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!
Vicki Pollack: I was born in 1942. I grew up in Virginia, which I loved, and then we moved to Maryland, which was much more rural than it is now. My mother was a housewife and my father worked as a lawyer for the National Labor Relations Board. I have two brothers and a sister. I’m the oldest. I was a typical ‘50s kid, except that I was Jewish in a school where people were prejudiced. Otherwise all my goals were the usual teenage girl goals: get good grades, be popular. I would love to have been a cheerleader.
My family lived in a community that was basically a housing co-op. During World War II, there had been a food co-op in the area, and after the war, the members decided they were going to do a communal housing co-op. There was a golf course that was up for grabs, so they bought it. The community, which was called Bannockburn, wasn’t just Jewish. At the point that we lived there, it was probably 50/50. Every family there knew each other. They had meetings, they built a community swimming pool, they had this clubhouse. [See this fantastic 1986 Washington Post article for more about Bannockburn’s history.] I lived there from the time that I was 9 til I went to college. The people in Bannockburn were radicals. My parents were Democrats, but they were never big radicals. My mother gave some money to help the Spanish Civil War. That was all.
Nothing really seemed different about me growing up except that I was Jewish and I was living near areas that were very prejudiced against Jews. I did care a little bit about others, but I always thought I’d be a typical ’50s-style housewife, a mother. There was nothing growing up that would indicate that I was going to go in a totally different direction.
Where did things start changing for you?
Interestingly, Bannockburn was surrounded by areas where Jews weren’t allowed to live. The whole region was segregated. And in 1960, right before I went off to college, students and activists from Howard University started picketing the segregated Glen Echo Amusement Park, which was so close by we could hear the rollercoaster from our house. The whole Bannockburn community took part in the picketing and in supporting the demonstrators. It was part of the Civil Rights movement that was in progress then. It was dramatic: there were Black activists, there were American Nazi Party members, there were police.
I started that fall at the University of Wisconsin and came home for Christmas vacation, and got further involved in civil rights activism. There were plans to start doing anti-segregation sit-ins in Baltimore, which I wanted to participate in. I went to the workshop ahead of the sit-ins that was held in a small meeting room in a local church. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught the workshop.
At that point, he was just a person — he wasn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. yet.
When I started being on picket lines, at 18 years old, it was very exciting. I would participate in them all the time. But sometime later, when I was back at the University of Wisconsin, I found myself at a picket line and all of a sudden I realized I didn’t know what this picket line is for. I looked at myself and said, You better step back and think about what you’re doing: You’re picketing not for a cause but because being on a picket line is exciting…
I ended up graduating from Berkeley with a degree in English. While I was there, I’d been hanging out with one of my best friends who I grew up with, who was living in the Haight-Ashbury. It wasn’t yet the “Haight-Ashbury” but it was starting. The summer before the end of my senior year I’d gotten engaged to a guy in Washington. We broke up, and I moved to New York. I was a welfare worker there, and got involved in an activist group called the Real Great Society — there were amazing people at these meetings. Linn House, who later changed his first name to Freeman, was there. Abbie Hoffman was there.
But still, I didn’t really like New York that much. I thought there’s got to be more to life than this, there just has to be. And then one spring day, this guy comes in and he said, Come with me, you’ve got see the music and dancing going on at St. Mark’s Church. We got there. I smoked weed, and I just went out of my head, dancing. That St. Mark’s Church event made me realize I had to get back out to San Francisco. I broke up with my New York boyfriend, because he didn’t want to go, and came back to Berkeley in ’67, and got work in North Beach clubs. One day, around Valentine’s Day, 1968, I was walking down Haight Street and I bumped into Linn, who I hadn’t seen for two or three months, and he said, Oh we want you to work with us. [laughs] He and David Simpson, who I knew, were producing the Free City News and they needed help. He sent me to this really big, absolute stunningly beautiful communal Victorian house on Willard Street that had a whole extra lot for a yard. And that’s when I started meeting everybody.
To me, it was a magical world. I’d experienced some of it in New York and some of it in Berkeley and I’d experienced some of it in San Francisco. I was there at Death of the Hippie. But I’d just showed up at that event; at that time I didn’t yet know guys like Ron Thelin and Jay Thelin from The Psychedelic Shop, who were part of organizing the event. Frankly, when I’d got to the Haight in late ‘67, I was pretty disappointed because it looked grimy to me. But when I got to Willard Street, I met the people that I wanted to know my entire life. They were me. Linn was living there. Ron Thelin was sleeping in the living room. The Free City News was being produced in the basement. I got there, and I thought, Oh this is my home. This is where I belong. I said, I don’t care if you’re filled up, I belong here. I moved into the house and I became the dishwasher because I didn’t want to cook. We made dinner every night for maybe 40 people. It was unbelievably exciting. I’d lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a little while in 1966 and thought, If I’m going to do something like this, I’m going to do it in my own country. I wanted to see what was possible. And now, here I was, doing it.
We did everything together. Nobody had regular jobs. We were sharing money. And we were partly living on welfare — I would get this welfare check for $45 every two weeks and buy my cigarettes and toiletries and give the rest to the house. We’d be living without money — and it was okay. We were sharing, especially the women more than the men.
The people that had got the house were Rose Lee Patron and Patty Davis. There were four or five women, and a man named Tom Dury. You don’t think of them so much as the Diggers, because Black Bear Ranch started soon afterwards and they went to live there, and then they went on and did other things with their lives. They were such remarkable women. They made sure the rent got paid. You always hear about Emmett Grogan, but do you hear about Nina Blasenheim? Nina was the person who made the food happen. She was very capable. And so beautiful. She’s not in very many of the pictures, but everyone wanted to marry Nina.
By 1968, the Diggers had evolved into talking — and being — the “Free City” Collective, or “Free Family.” There was the Free City News. They were planning a Free City Summer Solstice celebration, a Free City Convention. What were these “Free City” concepts?
When I got there, everything was already in process, and I had to figure out what it all meant. “Free” this, “free” that. They were going to the food market to get the food that would be prepared for free meals in the park, they were starting the first Free City Convention… There was so much going on, and everybody took part in different things. People just did what they wanted to do. For example, for a while we’d go every single day to the City Hall steps and read poetry, and pass out leaflets.
You have to understand how crazy we were. Ron Thelin and Ama got arrested for wearing those scarves, pretending to be Billy the Kid or something.
For the big Summer Solstice event, I helped with some of the advertising. Somehow I managed to get up really early, get a truck, and I got somebody to drive me around. I got helium tanks, and then I put way up in the sky bunches of balloons at each site. Up on Twin Peaks, and all over, there were balloons that I had put up, advertising the solstice—because the concept was we were supposed to be going into Eternity on the Solstice. Somewhere you’ll see it in one of the Free City News pages, it shows the different parks, the schedule.
And so on the day, we went to each one of these parks, singing and playing and Ann and Bill Lindyn would do their Punch and Judy show… Just having a wonderful time. That symbolized how much fun those days were.
I was one of the bellydancers on this big bellydancing flatbed truck that was going through the Financial District at lunch hour. Lenore Kandel and Judy Goldhaft and Jane Lapiner were really good trained dancers. They led free dance classes at the Straight Theater. They were good dancers, and they had dancer friends, and some of them were on that truck. I was not one of the stars there, but I went out on this truck. I could not believe that people were actually going to work. I thought, What are you doing? How could you be going to work? It’s the Summer Solstice! Here, come, join us! We had so much fun.
Someone had got a cable car, and Bill Lindyn and I were on that, it went all over… I think it was before the actual day. It was just amazing, it drove around all the parks, people would get on and off. People singing.
We did a free bakery. We were doing masses of bread baked in big coffee cans. I organized that at one point, made sure the flour was there. There was this big ranch down in Sonoma—maybe Novato—called Oampali, owned by Don McCoy, that had become a commune, and somehow we got involved with them. They had ovens. We went there and bake bread and swim nude, basically. Immense parties. And then we’d bring the bread loaves back to the city and distribute them for free.
You see burning of money in Nowsreal. Was that a common thing?
Not really. Back then, it was just the freedom—Oh, let’s burn the money. It was just like a symbol. But… You should do it. Try to burn a dollar. It’s an interesting thing to do.
The Diggers were a pretty amazing heavy duty group of people. ‘Heavy’ was a compliment. Other people would be like ‘Oh you guys are so heavy’ —they were more like ‘We’re light, airy-fairy’ kind of stuff. You have to understand: People like Emmett and Bill Fritsch were so impressive. Peter Berg was probably one of the smartest people on the planet. And Freeman [House] was one of the most remarkable men I ever met. To me, he was pure, just…good. I am probably the most impressed with him. Just incredibly impressive, charismatic people. So they could get a lot from people. They started going down to L.A. for money.
And Willard House was the center. It was like the hangout. Everybody came there. You never had to leave if you didn’t want to, and you got to meet everybody. All the poets came there. Janine Pommy Vega and Kirby Doyle and Lenore Kandel were frequent visitors. Artists lived there: Billy Batman, Bryden Bullington. Hells Angels came there. It’s where I met Peter Coyote and Sam, and Peter Berg, and Bill Fritsch [aka Sweet William Tumbleweed]. And Tony Serra. Frank Oppenheimer came to talk to us before he created the Exploratorium! All the musicians. People like [Grateful Dead co-manager] Danny Rifkin. Whenever we wanted to go to a show, any one of us could go to a show for free. When they did Carousel Ballroom, we had free tickets. So whenever we wanted to go down there and see anybody, we could go.
The women did a lot of the stuff. It was very sexist—the men were all talking and planning, but the women were handling it. Handling a house with 40 people. Making sure there was food. Making sure there was laundry. And eventually there were many, many kids involved. Little kids. I guess the most wonderful thing was coming out of my room in the morning in this beautiful house and seeing so many people I loved to talk to and work with and travel with and play with. Vinnie, Gail, Cathy, John Glazer, Rosie, Ron, Holly, Phyllis, Emmett, Nina.
[Reading from a text she wrote in 1983] “My memories of Willard Street are so joyful. Learning how to tie-dye. I never liked doing it, I only did it once, but I loved to see the color of the tie dyes hanging everywhere. Learning how to clean squid. Eating whale meat on chocolate chip bread. Going on a motorcycle ride with Pete [Knell] of the Hells Angels…”
I’m going to throw some names out there of people who are gone, or who I haven’t been able to interview. You knew Richard Brautigan…?
A little bit. We did do things together. I put on an event with him in North Beach when he needed help. I really liked him. I loved his poetry. A lot of what went on at that point, was poetry.
How about Lew Welch?
