A GUIDING VISION: A conversation with PETER BERG of the San Francisco Diggers

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Peter Berg, 1967. Photo by Thomas Weir.

I interviewed the late Peter Berg at his San Francisco home in November 2006 with David Hollander for a documentary film project.

Berg was reluctant to speak yet again about the Diggers — he had given many interviews through the years, and dreaded what he called “the 7s” — years ending in “7,” which always marked a numerically significant (10th, 20th, 30th, on and on) anniversary of the 1967 Summer of Love and for him meant yet another round of fielding media asks for interviews about the Diggers’ role in the Haight-Ashbury scene.

In 2020, the Diggers are little-known. But in 1966-8, such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight — even, memorably, a typically dyspeptic Joan Didion, for the Saturday Evening Post—included the Diggers in their account. “A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. “A cross between the Mad Bomber and Johnny Appleseed,” said future Yippie Paul Krassner in The Realist, “a combination of Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X, the illegitimate offspring resulting from the seduction of Mary Worth by an acidic anarchist.” The Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor would write, “[The Diggers] were in my opinion the core of the whole underground counterculture because they were our conscience.”

In the decades afterward, everyone wanted to interview Peter Berg because he had been there, he had done things, and most of all, because he had remained brilliant and charismatic, post-Diggers. Berg was a playwright-dramaturge and anarchist tactician who had a street sense, a sense of history and a sense of humor; a short, sometimes brusque guy with a big, creative, poetic mind who gave tremendous quotes.

Born in 1937 (another “7”), Berg was in his late 20s as the Haight-Ashbury “uprising,” as he called it, rolled into being in 1966. He was somewhat older than the drop-out “flower children” and teenage runaways of the time. He was also somewhat younger than the Haight-curious North Beach bohemian poets, painters and beatniks, most of whom were in their 30s and 40s. Having coined the term “guerrilla theater” during his productive time in the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe, Berg found his role in the Diggers, manifesting maximum social joy and welfare through a set of deceptively simple ideas whose range of application seemed boundless.

After many phone calls, emails, postcards and a shipment of Arthur No. 13, David and I scored an audition with Berg to conduct an interview. We passed, and, not long afterwards, on camera in his kitchen, Berg gave us — performed for us — one of the best, most comprehensive interviews regarding the Diggers that he ever did. He was on for two hours, and he knew it. I hope the following text, basically a transcript with extremely light editing for clarity, gets that across.

Berg died in 2011. Planet Drum, the San Francisco-based bioregionalist non-profit foundation he started with his wife (and fellow Digger) Judy Goldhaft in 1973, continues to the present. Berg’s contributions to bioregionalism were foundational and visionary; his work persisted across decades, and was a natural continuation of his Diggers work. Read more about Planet Drum here.

This is the sixth interview in my series of Diggers’ oral histories; the others are accessible here. An interview with Judy Goldhaft on the Diggers era is forthcoming. For more information on the Diggers, consult Eric Noble’s vast archive at diggers.org  

I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!

— Jay Babcock (babcock.jay@gmail.com), Sept. 16, 2020

“It ain’t Eisenhower’s America anymore”: Peter Berg runs it down for a CBC TV crew, 1967. Screengrab from “The Way it Was: San Francisco Summer of 1967,” directed by Don Shebib.
Peter Berg makes a point at the San Francisco City Hall steps, 1968. Photo courtesy Chuck Gould

Jay Babcock: What kind of family did you grow up in?

Peter Berg: My mother used to call herself a ‘parlor pink,’ which was a variety of Red. My father was known for being able to recite whole pages from H.G. Wells’ Outline of History. At that time that sort of indicated that he might have been a leftist, but I’ve called him a barroom socialist because my father was also an incredible drunk. My own feeling is that they were immigrant folk socialists. My brothers enlisted in World War II as Navy fighter pilots. They called it the “War Against Fascism.” [That kind of language] was in the air at the time. It wasn’t theological. Sort of FDR/Socialist “New Deal,” that kind of thing. That’s the kind of politics that were around.

You went to University of Florida to study psychology…

I didn’t go there to study psychology, I went there to be a college person. I think I was 16 at the time. 15 or 16, because I’d been skipped ahead at school. I had to choose a major, and by sophomore year I’d decided that one of the least venal things to choose was psychology.

It was a fairly large university, 10,000 or so, but the group of people who were ‘alternative’ was so small they all knew each other. It wasn’t more than a couple dozen. There were a group of us who wanted to provoke, to insinuate, that integration was overdue at the University of Florida—it was 1957, three years after the Civil Rights Act— so we pasted up posters with the slogan ‘Integrate in ’58.’ We pasted those up at night. We didn’t want to be seen. It was not public.

You put them at night because you had to, or to …?

To avoid being censured. To avoid being beaten up by fratboy football fan types. In fact, the editor of the school newspaper made his reputation by posing as queerbait, getting propositioned by homosexual professors, developing a list of them, and then outing them and getting them all fired.

How did you get to San Francisco?

The main thing I did academically in college was to read novels. I read all the authors straight through. One of the things I picked up was there was an American ethos, and I wanted to go search it out. So I made hitchhiking forays to different parts of the country. One of them was to the Midwest, to see the “real” America. I worked in a factory that made flexible metal tubing. I hitchhiked to San Francisco. San Francisco was a destination for me because I had read ‘Howl’ in college, shortly after it came out. In fact, I read Howl the night that Fidel took Havana. I know because we were in a bar to read Howl together, my friends and I, and somebody came in with a shortwave radio and threw the aerial up in the air and in Spanish it said, Fidel Castro has taken Havana.

So, I made hitchhiking forays. I went to the Pacific Northwest, I was on Whidbey Island in Washington. I jumped a lumber freight and came down to the Albany trainyard, in Berkeley. I met some people, took some LSD, decided to go to Mexico. Spent a month in Mexico, broke. Came back to San Francisco, pretty shredded mentally. A lot of reverse culture shock, coming back to this very materialistic California culture from Guadalajara in 1963, maybe 1964. I got a job with the City of San Francisco, and while I was working for them I heard about the San Francisco Mime Troupe from someone, I forget who, and just walked in and told them I was a writer, director and an actor. And the very adventurous director Ronnie Davis—R.G. Davis—handed me a book that was a translation of Giordano Bruno’s late Renaissance play Il Candelaio [The Torchbearer, 1582], which was really a philosophical treatise in the form of a play—a very old way of writing. It’s Greek dialogues, a five-act play of dialogues. Absolutely unplayable. It was not theater. But he asked me to make a three-act, free Commedia dell’arte from it—it’s the form of theatre Ronnie had pioneered in this country. It’s a Renaissance, Italian form of acting where there are stock characters: the doctor, the clown, etc. And I did. And we rehearsed it; one of the lead actors was Luis Valdez, who went on to form the Farmworkers Theatre (El Teatro Campesino) for the grape strike in Delano in 1965.

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Berg explains his approach to Il Candelaio in a column for the Aug. 15, 1965 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

Well, while we had been rehearsing it, a dispute had occurred between the city and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The dispute was whether or not we would receive our share of the San Francisco hotel tax, which is a form of promoting the arts. The city decided not to give us the hotel tax money that we’d gotten the previous year. So, the director’s response was to not apply for a permit to do a free play in the park. And we knew we would get busted. I mean, by the time we were all in the truck, headed for the park, we more or less highly suspected that the police would be there. And somebody, or several people, invited most of the people who were later to be called the New Left in the Bay Area to come and be an audience for the play, and react if the police attempted to stop it, if there was a dispute about attempting to perform without a permit. We arrived, and of course I’m all involved in the idea that I wrote this thing and it’s going to be performed, and frankly I’d never written a play before in my life, and I was very excited, very ego-identified with it as the playwright, and we show up and there are black mariahs—paddywagons—all over the place.

The director, who did not possess a tremendous amount of physical courage, but was kind of playing to his troupe and to this New Left audience, said, Give me the costume for the lead actor, I’m going to be the one who jumps on the stage and announces the play. So we set up the stage. Still nothing from the police. Got into costumes. Still nothing from the police. The audience gather around, anticipating that this is going to provoke a riot or something, an arrest. And the director jumped on the stage and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the San Francisco Mime Troupe presents—a bust!” And the police, on cue, came forward and arrested everybody. Or, arrested him, dragged him off. There’s a great photo of all of us looking kind of stunned. Me, looking like, What happened to my play? Or at least that’s the way I see it.

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During the arrest: from left to right: Bill Graham, Mime Troupe director R.G. “Ronnie” Davis, Luis Valdez, Paul Jacobs. Photo: © Erik Weber
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Spectator Bill Sweeney (with cop, in front) is arrested. Berg is pictured to the left of the officer.
Photo: © Erik Weber

The New Left people were just galvanized. It was a polarizing event that made a unity out of this group of people who were old Communists, Beats, gays, proto hippies, musicians, the underground newspaper the Berkeley Barb, all these people were suddenly made the same people, by that event. And all yelling, Stop, stop, you shouldn’t do this. And also all knowing that it was staged. You hear that word “staged”? That’s kind of key to what happened with the Mime Troupe next.

That event led to benefits for the Mime Troupe, who had no money. And our business manager was Bill Graham who at that time was called William Grajonca, he had his Polish name still. He wanted to be Sol Hurock when he grew up, Sol Hurock was a big promoter in New York. And he had this idea of having the benefit. It had an incredible array of performers: Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention—I requested that they be there. Lew Welch, the great San Francisco poet, was there. Timothy Leary. Some of the San Francisco Sound people, I think Big Brother was one of the groups. And others. And people lined up. Thousands of people lined up for a dinky studio on Howard Street that only held 200 or 300 people maximum. This was incredible. And suddenly this event was not only the creation of the New Left, but it was a statement of the counterculture. Bill Graham saw it, and he had a revelation: Whooooo, herein my future fortune lies. And we looked at it and thought, we’re really doing what we’re supposed to do as a radical theater company: we provoked an arrest, it annealed the New Left, and it created a focus for the new culture, which some of us who lived in the Haight-Ashbury had seen developing around us. We were pot smokers and acid rock-oriented. We listened to Sandy Bull, and Billy Higgins, Ravi Shankar, getting all those Eastern half-notes and quarter tones, all of that. Janis Joplin was walking around on the street of the Haight-Ashbury at the time. I was in a commune at one point with Chet Helms, who founded the Family Dog. He was a dumpster-diver who lived in the Haight-Ashbury.

Anyway, we knew this new culture was there, we knew this phenomenon was occurring, centered in the Haight-Ashbury, so after this event, we dramaturges sat together and tried to think it out. What is this, in terms of breaking down the fourth wall? How is this a historical follow-through for Antonin Artaud on one hand and Bertrolt Brecht on the other? How did these two come together in this? What do you call this, when you provoke riots and use the audience as members of the cast? When you can stage events that brings the audience on the stage—but there is no formal stage? But it’s a theatricalized event…? It’s all new. So I called it ‘guerrilla theater.’ And Ronnie heard that phrase, and wrote an essay about doing Left provocative theater. That wasn’t what I saw. I saw it as being deeper than that. And I began writing plays that now were for sure plays except that a lot of the dialogue was spontaneously derived from the performers—we had some really great performers at the Mime Troupe at the time, I’d say there were at least a dozen good performers, and a couple who were really brilliant. Anyways, put these people together, I gave them a context, and we began improvising dialogue.

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Che tells us what to do about theater in America: the opening page R.G. “Ronnie” Davis’s essay on “Guerrilla Theatre” in the Tulane Drama Review (Summer 1966: Vol. 10, Number 4 [T32]).
Note mention of Berg in Footnote 1.

