew the Dead so early. What was the relationship between them and the Diggers?

Pigpen was their drummer. There was no Mickey Hart. The relationship was that they were living at Ashbury Street, and they just kind of opened up their house. Because Paula McCoy—did she own it? I don’t know—she lived upstairs, and the Dead used it when they were in town. Emmett and Paula were an item. I felt like I could walk on in there anytime I wanted. Danny Rifkin was their friend. He was one of their road managers. Or he was their manager, for a while.

tong
The Diggers’ iconic “1% Free” image, used on broadsheets, posters and cards.

This is gonna sound awful but we [the Diggers] were opportunistic in many ways. I mean, you know about the “1% Free” and the hatchet men and all that. You can call that extortion. The Tong. So from the picture of the Tong and that history book on the hatchet men, the Diggers made the 1% Free card. And the idea was to go to all the merchants that were making money off the hippie people and ask them for one percent of their earnings so that we could pay the rent on the Free Store and feed people. But, in a way, that’s menacing. And that’s like gangsterism. And we were very much like mafia. In our minds. Sometimes. [laughs] So, what’s up with that? What were we doing, really? Are we threatening that we’re going to harm them if they don’t give us the one percent? Yes, that would imply that, in that card. Did anyone ever harm anyone? No. I don’t think so….

Now the Dead, because they were making money with the music, you could go to their place and get certain things, or have certain things. They also supported certain things. I’m sure that Emmett and Bill got money and Peter got money from them. Yeah, so they had maybe a better, more comfortable lifestyle than some people. So, that opportunism and the opportunism of…just the symbolism of the card. Give us your money or else. Else what? Else nothing.

Why did I go to Altamont? I didn’t even know about it, when it was. I happened to be at Pete’s house, with this girl Shanti, and they said Hey get on the bus. I was operating without a plan 90 percent of the time.

Did the Diggers help the Dead gain an audience early on?

I think so, because they played for free. Just like Country Joe and the Fish. Big Brother and the Holding Company. They played for free. They played in the Panhandle when the Diggers were serving food. And they agreed to do that. That made them very popular. Because they were very good. They worked hard. They were nerds. They played together all the time, til they got really, really good. And they improvised. Jerry [Garcia] and Bob Weir, and Bill a little bit, after Pigpen, were the only ones I really knew. But Julie and I, my friend Julie, crossed country with them, with CB radios, in a caravan. We needed a ride, and we were in New York, and they were there and we got a ride with them. Ramrod was one of the roadies… They were Ken Kesey people. There were all these different little clusters of people, from different scenes.

When and why did the Diggers end?

There was an influx of kids, so many that… The culture we work in went immediately to capitalize on the situation. ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair.’ All these businesses opened up, and as I told you, peacoats were for sale, people started copying the subculture, thought it was unique… But, actually, every generation is like that: there’s a vogue.

But what I think really happened with the Diggers is that people matured. They went from transitional age youth to young adulthood. Young adulthood usually involves childbearing, and that involves responsibility. And, of great importance I think, the economy changed. The economy is subtle, and it really does influence the way people behave, and their freedom and their limitations. And I think that we enjoyed an incredible freedom that hasn’t been seen since.

Did you feel an increased police presence in the Haight?

No. I didn’t feel it. I felt it when I did battle with the tactical squad, when we were actually out there and they were wearing helmets, and they were going to fight with us. That happened at San Francisco State. We were bringing food there and the tactical squad was there. When we were doing events we did, I don’t remember the police at all. Except, oh yeah, they were there at the end, and they arrested Henry. Hank. But in Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, when the students were in the university, we brought food and we couldn’t get it through because of the tactical squad was there. And they didn’t hurt anyone but they were menacing. You wouldn’t want to mess with them. Some people would have wanted to, but we didn’t.

In San Francisco, I never felt… I never called a policeman a pig. I didn’t think that was a good idea. I thought that they could be my uncle, or my brother, or something.