I just liked him as a poet. He wouldn’t’ve known me, but I knew him. One time I want out to Oampali, I went out there and there was going to be a big party. I have no idea who I went with, but Lew Welch was there, and Magda his wife, and I was sitting at the table and whoever else I’d gone out there with. They were telling me about Magda’s straight son. You know who that was? Huey Lewis, who would become Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News. [laughs] And at this party someone had spread white powder out on the table and we were all licking at it, all evening long. When people came the next day for this huge party, we were absolutely totally out of our heads, psychotic. I was flashing in and out of consciousness. People were three feet tall, going in circles. And Bill Fritsch, for some reason, anchored me enough that I came back to some extent. We didn’t know what we had taken. I had taken LSD before, but this was something else… [laughs]
Was LSD a big deal for you?
I took acid here and there. LSD wasn’t that important. It was never really big for me. It just wasn’t. I had already dropped out! I’d already done everything I needed to do, without it. I really didn’t like it.
A funny thing is when I came back from that party, my timing was absolutely perfect. I’d be thinking, Oh I want to go to Ashbury Street, and somebody would come in a car and be there to take me.
Bill Fritsch was an amazing man. Bill was in and out of Willard Street all the time. And Lenore Kandel was on the periphery. I was so much in awe of Lenore that I couldn’t even talk around her. The first time I ever saw Lenore, she was reading poetry, and she was reading Word Alchemy. I was just floored, it was so beautiful, the poetry. It was the first time I think I ever enjoyed poetry in my life. [See Endnote]
And then I met her—and I’m still like this around writers—and I shut up, I’m in such awe, I put them on a pedestal. I never got over it really until she was old. When she got old and I went and helped her shop and everything, then I got over it, I saw her as a person. And Bill, Bill was just…Bill was Bill. I wasn’t involved, though. I just thought he was the most handsome, sexy man I’d ever seen in my life.
I went to her place where we prepared for this huge seder at David Simpson and Jane Lapiner’s. People cooked for it. Lenore made things like I’d never seen before. I just remember this huge table, filled with food, and we thought at one point it was gonna turn into an orgy, but it didn’t. [laughs] Allen Ginsberg was there. It was quite the event, amazing.
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.
Woodstock was so beautiful. The setting was so beautiful. My younger brother had gone early. He’d gotten food and camping stuff. I only went to Woodstock because I had a sister that was 16, and our mother had told her she couldn’t go unless I went with her. I was 27 at this point. We were up in the country with the family, and they dropped us off, 11 miles from the site. I loved Woodstock because I did nothing but sit there with my mouth open, listening to the music — I wasn’t a Digger, I didn’t help Wavy Gravy, I wasn’t helpful.
So, Altamont. Pete [Knell] didn’t go. Phyllis and I went down on the bus with the Hells Angels. There was this guy Moose, who we dropped acid with. We got down there at night, and remembering Woodstock, I was telling people, Oh just wait till the morning, you’ll be so surprised, it’s going to be so beautiful. Well, it wasn’t. It was California at its worst. Absolutely dry. Yellow. No water. I don’t know how much of it was intensified because I was on acid, but I just remember it being so ugly. They made you wait all day long for the music. It just went on and on and on. People were throwing bottles at each other. I think one of the things that got me out of there was I had to go to the bathroom and there weren’t any toilet facilities. I didn’t even hear [the Stones]. I hitchhiked out, because I couldn’t go back to the Angels’ bus by then. I knew that there was no way I could go back down there.
Afterwards when I came back, Pete said to me, You know you better stay away from the Angels for a while. I said Okay, fine with me.
Why didn’t Pete go?
A lot of people didn’t go. I never knew all the background of what went on.
Bill Fritsch was there…
Yeah. And Lenore was there.
What happened with Lenore in the ’70s? Was there some kind of accident?
Lenore was in a motorcycle accident. Bill was driving. I think what happened was her neck was broken but because she was with the Angels, they took her to General Hospital and then she went home and never really did anything with it. And I know, because I took her to doctors, to the chiropractor. Her whole back was crumbling. She was in really bad pain that seemed to get worse as she got older.
What do you think happened to Emmett? Was it a suicide, or…?
I was living with Peter Coyote’s lady Eileen at the time. Emmett would call her and get me on the phone and somehow he started to see I wasn’t just this dippy-dippy crazy person. So then he came to stay with us. We got to know each other. We weren’t lovers, we were just close.
I don’t know if he was killed. But I’ll tell you what makes me wonder. Months before he died, he stayed at my house, and we got really close. He was very paranoid. He kept thinking that people—government people—were after him, and he didn’t want me to tell anybody that he was there. And I didn’t.
Did you guys talk about the Diggers much?
Well no, because it was still so recent. He was telling me about his son, and his wife. He gave me his manuscript for Final Score.
When he died… Well, you can say, Oh it’s all drugs, he was crazy… But I don’t know. We’ll never know what happened. He was so convinced that they were after him. You can say that was paranoia but at the same time, who knows. He seemed pretty rational to me.
What happened to the Diggers? Why did it end when it did?
I don’t know why it didn’t continue. I think it doesn’t really matter. Some people got into drugs. A lot of people moved out to the country. A lot of people coupled off. People’s lives went on. But what stayed for almost all of us were the connections between us. I was meeting these wonderful people who are still my friends. Sister friends. People like Nina. It’s way beyond friendship.
But generally, people went on and did other great things, other good things. I really had hope in the ’70s, when the government was hiring artists to work with the poor, things like that, that’s when I really believed the change was coming. I’d studied socialism in college and I was thinking, Well gee, we’re in the synthesis period.
You know Richard Brautigan’s poem, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace? I really believed that, the idea that computers would come in and do all the work. The social problem then would be what are you going to do with all the leisure time. [laughs] Of course this is not what actually ended up happening; instead, computers have made it so a few people make a fortune and everyone else becomes poorer. But back then, ideas like this were in the air. Even somebody like Goldwater was saying everybody should have a guaranteed income. It could have happened.
How did your family back east respond to what you were doing in San Francisco?
I would go home and talk to my parents and my friends, and they just thought we were being totally unrealistic. I truly believed—and I don’t know if this had to do with dope or what—that we were going into the Age of Aquarius and we were going to change the world.
There was a paper that I wrote at the time called “Living at Willard State in 1968.” I intended to send it to friends who lived in New York, telling them about what we did and why they should either send money, or come be with us. It was a very logical paper. I never sent it and I never showed it to anybody, until much later. I was trying to figure out what people were talking about at this house. The way I saw it was that if you get a bunch of people together, living communally, and if everybody picks a job, you’re gonna get everything covered because everybody has different interests. And that general idea could be expanded further outwards. That’s the thing I got to. To me, it was all just some kind of an experiment… But at the same time, we were doing it.
People at home would tell me, This isn’t going to work. But I really believed it was going to work, that we could make a difference. I look back at it now, I go… Why did I think that? I guess it’s youth. The optimism of a 25-year-old is so unrealistic. Even though the Vietnam War and everything was going on, it was much brighter then, in that way, than it is now. When I look back, I see all that hope. And then I look around and see how sad the world is now. It’s just unbelievable.
I have friends today that say, Oh yeah I experienced the Sixties, I dropped acid, and all these things. And then I reply, But you were working a full-time job, or being a housewife — you weren’t experiencing what I was experiencing. When I got to Willard Street in February ’68, it was like I had entered a Technicolor movie. I couldn’t believe how beautiful everything was. What I was involved in at Willard Street was being with the women, doing the day-to-day operations, and more importantly, finding ourselves. And I think almost all of us did find out who we were, and what we were supposed to do with our lives.
By August 1968, some people from Willard Street were moving out to Black Bear. I eventually went to live with the Hells Angels, but these people from Willard Street have been my best friends ever since. Later on, when our children came, Joanie Batman and I did a free school. And that’s really what I learned about myself from that time, that I liked teaching and being with kids.
Siena Carlton-Firestone arrived in San Francisco in 1966, a 19-year-old working class Grand Rapids, Michigan native taking a break from attending university at Antioch in the midst of some personal turmoil. Before long Siena fell in with a group of fellow Antioch students living in the Haight-Ashbury who were involved in the San Francisco Diggers. The Diggers were a group of anonymous acid-fueled street anarchists — dancers, poet-playwrights, actors, mechanics, longshoremen, artists, runaways, bikers, etc. — who were building a communal urban community that avoided the use of money, one “free” public project at a time. Diggers provided free food; they ran a free store; they put on free public events; facilitated free housing and free LSD; and so on.
Siena took part in it all — this whirlwind of activity from Fall 1966 through 1967 and beyond, that helped midwife the ’60s counterculture — becoming “Natural Suzanne,” a nickname whose derivation is revealed below. Her boyfriend for much of this period was Emmett Grogan, the Diggers’ most notorious member, and the one most heavily mythologized, both at the time in the underground and mainstream press, and later, in his 1972 fictional autobiography Ringolevio.
I interviewed Siena one evening in August, 2010 at her Sacramento, California home. She’s had quite a life — at the time that I interviewed her, she was working as an attorney in the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office (she has since retired) — and the Diggers period was only a short, small part of it. Nonetheless, her time in the Diggers was formative and pivotal, and more than 40 years after the fact, Siena’s memories were sharp and often affectionate, her insights by turns loving, forgiving and — necessarily, given the subject matter — devastating. We talked for over two hours and it was clear to me that we were only scratching the surface of an extraordinary period in an extraordinary life.
The following text is a transcript of that 2010 conversation, which has been expanded on via email conversation in the last year. It has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. There are, inevitably, a few digressions. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, there’s a good chance you’ll like the next part. (For more about the Diggers, consult the vast archive that has been maintained for decades by historian Eric Noble at diggers.org)
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Siena. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with original San Francisco Diggers that I am presenting online for the first time, constituting a kind of collective oral history. Each interview is accessible here. More to come.
Please note: I have incurred not insignificant expenses in my Diggers research through the years. If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Siena Carlton-Firestone: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1947. I grew up in a very blue-collar, middle class family . My mom was a stay-at-home mother with seven children, and I was the oldest. My dad worked very hard to support our family. He and his mother owned and ran Carlton Catering Company. Their main customer was Capital Airlines which flew back and forth from Grand Rapids to Chicago. They created the cutest little petite-point sandwiches along with darling little cakes covered with pastel frosting and a frosting rose in a glassine box tied with a ribbon. Passengers loved them. Capital was bought out by United Airlines and Carlton Catering was over and done. After that my Dad worked in small local factories.
My dad was the greatest. He spent his childhood in foster homes even though his mother was alive and well. I don’t think he had the opportunity to graduate from high school but he had a mind as bright as anyone I knew. My mother and her sister and brother suffered a great deal during the Depression. My great-grandmother would take them to churches where they could eat if they professed to the church ministries.
I learned at age 17 that my dad was not my birth father. My dad had always included me in the loop with his children, my brother and five sisters, he’d never made me feel like an outsider. But I was shocked. The knowledge that I had been deceived by both my mother and my dad set me on a path that I might not have otherwise followed. [See Endnote 1 for more on Siena’s birth father.]