At the same time I had in mind a couple of ideas. One of them was based on a short story by a former German prisoner of war who was a literary hero of the postwar era in Germany, Wolfgang Borchert, he wrote a number of short stories, one was titled The Dandelion, based on his experience in a Russian prison camp. It was about military prisoners who craved so much to have some sort of human contact that they will take extraordinary risks, and one of them risks getting out of line to run over to where a dandelion is blooming, to look at the flower. And is beaten to death. It must have actually happened. So I wrote a play titled ‘Center Man’ about a military prisoner of war, a German prisoner of war who’s in an American prisoner of war camp, and I thought people will look at this as being exotic but it’s actually what’s happening in Vietnam. So it was a way of talking about Vietnam without directly talking about Vietnam. The guard has the prisoners do exercises. One of them reaches out to grab the flower, and the guard beats him to death. And a friend of mine designed a set that was made out of exhaust pipes, the whole exhaust assembly, rusted out, as the background. And as I was rehearsing this play—this was more scripted than the ones that followed—as I was rehearsing it, Ronnie, who had this directorial brilliance, looked at it and said, ‘These guys are just talking to each other, we’ve gotta have them doing something.’ I had them running around in a circle. He said, Put shower shoes—clogs—on them. Make it really loud. So now they’re going [claps stridently] [yelling] “Run around!” and they had “P. O.W.” written on the back of their fatigues, and the guy’s got a white helmet and MP [Military Police] on his arm, he’s smacking them while they’re running. Well, by the time he hits this prisoner and kills him, it was a pretty profound, emotional thing. A lot of it derived from the sound of these shower clogs banging on the stage.

So where do we bring this, as guerrilla theater? The Free Speech Movement (FSM) is in full bloom at UC Berkeley. Free Speech Movement: students have a right to say whatever they want to say. You can’t control speech. Students aren’t going to school. Nobody’s going to class—there are no classes. Even the professors have walked out. There’s a huge stage set up in Sproul Plaza and all kinds of FSM people are giving speeches— Communist Party people, civil rights leaders, anti-war, student freedom, Mario Savio. That day when we finally get over there is at least a couple of thousand students around the stage.

So we show up in a VW van. No idea what we’re gonna do. None at all. We’d just heard that the FSM thing was going on. None of us had been there. I go out and I suss it out, and I see that there’s a big stage with people on it and a lot of people in front of it and a big plaza. So I come back and tell the actor playing the guard, ‘March the guys out into the middle of that crowd. Clear the crowd—push the people out of the way—and start doing the play, without any announcement. Just start smacking these guys around and having them clog in a circle, and then kill that guy at the end.’ The actor asked, ‘And then what do we do?’ ‘Well, then we leave. We’ll just get back in the van and drive away.’ ‘Well, who’s going to know it’s a play?’ ‘Nobody’s going to know it’s a play, or if they do, they’ve never seen any kind of play like this before. It’ll be an experience. They’ll participate in the cruelty of the guard. They’ll observe it, not knowing if it’s true or not, they will observe the murder of a prisoner, not knowing if it’s true or not, and we’ll see what happens. This is guerrilla theater.’ [chuckles] We hadn’t ever done it before, but we’re pretty highly trained spontaneous performers.

So the guard on the way out, he has them pick up cigarette butts. He’s shoving people out of the way, saying, Get out of the way, get out of the way of my man here. Pick that butt up now! You know what’s gonna happen if you don’t. So people start clearing this path. And they clear the path until the four actors—the guard and three prisoners—[actors with] no set—go into the middle of the plaza. The guard had the authority to begin the play whenever he wanted. So he begins the play. And people start backing away from the circle, physically getting away from this behavior and saying to each other, What’s going on? They can’t allow this, can they? Is this like ROTC? What’s happening here? Does anybody know…? Is anybody in charge of this? Uh, who let them here? That’s American military isn’t it? Uh, who are those guys? W-what are they doing? I was there in the crowd, I heard these comments. I couldn’t believe it! I was delighted. My ears were about to spout blood. It was extraordinary. And then they killed the guy. And people start yelling: You can’t do that! Does anybody see what’s going on here? And there was sound with it. You know, when he kills him, he hit his club on the ground so it goes POW. And then there’s this sucking in of breath, screaming, girls are crying, students… the people on stage have stopped talking. This is like prohibited criminal behavior going on in their ivory tower, and they’re witnessing it. And they don’t know how to respond. What do I do when I see a military man murdering somebody? So then the guard orders the other guys to pick up the body. He walks them off and back to the van. And we drove out of there.

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A guerrilla theater staging of Centerman, 1966. Photo © Erik Weber

We get in the van and we’re saying to each other, WOW. [laughs] It was like throwing a stick of dynamite into something. This isn’t show business man, what are we doing? We gonna get away with this? That’s what we’re saying on the way back to the place. So then we tell the people at the Mime Troupe about what we did. Mouths dropped open. It was like, You didn’t tell them it was a play? You didn’t tell them it was the Mime Troupe? No.

So now this is more than free theater in the park, this is this guerrilla thing. We’re gonna be doing this guerrilla theater thing. And Ronnie at the time, to his credit, allowed me to do whatever I wanted. He gave me a position there. After that we did a guerrilla theater piece… Well, one of them was to take a scene out of a Jean Genet play titled The Screens, and do it in the bus station, without telling anyone it was happening. It’s full of criminals of various kinds, and we just had it done, and a cop saw it going on, and just from the behavior of the play, said, Y’know you gotta stop doing that, you can’t do that in a bus station. You can’t shoot drugs sitting in a seat waiting here for a bus. [chuckles] That’s the way he treated it. But that one wasn’t really so sensational.

One other play we did was called ‘Search and Seizure,’ at a rock club called the Matrix, on the same bill as Country Joe and the Fish. The guys in that band did not know what else had been booked, so the first night we did it, they watched along with the audience in the club. It was largely improvised dialogue—improvised in the studio, and then written down so people had their speeches. Some notable things about it: the characters were a doctor strung out on heroin, a hippie who had dropped a tab of acid, somebody with some marijuana and somebody on speed. They’re pulled out of the club group and put on stage by two people who purport to be narcotics detectives. So they’re pulled away from the tables they’re sitting at, put on stage, and face the audience, where this interrogation begins. If you did this one quickly, nobody thought different: it was real. If you had any pauses or laughed, you blew it, but if the actors acted like, what’s going on, where’s Country Joe, if they were like that, the detectives were hard cop/soft cop, and you got into the rhythm of it, people watching, they thought they were watching the real thing. Or if they weren’t watching the real thing, this was the realest thing they’d ever seen! Country Joe told me it made him paranoid, he was never going to watch it again. I mean, that’s how effective it was. [laughs] Emmett Grogan was one of these people. I think he was the speed freak. Anyway, they all get busted, they tell their stories of why they’re there: what are you on, what does it make you feel like, why are you doing this? The cops insult them, they call them enemies of society, etc. And then they lead them off at the end, they lead them to the back and out the door. Nobody says anything to the audience—nobody says, You just watched a play, or, Now it’s over and now we present Act 2. That was really good, that one. Like 15 or 20 minutes. The actors would improvise on their own improvisations, they would improvise on their own lines. Some of them got very involved with their lines—it was their chance to be a playwright.

You mentioned Emmett Grogan. Who was Emmett Grogan?

Emmett Grogan was one of the people that walked into the Mime Group the same way I did. He came in and purported to be an actor. He claimed to have been to a film school in Italy, which I doubted, because he didn’t pronounce “Cinecittà” correctly, so I thought he had not actually been there. I would learn later that almost everything that came out of Emmett’s mouth was at least an exaggeration if not an outright fabrication. But that was somewhat forgivable, considering his charisma; his charisma was substantial. More than substantial—he was probably the most charismatic person that I had ever met. And he was enamored of that ability. He was not a good actor, onstage. He was an extraordinary life actor. I created the term ‘life actor’ to describe him. It’s part of that thing about lying, or misrepresentation or whatever. He would bring things off to see them happen. What if somebody moved like this? What if somebody said this as an answer? That’s the way he operated. And he was, I don’t think he was fearless, but he was stronger than most of the people he ran into in San Francisco. He was from Brooklyn or Hell’s Kitchen, New York, I’m not sure which. Had a New York attitude. Tough, New York, gang…? I did meet some young mafiosa that were his acquaintances, so he had dipped into that life to some extent.

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Emmett Grogan, New York City, date unknown. Photo courtesy Max Grogan.

I cast Emmett in ‘Search and Seizure’ and in something I did only one time in a Berkeley coffeehouse that was about the impact of cybernetic culture. This was sort of prescient to do this because almost nobody was even writing about computers in 1967, and the best things I got a hold of [on the subject] were by philosophers. There was an essay titled A Prolegomena to Androidology [Michael Scriven, 1960] that had a dozen tests for whether or not something could only be done by humans or could also be done by machines. The conclusion was that machines could do anything that humans did. So I wrote a guerrilla theater piece called “Output You” and in it there were a woman programmer and a man who worked together in an office around computers, and they each had doubles—they had dopplegangers, dressed in black who were beside them all the time, or laying down or whatever, and while they conversed with each other about [robotically, flatly] ‘Do you have the program Catherine?’ ‘Yes I do but there are some bugs in it still that have to be worked out.’  ‘Well could you get that to me as soon as possible so that we can set it up and process some data?’ While they were talking like this, their doubles were doing all kinds of things—taking their clothes off, they were attempting to have sex with each other, they were rolling around, they were pulling out bottles, they were the sublimated computer programmers. And at the end of that one, the real people and their doubles become enmeshed together in an unresolved mass. People watching it thought at the beginning that it was about two people in a computer room. They didn’t know that there would be doubles and that the doubles would upset the reality of the ‘real’ people. Well, Emmett and Billy Murcott were both in that play. Neither one of them were very good performers—onstage.

Who was Billy Murcott?

Billy Murcott was a Greek American from New York who had run into or come west with Emmett Grogan. He had very curly black hair. He was new to drugs but he was very enthusiastic about taking drugs, believed drugs would change human identity, that he was in the forefront of that. Marijuana, LSD. Billy when I first met him was pretty interesting. Very verbal, vocal, so forth. For some reason over time he became less so. I’m not sure why. And his contribution was enormous. He wrote the essay “Mutants Commune” that was published in the Berkeley Barb. That’s Billy. And he named the Diggers. He was taking LSD and smoking pot, living in the Haight Ashbury, and began idealizing a future society. So he read a book on anarchism. And in it, the Winstanley group in England [the original Diggers group in the 17th century] was described. And he just thought the name was terrific for “I dig you” and “dig up the park”… y’know, the Haight Ashbury is right near the Panhandle of the Golden Gate Park. So we had the Park as our commons—the Diggers in England had a commons—and we had this idea of being free that is brought about through LSD. Free of precepts, prior understandings, etc. So Billy thought it was a terrific name for a group that would be, in the New York language and perspective that he and Emmett had together, they wanted the white equivalent of the black rebellion. Y’know, Why shouldn’t white people be able to have this too, whatever black people were doing. So they formulated an idea of starting a group called the Diggers, although they didn’t know what it would be like, on a roof watching the Fillmore burn during the Fillmore riots—the Fillmore was the African-American part of San Francisco—in 1966. They wrote together something that was like Martin Luther’s 99 Theses. They asked me what to do with it and I said, Tack it to the wall of the Mime Troupe office. I had just barely glanced at it. I was working for the Mime Troupe at the time. And so everybody came in one morning to the office and there’s this sheet that  says [chuckles], this list of things: Fuck the country, fuck capitalism, fuck the civil rights movement, fuck the Black Panthers, fuck this, that, fuck pop music, et cetera, and the last one was: Fuck the Mime Troupe. It was signed “The Diggers.”