When I met Emmett’s family, there was a Jesuit and there was a policeman at the house, for dinner. And Emmett. My whole thing was ‘family.’ If you treat everybody as if they’re a family member, then you’re gonna have better luck, a better outcome. It sounds almost Judeo-Christian, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but it’s true. I do that in nursing. As a nurse, I treat my patients as if they were my children or my mother or my grandmother or my auntie. Or myself. And it doesn’t matter if they’re in shackles. It doesn’t matter if they’re impolite, intoxicated… Whaddya gonna do? You don’t yell back at ‘em, strike them down. We’re not at war. We weren’t at war with the police.

The closest we came to being at war with the police, I think, I wasn’t part of, but [later on] when the campaign to eradicate marijuana production started driving around with machine guns and people in camo, that was war. When the students at Kent State were attacked, and killed, that was war.

And what happened with the Hell’s Angels at Altamont was something like it. I don’t know, because that wasn’t my experience. And I think that’s all I can talk about is my experience. And my experience with the police was benign. It sucked when they arrested me. I didn’t care for probation…

What was the relationship, if any, between the Diggers and the Black Panthers?

Very interesting, and I was very much aware of it. One night, Emmett said, not ‘Don’t take any LSD,’ [laughs] but, ‘Don’t hang around. We’re having company.’ And it was the Panthers. They came to the Free Store. I stayed in the bathroom and didn’t show myself, but I wanted to hear what they were talking about. And they came as a group. They were armed. They were in their garb. And I don’t know who was with Emmett, I don’t remember. But usually it would be Kent and Brooks and Billy. And they met with them, and the only thing that I remember them talking about was the free store. And free food. And the Panthers had their own idea about doing that themselves.

When Emmett died, we had a party on Haight Street. And Huey Newton came. I remember my husband at the time was pretty upset when he gave me a smooch. But we had met a couple of times at the Free Store, or at their place. The Black Panthers had a place in Fillmore. It was near the Shabazz Bakery.

There was no ongoing relationship, for whatever reason. I would believe it was the Black Panthers’ reason, they wanted to keep it secret, but they were curious as to what we were up to, and how to — now this is just me, thinking out — how to emulate that in their community, that was going to support the people that needed support.

freewheelinfrankbygould
Freewheelin Frank Reynolds in his room at Pete Knell’s house, 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould.

What do you remember about Freewheelin Frank Reynolds?

He had a girlfriend named Jill. Freewheelin Frank was a very good friend of Michael McClure’s. Michael transcribed quite a bit of Frank’s poetry. I can quote some of it. “Purple in the end I go/Shall we go now?/Through the even on a sunbeam/Swift as a shooting star.” Frank wrote that.

Frank took me for a ride down Mount Tamalpais without the engine on. On a motorcycle. It was very swift and it was like flying. It was just all stars and curves.

He was rougher around the edges than Chocolate George or Hank. And I never know this for sure but my guess is he used some methamphetamine. That drug! On one of houses, I can’t remember which one, this would be in 1967, there was a sign of a skeleton and underneath it it said ‘Speed Kills.’ And that’s a long time ago. And it still does. There were people who used it that were my friends. I’m not going to talk about the people who used it because they’re all still kicking. It was just an episode. It was popular. My first mother-in-law used it, she assayed it—she was a bacteriologist, and she assayed it for the military. So it was like, One for them, one for me…

The other Angels. Chocolate George, Harry…

They were pretty good. Pretty sweet. Definitely interested in everything. In poetry, in stories. These were just men, individual men, they were not part of that other scene that got so crazy at Altamont.

Gut: wasn’t he involved with Blue Cheer?

Right. I never saw him again since he gave me Pete’s number. And we had that night at the dance and I met him that one time and never saw him again. I didn’t know what chapter he was with, if he was retired from the Hell’s Angels, or what. But it was an auspicious meeting, in a way. Glad I met him.

You kept up with Lenore.