Jay Babcock: How did you get from Grand Rapids to San Francisco?
I left Grand Rapids in 1965, for Yellow Springs, Ohio to attend Antioch College. Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, had been a visiting professor at Antioch. My aunt had attended an outdoor summer theater production and fell in love with the campus. Antioch was the only college I applied to; it was as far from home as I could get.
My teenage life was very protected. I wasn’t allowed to date and I was limited to outings with the small group of girls who I called my friends. Life changed suddenly at Antioch: anti-war sentiments, poetry, literature from unfamiliar sources, walking through beautiful Glen Helen, meeting people, having my first boyfriend.
The Antioch experience had two basic twists on conventional colleges. First, the program was set up on pass/fail basis. That left me with time to attend foreign movies, to go to any seminar or presentation that seemed interesting, to spend hours playing bridge. For the first time, “school” wasn’t important to me.
Second twist was the work/study program. Time on campus was rotated with work at a job off-campus. I first spent time off-campus living in a Kentucky mining town. It was depressing. My favorite job was teaching at a winter school camp for sixth-graders in the woods on a small lake in New Hampshire, marching them onto the deeply frozen lake during the new moon. The sky was black and deep. The stars and planets were frozen in place. My job, using a flashlight as a pointing device, was to show them the constellations and the Planets along with the Greek Myths associated with them.
After that winter’s experience, back at Antioch, I met a young man. Together we hitchhiked together from state to state. But young love can rapidly fade, and one afternoon, looking out my dorm window, I saw him with his arm around the proverbial red-headed girl. Heartbroken, I switched from study to work session. I got a job in Chicago and lived in an apartment on the South Side with other Antioch students who were on work session. I did not like Chicago. Children threw bricks at me on my way to the El and one time I was held up at gunpoint on my way home from the East Dorchester stop.
At my parents’ suggestion, I flew to San Francisco to stay with my uncle, who lived in the Marina district. He was a commercial fisherman with his own boat who line-caught salmon. He became my surrogate father, since I was still angry and confused about the hidden father issue. He gave me his studio apartment on Jefferson Street and took up living on his boat. What a great guy. I miss him a lot.
So you were in San Francisco in 1966….
I hadn’t been in college that long. Time-wise, I would have been a sophomore but credit-wise, more like a freshman.
How did you come in contact with the Diggers?
One day I was walking along the sea wall at the Marina and I ran into someone from Antioch. He said, Oh you should come down to the Haight-Ashbury. There’s some people there from Antioch. Those people were Nina Blasenheim, Bobbi Swofford, and a man named John, whose last name I forget. They lived in a house on Ashbury Street — this is the house that was being used to cook the “Digger Stew,” which was the early mainstay of Free Food. On the night I visited, I met Emmett Grogan. He asked me to go with him for a walk in Buena Vista Park and from then on we were together until we were no longer together. (A sidenote: Emmett claimed that a poem written by Richard Brautigan, “Nothing Ever Happens in Buena Vista Park,” was written for us after Emmett told Richard that that was where we met.) [See Endnote 2.]
But I’d had another “first” introduction to the Diggers. One day in October 1966 I was on a bus coming home from my job downtown. Traffic was totally stopped, way down by Fillmore Street. I’m sure you’ve seen that picture of Emmett, Peter Berg, Brooks Bucher, Robert LaMorticella and Kent Minault on the courthouse steps. They were celebrating beating the charges that came from when they’d been arrested that day in the process of doing a bit of street theater, which was what had caused the traffic I’d experienced. They had handed flyers to the people on the corner of Haight and a cross street to play “The Intersection Game.” What the participants didn’t know was that there were several versions of the game resulting in complete chaos holding up traffic for miles. In addition, these crazy Mime Troupe actors were wearing gigantic three-dimensional masks on their shoulders confusing things even further. The actors were arrested, and the masks were taken into custody. The traffic slowly unraveled, and I made it home.
There was a third “first” introduction. I was just walking down Haight Street and somebody handed me a piece of paper that was all cut in curlicues — somebody had really taken the time to cut this elaborate design out of a piece of paper — and it said, Bring your bowl to the Panhandle for free soup. So I went to check it out: I didn’t have a bowl, I wasn’t hungry. And then I saw Nina there, with Bobbi Swofford and Cindi. And Emmett.
I started to go to all of the Digger functions and all the Mime Troupe functions with Emmett. There was the responsibility of Free Food, and we had a Free Store. Whatever needed doing, I did that.
Emmett was a very social person. Wherever he went, people loved to listen to him talk. He had a magnetism that was amazing. And so I just kind of went with him wherever he went — it could be anywhere, from one extreme of society to another. Which is how I met Richard Brautigan, and all the Beat poets: Lew Welch, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso. Michael McClure and Emmett were really good friends so I got to know him pretty well.
Where was Emmett living?
When I first met him he was living in a studio apartment on Fillmore Street. Another person from the Mime Troupe was also living there: John Robb. But John never really got into the whole Digger thing, he was a purist in terms of his acting and street theater. He would tear his Pall Mall cigarettes in half and save one half in his shirt pocket. Emmett had this little place in an incredible San Francisco building. I stayed with him there.
Before I met them, Peter Cohon aka Peter Coyote, lived across the street. Peter once told me how he met Emmett. He was having coffee at his breakfast table, watching a man on the roof across the street acting out some bizarre story alone and by himself. When Peter went into the Mime Troupe that afternoon, there was the same guy trying out for a job as an actor. Of course that was Emmett, and they were friends from then through forever more.
From there we moved to the Castro area, into something like a storefront with a kitchen and a bathroom in the hall. We paid $80 a month. It had no glamour or panache but at lest we were together. It was during that time Emmett introduced me to Billy Batman [Jahrmarkt] and his wonderful wife Joan. [See Endnote 3.]
What were your first impressions of Emmett?
I had never met anyone like him. He was from Brooklyn. He was a very unusual person. When I met him, he’d just gotten out of the Army. When he started in the Mime Troupe, he’d just gotten out of the army psych ward. He’d been stationed at whatever the Army base is that’s in San Francisco, but he didn’t like being there. So here’s how he was: the first thing he did to try to get out was during bazooka training, they’re all out on a field, and he just pointed the bazooka up in the sky and shot it. Everybody was running around trying to find shelter, and Emmett just stood there. After that they put him into the mental ward. First thing he did there was take all of the beds in the ward and tie them together in the middle of the room. So, that kind of added toward his reputation for lunacy. Then they had him doing some job xeroxing stuff and and he made like 1,000 xeroxes of himself. So they let him go. They said, We don’t want you. But it’s like, okay…what kind of a character puts himself in the range of bazooka fire?
The first time I stayed with Emmett he pulled a gym bag out of his closet and showed me hundreds of pills inside the bag. He told me they were the psychotropic medications that the army had given him while he was locked up in the psych ward. He didn’t take any of them. He saved them and took them with him when he was finally released.
The few years I spent with Emmett changed my life. Wherever we went, I was being exposed to something that I would never have been exposed to in my little other life that I came from, being wrapped in a cocoon. My life became an adventure. I read and I thought in new and exciting ways. I met poets and artists, geniuses and all manner of talented human beings.
It’s a pretty amazing circle.
Peter Berg, to me, was a certifiable genius. He was one of the directors at the Mime Troupe. When I first met him, he and Judy [Goldhaft] weren’t together yet. She was actually married to the father of her first child, Aaron, but they were breaking up. And, her husband was a really incredible artist, very experimental. When I was doing the Mime Troupe thing, I’d go to classes, just have fun. I always remember when she and Peter started going together, we were in a class and he came in and grabbed her around the waist and kissed her between the legs. Which, you know, was like, Whoa! It was sweet and all. Very sweet. Then after that, they were a couple, going together.
The two Peters—Berg and Coyote—and Emmett, I can’t think of anybody besides those three who was the real core intelligence of the Diggers. A lot of people participated, but they came up with all the ideas. I was there when they created them.
What about Billy Murcott? How did he fit in there?
Billy was Emmett’s best friend in the entire world. He worshipped Billy. They grew up together. Billy was there all the time too. He loved Billy. I don’t think there was anyone in Emmett’s life who meant more to him than Billy. They just were lovely friends.
Peter Coyote and Peter Berg… without Emmett, I don’t know if they would have done what they did. I mean, it wouldn’t have diminished them. But I think they would have been more traditional actors, even though they were doing progressive kind of stuff, it would have still remained in that realm, rather than going out into the streets the way it did, with Emmett’s ideas.
Sometimes when I talk about Emmett, people say, Don’t you ever say anything bad about him? Wasn’t there something that happened to you that wasn’t because of him? I just have to say, I don’t think so. While we were together, it wasn’t very long, but it was life-changing. Like for me to be an attorney right now, to stand up in front of people, to defend the rights of all these people who need defending, desperately, I don’t know if I ever would have considered something like that back then, because I was so insecure. And shy.
So you were this 19-year-old young woman from back east who was getting toured around…
“Toured around” is a good way to put it. Being introduced to life in its most pristine element. Because it was all about…Art. Visual art, the art of words, the art of performance, the art of thinking. Everything was put on a higher level. It was so intriguing. I just became fascinated and enamored by these people who could think the way they did, and have such a selfless attitude. That whole concept of autonomy — Emmett’s description of autonomy was standing on a street corner waiting for no one, which is actually a quote from Gregory Corso. Actually it might have been Antonin Artaud. Hearing that was a life-changing statement for me. Everything that they did was life-changing for me. I grew up in Michigan, which is very isolated, it’s surrounded by lakes. No one from the outside world goes to Michigan unless they’re going there to hunt or fish. There’s nice people there, there’s good people there, but of course it’s not cosmopolitan. And so when I met all these young people in San Francisco that were thinking about things that had never occurred to me, and when they would talk about it, everything made sense to me, it was like going to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or something: you could end up as a big blueberry or really come out of it in a positive way. That’s how I felt about it.
Also, everybody was really nice. Phyllis [Willner] was my very first girlfriend. I’d never had a girlfriend before. Well I had girlfriends in high school. But I mean a real friend, not just… I don’t know what we were in high school, but it wasn’t friends.
And I loved the poets. And that was one of Emmett’s things, that he loved the poets.
Did you go to poetry readings, or hang out with them in their kitchens, or…?
Both, both. Because one thing we would do at the free stores is have poetry readings. So I’d get to do that. And then, just hanging out with them, in people’s kitchens. Gregory Corso was a person that was easy to be around. He laughed and joked and wrote poetry and had these really wild girlfriends, that were sort of stereotypes of some kind, sort of Italian bombshell types. But I didn’t know him that well, I never hung out with him and his friends other than when I was with Emmett. Or with Lenore [Kandel]. Or with Bill [Fritsch]. Lenore and Bill were living in an apartment in North Beach. In the beginning we used to go over there and visit. They’d all met through Elsa Marley, a painter who was married to Richard Marley, who was a longshoreman. Bill, Lenore’s husband, was also a longshoreman. It was through the Marleys that Peter and Emmett and Peter met Bill and Lenore. And because Lenore was a poet, she knew all those poets, all the old Beat guys.