And I saw that and thought, Now these are two guys that have been through my guerrilla theater thing, where I’m trying to move theater from being on the stage to being in the audience. They are moving things into the street of the Haight-Ashbury. We could have a street theater where the street is the theater—where the street is the stage. And we can cause things to happen, because I’ve seen this, I’ve witnessed this. And we can do it on a large scale with all those people pouring into the Haight-Ashbury. (I lived in the Haight Ashbury at the time.) So I left the Mime Troupe, without very much commentary.

During that period, I had been down to Delano to see the way the Grape Strike Theater was operating. The Tulane Drama Review mistakenly advanced me some money to go down and write an article about the Teatro Campesino. I went and I saw that they had made a village. The strike was a description of the society that the union hoped to create. It had a free clinic, food, education, etc, housing. They were taking care of people’s needs. The union movement was always that—a strike was always supposed to be the theater of the achieved society that the union would bring. The strike is a struggle between the working class and the ownership class. It describes that struggle. It takes form in the strike, and then strike assistance to workers is the forecast of the future society that the union movement can bring about. Well, I was aware of that, and I saw it there. There was a theater, of course—the Teatro Campesino. But the strike itself was extraordinary theater. So Luis Valdez was busy promoting himself to me and to other people as a wunderkind of theater, and in a way he was, but the grape strike itself—la huelga—was the theater. [chuckles]

So I opened a free store in the Haight Ashbury. It was named “Trip Without a Ticket.” It was a store to exemplify the Digger credo, which was: “Everything is free. Do your own thing.” And we’re pulling now off of Anarchist history. We are being the Anarchist movement of contemporary American society. We’re exemplifying what anarchy could be in American society.

So, the free store is named Trip Without a Ticket, and I wrote an essay about it titled “Trip Without a Ticket,” which was one of the Digger Papers, which was later reprinted in The Realist. I sent it to the Tulane Drama Review, and said, I don’t know what happened to your money, but I know what happened to the article: this is it. Print this, and don’t be surprised. Well, they didn’t print it. [chuckles] They didn’t know what they had in their hands. And they resented me too for failing to fulfill my contractual obligation to be a journalist, which I wasn’t.

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“Trip Without a Ticket,” as reprinted in the “Digger Papers” issue of The Realist. Scans courtesy The Realist Archive Project.

So now the Diggers are underway, and the approach is put “free” in front of anything you can think of and that would make it ‘Diggerly.’ How do you be a Digger? Well, think of something and put ‘free’ in front of it. For example, food. Put ‘free’ in front of food. Or, housing. Put ‘free’ in front of housing. Or energy. Or art.

For example: the tie-dye craze of the hippie generation. I know where it started. It started in that Free Store. It started with a woman who had been studying Indian fabric techniques. We were starting to get a lot of white shirts. People were dropping out and they were leaving their formal clothes at the door of the free store. So we would walk in in the morning and wade through these piles of white shirts. We had a super-abundance of them. This woman, whose name was Luna, said, We can make tie-dyes out of these. We said, What is tie dye. And so she showed people what they were. The Digger women looked at them and said, These are fantastic. We can make them ourselves, we can do it to all these shirts. So we began showing people how to do it. That became a standard activity at any Digger event after that, off in a corner somewhere someone would have boiling pots of dye and people, men and women, would be tying up shirts and tie dying them. And then this miracle would happen, you’d undo the cords and BOOM, these cosmic and amoebic bursts would occur. That was free art. Take the white shirt: it’s free. Do this technique with it: you can learn it, and it is art when you’re finished.

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March 23, 1967 Berkeley Barb
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From the March 31, 1967 LA Free Press, courtesy diggers.org

For me, the highest form of our free art were the street events that we did. We did events that were pageant-oriented events, but the audience didn’t know it was a pageant. They didn’t know they were in it. It was just happening all of a sudden, and the material to do it would show up, or the characters of it would move through the crowd.

Can you talk about doing free food in the park?

If you ask people who were there during the middle ‘60s in the Haight–Ashbury, during the advent of the Diggers, what they were doing, you will get different stories, depending on what their perspective is. Some men were there to hit on girls. That’s all they can think of from that period. Some people were there to be politically idealistic, and everything they’ll talk about will be framed in political idealism. I saw everything as theater. So from my point of view, giving food to people in the park was not just feeding the waves of liberated people coming to the Haight-Ashbury to identify themselves with the psychedelic revolution that was underway. It wasn’t just that. It was also a demonstration of an attitude—that food should be free. All food in the society should be free. It was a guiding ideal. From my point of view, the left didn’t have a guiding ideal—there wasn’t a place it wanted to go. We wanted to give it a destination. So we would give it a destination by enacting the destination. So everything we did, from my perspective, was a demonstration of this future world—in the present. It was like, Walk through it. Feel it out. How does it fit?  What’s wrong with it? What’s good about it? The food should taste better. Yeah, right, okay, it should taste better. It should be fresher. Right. It should be organic. Those kinds of things. It should be homemade. Digger bread…should be made in a recycled coffee can. You should make it yourself. That would be part of the coming world, the new vision. The guiding vision.

So it wasn’t just enough to have food in the park. [smiles] The food in the park should be served inside a 12-foot square frame…that is, a picture frame, one that is so large that the human activity inside it will always fit. It will always seem to be part of a deliberate painting. And this frame should be aimed at the cars that are coming to work in the morning, so the commuters coming down Oak Street would see people getting free breakfast out of a milkcan within a 12-foot orange frame that we would call the “Free Frame of Reference.” Right? We really wanted to lard on the language and the symbolism and the theater of it. [laughs]

Everything we did was like that. We would set up situations at the Free Store where one magazine writer is interviewing the other one, and they’ve both been told that the other one is the manager of the Free Store. And they actually are going at this for five minutes, undoing this confusion for our benefit—they were performing for us. [laughs] Or people would walk in and say, Who runs this free store? And we’d say Well as a matter of fact—you do. Someone was running it, but now that you’re here, we’re leaving. [laughs] And we’d walk out. Wha—couldn’t I just take anything I wanted??? Yes, you could. Well, what if somebody wants to pay for it? Take the money. What should I do with it? Keep it. [laughs] The idea was not just to give away things free, but to create a theater where people could explore this notion of a free store. What would it be like if things didn’t cost money? How do you relate to them? How do you get them? How do you decide about them? Do you share them? How do you use it? Quite amazing to me, there were African-American women on welfare that would just sit there and wait for people to bring donations and quickly go through the donations as fast as they could to get the best stuff out of it and pack it in their own bag to take later and sell. And they were like, Do you people know you’re just giving me everything I need here? And we’d say, Great! Or, I actually saw this: we had a changing room that was really a place for sex. It was done in velvet and mirrors—it had a couch, it was really [chuckling] a very decadent changing room. Somebody came in, in uniform, regular Army, pulled men’s clothes off various racks, went into the changing room, came out, walked out of the place. I went over, opened up the changing room. His uniform was there. He’d deserted the Army, on the spot, and got the clothes for it: that’s how he used the Free Store. To me, that wasn’t a political act, it was a theater thing. He came in a solider and he went out as a civilian. [laughs]

I tended to see most things in terms of theater. I think most people, if they’re exposed to that perspective, can see this acting out as theater, without thinking it’s fraud, without thinking it’s fake. Nothing I ever did was fake, none of it was phony, but the name I gave to it was “life acting.” It was creating the condition you describe, which is a phrase that I read in a book titled Thespis [Ritual, myth, and drama in the ancient Near East by Theodor Gaster], about the annual journey the pharaoh of Egypt took up and down the Nile as a way of uniting the two Egypts, the upper and lower. He had a barge, and it would go up the river, and incidentally collect taxes. But people would bring symbolic things onto the boat that represented the area that he was in, or the nationality of the people, because you know the Nile is like 3,000 kilometers long, it’s really an enormous body of water. So people would act out who they were getting on the barge, and the pharaoh would act out the creation of Egypt as a unified kingdom by his presence. And they would give symbolic things while the tax collectors were actually picking up the bags of grain, they would bring a handful of grain to the pharaoh. So it’s all very symbolic, and the writer of this book said, and by so doing, the pharaoh would create the condition that was described: he would make a unified Egypt by unifying it through this trip, this ritual pageant.

Well, that became my ideal, to create the condition we described. And for me, the street events, and sometimes we did them inside, in buildings, but the ones I really liked best were street events. One of them was called “The Birth of Haight and the Death of Money.” And that one in particular had elements that were just unbelievable. It was unbelievable to see it happen on Haight Street. The entire street would be thronged with people who knew they were participating in some event, were not exactly sure what it was, but would see various elements of it pass along the street or the sidewalk. For example, a coffin, painted black, with oversized gold and silver coins, carried by black shrouded, animal-headed people. The animals are bringing a coffin full of money down the street, singing ‘Get out my life, why don’t you babe’ and people just cracked up. It was so funny, it was so them, they identified with it so much. They all got it. Think about the elements: they’re a little to the side of normal behavior or imagery. Black shrouded characters wearing enormous animal heads carrying an oversized coffin full of oversized money singing Chopin’s Death March, with pop lyrics, walking down the sidewalk, and everybody bowing in front of it, people spontaneously doing that. While people on top of rooftops are flashing the sun with rear-view mirrors that we got at a junkyard and passed out to people and pointed them to the tops of buildings, blowing penny whistles that we passed out to the crowd. And these things would come in waves. Suddenly the people would appear with the bags of pennywhistles and pass those out, and then you would start hearing pennywhistle music, where before you didn’t hear it. Or the rear-view mirrors would get passed out and suddenly light is bouncing around the street. And this is ten blocks of Haight Street [laughs] where this is going on. Thousands of people are involved in it.

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The Birth of Haight and the Death of Money. Photo by Gene Anthony

One time people were in the park, and we urged people, Leave the Panhandle, go to Haight Street, we’re going to be doing this event. I printed up something that said Carte de Venue [“your card to go someplace”] and Street Menu, and it was what was going to happen when you got to Haight Street, what was the course of events. In order to get to Haight Street from the Panhandle, people had to run through, and destroy, newsprint-sized, three-feet-wide paper…not banners, just newsprint. Bands of paper that were beautifully decorated with Paisley-style paint drippings. You had to break these—you had to destroy them—to get onto Haight Street. It was like that was the entrance fee, that you had to break your conception of what was a good or beautiful thing to get onto the street to do this new kind of theater. And nobody was told that. They just assumed I was right about that. They broke these things… [laughs]

CarteDeVenue

One time at one of these events, women were on top of the buildings with a poem of Lenore Kandel’s, holding it up — this is above the street, three storeys up, very large, the same three-feet-high newsprint—we got this newsprint free, it was the end of a roll, when they make a newspaper they have hundreds of feet of this stuff left over, anybody can go to any print place and say can I have the endrolls, and get it for free—and the women are wearing incredibly gorgeous avant garde outfits. Avant garde: we knew they were avant garde because they were one-of-a-kind outfits that Levi Strauss had been trying out. They were like silver lame Levis, that kind of thing. And they’re reciting this poem of Lenore Kandel’s from the rooftops, holding it up so the people down below could see it and read along with them. [chuckling] Now that’s literature. Is that literature or what?

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Street scene, as reprinted in March 31, 1967 Los Angeles Free Press.