I have a lot of Lenore stories. She influenced me. She was 10, 12 years older. Was she 72 when she passed? I think so. Maybe more.

I think she was 78.

I wrote letters to Lenore, I just wanted to keep in touch with her all the time. Lenore saved all my letters.

I slept with her Bill. I wish I was less arrogant, at the time. But Bill was…. They were well-suited to each other. And if he had been a little less confused, it might have been a great marriage. And he might have been able to leave the other girls alone. But he worked his way through many women. And that wasn’t helpful to her.

But then I remember also getting her an airplane ticket to Hawaii. And she and Janine Pommy Vega went to Hawaii, and she met a young man. And that’s a good thing. I’m glad she had that happen.

During my friendship with Lenore, things happened. In 1971, I think, I was in nursing school. And all the nurselings were invited to the psychic institute of Berkeley. One of our fellow students had a brother that was a student there. California College and Medical Affiliates allowed for a bus and we all went over there to have psychic readings. [laughs] And I, y’know, it was interesting, and when they read me it didn’t sound like—they said some nice things about me… That I was kind of clairsentient, that I could feel what other people were feeling, and that I was an empathy, I was empathetic. And then they started talking about past lives, which I didn’t quite get. And then, it was over. So I went to see Lenore and I said, This was something, I don’t know if it was real or not. And she said, Well let’s find out. So we took the bus over to Berkeley. I knocked on the door, said I’m back, I have a friend with me, could you do her? And these were students, learning how to do people. So she sat on a chair, and a row of people plus their teacher sat in front of her, and they went into their trance. When they were done, they were very quiet, and then the teacher spoke up and said that she was like Edgar Cayce. That she was transmedium. That for whatever reason in this lifetime she chose not to use those skills, but they were there.

And they were. I mean, Lenore had a deck of Tarot cards that she made herself. She made each card. And all the Hell’s Angels’ old ladies had her doing them. At some point she burned them because it was getting to be too much. She never charged a cent for anybody’s anything. But she would help people that way.

That was her reading. So that’s when I decided they were pretty good, because I knew that was true, and my reading didn’t sound anything like hers [laughs]. So they must have been authentically doing these psychic readings.

And there was a man that was a psychologist named… Have you met the Korngolds? Ethan and Harriet? They were around later on. They had a father named Efrem Korngold. He had money. He was a psychologist, and he went and studied everything and then came back and taught it for free. So here you have another Digger sentiment. He went to the Scientologists—he got clear. He came back and told us what it was to be clear. So we would meet every week, or maybe twice a week, at somebody’s house, and Murray would guide us to our level. So we would do a very deep progressive relaxation exercise. I would fall asleep immediately. But other people were working. Maybe I worked sometimes, I don’t know. But you’d go to a place like, your place might be by the sea, you might be on a sandy beach that’s mild, no wind. My place was under, I’d go in a hole in a cliff, I had a glass screen where I could see the ocean but I wasn’t in it. And you have a reclining chair or maybe a mat on the floor, whatever it was, you had a screen. And you had guides. And maybe it’d be the fellow from Kung Fu, or Aunt Jemima, or whoever, your mother and father, whoever you loved and trusted, would help you with your visualization. And then they would tell us to visualize someone. All they would tell us was their name and their location. So visualize Sandy Brown in Omaha, Nebraska. And start with her head and work your way through her body. If you see any problems, clean them, clear them, do whatever you can do to help them. Go down to the abdomen. Work through the pelvis. The legs.

Lenore could do it. She could heal people that were far away that she’d never met. People with pelvic inflammatory disease. People who had some cancerous situation that was resolving… I’m not saying that she made sick people well. I’m saying that she could do healings. She could untie knots in someone’s intestines. In her mind, and in her place. And Irving would take us there, and then take us all there, so that we could all go. You suspend disbelief, you know? Some people would see cartoons, and characters. Not everyone can visualize. I could tell you, close your eyes and see a man with a beard, and you might see a ball of light. Or a bunch of dots in your eyes. But everyone would work at their level. My level at the time was exhaustion. I just went to sleep. And Lenore reassured me that I was doing it anyway. [laughs] But I didn’t know if I was. I think I was just out cold, I was so tired.