So we spent a lot of time with her and Bill, just being exposed to people who thought in very high-minded ways. Literally. And figuratively.
The free store was a scene.
It was at one of the free stores, I think it was on Sanford Street, that I met Owsley Stanley. It was a cold, windy, stormy night. We were having a poetry reading and showing avant garde-type films. I was sitting by Emmett, and this guy comes up and taps him on the shoulder, very mysteriously, and says ‘Come out with me.’ So Emmett grabbed me too, we went out and there was this big van. We went into the back of it with this guy, and it was lined with all kinds of shoeboxes. The guy opens one up and it is filled to the top with something he called White Lightning, thousands of hits of LSD, little round white pills. I learned then that the man was a chemist named Owsley and that the white lightning was his primo stuff. He gave the shoebox to us, free. So we took that and went back to Emmett’s place, divided it up into little baggies. The next day we gave a full baggie to the street people we knew with instructions that it could not be sold, and that it was to be given away. I heard stories that they would just go down the street see somebody they knew and say, “Hey open your mouth and stick out your tongue.” The city was dosed.
That was the one time I met Owsley. He was real quiet, real dark, an egghead chemist. Oh, the days. I’m glad the statute of limitations has run out!
How important was LSD for yourself, and the others?
I would say very important.
You hadn’t had any in Michigan?
No, are you kidding? I hadn’t had alcohol in Michigan. When I was at Antioch, that’s when I had LSD. And the first time I had marijuana, I was on my very first work-study job away from Antioch. I was in New Hampshire, at the winter school camp I described before. One of the other people who was there from another school that was similar to Antioch, called Beloit, received a little box with marijuana in it. I didn’t even hardly know what marijuana was at that time. Of course I thought, you know, that it was the devil or whatever. But I tried smoking some, while I was knitting a sweater. When I smoked it, I said, I don’t feel anything, what’s the big deal. And then the next morning when I looked at my knitting it was filled with holes and missed stitches. [laughs] But then, all he had was that little bit, so that was the end of it.
The first time I had ever heard about LSD was at Antioch when Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzner came to our campus. They had a slideshow, and they presented it in an auditorium along with a lecture about their experimentations with the drug. The slide show was to give us an idea of the different kinds of visionary changes you might see when you are hallucinating. But at that time I still hadn’t even tried marijuana. My boyfriend at Antioch and his family had spent a year in India, and he had come back with some hashish. So he turned me onto hash. I was with him when I took acid for the first time. We had a lovely day walking around the beautiful Antioch Campus. And then, when it got dark, we went to the movies in town and saw the Beatles’ Help and A Hard Day’s Night. So it was a good trip.
It was just so much a part of everything going on. I never have a bad trip. I thought that it was a very enlightening drug — the things I would think about on LSD changed my life.
Here’s one thing. When I was six years old, on Halloween, my little costume caught on fire. I was burned very severely. I was in the hospital from Halloween til Christmas. Back in those days, the anesthesia they gave you was ether. A terrible drug. Terrible. And they gave me morphine for the severe pain. They didn’t have the other drugs that they have now. So here I am, a six-year-old kid, and I come out of the hospital three months later addicted to morphine, with ether nightmares. I suffered ether nightmares almost all of my life, well into my 30s.
When I became a young adult and I started using drugs… Well, the LSD kind of counteracted the effects of the ether in some ways—instead of having these horrible, horrible frightening things happen, it was more natural and pleasant. I always think that the early experience in my life affected my whole attitude towards drugs and everything. I practice Buddhism now. One of the reasons I practice Buddhism is because it reflects some of the things I learned when I was on LSD. That concept that everything starts with an idea. If you can conceive of it, you can make it happen. That’s a very Buddhist concept, and I use it as my guide during my life. As an added benefit when I started my Buddhist practice I literally faced up to the ether nightmares and chased them away.
So you never went back to Antioch, you stayed in San Francisco…
I had come out to San Francisco for a three-month or six-month stay, depending on how it went. But I got to where I was like, I’m learning more here than I ever would in a classroom, so why would I want to go back to campus in Ohio when I have this great opportunity.
The Diggers were really active.
I liked the idea that we were providing basic necessities for people: a safe haven to sleep in, clothing at the free store, and free food in the park. Sometimes I think the Diggers invented crash pads. There was the whole issue of the press, Life Magazine and other media sources really pushing the idea that San Francisco was some sort of haven for runaways — “Free Love!,” etc — so hundreds of young kids were coming out, with no directions, thinking ,Oh it’s sunny California and everyone is kind and friendly. But it can be freezing in San Francisco, and there were lots of predators lurking in the shadows.
Now, from the very beginning, many of the merchants on Haight Street were contributing money to the Diggers. The money was used to rent the Free Store, and we also rented apartments, and basically threw away the key. And the word got out on the street, if you need a place to be safe, you can go here. I went to one once with Emmett, but I wouldn’t have wanted to stay there. I thought it was scary. But it was better than being out on the street.
The free food evolved. At one point they stopped saying ‘bring your own bowl,’ because they felt that that in effect made it not free food if you had to bring something in order to get something. So they took that requirement away. And later it went from being just big drums of soup in the park to actually having pickup trucks FILLED with produce, and just going down the street, and calling out, Free produce, free produce. People would come out to the truck and pick out what they wanted and take it home.
The person who I always think of with that is Vinnie Rinaldi. He came into the scene from Willard Street. Vicki Pollack, Kathy Nolan, Roselee, they all lived at Willard Street. And Vinnie lived there with a pickup truck. So he would drive us, mostly it was the women who went to the farmer’s market to get the free produce. He’d drive us there, we’d fill his truck with all kinds of fruit, vegetables, and even chicken, and then he would drive it very slowly through the area of the Haight-Ashbury. Anybody who wanted to come out and get some free food could come get it. It didn’t have to be Diggers. It wasn’t just hippies.
One time when I was working in the Free Store, a bunch of curious little neighborhood kids came in. I told them it was a free store. They went around the store asking, Is this free? What about this? This? This? This? And I answered, Yes, yes, and yes. You can take anything you want. They left with everything they could carry. I was working there a few days later and the same boys came in again, this time with a shopping cart filled with stuff. They told me, Our mothers sent us to bring this to you. I thought, That must have blown their minds. Here they’ve got all this stuff. And their mothers have actually participated. Diggers in training.
There apparently was some relationship between some of the Diggers and the Black Panthers…
I remember that the Diggers wanted to have a good relationship with the Black Panthers, but I don’t think that happened. I think the needs of black people were more dire than what the Diggers had to offer them.
The Diggers published a pamphlet called “Nows Real.” Emmett asked me to do a collage. He said, ‘You have to make a page to represent the Black Panthers,’ which I did. I have a copy of the ordinal pamphlet.
[Points at Diggers sheets] A lot of this stuff is written by Emmett.. He never signed anything. He did all the early writing on his little portable typewriter, in his apartment on Fillmore Street. I look at this stuff, and think, Oh yeah, that’s Emmett’s typewriter. Emmett would do real interesting things like that: move the type around…
“Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Can we say definitively that the Diggers coined that phrase?
No, I don’t think so. But I do remember it was from Emmett that I first heard it, and saw it written. It may be that it came out of the Diggers. It may be that Emmett invented it.
The “Natural Suzanne” nickname: what was that about?
That happened when we went to New Mexico and we stayed with this Pueblo Indian and his wife. I picked up on things easily they started calling me Natural Suzanne because I could do anything, whatever. I learned fast so I could repeat whatever I was being taught. That’s how that name came about.
Claude Hayward and Helene were in New Mexico at some point. Do you remember them?
Claude and Helene, I remember them very well. When my babies were about two years old, their father and I split up. He bought me a truck so that I could move away from him and leave Treat Street. My brother Dick Carlton and his wife Pat, along with our good friend Susan Keese drove us to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Helene lived in a seven-room adobe house. It wasn’t like we were super friends or anything, but she welcomed us in and taught me how to garden organically (of course in those days we never heard of organic anything). Claude lived on another side of the mountain but Helene’s children Claine and Haude lived with us in the 7 Room House. That garden was really incredible. She was out there. And from what I hear, she still is.
What about Chester Anderson?
I have a picture of Chester in my mind, but I don’t think I could do a good job of describing him. It would be a very general description. My recollection is all that stuff they had had been stolen. I remember going to their house—they all lived together—and going there for the purpose of getting something or other published. I never hung out with them.
Do you remember anything about the Invisible Circus?
You can’t really forget it. It was a lot of people. They’d opened up the entire church to us. I remember in the planning stage when we went to the Church and met with the second guy in command, not Cecil [Williams], but whoever was his second guy. We were in his office and he showed us his dildo collection. This was this Church guy. He was part of the Church. He had an office, windows, a desk, a door that closed. I don’t know why this happened. He showed us all these dildos. I’d never heard of a dildo, I didn’t even know what it was. So he pulls out, the only one I remember, if you looked at it, it looked like a nun, and if you turned it on the other side, it looked like a penis. [laughs] That was pretty shocking. I was a very naïve person. We went to a free dinner run by the church. After standing in line for our food I remember saying to Emmett, I’ve never seen women that big before. He’s like, Those are men! I said, What? They’ve got high heels on! It was really different. Those people that ran that church definitely were on the edge.
Everybody at the Invisible Circus was kind of insane. People were dressed up in costumes. So many things going on. You know, the Human Be-In, that was pretty much a single stage. The pure Digger stuff was: there is no beginning and no end. You couldn’t pin anything down, say this is where it’s happening, because when you’re saying that, it was happening over there…
One of the things I remember that I can testify to: They had these totally political type men dressed in suits and ties. They had been invited to participate in a panel on obscenity. While they were talking at a table Peter Berg was running the discussion. Behind them was a book case with open shelving. And during the serious discussion was Kent with his penis wagging. You couldn’t see Kent and the men didn’t have any clue that was happening. That was really disturbing but funny. I saw the whole thing. I can bear witness to it. Emmett filled a room with a whole bunch of plastic. It was maybe waist deep, just piles of shreds of plastic. A precursor to a game for children, for example a pool filled with colored plastic balls. I remember Phyllis dancing on the altar, where the priest usually stands to give a sermon. The Communications Company was set up right there on the scene. Then they had that room where the brides would go to get changed, I think they had that as like a honeymoon suite or something.
I thought the Invisible Circus was pretty chaotic. There were other events that maybe didn’t have that much impact that were more fun. I remember going to San Quentin [State Prison] with the Grateful Dead. They were going to play a free concert, but then the warden wouldn’t let them in, so they set it up on a nearby bluff so that the sound would travel into the prison yard.