There was a certain point in time where the focus of creative energy that used to be in North Beach was no longer in North Beach—it re-emerged and it was in the Haight-Ashbury. There were so-called Beat poets, the San Francisco poetry scene, who retained all of their integrity, all of their critical viewpoint, and suddenly saw this psychedelic rebellion and quote hippie—that’s a phrase I do not like, ‘hippie’—emergence as being the children of their desires. It was what they wanted instead of the negative society that they had criticized. So we became the pro-active manifestation of the protest of the Beats. And it was very attractive to Lenore and Richard Brautigan and Mike McClure, Gary Snyder, they saw a lot of hope in it. Allen Ginsberg saw it as the manifestation of their idealism. You know, Americans have a continuum that goes from idealism to disillusionment. We all know what this is. We all have had both of them. And we all keep both of them to various degrees. And the Beats were already disillusioned, and were more disillusioned by Vietnam, the horrors of the civil rights scene. And all of a sudden, there’s this group  of people saying everything is free, do your own thing, who have their own music, have their own art, have their own dress, and they saw them as being the people they created. So, they were very participative.

Kirby Doyle wrote a magnificent essay, titled The Birth of Digger Batman. Billy Batman [real name: William Jahrmarkt] was the person who owned the Six Gallery, which is where the reading of Ginsberg’s “Howl” first occurred. [Berg is in error here: Batman did indeed own a gallery, but it was called the Batman Gallery, it was located at 2222 Fillmore, and it did not open until 1960; its first exhibition was Bruce Conner.] That was Billy Batman’s gallery! And he and his wife had a child during the middle Sixties that they named Digger! You see, the connection is very, very clear. The Beats saw their children as the Diggers.

And there was Ken Kesey with the bus Furthur, parked along the Panhandle. That sort of manifestation.

How important was LSD for what was going on?

I don’t think the psychedelic rebellion would have happened without LSD. I don’t think the proactive manifestation would have had the courage to occur. The Beats would have done it, if they could’ve. The hippies did it, because they had LSD. LSD was so undeniably a consciousness-changing agent, and to go on that consciousness change, to undergo it, and to come out on the other side, and not be ravingly insane, meant that you could turn reality upside down. Reality could be turned upside down, and good things could come of it. It could be done. The Beat ethos lacked a magical ingredient. It would’ve taken an act of magic to change society. That’s why so many Beats were enormously depressed. By the Civil Rights phenomena — not the civil rights, but the repression. And the war in Vietnam. It was like, How could this happen? How could you have a Democratic president and be crushing black people on a daily basis, and bombing, and poisoning a whole nation? How can you change that? It would take an alchemical act, or substance, or magic wand, to change that. [gestures, here’s the answer:] LSD.

I never will discredit LSD. I won’t join the legions of people who feel that for some reason having lasted through the Sixties they can now join the mainstream and repudiate LSD. I will never do it. It was a magic wand. I thought the Diggers were social LSD. I called the Diggers “social acid.” Everything is free/Do Your own thing — everything can be turned upside down AND BE BEAUTIFUL. In our society, everything costs money, there’s no free lunch, and you’re not supposed to be a total individual—you’re supposed to cooperate with society and be productive, in corporate terms. To say ‘everything is free’ repudiates that. [To say] ‘Do your own thing’ gives you the authority to be an artist—[to realize] that everybody is an artist, which, you know, we all believe. At least, I believe. What is it, in Bali, someone asked the Balinese ‘what is your art?’ They said ‘we have no art, we just do everything as well as we can.’ So LSD gave people that authority, it authenticated that positive possibility. And everybody that was involved with that thought — that, there, was a revolution of consciousness afoot.

“Civilization is up for grabs”: Berg gives a brief, explosive exposition of the situation in Summer 1967, starting at 33:16, with a second one starting at 41:58. (From CBC documentary series, “The Way It Was,” directed by Don Shebib)

Were the Diggers missionaries for LSD?

The role of the Diggers at the Human Be-In was to pass out 3,000 tabs of LSD. They were given to the Diggers by Owsley. Not personally. Owsley wasn’t a person you saw. He knew that everything he was doing was at great jeopardy. As a matter of fact it was two very large African-American men who came over to the Free Store with the 3,000 tabs of acid, like a pie box full of it, and said, [in deep voice] This is from Owsley. [chuckles]

The Diggers communicated via broadsheets put out by the Communications Company (Comm/Co). One of the guys involved with that was Chester Anderson. Who was he?


Chester Anderson was a Beat consciousness type who was in total rebellion against his Navy/military family. I believe his father was high-ranking, maybe an admiral. He had dropped out, and he was older than many of the other people who were involved with the scene. I would imagine the age range of the Haight-Ashbury was about 20 to 30. I was a little older, he was at least ten years older than I was. And he was a Sexual Freedom person. He had his own sexual preference issue. And he had acquired a Gestetner machine; Gestetner was an early Xerox-type printing machine, very well made by the way, that used color. At that time, Xerox was not in color, but Gestetner was. [smiles] I think he had obtained it under a false pretext. Anyway, he and someone who worked at Ramparts magazine, Claude Hayward, began something they called the Communications Company. They were struck by the Digger ethos, and they were going to be the ‘free’ printers. The form that they used was to produce daily or occasional 8.5 by 11 or 8.5 by 14 sheets of paper with various messages on them, some of them very helpful to people, like numbers to call if you had an overdose, or numbers to call for social assistance. But a lot of them were ones composed for example, for street events, or composed for expression, or had poems. When Martin Luther King was killed, David Simpson made one that had a splash of red, as blood, and the words, “Goodbye, brother Martin. Today is the first day in the rest of your life.” And we passed that out in the street. A lot of Brautigan’s poems first appeared that way. A poem that was rejected by the Oracle newspaper for its overt political content, written by Gary Snyder, was titled “A Curse on the Men in Washington, a curse against the Vietnam War.” A curse on the men and their children, by the way—that’s why the Oracle thought it was too far out. Anyway, we first published it as a street sheet—I know, because I got that one published. I imagine they did several hundred.

What was the relationship with the Grateful Dead?

Some of the Diggers, including myself, went to their house. They had a house on Ashbury Street, everybody knew where they lived, and we invited them to come to a free event that we were gonna do in the park. We’d begun doing free events, along with free food. We took over the park! We acted as though it was our park. The Panhandle was our commons. So we told them we had events there and that we were going to have one on the weekend, and that if they would come, we would do everything we could to accommodate them. We’d get a truck for them. If they wanted a sound system, we’d find a sound system so that they could play. But they did not want to play. The members of the group that I heard conversing about it were saying, Why should we do this? Why go out there in the middle of the day? I don’t get it. What is this all about? Won’t we get busted? That kind of talk. As I recall it was Danny Rifkin, who was one of their road managers and started their fan club, who said, This is it. This is why you are a band. This is going to engrave you in people’s memories. We’re gonna get so many fans from this. You’re going to get your dream of audiences. Get on that truck and go to that park and PLAY. And all that happened. We wanted them there; we invited them; we helped them get there; Danny convinced them; and they showed up.

Then after that, they were sometimes available for free concerts. So was Janis [Joplin]. Janis was at an indoor event we had called Free City Convention. We had a Free City Convention [like a conventional political convention], where people had signs that said things like State of Innocence; y’know, State of Grace. [laughs] We burned money. And I remember all that going on and Janis singing at the same time. And Stanley Mouse painting on the pillars inside the Carousel Ballroom. That’s where it was, the Carousel Ballroom. And everything from teenagers from Hunter’s Point to people in Army uniforms were at this event. Wonderful.

What about The Invisible Circus event at the Glide Church?

While I was still at the Mime Troupe, a group of us thought it would be a very good idea to start an artists’ organization that would make statements about social change that artists supported. We called it the Artists Liberation Front. The Artists Liberation Front had a couple of events. Small-scale benefits. There were some notable people involved. Brautigan was one, Ferlinghetti was at some of the early meetings of it. I’m sure that’s how Lenore Kandel got swept into the Diggerly Do. At any rate, the Artists Liberation Front morphed through a couple different identities, but at a certain point the idea was that there should be a massive event—a city-shaking event—and it would be called The Invisible Circus. And at it there would be people who were poets and musicians and actors and writers and painters and members of the general public and it would be to manifest this free, creative identity and it would have a Digger overlay. So essentially the Diggers brought it about. And the Diggers worked for it in concert with various artists, who thought of themselves as artists but also as social/cultural activists, among whom, primarily, was Lenore Kandel.

There was someone at Glide Memorial Church—there was a person there who was very straight—blue suit, short hair, but he was teaching the congregation about ‘sexual deviation’ and he was showing pornographic films and he had lecturers that were gay and lesbian lecturers, and he wanted to have a major role in this. He thought this would be good for changing the identity of Glide Church. On its own, the Methodist body in the United States decided that this church in San Francisco would begin serving minority groups and the poor. They made that decision. And they got rid of the top personnel and anointed a blue-suited, short-haired, thin, African-American preacher from somewhere in the South named Cecil Williams. It was going to be one of the first mainline, previously white churches now overseen by a black minister. So in this interim period, Glide Church is available and one of the key people operating it is the man who’s trying to teach about deviant sexuality, or ‘alternative’ sexuality. We approach him and say why don’t we have this event in your church. Glide Church is a really large building. It takes up maybe a quarter of a block, or, a corner of a block, both sides of the block for some distance. It’s really quite large. Had a lot of spaces in it—several floors. An elevator, going from floor to floor. And over time, mostly because Lenore Kandel convinced them they had a sacred, spiritual obligation to serve the liberation of people and that the Artists Liberation Front and the Diggers were doing that, that we were on a mission to accomplish the liberation of people, and that this was the spirit of the Church, eventually convinced them that we could have this church for 72 hours to do whatever we wanted. And every time they’d say, “well, no such-and-such,” Lenore would say, ‘Now wait a minute, that isn’t liberation. [pointing finger, speaking gently] Every time you say no, you’re not liberating. Come on, get used to it. Loosen up. You must liberate.’

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“Come on, get used to it. Loosen up. You must liberate”: Lenore Kandel, holding a copy of her Love Book.

So now they turn the whole Church over to us, for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And we went absolutely mad. I decided that every pet annoyance I had with society, I would turn around. I was annoyed with the space program, so there would be a room that had newsprint, completely as an artificial wall. People would be brought into this room. They would not know that this was an artificial wall. They would watch NASA footage of the earth, and at a certain moment, belly dancers would crash through the paper, bellydancing to the music of the Orkustra. The chamber Orkustra. Who are playing Middle Eastern-sounding music. And the bellydancers would move amongst these people, who, moments before, had been watching the space program’s vision of the earth.

That’s one of the things I wanted to do. The other one was, I wanted to have an obscenity panel. I remember convincing the church people that this would be a great thing: an obscenity panel where a minister, an ACLU lawyer, a writer on sexuality, someone else, would start talking about censorship and pornography and obscenity in front of a glass case that was in this wall. On the other side of this wall was an actor who took his clothes off and began playing with himself [laughing] so the audience is watching this panel and seeing through this panel to seeing somebody being obscene, because you know obscenity panels never had anything very obscene about them. And in the middle of all this, someone who was a fireeater would walk over to one corner and start blowing flames out of their mouth [laughing]. I think I was dressed in scrubs, hospital scrubs, as the doctor, you know, to talk about obscenity.