So that’s another Lenore story. Part of her character was her ability to see things other people didn’t see, hear things other people didn’t hear. I’m sure of it. And I have proof. I had a whole classroom of student psychics plus their teacher in Berkeley that were able to differentiate. Edgar Cayce was a trance medium, and I think Lenore Kandel was too. But you know, depending on your belief system…this is a very small part of what’s happening. There’s a bigger picture. And when she was embodied as Lenore Kandel, she had some purifying to do. This is my belief. She had some obscurations that were physical. The [spasticity] after breaking her neck—y’know, the physical things she had to work through. The Zen Buddhism prepared her for that, she told me. She said that if she hadn’t sat as much as she did… [trails off] In New York, she had been interested in Zen Buddhism. I think they all were. You know, Alan Watts and that whole generation of beatniks. So she went and they wouldn’t let her in until she sat outside for X amount of time, in weather. New York has inclement weather. But she did what she needed to do in order to be invited inside the zendo. And then she sat. Back straight. She said that if she hadn’t done that probably the disability would have been worse to endure. But that really served her. So she had patience, and discipline. I think that’s what got her through that part.

And even when she was going through that part, she was helping people. You could call her. My first husband shot himself. After his suicide I was confused and frightened. My biggest fear was my belief that if you kill yourself, you’re stuck somewhere. Y’know, some people believe that. It’s a Christian belief, you go to Limbo. I wasn’t Jewish enough to know what Jewish people really thought, so I don’t know what I thought. I was just…crazed. I didn’t really know how to drive very well but I drove to Barberville and I saw Sam, also known as Eileen. And she told me that she’d been dreaming of John, and he was stuck between worlds, and he was in Limbo and she was trying to help and I pulled over and just started screaming, and crying. And I called Lenore and she was quiet for a bit, and then she said, ‘That’s not true.’ Now, you can say anything to anybody. But she happened to say that to me at that point. She said, ‘That’s not true. He—had—this—life. And by your friendship, knowing each other, you became adults together, you traveled, you experienced things, and he was in a certain amount of psychic pain, and now he’s not in pain anymore. He’s out of his body, he’s on to his next job. But: don’t worry.’

And you know, who knows? I don’t know. Maybe John was sitting next to me. I don’t know. But I know that Lenore, in her kindness — not to say anything negative about Sam, Sam was saying what she thought I needed to hear—but I was in danger. I was so distressed. And Lenore was a huge help. I really miss her. Because I would rely on her for that kind of assistance.

That tanka I have on the wall here is from Lenore. I remember that from when I was 17. That’s Avalokiteśvara, the deity of compassion. What he or she did, it’s androgynous, is when it came up out of whatever ether deities come up out of, it saw all the suffering in the world and its head split open. And it formed a face to cope with every bit of pain in the world. The world is full of suffering and angst, and this deity could be called upon. Sometimes it’s called Chenrezig or Kwan Yin, or Avalokitesvara. Lenore had it in her apartment for 30 years.

One more unique thing about the Diggers. It was of the ’60s, but it wasn’t about protests and demonstrations and ‘activism.’ It was more about directly manifesting something utopian.

More action and manifestation. It wasn’t always—I remember Cindy was going off to protest the napalm bombing, out at the Oakland shipyards. Nobody was in denial that this was happening. We were grief-stricken that this was happening. But…yeah, it was more ‘Behave as if it isn’t. Believe that it can’t, that it won’t. That certain things can’t continue, or won’t continue.’

I don’t know. I just know that I was pretty much an activist during the Civil Rights movement, as a youngster in New York, ’64, ’65, right up to the World’s Fair. And then when I got to San Francisco, something else happened.

And it was very different.