You were at the Alan Burke TV show…
That was so insane. I was supposed to be “Emma Grogan.” See, they wanted Emmett to come on their show. And he said, Okay, if you fly Peter Berg out here. So they flew Peter out. Peter was at the show. But Emmett didn’t want to go, so he talked me into going.
Why didn’t Emmett want to go?
He was very serious about not wanting to be identified as a leader. He was really into anonymity. The only picture that had been published of him at that point was in Ramparts magazine, and it was a little tiny picture, his face was in shadow, and he was wearing a cap and a plaid shirt. So I wore the cap and the plaid shirt. But I didn’t have the skills… I was like, Oh my gosh, what am I doing, how am I supposed to act. Phyllis was there. [Realist editor] Paul Krassner had brought this suitcase filled with melted pies. I gotta admit, I feel bad that I smashed a pie on some poor innocent woman’s face. It was fun when they were dragging me out. I had a guard on each arm, and they were dragging me out of the studio. But I don’t have that good of a memory of it— that one I’ve sort of blanked out. You don’t always want to remember everything.
You went to L.A. with Emmett and Coyote when they were hustling for money…
I went with them but I was never part of the hustling thing. They would go do that on their own. But I did get to spend time in L.A. and hang out with movie stars and producers and all those super fancy people.
Why were these people willing to meet with the Diggers?
I think because it was something revolutionary, and new, and hadn’t happened before, and the people involved with it were all really interesting people.
Diggers weren’t normal activists: they were poets, actors, etc.
Right. That was what it made it so different, because it was street art and street theater.
People were fascinated by you guys.
There was a nun who just loved the Diggers. She would go on the back of Hells Angels motorcycles and take rides. The nun was amazing. She loved us too. Life with the Diggers was really something. God, I was lucky. People who weren’t there, there’s no way to understand it.
Talk about the Hells Angels.
Oh, that was fun. They were always part of the thing. I never knew any of them until I actually lived at a house for a while, the same time Vicki did. Billy and Joanie Batman lived upstairs. It was Pete Knell’s house. He was the San Francisco king of the Hells Angels. To me the San Francisco Hells Angels were kind of like hippie Hells Angels. They weren’t like the Oakland people. I mean, I know, they beat each other up and did all this really mean stuff, but they also had this other side to them. They loved hanging out with us. There was a lot of guys in their 20s and 30s and there were also people in their 40s and older. But it seemed like the San Francisco Hells Angels tended to be pretty young. And we were all sort of wild, you know? They weren’t that much wilder than we were. Well, they were. Much, much wilder.
Were you at Altamont?
No. I know exactly where I was during Altamont. Coyote had a ranch in Olema and I was doing dishes and I had the radio on. That’s where I was when everything blew up.
I don’t really think of Altamont as a “Digger” thing. This is what I remember: The Diggers thought that what the people were doing was dangerous, and that it wasn’t being thought through carefully enough. I remember that at first they were involved in it and then they didn’t want to be involved in it anymore. I do recall very vaguely that it was Emmett, or Peter, or one of them that actually got the Hells Angels to be the bodyguards there, and obviously that was not too good of a plan. It was too big, and too out of control. I wasn’t at Woodstock, but Woodstock was smaller, and had water. And shade. And careful planning.
Did you know Richard Brautigan well?
Brautigan and Emmett were good friends. So, we would go to his house and he would come to our place. One cute thing I remember about Richard. He’d moved into a new apartment, and he had an open house. He had painted goldfish all around the inside the toilet bowl.
He was very intense and very crazy. Meth, speed — whatever they called it. Speed. He told me once, he said, ‘I have tunnels that have been burned through my brain.’ Now [we know] that literally is true. He knew, even though nobody had shown that yet, he knew that. He was very crazy. Very brilliant but the speed took over his life.
I’d met him but I never really knew him. I know he and Lenore were really good friends. Pretty much everybody that I knew was whoever Emmett was friends with. He and Lew Welch weren’t close.
What happened with you and Emmett?
Why did we break up? It was a lot of things. One was he really got involved in heavy drugs. Heroin. He wasn’t him anymore. He’d just be this person who was… the spark of whatever wasn’t there. Sometimes I think, Couldn’t I have been more compassionate? Couldn’t I have been more forgiving? Couldn’t I have been more understanding? But, if I could’ve, I would’ve, and I didn’t, so…
I didn’t have whatever kind of strength it took to stand by him and watch him… It was too much. It was sad. I’m so sorry about what happened to him. He never really wanted to live long. And I’d seen that with people, people who say Oh I don’t want to live past 30—they usually don’t live much past 30. And he was convinced he was going to die early, and sure enough… I think that was just part of who he was. That he saw himself as a bright flash, and then… Well, he spent those later years writing. He was always a writer. That’s what he loved to do, was write. And so that was good, he had a chance to do that.
One fall we went to New York City. Brooklyn was his hometown. To his mother’s dismay I stayed with him there until we actually moved into the city. I met his mother and father and his dear sister, Ellen. His mother prepared a Thanksgiving dinner for his entire family and I was included, so I met all his relatives including his cousin, a Catholic priest. His mom cried the whole time, which made me feel pretty bad, but I could understand her position. When he brought me home he introduced me to his mother as his “Indian Princess.” She wasn’t quite ready for her son hooking up with an Indian, even though it wasn’t really true. She tried very hard to be kind to me, and shared stories about how Emmett always acted the tough guy and got himself into trouble. In one story he ended up in the hospital in pretty bad condition. She said she sat at the foot of his bed, washing his feet, which I assumed was an analogy to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. She was afraid he was going to die.
What did you think of Ringolevio?
I was sad that my grandfather chose to read it—I think it was a contributing factor to his disinheriting me. What’s interesting about Ringolevio is that I am probably the only person who met the real-life person who became the Emmett character in the book. A lot of those stories that Emmett tells were not his story but this other guy’s story. Emmett might have fantasized about murder in the romantic sense of it, but no, I’m sorry, I’m very certain he never did that. Similarly, being a really high class thief of the cat burglar variety. That was his same outrageous friend. Emmett was a good storyteller. He had kissed the blarney stone long before he was even born. And he had such an interesting way of presenting things that… He could tell any story he wanted, and it’s like, maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, but it’s just for the story and the story is everything.
Heroin is such a deadening drug. Although I tried it, and I’ve got to say, when I used it, I felt comfortable, for the first time ever. And then I thought, why is that? And I think it’s from when I was the six-year-old burn survivor, hooked on morphine. And I went through all those years without it and then when I did take an opiate again, I was in a comfort zone that I hadn’t been in for 20 years, or however long. But what I saw with Emmett? It really ruined his life. And ultimately killed him…
Right now, I work with all kinds of drug addicts and I don’t know anybody who has one crumb of imagination. For five years, I’ve been doing two different drug courts, and it’s a bunch of people who are just, I can’t figure them out. I have one client who’s a really good artist — but he’s the only one. Then, I look back on us: yeah, we were all taking drugs, but we were so creative, we were thinking and acting and doing things. Nowadays the people are just dumb. When they say ‘dope,’ that describes my clients. They’re just idiots. On the other hand, who am I to call them dumb? Many of them are kind and big-hearted people who have no idea how to live a life of freedom. But for a stroke of luck, I could have been lost myself.
I went through this stage, a kind of autism kind of thing, if that’s the right word, I’m not sure. I couldn’t talk. People would talk to me, everything was going on in my brain, but I couldn’t connect between my brain and my mouth to say anything. I was living at Pete Knell’s house at that time. They were very protective of me. Nothing bad ever happened. I remember Peter Berg coming up to me and being like, Well how have you been? And in my brain I was going just like, How have I been? All of this stuff. How am I going to… And then finally he just said, Ah forget you, and walked away. And then my friend Susan Keyes, she also was an artist and a writer and a poet, I remember telling her, I don’t know what to say when people talk to me. She said, Well, just say ‘wow.’ So I learned how to say, ‘wow,’ in a thousand different ways. It was life-saving. I just needed one word to say aloud.
One thing I learned from all that is that I can survive. Another thing I learned is, if there’s something in life that you want, you can make it happen. I decided I wanted to be an attorney. I remember when I decided I wanted to be an attorney. I was living in San Francisco. Bryden Bullington was living with my friend Joan Batman and all of Joanie’s kids after Billy died. They were living in a house on Coso Avenue and I was over visiting. They were telling me about this situation where Bryden had been out on the street selling bunk or something to try to get money for his heroin habit. The police tried to bust him and he ran. They chased him. He ran home and the cops ran in after him. Joanie told me they pushed her against the wall, they picked up her baby and threw him against the wall, they terrified the children and then chased Bryden out the back door. It was so dramatic.
That’s when I decided I wanted to be an attorney. At that point I hadn’t even finished college. But I did I earned my cum laude degree from San Francisco State (with the help of my incredible children) and went on to get my law degree from UC Berkeley despite all odds. I had no one to pay for my education, because I’d burned out my family. But I knew I could do it. You have to focus on it, you have to really want it, and be willing to do whatever you need to get to it, but you can do anything.
Why didn’t the Diggers last?
Why doesn’t a comet stay in the air forever? It was a moment. It was like lighting a match. It was really special. I don’t know.
Was the deluge of kids coming in the summer of ‘67 too much?
That’s what inspired the Diggers. It was after ’67 when it burned out.
You know, it was all street theater. You put on a play, and when it’s on the street, you can’t put on the same play on every night, it’s always got to be a little different.
You’d burn out eventually.
Things changed. The house that I lived in when my kids were born was sort of infamous among us. It was a really fun place to be. It was wonderful. But at some point I left and Vicki was still there, and Vicki would tell me stories of what happened later that were just nightmares. These crazy drug people [moved in], there was no brilliance to them. There was no dream. They were just riding on the tail of it, but not really…revolutionaries. And I think that’s what happened to the Diggers, it just got mundaned out of reality. It couldn’t survive because it no longer had that spark of light to keep it going.
To me, the Diggers were a phenomenon. I don’t know that there’s been anything like them in history — yes, history repeats itself, so there probably was somebody at some time, I’m just not aware of it — a situation where you have a group of people whose goal is to help other people, to bring them not just the basic necessities you need to survive but the things that you need for your imagination, your brain, your growth on other levels. It was like an opium dream or something.
I just think I was so fortunate to be where I was, when I was. Because who knows when something like that will happen again.
1. Siena: After searching for 54 years I finally located my birth father’s children through DNA testing in 2018. He lived to be 93 years old, so I only narrowly missed him. As a side note I think Emmett could have met my father when Emmett had a guest role on a TV show called To Tell the Truth. My father, Leonard Firestone, was the producer of that show.