Lenore was saying, I want to do something but I’ve been so busy organizing things, I haven’t thought of something to do yet. I think what I’ll do is be a palm-reader. I said, You know, it’d be much more interesting if you did foot reading. Why don’t you have people take off their shoes and put their foot up in the air. And we’ll have a foot [diagram/poster] that says Happiness, Joy, whatever, and you’ll be a foot reader. Just pass yourself off as a foot reader, convince people that you can read feet. So of course she was totally charmed by it. She did that. She also—it turned out that in the Church there was a room where brides get ready for weddings, and Lenore took that room and put KY jelly there, and candles, incense, silk and satin, and low lights, so that it was a seduction room. And it was used for seduction. Emmett filled an elevator with shredded plastic. So you pushed the button [laughing], the elevator door opened, it was like waist-deep in shredded plastic. I think it was clear plastic, and white plastic and red plastic, shredded, in bands. [laughing hard] And you had to fight your way through the plastic to ride on the elevator. Brautigan decided that his event would be to have an instant publishing service, called the John Dillinger Computer, and for this he would use a Xerox machine. You would write a poem, he would run in, put it in a form that could be read, and turn out copies of it and pass it around, at the same time encourage somebody else to write a poem. Everybody writing poems and then publishing them on the John Dillinger computer. Someone else got a hold of all the films of the sexual variation class and opened up a blue movie theater in the church, a pornographic theater, that just ran continuously.

And I have not yet mentioned most of the activity. I didn’t see it all because I was involved with overseeing these events that required coordinating the fire-eater with [laughing very hard] the person playing with himself. Takes a lot of coordination. So I didn’t see it all, but at various times I saw Mike McClure walking around with an autoharp, singing his poems. Hells Angels moving through it. There were a lot of military personnel because Lenore had decided that the primary target for this should be militarism. Because militarism was so anti-liberatory. So she put out flyers, she had them distributed at Army bases, Navy bases, Marines, to come to this event, in order to experience liberation. So Hells Angels and poets and semi-naked or fully naked people, there was one gorgeous woman who took all her clothes off and did belly dancing, people made a circle around her, she was just so beautiful that no one touched her. It’s so interesting to see that phenomenon: that if someone nude was sufficiently in it, that they could have transcendental manifestation, and people, instead of grabbing at her, would stand back and just look at the beauty of it. Which happened. In fact there are photographs of her with people standing in a circle, just staring at her.

The place started crowding up with sailors, both in and out of uniform, soldiers of all kinds, everybody from the Haight-Ashbury. It got very hot. This was in the winter. It got very hot inside the Glide Church. So we threw all the doors open. So now you’ve got all the people in the Tenderloin coming in, which is homeless people, and people dealing hard drugs on the street. They’re coming in. Cops got interested in this. [chuckles] In the spirit of helping to manage this event, I go to the door where this cop is standing, door’s wide open, he said, What’s going on in here? I said, It’s a church service. It’s a church social. It’s a social event of the Church. He said, Uh huh. [squints eyes] You know, the doors are wide open? Anybody at all can come in and there are a lot of characters in this neighborhood. I said, Indeed. Yes, I believe this church’s new purpose is to serve the neighborhood. He said, I just want to make sure you know what you’re doing, cuz there’s some really scary types out here. And all this time he’s looking over my shoulder, looking inside. One thing about San Francisco, when the cops relax, they do relax here. They’re not on 24-hour fascist duty. And he’s trying to see in because there are naked people in there, and all of that. And eventually he says, Well just as long as you know what you’re doing. I said, We do. We will be doing this all weekend, and it’s serving a valuable purpose. And he left it alone.

So it goes on into the night. It started at something like 7 o’clock. For us it started during the day we had to get underway, and all of us laughing because we’re going to be pulling this off. They let us have the Church for this! And we know some of the things people are planning and can’t wait to see them. Some of us would run from one thing to another, say [waving hands] Is Brautigan doing the Dillinger Computer yet? Is Lenore doing footreading, I gotta see this! Have you been to the bridal room? Did you see what Lenore did in there? Wonderful, wonderful event.

It got to be something like midnight or 1 o’clock, and it’s too much for the Church authorities. They somehow get wind of what’s going on, and they want to close it down. Well, closing it down means you’ve got to go to every room and pull these people off of each other that are having sex, go into these rooms full of Hell’s Angels and sailors and tell them to put down their whiskey bottles and [laughing] go home. So it took the rest of the night to clear the place out, and then there was an incredible mess, from their point of view. Lenore was still, We did a very good job of liberating the people, here. And she’s sincere! I mean, there was nothing insincere about it. From the outside, if you were looking at it, you’d think it was almost like practiced that she would do this. But it was coming from her own integrity.

So by Saturday, dregs of things are happening. By Sunday, it’s closed down. And Cecil Williams shows up—Cecil Williams, the product of the Civil Rights movement, in a very anointed position now, to be running this formerly all-white church, in a mixed neighborhood of the city, he’s going to be the integration personality, he has to get his schtick somewhere. It’s not going to be Bible-thumping. Y’know, you’re not gonna Bible-thump for the drug addicts and hippies and whatever are coming to Glide Church. We felt we had loosened the church up for Cecil Williams’ eventual renown. He has a tremendous amount of renown for wearing African costumes, having choruses that are mixed race and of course giving away free food. Quite an indentation into that Church scene.

Can you talk about the SDS meeting in Michigan that you and other Diggers attended?

In early 1966, the Mime Troupe had become a bastion for the New Left. In fact, the New Left Review magazine was sharing space with our studio. Things from the New Left were always passing through the office, including the Port Huron Statement, that had been written by Students for Democratic Society [SDS]. I actually read it. Most of the actors in the Mime Troupe did not. As far as I know, none of the Diggers ever did. But I read it. I thought it was watered down. It was progressive, like the Progressive Party had been, in the U.S., whereas most of us felt that a revolution was underway. By the time the Diggers were rolling in the Haight six months to a year later, we were sure we had part of the answer for the alternative society to be. And at that time SDS was going through a leadership and affiliation crisis. There were SDS people who wanted to be violently active, and eventually the Weather movement came out of that as well. Well the people who remained behind in Students for Democratic Society and did not become more militant wanted to re-define themselves, and they had a conference that they called Back to the Drawing Boards. And I learned that it was going to be held and I thought this is where we should have our New Left encounter, for the Diggers, should be at this event. So I convinced Emmett, Bill Fritsch and Billy Murcott to go with me to Denton, Michigan and present the Digger alternative as part of the future that Students for a Democratic Society should strive for.

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Billy Murcott and possibly Bill Fritsch. Date, location, photographer unknown.

Somebody supplied a rented car, a very large station wagon. So off we head for Denton, Michigan, and along the way Billy Fritsch and Emmett Grogan got into a “man” competition type of thing, about who could drive better, who should drive, etc. It bored me. Billy Murcott was smoking pot in the back, he didn’t really care. At that point Billy has settled into his ‘happy hippy’ role. And so we hit a small rural road, and the argument is how fast you should drive on a road that’s mostly gravel, and they’re screaming and yelling at each other. Emmett was driving and he hits a hill, and the car partially took off and we ended up in a creek, with water coming in over the sides of the doors, and the four of us sitting there, and Emmett and Fritsch begin yelling at each other about whose fault it was. You made me do this by yelling at me. You did it because you can’t drive worth shit. So I’m looking at Billy Murcott like These guys are completely out of it, let’s get out of this car. [laughing] So we crawl out of the windows and we wade up to our waist to the bank. I’m looking at a white station wagon with two people arguing in the front seat in the middle of a running creek in a part of the Midwest that I know nothing about, the Northern plains somewhere. Murcott and I are yelling Get outta the car, get outta the car, it’s gonna fill up with water, it might float away. So they finally get out of the car. Now the argument is whose fault is this and who is going to take the blame for this, with the police and whatever. I want to get to the conference. I don’t care what these guys are yelling and screaming about, I want to get to the conference. I want to make some kind of presentation there. Heroically, Fritsch says, or maybe to one-up Emmett one more time, he says I’ll take the bust, I’ll say I was driving, I’m going to go to a phone right now, tell ‘em where we are, tell ‘em that I was the driver. We all knew that he had a record. Prison record. He was a felon, which meant that that would come into the consideration—a crime had been committed, and a felon had committed it. So I said Okay, if Fritsch takes the fall for this accident, and he gets into some scene about it with the police, obviously they’re gonna have a lawyer of some kind at this meeting, so we’ll get a lawyer and get him out immediately, maybe before the police find out about his record.

So, we get a ride in a tow truck, we go to the conference, the three of us. Billy goes to jail. We walk in the door and say We need a lawyer immediately. At the time Tom Hayden was giving one of those puerile speeches that Tom Hayden is capable of giving. And Todd Gitlin is recording everything into a tape recorder—Todd Gitlin of the book The Sixties fame—and people are sitting around staring at their star, Tom Hayden. I’m stating it the way we saw it, because we’re having this real-life drama occurring, and there’s something crucial involved, which  is how long Fritsch is gonna go to jail. So we come in there, We need a lawyer. Well, people are talking here, you can’t just come in, who are you? We need a lawyer. One of you must be a lawyer. If you’re a lawyer, raise your hand. Somebody raises their hand. I say Okay, here’s the deal. There’s a rented car in the creek, our guy’s in jail, he’s a felon, if they find out they’re gonna give him a lot of shit. The political act right now should be to get him out of jail. So that guy goes off.

Now people say, Who are you people? And I say I’ll tell you if the guy with the tape recorder turns it off. You, will turn off your tape recorder. But I’ve got to record all this for the purpose of history! No. You’re not going to record anything that I say. I’m just going to talk to people here. Turn off the tape recorder. It wasn’t that I was afraid, I just didn’t want it to be historicized that way. It looked ridiculous to us to all be sitting around, pretending to be this political organization. It looked ridiculous. [chuckles] Right, so the Diggerly act was to turn off the tape recorder. The guy did, very reluctantly.

Now I asked Emmett, what do you want to say. He said, Nothing. Billy Murcott said, I wanna play tambourine. I said, Okay I’ll tell you what we’re doing in San Francisco, and this is what we think is a good direction for SDS to go down. You should become Diggers. This is what we do. I gave this long rap. Well the one who wanted to record it was really furious now because he wanted to have recorded that. The guy next to him, in an Army fatigue jacket, says, That’s fantastic. I’m going to do what you do. My name’s Abbie Hoffman. I’m tired of this civil rights plain existence. We should be having fun. We should be dressed up, we should be doing these things, you guys are on the right track, you’re fantastic. I’m going to go back to New York and do what you do. The rest of you—you should go back and do what they’re doing. So he became [raised eyebrows] a little bit of a creepy ally.

Hayden was really disinclined to have anything to do with us. We must have smelled like the devil, like sulfur and brimstone. Fritsch gets out of jail, he comes in. He starts crawling around on the floor, saying ‘Which – one – of – you – girls – wants – to – fuck -meeee?’ [laughing] And he’s talking to social workers and elementary school teachers? Oh, Billy. That was his way. [laughs] Anarchy by act! Anarchism by the deed. So then we got back in the car and argued our way back to San Francisco. And to a large extent, the other three really didn’t know why they’d done it, and what they had done. They weren’t following it. Fritsch was in a state of rejecting communism. He’d been a longshoreman and a merchant seaman. And his best friend’s mother and father were figures in the English Communist Party. They were looking for an alternative to Communism and anything that sounded remotely political put him off. Emmett was apolitical. I think he’d been subjected to too much Irish Revolution stuff. Probably his family was IRA supporters. They were working class Irish. And Murcott, it’d never been part of his life. On the other hand, I saw us as having a historical anarchist role to play. I’m not sure of everything that came out of it. I know in the book The Sixties, Gitlin says that I personally destroyed SDS, which I think if true, that means that anybody could’ve pushed it over. [laughing] If I pushed over that entire organization, it was ready to fall.

Almost all the Diggers made forays of one kind or another. For example, someone gave us a piece of land that we called ‘Free Land.’ There was a trip up to take a look at it. There was a trip to see the land that was going to become Black Bear Commune. People made trips to fields that had been harvested to glean them for vegetables and produce that would go into Digger Stew. I wanted to go to the East Coast after we had done the Denton, Michigan thing. We knew that we would start having a presence on the East Coast, and sure enough a group called the New York Diggers started with the painter Martin Carey and his wife Susan and Abbie Hoffman and for a while Keith Lampe, who later changed his name to Ponderosa Pine. They were all members of the New York Diggers. And they did similar things. They had a free store on the Lower East Side, they did some events, etc and we wanted to check them out to see to what extent we were kindred.

At the same time, word came that Alan Burke, a particularly aggressive TV shock jock for that era, who had a program called The Alan Burke Show, on which he performed vivisection on the guests, wanted to have a Digger show up to represent the hippies. Somebody on his staff had researched hippies and come up with the Diggers. Nobody felt particularly able or capable to do this, but I thought it would be a great event, I thought there was a way that I could twist it around, once I got the lay of it, which I never really got to do. I met Paul Krassner, he knew about the Diggers in New York, he wanted to know about us. He got very turned on with us and later put together the Digger Papers out of various Communication Company publications.

Anyway, eventually it’s go on the Burke show. I brought as a prop an antique pistol. The kind of pistol that’s a cap and ball, Revolutionary War-era pistol. I kept it in my jacket, with the butt sticking out. I also arranged to have one of the women Diggers be there with a pie that they would throw in somebody’s face at some point. So I go on the show. The first thing that happened was in the green room for that period, there was someone who was promoting himself as a representative of the hippie generation. He wanted to be, he was a New York hustler type who wanted to be a media personality. So he was asking me questions: Do people really smoke banana peels to get high? That kind of thing. So I saw that this is the image that the staff had of who we were, and they were not going to be ready for anything that I was going to do. So they say Come on the show and I come on out, sit down. ‘I’m Alan Burke.’ ‘I’m Peter Berg.’ And I looked at the audience and said I’m going to be talking to the audience all the time that I’m here. Never looked at this guy [Burke] again. So he’s asking me questions and I just began talking about what I wanted to talk about. I don’t remember all of it. A certain amount of it was repartee, like I would take off on something he said and say something completely different, so that people could see that I could be a free individual, even within his format. I felt that television was extremely coercive. So what I wanted to show that. At one point he says that he’s not having any luck getting his questions answered, maybe if people in the audience ask questions, I will “deign to answer them.” So a woman comes up to the microphone, says I think you people are making a lot of noise about nothing in particular and I think you should tell us why should you be free, I don’t get this. Burke says, Don’t you have a leader named Emmett Grogan. I said, No, there is no Emmett Grogan. There is a woman named Emma Goldman, and she happens to be here tonight. Emma, would you come and explain to this woman with a pie what we stand for and why we should get what we want. And the woman, Natural Suzanne, a particularly strikingly good looking woman who liked wearing fur coats for reasons I’m not sure of, it was winter, comes up with the pie in the box, opens up the box, takes out the pie and pushes it in this woman’s face. [laughing] So the whole audience is outraged! Just an innocent woman asking questions, but by the way being very demeaning, about who we are. And Burke is, What just happened on my show? So I looked at the camera and said to the cameraman, would you come over here, would you put the camera on me, Hey!, [whistles], You got me? Good. Now turn the camera up to the top of the room. Up to the top of the studio. Let everybody see the girders. The guy’s going okay. He moves the camera up. I’m looking at the monitor and he’s showing the girders and the lights and everything that’s hanging, all the wires. This is what the television studio is, it’s actually like your television SET! People watching this: this is a television SET, that we’re in, that you’re watching ON your television set. Do you get it? They’re broadcasting a television set to your television set. Now, would you, bring the camera on me now, put the camera on me. Got it? Good. I’m getting up, and I’m going to walk out that door. Would you show the door that says ‘exit’? Show the door. That’s it. Okay. Good. Back on me. Thanks.

I’m going to walk out the door, and when I walk out the door, I want you to turn off your television set. So I’m going to walk out of this television set, and you’re going to turn off your television set. See, we can do this. We have the power to do this. Here we go. I’m getting up—keep the camera on me—I’m walking toward the door. You got the camera? Thanks. I’m opening up the door. Goodnight! Goodnight, everyone. Opened up the door and walked out.

I have no idea what happened afterwards. I didn’t stay. I asked Natural Suzanne, and she said she felt she had to get out of there fast. [laughs] Then I thought, This guy asking me if you can get high smoking banana peels in the green room, [laughing] he’s going to come on, and he doesn’t have the wit to know this guy’s gonna take him apart.

Amazing.

What was the relationship between the Diggers and the Hells Angels?

As with asking anyone about the Diggers, you would get different answers as to what their purpose was, the relationship between the Hells Angels and the Diggers were similarly a hugely…It had a huge range of possibilities. For example, some of the Digger women had affairs with Hells Angels, so to them, some of the Hells Angels had been their lovers. Anything else about it didn’t particularly matter, that was the relationship.

My relationship with them was that I knew we had to be heavier than we were. The Diggers called themselves ‘heavy hippies’—it meant they weren’t flower children. We were capable of carrying out acts and confrontations with the police that were above the level of flower children. We deliberately provoked the police on occasions. I designed a street event that stopped traffic deliberately for which all the characters were arrested. And went to trial. And we were acquitted. The acquittal made the front page of the Chronicle and became sort of a totemic image of the psychedelic rebellion. Flower children didn’t do that. Flower children didn’t have anarchist history, or connection with the anarchist political tradition. It should be clearer than it is, that when the overthrow of kings was a prospective activity for the French, what would replace the monarchy was as often thought of as an anarchistic option as a democratic option. Anarchism had a very good reputation in Europe for at least 150 years, as a real option. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is an anarchist; Jean-Jacques Rousseau is considered to be the founder of the philosophical idea of liberty. So anarchism had a tremendous reputation and a huge number of adherents, especially in places that were more peasant-dominated than others: Russia, Italy, Spain. The anarchist tradition still survives in those places.

What was going to happen ultimately with authorities, and in fact happened, was that the police were the agency that closed down the Haight-Ashbury. You will read euphemisms, or excuses, for the demise of the hippie rebellion as being the introduction of hard drugs, or ‘the bloom was off the rose,’ or blahblah. The police closed down the Haight-Ashbury. They brought in mercury vapor lights that burned all night, bright orange. It looked like the Berlin Wall on Haight Street. They made the street one-way, so that traffic barreled through it. They put paddy wagons through it about every 15 minutes, picking up people from the street.

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Photo from Love Needs Care: A History of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic (1971) by David E. Smith, M.D. and John Luce.

So they militarized Haight Street. And there was a reason for it. It was because we had withdrawn this neighborhood from the control of the city. [laughs] We had taken over the Haight-Ashbury! We could shut down the street anytime we wanted. We could take over the street. People were walking DOWN Haight Street six and eight abreast; if you see footage from that period, it’s unbelievable, it looks as though there’s a parade in progress. And that was normal, daily activity. Everybody’s passing each other, giving things to each other, passing out joints, tabs of acid… You’d get off a bus at the Greyhound bus station, make your way to the Haight-Ashbury. Food, a place to stay, your dream of smoking marijuana suddenly realized. The Grateful Dead, playing for free in the park! Right? It was all going on. It was an incredible magnet, and it was our neighborhood.

The HIP [Haight Independent Proprietors] merchants thought that our “1% Free” poster meant that they were supposed to give one percent of their income to support the Digger activities. [smiling] They thought that our poster was extortion. It amuses me that they thought that. And some of them in fact volunteered to pay the rent on the free store.

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Full-page ad for the Free City Free Bank in the Feb. 29, 1968 edition of the San Francisco Express Times. Via diggers.org

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“Chinese are 101% Free”: this photo of the Tong, or one very similar, was the inspiration for the Diggers’ 1% Free image.

What did the slogan mean for you?

Only one percent of the population can bring this off, at this time. Only one percent of the people are capable of acting out the Digger vision. “One percent free”: [the term was there] to provoke the rest of the population, to make them want to be part of that one percent, until it was a hundred percent. We put one up in Chinatown and someone made a balloon coming out of the Tong men that’s on the poster, a little balloon saying ‘White guys are only 1% free. Chinese are 101% free.’ [laughs] I’m not sure what that meant, but I thought it was wonderful.

I TRULY BELIEVED: An in-depth conversation with Vicki Pollack of the San Francisco Diggers

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Vicki Pollack, age 25, San Francisco, 1968.

Today Vicki Pollack is known as the legendary founder and director emeritus of the San Francisco Bay Area-based Children’s Book Project, the non-profit organization that has provided over 2.9 million “gently used” books to local kids since 1992. But in late 1967, Vicki was a directionless, 25-year-old college graduate and Civil Rights activist who’d left her welfare worker job in New York City to move to the Bay Area in pursuit of something more.

She found it in February, 1968, when she walked into an extraordinary old Victorian house on Willard Street in San Francisco. Some Diggers were living there, plotting to expand the audacious social liberation work they had spontaneously begun in the Haight-Ashbury district just 17 months prior. Now they were setting their sights on the whole of San Francisco.

Actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual names associated with the Diggers, as they wrote books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio is the most notorious. But there were many others, like Vicki, who participated in the various Digger initiatives of the time, and whose stories — and unique perspective and insights — have never been told at length, or in any detail, in public.

With that in mind, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to share this interview with Vicki, constructed from two conversations I had with her in San Francisco in 2010. There has been some editing for clarity, but for the most part, this has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. As always, my advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you’ll like the next part.

This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Vicki. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated. This is the fifth interview in my series of Diggers’ oral histories; the others are accessible here. For more infromation on the Diggers, consult Eric Noble’s vast archive at diggers.org  

Please note: I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!

— Jay Babcock (babcock.jay@gmail.com), June 21, 2020

Jay Babcock: What is your background?

Vicki Pollack: I was born in 1942. I grew up in Virginia, which I loved, and then we moved to Maryland, which was much more rural than it is now. My mother was a housewife and my father worked as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest. I was a typical ‘50s kid, except that I was Jewish in a school where people were prejudiced. Otherwise all my goals were the usual teenage girl goals: get good grades, be popular. I would love to have been a cheerleader.

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High school senior Vicki Pollack, age 17, 1960.

My family lived in a community that was basically a housing co-op. During World War II, there had been a food co-op in the area, and after the war, the members decided they were going to do a communal housing co-op. There was a golf course that was up for grabs, so they bought it. The community, which was called Bannockburn, wasn’t just Jewish. At the point that we lived there, it was probably 50/50. Every family there knew each other. They had meetings, they built a community swimming pool, they had this clubhouse. [See this fantastic 1986 Washington Post article for more about Bannockburn’s history.] I lived there from the time that I was 9 til I went to college. The people in Bannockburn were radicals. My parents were Democrats, but they were never big radicals. My mother gave some money to help the Spanish Civil War. That was all.

Nothing really seemed different about me growing up except that I was Jewish and I was living near areas that were very prejudiced against Jews. I did care a little bit about others, but I always thought I’d be a typical ’50s-style housewife, a mother. There was nothing growing up that would indicate that I was going to go in a totally different direction.

Where did things start changing for you?

Interestingly, Bannockburn was surrounded by areas where Jews weren’t allowed to live. The whole region was segregated. And in 1960, right before I went off to college, students and activists from Howard University started picketing the segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park, which was so close by we could hear the rollercoaster from our house. The whole Bannockburn community took part in the picketing and in supporting the demonstrators. It was part of the Civil Rights movement that was in progress then. It was dramatic: there were Black activists, there were American Nazi Party members, there were police.