2. Siena: I have since heard that it was Chester Anderson who wrote the poem so my memory is faulty or the new information is wrong.
3. Sienna: Joan was with me when my twins were born. My son nearly died due to callousness of the obstetrician and without Joan’s intervention my son would not have survived. I was with her when her son Digger was born. We are still wonderful friends.)
The Diggers were meant to be loose, free and vaguely anonymous — or pseudonymous — but perhaps inevitably, some people’s names got out. Usually they were the ones who spoke to a reporter.
And there were a lot of reporters in the Haight-Ashbury during the Diggers’ heyday of 1966-8. Such was the Diggers’ presence and notoriety that seemingly every reporter filing a story on the Haight — even, memorably, a typically dyspeptic Joan Didion, for the Saturday Evening Post—included the Diggers in their account.
“A band of hippie do-gooders,” said Time magazine. “A true peace corps,” wrote local daily newspaper columnist (and future Rolling Stone editor) Ralph J. Gleason. “A cross between the Mad Bomber and Johnny Appleseed,” said future Yippie Paul Krassner in The Realist, “a combination of Lenny Bruce and Malcolm X, the illegitimate offspring resulting from the seduction of Mary Worth by an acidic anarchist.” Didion wrote, “In the official District mythology, [the Diggers] are supposed to be a group of anonymous good guys with no thought in their collective head but to lend a helping hand.”
Who were these guys? Actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual names associated with the Diggers (and their later incarnation, sometimes called the Free Family collective), as they wrote books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio (1972) is the most notorious. But there were many others who remained anonymous while participating in the various wildly audacious Digger initiatives of the time. (A vast archive about the Diggers is maintained by Eric Noble at diggers.org)
One of them is a man named Chuck Gould. Prior to interviewing Chuck in 2010 at his home in Petrolia, California, I didn’t know much about him, other than his name was the photographer credit for the bulk of the rather striking black-and-white photographs featured in Coyote’s memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall (1998). In conversation I found Chuck’s avuncular outspokenness, street lawyerly bluntness, and Buddhist bottom-lineness to be as striking, refreshing and vivid as his photographic portraiture. No mythologizing here; just facts, laughs and tough reckonings.
The following text is for the most part how the conversation flowed that morning; it has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. There are, inevitably, a few digressions. As usual, my advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, there’s a good chance you’ll like the next part.
This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Chuck in the last few weeks. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.
This is the second in a series of interviews with Diggers that I am presenting online for the first time. The first was with Phyllis Willner. More to come.
If you would like to support my work, please donate via PayPal. All donations, regardless of size, are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
Jay Babcock: So both you and Phyllis Willner spent time at Millbrook in 1966 prior to arriving, independently of each other, later that year in San Francisco and getting involved with the Diggers. How did you get to Millbrook?
Chuck Gould: I got to Millbrook through a loose extended family called the Group Image. The Group Image was a multimedia light show/rock n roll/kookarooka thing. We had a loft on Second Avenue and Fifth Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There was a big neon purple sign that flashed “Show Biz” on and off onto the street, and it was where we kept instruments, equipment, art materials and stuff like that, and where people crashed. Freeman [House] was publishing a magazine called InnerSpace with Martin Carey, who was doing a lot of the artwork for it. It was a small world even in those days, even in New York. So Freeman and I met each other. He would come to the loft to get out of the cold and write.
I went with the Group Image to Millbrook because [Timothy] Leary was doing a movie—I don’t know what the movie was about but it was all kinda crap. A bullshit “advent garde” movie. And Leary was bullshit also, I might add. Trust me, I lived with him long enough to know that he was. He was basically an opportunist. He had no real social conscience or progressive political position or any of that stuff. He was simply in it for the fame. And the women. Regrettably he drank a lot and it was rumored that he couldn’t get it up. Alcohol: not good.
So, we went up there to do this movie. ’65-6. A lot of people were up there. A lot of people would come up there—Michael Bowen (from whom I first heard the term “far-out”) from San Francisco, poets would come up there, Indian gurus would be up there, weirdos and whackjobs and all these pretentious self-styled hipsters. This was the Hitchcock estate. Peggy Hitchcock was a very wealthy woman, or her family was wealthy. That’s where I met Phyllis. I remember her sitting in a wheelchair; her face painted black and white and looking “witchy.” She left after the filming and party was over and I stayed because I had gotten involved with Leary’s secretary, who was 10 years older than me. She was very lovely. After that time in Millbrook I came to California.
Where did you grow up?
On Long Island, outside of New York, and I went to college in Boston. My father and mother were first-generation Americans. He was an importer of fine arts and antiques, and also sold a line of silver-plated ware. My mother was an educated housewife. Four children. We lived in Brooklyn initially and then in Great Neck. I’m the second oldest. Jewish, very Reform. I went to Boston University and was Pre-Med. I have a bachelor’s in Zoology, which means nothing in the bigger view of things except now when I castrate my bull calves I know how to clamp off the bleeders.
When I was in school in Boston I started taking acid, smoking pot, going to socialist meetings and the bottom kind of dropped out. I had always considered myself as politically left, enjoyed jazz, read Marx and poetry and so I began to trade one delusion for another, which we all do. I came to San Francisco by way of Aspen, Colorado where I’d had some history ski bumming, earlier. I arrived around Thanksgiving of 1966. I never looked back. I knew I was home and intuitively “recognized” everyone on the street. Home.
What were you doing with Group Image in New York?
Well, I wasn’t a musician, but I worked a lot doing the light shows while others designed posters and played rock concerts. There was lots of groups like this around.
I remember there was the Seattle Lightworks, they used to travel around and do light shows, and they would come and stay with us. The Grateful Dead would come to New York and play in an abandoned bandshell in Tompkins Square. Richie Havens would open and then the Dead would play. The Grateful Dead would come up to our loft to hang out. I remember Bobby Weir wearing eagle feathers in his hair. I was knocked out by them. Ed Sanders had his Peace Eye Bookstore right there. There was all kinds of alternative stuff going on right there in that neighborhood. The Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg, all those guys were around. I just recently saw Ed Sanders up in Millbrook, with Martin and Susan [Carey], who are good friends. It was all very crazy because Martin and Susan were good friends of Freeman’s. I didn’t know that. I met Freeman and I met Martin and Susan independently, and then Freeman came to San Francisco — was brought to San Francisco, supposedly. There were some rather pompous people around the Diggers in those days who thought that they were really doing earth-shattering things. Anyway, I said to him, “Hey man, we know each other” [from New York]. Of course he remembered and we became good friends.
How did you get to San Francisco?
Well, I had heard about what was going on in California. If you were at all attuned to what was going on in the alternative universe, so to speak, then you knew that San Francisco was one of the epicenters. I went around Thanksgiving of 1966, and lived briefly in an apartment somewhere in the Haight-Ashbury with some people I knew from Colorado.
One day, I’m walking down the street in the Haight-Ashbury and here comes Phyllis Willner, wiggling up the street. Wow, blah blah blah. She said, “Come on I’ll take you someplace,” and we went to one of the communal houses that the Diggers were doing and I got immediately involved in what was happening. It seemed to me that the things that the Diggers were attempting and the predicates that were behind these activities were something that I related to, and were very far-out and seemed to make a lot of sense. And: it was all great, great, great fun. And of course you’re dropping through the rabbit hole at that point in time—you have to understand, this was, for me anyway (I can’t speak for anybody else), in those days the rush of freedom—being out of school, being in your twenties, at the peak of your game physically and all that stuff, taking heavy-duty psychedelic drugs that were opening up this vast cavern, this abyss, of extraordinary insights and imagination, this was all happening at the same time. TOTALLY free. Invincible! No more school or parents. No societal restraints. Gone, that was all gone. I could do whatever I wanted. Endless mananas. In your twenties, you have endless mananas. Tomorrow is tomorrow is tomorrow. And so I got involved with what was going on with the Diggers, although no one wanted to be pigeonholed or characterized in any way.
The only communal house I ever lived in, other than Forest Knolls [in the ’70s], was Willard Street. I lived in my own places. I always managed to find a way to live, or had a girlfriend that I lived with, or lived on the street, or slept in the park. I really didn’t care. As it was, I never had a permanent room at Willard Street. I lived in the coal bin in the basement, where we did Free News. I lived in that coal bin with Ron Thelin on and off.
There are other connections going back to New York. Martin Carey, this guy that I told you about, was Abbie [Hoffman]’s very, very best friend. They grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts together. There’s this famous picture of Freeman marrying Abbie and Anita, and I think Marty is sitting somewhere in the back of that Times photograph in Central Park. It was during this period of time that I met Freeman and all this stuff was going on in New York’s Lower East Side or the so-called “West Village.” We would hang out at Abbie’s St. Mark’s Street pad. It was a psychedelic circus of lefties, street people, artists etc. Martin Carey did some amazing artwork for Digger publications. When Abbie was on the lam [1974-80], after the cocaine bust and all that shit, which, I’d lost track of all these people, I knew Jerry Rubin in New York in the early 1980’s when he’d turned into a faux businessman and was doing his networking thing, I used to go to his parties and stuff like that, but… Marty would go and meet Abbie in airports and bus stations, he’d put on a crazy hat and a beard with a nose, just ridiculous, and he’d go and they’d pass each other in the room and he’d hand him an envelope and then keep going. It was money so Abbie could keep running. They wouldn’t stop and talk. It was hard for them. They loved each other a lot.
So, late 1966, you fell in with the Diggers. Who were you impressed by?
Well, I was of course impressed by Bill Fritsch [aka Sweet William or Tumbleweed]. I’d never met anybody like him before. Emmett [Grogan] was an enigma who would disappear a lot. Peter Berg and Peter Cohon [aka Coyote] and some others seemed to be from another planet. And being around rock musicians, poets, Black Panthers [see video clip below] and Hell’s Angels was damn exciting and turned my head around to a different way of seeing reality.
Above: A clip from the documentary feature film Revolution, directed by Jack O’Connell, shot in 1967. In this scene, shot inside the Black People’s Free Store at 1099 McAllister Street in the Fillmore district, an unidentified speaker (possibly Roy Ballard), talks about what a Digger is, what the free store means for the black community and what’s going on in the Haight-Ashbury. The gentleman’s monologue begins around 6:08 and lasts for 95 seconds. Disregard what follows his speech.
Who was Bill Fritsch before the Angels?
He was William Fritsch, a Jewish former New York longshoreman long before the Diggers and Angels. He was Lenore [Kandel]’s boyfriend. He was a well-known member of the bohemian/beat/art community in North Beach, a lot of which centered around the the Committee theater group, Caffe Trieste and places like that. And Ferlinghetti’s bookstore. All that group from the ‘50s that he and Lenore had run with. He and Lenore had moved into Gregory Corso’s apartment on Chestnut Street. Gregory lived there with Belle and Belle’s daughter Sasha. They there together for a number of years and so when Gregory moved on, Bill and Lenore moved into that apartment. They lived there, and that was a center of activity. People got their ears pierced, got high, shit like that.
Bill was quite a fascination to a lot of us. Here was a man who was incredibly charismatic and handsome, vital, virile guy with this amazing poet wife. They actually were married, and remained married until she died. They just never got divorced, for whatever reason. Medical insurance? Who knows what they were doing. They were estranged at the end. Sad.
So I was very impressed with Bill, because he was so different. Drove a motorcycle. Shot dope. What did I know about this kind of stuff?
Who else impressed me? None of them ‘impressed’ me really, to speak of.
Okay: impressed, enamored, whatever… Who were the people who were doing Diggers stuff that made you want to get involved with them?
That’s just what kind of happened. You fell into it. You’re living in a house and people say tomorrow we’re gonna go to the produce market [to procure ingredients for the daily Free Food event in the Park] and blahblahblah. I said, I’m coming with you. That kind of thing started to happen. Food preparation. Street theater. Those kinds of activities. Other events. This is a long time ago, I mean… Peter [Coyote], who’s still a good friend of mine, wrote a book about the time, and the first thing I said to him upon reading it was, How do you remember this stuff? Come on man. Get serious. Everybody was stoned all of the time anyway. I can’t even remember all this shit. He says Oh, I kept a journal. [laughs] To which I said, Oh. Okay. Cuz there’s all this contention about Peter’s book as to what was true and what wasn’t true; memory is a funny thing.
What about Emmett Grogan? Were you impressed by him?
Emmett was an impressive guy. Emmett was an enigma, Emmett was elusive, Emmett kind of ran in a number of different circles. It was very clear that Emmett was very committed to Emmett, and that what Emmett was doing was very, very interesting and important and vital, but that he always appeared, in my opinion, to have a hidden agenda. And part of Emmett’s agenda was, in my opinion, hyping up the notoriety that came as a result of just being Emmett Grogan and having been in the Artist Liberation Front Council or whatever it was that people were involved in, in the early days in the Haight and the advent of the radical new progressive politics of “Free.” I leave the precise articulations of this “New think” to those of us who are more versed than I am.
Yeah, this kind of stuff. Emmett was someone who, early on, had gotten into hard drugs and that kind of made for a bit of a separation between him and other people. Emmett was very secretive. He didn’t like to be photographed. He even told me not to take photos of him and I didn’t. Emmett was paranoid. He was sure, and he may well have been right, that he was on somebody’s enemies list—you know, using the old Nixon term, “enemies list.” He was very charismatic and he was a lot of fun to be around, when he was fun to be around. I mean, I remember going with Phyllis… Emmett had broken his arm, I don’t know when this was. He had broken his arm and Phyllis and I were taking him to the hospital. Must have been to S.F. General, because where else would hippies go but to General. Emmett checks in, they want to know his name. No one had ID in those days—if you did, it was phony ID, completely made up. So he says his name is Roger Payne. Because he has a broken arm. He spells it out P-A-Y-N-E. They put us in an examination room, the nurse goes out, and he immediately starts to rifle the drawers. He’s looking for needles and the syringes, which he finds and he puts in his pocket. And as he puts them in his pocket, the nurse comes back in the room and he turns around and you hear this rustling. She pats his pocket, she says What’s that? And he says, Potato chips! And the three of us run out of the room in different directions and disappear into the night. This was life with Emmett.
It was that kind of thing. It was crazy. I remember once being with Emmett and Ron Thelin. Ron had a white Chevy panel truck, closed panel truck. What we were doing, why I was there, I have no idea. We drive it along and we pull up to a light and there in front of us is a butcher truck, stopped, the doors are open, the guy is hauling a quarter of a cow into the butcher shop and the back of the truck is open and hanging with meat. Immediately Emmett sees the opportunity to steal meat. We pull over, and he says to me, Go get some meat. Me, right? I run over to the truck, I jump into the truck, I unhook—it’s hanging on a hook—a thing of meat, run back and throw it in the back of the panel truck just as this guy comes out of the shop he was delivering to. He yells, “Hey,” we slam the doors and we drive away and we take the meat to Paula’s house. Paula McCoy, where he was living. Well, he may have been living with her—I never knew what the nature of their relationship was… Emmett was into star stuff. He liked that whole hippie royalty notoriety—this is my take on him now; again, this is strictly my perception, who knows what was going on?—but he liked that stuff. He liked going to Hollywood, he liked hanging out with Dennis Hopper, that kind of crap.
Well, he was hustling for money for the Diggers, right?
Whatever he was hustling—he was hustling. You got a sense it was contrived. Hidden agendas. Okay, so he then proceeded to butcher this meat right in Paula’s kitchen. Now, I also remember that around time, a kind of poignant but predictive thing happened. There was a family meeting at Pierce Street, which was one of the houses we had—David [Simpson] and Jane [Lapiner] were living there in the attic, I think Freeman was living there too. The Pierce Street house had been where a seder had taken place that turned into kind of a debauchery scene like most of these things did. The meeting was about what to do next. Bear in mind, the whole “Digger thing” was maybe two years. What happened after that, the so-called “Free Family” and all that other stuff leading up to us sitting here that went on afterwards, also incorporated all of the nuances of Digger craziness and the paradigms of Free and all of that stuff, but it wasn’t being done by an organization that characterized itself loosely being the Diggers… The “Who’s in charge? You’re in charge” period, that was kind of over.
And part of the reason it was over is that by 1968, people were moving, families were coalescing, people were hooking up with women, children were starting to being born, things were changing. The Haight-Ashbury were filling up with people who had no ethical or spiritual or philosophical or intellectual goal or direction whatsoever. They were there because they had heard some music that appealed to them, they’d smoked a joint and decided to drop out and come to the Haight-Ashbury. And it turned into something that… Well. I never considered myself to be a “hippie.” I don’t think any of us did. The whole concept was kind of weird. “Hippie”: What is that? We were there because we wanted to kick off a revolution. That is what I wanted to do. I had come from a very bourgeois middle class background. I had seen a lot of things, I had kind of dropped the stuff away, and now a lot of things that I had thought about when I was younger coalesced into more cogent ideas that now had some semblance of a new radical political-economic-social paradigm.
So what we were doing really appealed to me, you know? In those days going to construction sites with Kent Minault and stealing construction material was perfectly okay. Today, I say to myself, Well it’s stealing. You can call it whatever you want. You can call it redistribution of wealth, you can give it all kinds of fancy names, but hey, guess what? You’re stealing. This all came back to haunt us [in the ’70s] when our children started shoplifting. You get a phone call, your five-year-old little girl has been shoplifting, she’s been caught. Then we’d go, Oh my god, of course she’s shoplifting. She learned this from us. So, when children get born, things change. Your perceptions of everything shifts toward the center a bit. But I digress.
So, there was this meeting that took place. This would’ve been maybe 1968. I remember Bill was there. I remember that because I asked him to take me someplace on his bike afterwards and he did. Scared the shit out of me. Emmett was there. Emmett had started not to be around a lot, by now. He would go to New York, he would go to London, he was deeply into a heroin habit I think by then. He had a bike and he’d become very elusive, paranoid. He was living I believe with Joanie and Billy, the Batpeople, on Roosevelt Street, in the top apartment of the building that Pete Knell had rented. Pete was the president of the Angels in San Francisco. [Freewheelin] Frank Reynolds lived there also. I have photographs of him in that apartment, of Frank in that apartment. In that house, whatever it was. It’s all gone now. Upscale housing. Highest and best use they call it.
Emmett had made a suggestion. The meeting was about “what’s next…?” The suggestion that Emmett made, and there was this rivalry, I’m probably gonna get in trouble for saying this, but so what, there was a rivalry between Peter Berg and Emmett. That’s the fact. People can say I’m crazy, I don’t care what they say, I’m telling you there was a rivalry between them. It was a power thing. Who’s the smartest, the fastest, who can come up with the most out-there, relevant ideas. It wasn’t just about hanging out… we had a mission. A passion. Every piece of “Free News” that got published had a very specific message, you know, as to what it meant, and what it was supposed to be, and what its intended message was. Obviously it wasn’t news about what the mayor had done that morning. It was about doing your “own thing.” So, Emmett’s idea for the next shot was to do a free butcher shop. I don’t know what he was really thinking about, but this apparently was just an extension of the free store/free free free mentality. And I remember that this was knocked down at this meeting, and it seemed in my mind to create some bad feeling. That now it was not a “do your own thing” thing, it was people kind of lining up in different camps and there being people who wanted the appearance of being leaders and people who weren’t interested in being overtly leaders. To a large degree I think that was, in my mind, the last formal Digger function that took place, that meeting. Now, whatever we continued to do… the “liberation” of City Hall, etc. — that all seemed, to me, to have a different flavor or feel. But I remember that being the sense a lot of us had. Death of Hippie. Death of Digger.
I always perceived a bit of an egotistical power struggle that went on between some of these guys. It was irrelevant to me. It was something that I didn’t want to know anything about. It wasn’t nice, as far as I was concerned. After all, It was antithetical to what we were supposed to be doing. To who we were. And things like that come up all of the time. That stuff just comes up in people. Human nature?
The other people I remember from that time… Kent [Minault] was so much fun to run and do shit with, it was just always hysterical to be with Kent. Vinnie [Rinaldi] was another friend whose lifestyle and often inverted thinking influenced me greatly. Brooks [Butcher] was a sad case. I didn’t know him that well, but he was a sad case. Obviously, I was close friends with Freeman and David and Jane and the Bergs and all of these people. We were all around and we lived with each other, on top of each other, whatever. And Phyllis, Julie [Boone] and Natural Suzanne [aka Siena Riffia]—she was no longer with Emmett by now, that was over, and lots of other people. Our extended family eventually began to morph into almost a biological family.
What about Bill Murcott?
Oh yeah. I loved Billy Murcott. Still do. He left San Francisco and went back east. I think I got to know him better years later. He was really the main architect of the politics of “Free” I think. Mostly in retrospect. His social, economic and political insights were profound and right on. Why he left and went back to New York is still not clear to me but I think it had something to do with his sense that things were swinging away from the early vision. Maybe. Just my take. Ya gotta ask him. Not that he’ll talk about it a lot.
Siena [aka Natural Suzanne] says Emmett worshipped Billy.
Yes. They were friends from New York, and I don’t know if they came out together and all that stuff, because remember, I arrived let’s say end of ’66/beginning of ’67, this was rolling by then. So I walked into the middle of something that was already happening. I don’t know about Phyllis’s connection to those guys from before, I have no idea. I know she was in some way connected to Nina, or maybe to Julie? Julie Boone.. Julie was really central to all this. She was a very close friend of Nina and Phyllis’s. And my lady friend. I adored her but didn’t treat her right. Too much male macho stuff. One of my regrets.