I started that fall at the University of Wisconsin and came home for Christmas vacation, and got further involved in civil rights activism. There were plans to start doing anti-segregation sit-ins in Baltimore, which I wanted to participate in. I went to the workshop ahead of the sit-ins that was held in a small meeting room in a local church. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught the workshop.

Whoa.

At that point, he was just a person — he wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. yet.

Incredible.

When I started being on picket lines, at 18 years old, it was very exciting. I would participate in them all the time. But sometime later, when I was back at the University of Wisconsin, I found myself at a picket line and all of a sudden I realized I didn’t know what this picket line is for. I looked at myself and said, You better step back and think about what you’re doing: You’re picketing not for a cause but because being on a picket line is exciting…

I ended up graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English. While I was there, I’d been hanging out with one of my best friends who I grew up with, who was living in the Haight-Ashbury. It wasn’t yet the “Haight-Ashbury” but it was starting. The summer before the end of my senior year I’d gotten engaged to a guy in Washington. We broke up, and I moved to New York. I was a welfare worker there, and got involved in an activist  group called the Real Great Society — there were amazing people at these meetings. Linn House, who later changed his first name to Freeman, was there. Abbie Hoffman was there.

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Linn House (center) presides over wedding of Anita and Abbie Hoffman in New York’s Central Park (June 10, 1967). Vicki Pollack is at far left, in the row behind Abbie. Not long after, Linn moved to San Francisco, joined the Diggers and changed his name to Freeman. Photo by Fred W. McDarrah

But still, I didn’t really like New York that much. I thought there’s got to be more to life than this, there just has to be. And then one spring day, this guy comes in and he said, Come with me, you’ve got see the music and dancing going on at St. Mark’s Church. We got there. I smoked weed, and I just went out of my head, dancing. That St. Mark’s Church event made me realize I had to get back out to San Francisco. I broke up with my New York boyfriend, because he didn’t want to go, and came back to Berkeley in ’67, and got work in North Beach clubs. One day, around Valentine’s Day, 1968, I was walking down Haight Street and I bumped into Linn, who I hadn’t seen for two or three months, and he said, Oh we want you to work with us. [laughs] He and David Simpson, who I knew, were producing the Free City News and they needed help. He sent me to this really big, absolute stunningly beautiful communal Victorian house on Willard Street that had a whole extra lot for a yard. And that’s when I started meeting everybody.

To me, it was a magical world. I’d experienced some of it in New York and some of it in Berkeley and I’d experienced some of it in San Francisco. I was there at Death of the Hippie. But I’d just showed up at that event; at that time I didn’t yet know guys like Ron Thelin and Jay Thelin from The Psychedelic Shop, who were part of organizing the event. Frankly, when I’d got to the Haight in late ‘67, I was pretty disappointed because it looked grimy to me. But when I got to Willard Street, I met the people that I wanted to know my entire life. They were me. Linn was living there. Ron Thelin was sleeping in the living room. The Free City News was being produced in the basement. I got there, and I thought, Oh this is my home. This is where I belong. I said, I don’t care if you’re filled up, I belong here. I moved into the house and I became the dishwasher because I didn’t want to cook. We made dinner every night for maybe 40 people. It was unbelievably exciting. I’d lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a little while in 1966 and thought, If I’m going to do something like this, I’m going to do it in my own country. I wanted to see what was possible. And now, here I was, doing it.

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David Simpson of the Diggers at work on Free News in the Willard Street basement. Photo by Chuck Gould.

We did everything together. Nobody had regular jobs. We were sharing money. And we were partly living on welfare — I would get this welfare check for $45 every two weeks and buy my cigarettes and toiletries and give the rest to the house. We’d be living without money — and it was okay. We were sharing, especially the women more than the men.

The people that had got the house were Rose Lee Patron and Patty Davis. There were four or five women, and a man named Tom Dury. You don’t think of them so much as the Diggers, because Black Bear Ranch started soon afterwards and they went to live there, and then they went on and did other things with their lives. They were such remarkable women. They made sure the rent got paid. You always hear about Emmett Grogan, but do you hear about Nina Blasenheim? Nina was the person who made the food happen. She was very capable. And so beautiful. She’s not in very many of the pictures, but everyone  wanted to marry Nina.

Nina Blasenheim. Source unknown.
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Rose Lee Patron, circa 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould
Ron Thelin/Willard Street house
Ron Thelin at Willard Street. Photo by Chuck Gould

By 1968, the Diggers had evolved into talking — and being — the “Free City” Collective, or “Free Family.” There was the Free City News. They were planning a Free City Summer Solstice celebration, a Free City Convention. What were these “Free City” concepts?

When I got there, everything was already in process, and I had to figure out what it all meant. “Free” this, “free” that. They were going to the food market to get the food that would be prepared for free meals in the park, they were starting the first Free City Convention… There was so much going on, and everybody took part in different things. People just did what they wanted to do. For example, for a while we’d go every single day to the City Hall steps and read poetry, and pass out leaflets.

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Via diggers.org: Diggers arrive at City Hall with a few modest proposals (see below). Vicki Pollack is at right, followed by Freeman House, Paula Sakowsky, Arthur Lisch and Hilda Hoffman. Photo by Chuck Gould.
Melvin Belli and Arthur Lesch/SF City Hall Steps
Infamous lawyer Melvin Belli (center) with Digger Arthur Lisch, broadsheets in hand, on the City Hall steps. Photo by Chuck Gould
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A typical “Free City”-era unsigned poetic broadsheet from the Diggers.

You have to understand how crazy we were. Ron Thelin and Ama got arrested for wearing those scarves, pretending to be Billy the Kid or something.

Clip from the May 8, 1968 San Francisco Chronicle article on the City Hall “Free City” bust. See full articles on the incident here.

For the big Summer Solstice event, I helped with some of the advertising. Somehow I managed to get up really early, get a truck, and I got somebody to drive me around. I got helium tanks, and then I put way up in the sky bunches of balloons at each site. Up on Twin Peaks, and all over, there were balloons that I had put up, advertising the solstice—because the concept was we were supposed to be going into Eternity on the Solstice. Somewhere you’ll see it in one of the Free City News pages, it shows the different parks, the schedule.

And so on the day, we went to each one of these parks, singing and playing and Ann and Bill Lindyn would do their Punch and Judy show… Just having a wonderful time. That symbolized how much fun those days were.

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“Free City”-themed Punch n Judy puppet show by Ann and Bill Lindyn, 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould
Vickie Pollack and Julie Boone at dance class
Vicki Pollack and Julie Boone at Straight Theater dance class. Photo by Chuck Gould.

I was one of the bellydancers on this big bellydancing flatbed truck that was going through the Financial District at lunch hour. Lenore Kandel and Judy Goldhaft and Jane Lapiner were really good trained dancers. They led free dance classes at the Straight Theater. They were good dancers, and they had dancer friends, and some of them were on that truck. I was not one of the stars there, but I went out on this truck. I could not believe that people were actually going to work. I thought, What are you doing? How could you be going to work? It’s the Summer Solstice! Here, come, join us! We had so much fun.

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Bellydancers on flatbed truck floating down Montgomery Street in San Francisco’s financial district, celebrating the Summer Solstice, 1968 (Still from Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org).

Someone had got a cable car, and Bill Lindyn and I were on that, it went all over… I think it was before the actual day. It was just amazing, it drove around all the parks, people would get on and off. People singing.

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Destination: Eternity. 1968. Still from Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

We did a free bakery. We were doing masses of bread baked in big coffee cans. I organized that at one point, made sure the flour was there. There was this big ranch down in Sonoma—maybe Novato—called Oampali, owned by Don McCoy, that had become a commune, and somehow we got involved with them. They had ovens. We went there and bake bread and swim nude, basically. Immense parties. And then we’d bring the bread loaves back to the city and distribute them for free.

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From diggers.org: “View of the concrete pad [at Oampali] where the bread baking oven was located. This photo shows the Grateful Dead getting ready to perform. The oven is barely visible (right rear of photo).”
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A report on Oampali from the July 12-18, 1968 Berkeley Barb touches on the weekly poolside baking of Digger bread.

You see burning of money in Nowsreal. Was that a common thing?

Not really. Back then, it was just the freedom—Oh, let’s burn the money. It was just like a symbol. But… You should do it. Try to burn a dollar. It’s an interesting thing to do.

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Kathy Nolan (left) and Jeanne Rose burn a five-dollar bill at a Diggers/”Free City” convention event, 1968. Still from Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

The Diggers were a pretty amazing heavy duty group of people. ‘Heavy’ was a compliment. Other people would be like ‘Oh you guys are so heavy’ —they were more like ‘We’re light, airy-fairy’ kind of stuff. You have to understand: People like Emmett and Bill Fritsch were so impressive. Peter Berg was probably one of the smartest people on the planet. And Freeman [House] was one of the most remarkable men I ever met. To me, he was pure, just…good. I am probably the most impressed with him. Just incredibly impressive, charismatic people. So they could get a lot from people. They started going down to L.A. for money.

Freeman (formerly Linn) House. Photo by Chuck Gould.

And Willard House was the center. It was like the hangout. Everybody came there. You never had to leave if you didn’t want to, and you got to meet everybody. All the poets came there. Janine Pommy Vega and Kirby Doyle and Lenore Kandel were frequent visitors. Artists lived there: Billy Batman, Bryden Bullington. Hells Angels came there. It’s where I met Peter Coyote and Sam, and Peter Berg, and Bill Fritsch [aka Sweet William Tumbleweed]. And Tony Serra. Frank Oppenheimer came to talk to us before he created the Exploratorium! All the musicians. People like [Grateful Dead co-manager] Danny Rifkin. Whenever we wanted to go to a show, any one of us could go to a show for free. When they did Carousel Ballroom, we had free tickets. So whenever we wanted to go down there and see anybody, we could go.

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Pete Knell, president of the San Francisco Hells Angels. Circa 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould.
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Bill “Sweet William” Fritsch and poet Janine Pommy Vega, Caffé Trieste, San Francisco, 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould
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Artist Billy Batman Jahrmarkt and poet Kirby Doyle, location unknown, 1968. Photo by Chuck Gould.

The women did a lot of the stuff. It was very sexist—the men were all talking and  planning, but the women were handling it. Handling a house with 40 people. Making sure there was food. Making sure there was laundry. And eventually there were many, many kids involved. Little kids. I guess the most wonderful thing was coming out of my room in the morning in this beautiful house and seeing so many people I loved to talk to and work with and travel with and play with. Vinnie, Gail, Cathy, John Glazer, Rosie, Ron, Holly, Phyllis, Emmett, Nina.

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Willard Street residents, 1968. Photo courtesy Vicki Pollack.

[Reading from a text she wrote in 1983] “My memories of Willard Street are so joyful. Learning how to tie-dye. I never liked doing it, I only did it once, but I loved to see the color of the tie dyes hanging everywhere. Learning how to clean squid. Eating whale meat on chocolate chip bread. Going on a motorcycle ride with Pete [Knell] of the Hells Angels…”

I’m going to throw some names out there of people who are gone, or who I haven’t been able to interview. You knew Richard Brautigan…?

A little bit. We did do things together. I put on an event with him in North Beach when he needed help. I really liked him. I loved his poetry. A lot of what went on at that point, was poetry.

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Richard Brautigan, in the garden at Willard Street, 1968. Still from Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

How about Lew Welch?

I just liked him as a poet. He wouldn’t’ve known me, but I knew him. One time I want out to Oampali, I went out there and there was going to be a big party. I have no idea who I went with, but Lew Welch was there, and Magda his wife, and I was sitting at the table and whoever else I’d gone out there with. They were telling me about Magda’s straight son. You know who that was? Huey Lewis, who would become Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News. [laughs] And at this party someone had spread white powder out on the table and we were all licking at it, all evening long. When people came the next day for this huge party, we were absolutely totally out of our heads, psychotic. I was flashing in and out of consciousness. People were three feet tall, going in circles. And Bill Fritsch, for some reason, anchored me enough that I came back to some extent. We didn’t know what we had taken. I had taken LSD before, but this was something else… [laughs]

Was LSD a big deal for you?

I took acid here and there. LSD wasn’t that important. It was never really big for me. It just wasn’t. I had already dropped out! I’d already done everything I needed to do, without it. I really didn’t like it.

A funny thing is when I came back from that party, my timing was absolutely perfect. I’d be thinking, Oh I want to go to Ashbury Street, and somebody would come in a car and be there to take me.

Bill Fritsch was an amazing man. Bill was in and out of Willard Street all the time. And Lenore Kandel was on the periphery. I was so much in awe of Lenore that I couldn’t even talk around her. The first time I ever saw Lenore, she was reading poetry, and she was reading Word Alchemy. I was just floored, it was so beautiful, the poetry. It was the first time I think I ever enjoyed poetry in my life. [See Endnote]

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Lenore Kandel at her and Bill Fritsch’s apartment, 1968. Still from Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

And then I met her—and I’m still like this around writers—and I shut up, I’m in such awe, I put them on a pedestal. I never got over it really until she was old. When she got old and I went and helped her shop and everything, then I got over it, I saw her as a person. And Bill, Bill was just…Bill was Bill. I wasn’t involved, though. I just thought he was the most handsome, sexy man I’d ever seen in my life.

I went to her place where we prepared for this huge seder at David Simpson and Jane Lapiner’s. People cooked for it. Lenore made things like I’d never seen before. I just remember this huge table, filled with food, and we thought at one point it was gonna turn into an orgy, but it didn’t. [laughs] Allen Ginsberg was there. It was quite the event, amazing.

Lenore Kandel and Bill “Sweet William” Fritsch on the set of a Kenneth Anger film project, shot in San Francisco in 1966-8. Footage from this shoot would eventually surface in Anger’s film Invocation of My Demon Brother, with music composed by Mick Jagger.

The poetry world itself was so magical, because you had so many people at the events. Imagine poetry readings that were filling up halls with people. They really drew a crowd. It wasn’t like a reading at a coffeeshop. People were getting so high and clapping and shouting…. It was Beat poets like Philip Whalen, or Lew Welch [click here to hear Welch read at a “raucous evening” at Glide Memorial Church on June 8, 1968] or Diane di Prima or David Meltzer or Gregory Corso.

Broadsheet for Digger poetry reading, June 14, 1968, at Glide Church.

Who was Emmett Grogan to you?

He was so beautiful. I still dream about him. By the time I got there, he was already more distant. But, right before he died, we spent time together. He stayed at my house. We weren’t lovers — we were good, good friends. I don’t even know what to say about him. He was a beautiful man.

How about Billy Murcott?

I didn’t really know Bill Murcott. The person who knows is Phyllis. I’m really good with dates, but she’s really good with subjective memory. She’ll go, Oh it was Endless Time. Because to her, it was.

I never knew how people were connected to each other, because nobody talked very much about their past. All I knew is I could tell the people that belonged and the people that didn’t, it was pretty obvious. People did not talk about their past. You lived from that moment, so the things that today, looking back, things you would think people would have known about each other at the time, they didn’t.

[Reminiscing] There was so much going on. I was involved in something in Berkeley called the Six Day School. For me to get there, I had to hitchhike into the city, and get over there by the entrance to Golden Gate Park, where they picked you up. And they took you on a bus all the way out to Glen Ellen, which is where Jack London lived. It was far. First time I ever learned about nutrition, about how to to can and preserve foods, about psychic games. Everything was free. They would give these classes, and then they would take you back and drop you off. I think I went twice.

Who were these people?

I didn’t know — and I went, anyway! We were living free, and living without money. Here’s a story I love because it just shows how absolutely crazy we all were. I had this one little welfare check and every month I would buy my cigarettes and some Tampax and whatever I needed and then give the rest of the money to the house, and then I would literally live the rest of the month without money. Now, this friend of mine and I decided that we were going to go to New Mexico together. She had a scene—it was her, her boyfriend and her little two-year-old son and a dog. And she said, Come with me, I’ll pay. We barely knew each other, and I had no money, but I was so into the whole idea of Free, that I went.

And I had incredibly mystical experiences for the first time in my life on that trip. I saw people before I met them. We went to all these ruins in New Mexico, and I would feel what was going on, the history of the place. One day we got to this ruin and I said, You know Sarah I don’t feel anything here at all, this is strange. She said, Read the plaque. Nothing had happened there. All these kinds of experiences were happening and I was reading Herman Hesse’s Demian and it was the first time I learned that psychic stuff could be real. I’d been raised by a father who was very scientific, who didn’t think any psychic stuff existed.

It continued when I got back to San Francisco. It got so that I could call somebody psychically from across the city and have them come over and they’d say, What are you doing to me? [laughs] I went to Big Sur and I met a woman who said, I just fell off a cliff and a doctor was at the bottom.

Did you go to Altamont?

I was at both Woodstock and at Altamont.

Woodstock was so beautiful. The setting was so beautiful. My younger brother had gone early. He’d gotten food and camping stuff. I only went to Woodstock because I had a sister that was 16, and our mother had told her she couldn’t go unless I went with her. I was 27 at this point. We were up in the country with the family, and they dropped us off, 11 miles from the site. I loved Woodstock because I did nothing but sit there with my mouth open, listening to the music — I wasn’t a Digger, I didn’t help Wavy Gravy, I wasn’t helpful.

So, Altamont. Pete [Knell] didn’t go. Phyllis and I went down on the bus with the Hells Angels. There was this guy Moose, who we dropped acid with. We got down there at night, and remembering Woodstock, I was telling people, Oh just wait till the morning, you’ll be so surprised, it’s going to be so beautiful. Well, it wasn’t. It was California at its worst. Absolutely dry. Yellow. No water. I don’t know how much of it was intensified because I was on acid, but I just remember it being so ugly. They made you wait all day long for the music. It just went on and on and on. People were throwing bottles at each other. I think one of the things that got me out of there was I had to go to the bathroom and there weren’t any toilet facilities. I didn’t even hear [the Stones]. I hitchhiked out, because I couldn’t go back to the Angels’ bus by then. I knew that there was no way I could go back down there.

Afterwards when I came back, Pete said to me, You know you better stay away from the Angels for a while. I said Okay, fine with me.

Why didn’t Pete go?

A lot of people didn’t go. I never knew all the background of what went on.

Bill Fritsch was there…

Yeah. And Lenore was there.

What happened with Lenore in the ’70s? Was there some kind of accident?

Lenore was in a motorcycle accident. Bill was driving. I think what happened was her neck was broken but because she was with the Angels, they took her to General Hospital and then she went home and never really did anything with it. And I know, because I took her to doctors, to the chiropractor. Her whole back was crumbling. She was in really bad pain that seemed to get worse as she got older.

What do you think happened to Emmett? Was it a suicide, or…?

I was living with Peter Coyote’s lady Eileen at the time. Emmett would call her and get me on the phone and somehow he started to see I wasn’t just this dippy-dippy crazy person. So then he came to stay with us. We got to know each other. We weren’t lovers, we were just close.

I don’t know if he was killed. But I’ll tell you what makes me wonder. Months before he died, he stayed at my house, and we got really close. He was very paranoid. He kept thinking that people—government people—were after him, and he didn’t want me to tell anybody that he was there. And I didn’t.

Did you guys talk about the Diggers much?

Well no, because it was still so recent. He was telling me about his son, and his wife. He gave me his manuscript for Final Score.

When he died… Well, you can say, Oh it’s all drugs, he was crazy… But I don’t know. We’ll never know what happened. He was so convinced that they were after him. You can say that was paranoia but at the same time, who knows. He seemed pretty rational to me.

What happened to the Diggers? Why did it end when it did?

I don’t know why it didn’t continue. I think it doesn’t really matter. Some people got into drugs. A lot of people moved out to the country. A lot of people coupled off. People’s lives went on. But what stayed for almost all of us were the connections between us. I was meeting these wonderful people who are still my friends. Sister friends. People like Nina. It’s way beyond friendship.

But generally, people went on and did other great things, other good things. I really had hope in the ’70s, when the government was hiring artists to work with the poor, things like that, that’s when I really believed the change was coming. I’d studied socialism in college and I was thinking, Well gee, we’re in the synthesis period.

You know Richard Brautigan’s poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace? I really believed that, the idea that computers would come in and do all the work. The social problem then would be what are you going to do with all the leisure time. [laughs] Of course this is not what actually ended up happening; instead, computers have made it so a few people make a fortune and everyone else becomes poorer. But back then, ideas like this were in the air. Even somebody like Goldwater was saying everybody should have a guaranteed income. It could have happened.

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This piece by poet/author/Digger Richard Brautigan was first circulated via free broadsheet in the Haight by the Communications Company in 1967.

How did your family back east respond to what you were doing in San Francisco?

I would go home and talk to my parents and my friends, and they just thought we were being totally unrealistic. I truly believed—and I don’t know if this had to do with dope or what—that we were going into the Age of Aquarius and we were going to change the world.

There was a paper that I wrote at the time called “Living at Willard State in 1968.” I intended to send it to friends who lived in New York, telling them about what we did and why they should either send money, or come be with us. It was a very logical paper. I never sent it and I never showed it to anybody, until much later. I was trying to figure out what people were talking about at this house. The way I saw it was that if you get a bunch of people together, living communally, and if everybody picks a job, you’re gonna get everything covered because everybody has different interests. And that general idea could be expanded further outwards. That’s the thing I got to. To me, it was all just some kind of an experiment… But at the same time, we were doing it.

People at home would tell me, This isn’t going to work. But I really believed it was going to work, that we could make a difference. I look back at it now, I go… Why did I think that? I guess it’s youth. The optimism of a 25-year-old is so unrealistic. Even though the Vietnam War and everything was going on, it was much brighter then, in that way, than it is now. When I look back, I see all that hope. And then I look around and see how sad the world is now. It’s just unbelievable.

I have friends today that say, Oh yeah I experienced the Sixties, I dropped acid, and all these things. And then I reply, But you were working a full-time job, or being a housewife — you weren’t experiencing what I was experiencing. When I got to Willard Street in February ’68, it was like I had entered a Technicolor movie. I couldn’t believe how beautiful everything was. What I was involved in at Willard Street was being with the women, doing the day-to-day operations, and more importantly, finding ourselves. And I think almost all of us did find out who we were, and what we were supposed to do with our lives.

By August 1968, some people from Willard Street were moving out to Black Bear. I eventually went to live with the Hells Angels, but these people from Willard Street have been my best friends ever since. Later on, when our children came, Joanie Batman and I did a free school. And that’s really what I learned about myself from that time, that I liked teaching and being with kids.

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Joanie “Batman” with her kids. Photo by Chuck Gould.

ENDNOTE

Vicki assembled the poems that made up Collected Poems of Lenore Kandel, published in 2012 with a gorgeous, haunting preface by fellow poet Diane di Prima.

“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.

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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

 * * *

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…

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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.

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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.