Who were Bill and Ann Lindyn?
Bill and Ann were Mime Troupe folks who developed a medieval style or Dell’arte, Punch and Judy show. They created a moveable theater, the Free City Puppets, and would pop up around town and preform puppet shows, the content of which embodied progressive and Digger thinking. And it was hilarious. The kids really loved it and got what they were getting at. Destiny [Gould] and I lived with them off and on and played in the shows with them. I remember being cast as the puppet called “The Judge.” A hated character whose only lines were: “guilty, guilty, guilty. Death!” Then the audience would boo me and throw shit at me. I was so happy!
I didn’t like Brautigan. I never considered him to be a hippie or anything. I thought he was a bad poet. That’s all I know about Richard Brautigan. I didn’t care for his style. I thought it was bullshit with the hats and scarves. I thought he was something of a weird guy and using us.
What can I tell you about Kirby? I guess I really met Kirby through the poets, or through Billy Batman, who was a painter, not a poet. Again, Batman is one of the guys who go back to this scene in North Beach in the late ‘50s. I met Kirby in the City, he was very much into amphetamines. He was kind of a wild flamboyant guy. He eventually ended up living in Forest Knolls with his girlfriend and they had a child together whose name was California. Kirby died in Yerba Buena hospital, I went up to see him right before he died. Kirby was a wild guy. An out-of-control kind of guy. He was not involved, per se, in any of what was going on. He did some things that were published in the Digger Papers. Kirby was influential in the way that all the poets were, as Gregory was, and Lenore, and Lew Welch, but then Lew disappeared. Suicide. Gary [Snyder] was in and out. And Diane di Prima of course. We spent a lot of time at her house. I remember being at her house on Oak Street, right on top of the Panhandle. She, and Alan Marlowe, There was a whole poetry scene there, and we would go there and eat. And take acid on the full moon. We’d eat anywhere we could.
I think that Kirby’s and the poets’ influence or role was one of idea incubation. Oh, they would come to City Hall steps and read poetry. But you wouldn’t catch them going out on food runs. Or doing any of those other things—these shots, these bits. They weren’t really involved in stuff like that. Lenore was, in the beginning. But then Lenore kind of withdrew. When Bill got involved with the [Hell’s Angels] club, Lenore withdrew to a large degree from a lot of these activities, although their house on Chestnut Street was still a center—but only while Bill was prospecting the club. Then they kind of disappeared from the scene, which was really sad—a lot of people felt badly about that, that we’d lost Bill to the Angels. We saw that was not gonna be such a good thing for him. Which it was not.
How much of a connection is there between Altamont, the Hell’s Angels and the Diggers?
I don’t think there was any direct connection between Altamont and the Diggers. I know Emmett was there… but Altamont was something that unfortunately, I think, was a turning point historically, at least in terms of the American public’s perception of what was going on with the alternative community—that it was violent, drug-ridden, all of that stuff. I did not go to Altamont. I remember being in an apartment, it may have been the Bergs’ apartment, the morning that it went down and hearing about these things. I don’t know if Emmett and those guys were there, maybe they were. I know Billy [Fritsch] was there, because he was in the club by then. You see him in the films of that so called concert.
Anyway, Altamont was nothing that would have had any direct relationship to what we were doing. I mean, theoretically, and at its most pristine incarnation, the Digger vision, if you could even characterize it as such a thing, was really an attempt to evolve alternative social, political and economic paradigms. Which ultimately led to a sense that we were anarchists because there wasn’t any extant system that we could relate to. Ultimately that level of anarchy really puts you in free-fall in many ways, including emotionally. It leads to no good. You can understand the connection. It’s like too much of a good thing. Like drugs or sex.
You think it was bound to fail because of that?
No, I never said it was bound to fail, and I don’t think it was intended to succeed, or not succeed. It wasn’t that kind of thing. It was meant to be kind of an ‘Invisible Circus’ kind of thing.
Did you attend that?
Yes. I remember mostly that there were a lot of bizarre and grotesque and wonderful things going on—people having sex in the church, all this other stuff, a lot of crazy shit was going on. You know, you go there, you take acid, you drink wine, you smoke weed, the music, the lights… Who can remember this stuff, right? Who can remember?
Anyway. I don’t want to sound like I’m slandering anybody. The truth is, people talk a lot about all these things that were done, like the food trip or free stores but the real work or “do” of it got done by people other than the people who may have come up with the ideas. Kinda weird but it reflected a growing hierarchy which again was antithetical to so-called fundamental Digger thinking. You know: Who is in charge? You. No one.
Did you know Chester Anderson?
Didn’t know him that well, didn’t know the Communication Company that well. Knew Claude [Haywood] and H’lane, but not well either. They were not directly involved with us. They didn’t live with us. Chester was an inspiration for me. His early writing was kinda profound.
How important was LSD?
In my opinion, it was huge. It was almost everything. There’s a lot of people who denied it for a long time because to acknowledge it would be kind of demeaning. But for me, myself? Those experiences were the experiences that broke the old mold, destroyed old conditions and then there was just a universe of endless possibilities. And in that context, one was able to see what was missing, what was beautiful, what wasn’t beautiful, and begin to, in this totally new world, where anything goes, one was able to begin to develop reasonable new paradigms.
The other stimulant, in addition to acid and other drugs and our social experiments was the configuration of the universe at the moment in time, which included not just the configuration of the stars, but also the war, and the Kennedy assassinations that had been taking place. And all of the stuff going on. The nascent woman’s movement. The gay liberation. The African-American unrest that was beginning to be really well articulated with all the people that were involved in that movement. All of those things going on—and the one magic ingredient: YOUTH. Youth was huge. This is the kind of thing that never would have happened in a population of 50-year-olds. This had to happen with people under 30. I mean, there was the classic slogan: Never trust anybody over 30. Who said that? Abbie Hoffman? [It was actually a student activist named Jack Weinberg.] Then he turned 30. [laughs] Now what are you gonna do?
Youth, alternative lifestyle and drugs were gigantic. It’s not the only thing that mattered—obviously we were surrounded by fantastically talented artists and poets and musicians. I just think that there are times when there is a confluence of events and social and celestial influences that lead to these extraordinary changes, and this was one of them. To many people, the changes that took place, they’re not even aware of them. I mean, for me, these changes [definitely] took place, right? For my parents, the changes didn’t take place. But I maintain that if one looks around our world today, you will see everywhere the influence of those times. You will see those ideas being articulated and made manifest all around us, be it the women’s movement or progressive black politics or even environmental issues, which certainly sprung out of back-to-the-landers.
Back-to-the-lander came about as a result, in my opinion, of psychedelic drugs, which made it almost impossible to live in the cities. I used to say that a time came when the dogshit started to glow on the street for me. The moment I said, Oh the dogshits are glowing, it was time to get out of the city. I used that as my own personal thing. And we left the city. Peter Coyote had moved to Olema to recover from hepatitis. He was staying there with two Grateful Dead groupies whose name were Spider and Slade, and they had rented this dump ranch at this beautiful place in Olema. West Marin. Kind of close to Bolinas, Point Reyes Station, Marin, the San Geronimo Valley. It’s all right in that same part of the world. He and I lived there, and then the groupies left, and he stayed, and a lot of people coalesced there. A lot of people coalesced around Ron Thelin’s house, which was in Forest Knolls, which is where you will find Marsha Thelin and her family to this day. Going to visit her is a sure enough time machine.
So yes, LSD was very important, youth was hugely important, this particular moment in time was important—of course everything is always predicated on those kinds of things, I believe.
The Digger thing was kind of unique in that we didn’t consider ourselves to be “hippies,” at all. In fact, it was, to me, an affront. We considered ourselves to be social, political and economic anarchists. We could see that we were “leaders,” if you will, by example. Because there wasn’t anybody who said, “This is what we do today.” It was just leading by example in the community. A lot of the things that we tried to instill in other people never happened. A huge but informative disappointment. It was a very short-lived run — a couple of extraordinary years. I mean, it wasn’t officially anything. You know all the clichés: people coming into free stores and saying, Who’s in charge, and being told they were, and people stealing stuff in free stores. But if you looked closely you could see the seeds of change like diamonds in the sand.
The Diggers had friends in the Grateful Dead. What do you remember about that connection?
I went to New York on a couple different drug deals to raise money for what we were doing. I took the draft text of the Diggers Papers to the Realist office, and had been given by [Grateful Dead co-manager] Danny Rifkin a shoebox full of STP, whatever that was, to sell in New York, where I had some contacts. You want the details? I haven’t got any details for you. I remember going to the Realist office, I remember having the STP, I know it came from Danny, through the Dead. Danny was one of the few in the Dead family that we had anything really tight with. Jerry [Garcia] was a good guy. Pigpen was a good guy. The rest of them were into show business, money and all that. Well, that’s what I saw. But I was a snob of sorts, I guess. Too judgmental.
The Grateful Dead lived across the street from one of the houses we lived in, from Paula McCoy on Ashbury Street. Paula had been married to a guy whose name was Don McCoy who had actually brought a guru over from India, and he was living in Olompali.
Danny had rented the house across the street, and needed roommates. The roommates showed up in the form of the Warlocks. And they moved in. That’s how I met them. I don’t know what Danny’s connection [to the Diggers] would have been prior to that. Maybe through Artists Liberation, I don’t know. That’s kind of how I met Danny: on the street, playing softball. Some people that lived on the street didn’t like this, but we played anyway. I remember that house. That house had the original gas jets still in the wall. Without the globes on the things, still in the wall. So that’s how we met Danny: getting high on the stoops. In those years in our community everyone knew everyone.
The Dead was one of the bands that we could count on to be supportive of our activities and come and play for us if necessary. The Jefferson Airplane? Not a fuckin’ prayer. Those people were living on the other side of the park. I can show you the house they lived in, with long columns on it. They were living in a different world. And there were some bands that would play with us and some that wouldn’t. Janis [Joplin] was very much a player until she got to be really a superstar. Albert Grossman and people like that hung around at Paula McCoy’s house; those guys were always around because of the rock scene.
The rock scene I think was very appealing to people like Emmett and so forth because there was a lot of money and flash and notoriety and that kind of stuff.
I barely knew him. I had taken plenty of his product, but I didn’t really personally know him. I knew who he was, in the way I knew Allen Cohen from the Oracle and guys like that. People were just around. It was a relatively small community… until 1968 or so when suddenly there were tour buses on the street, and it got weird, you know? It became, What’s going on here? Because remember, what you see on Haight Street today is bizarre. None of this was here. None of it. That was a bank. This was a delicatessen, this was a shoe store. It was a neighborhood. That’s what it was. It was a western extension of the Fillmore. That’s what it was. That’s what the Haight-Ashbury really is. There was no such place. The term ‘Haight-Ashbury,’ like the term ‘hippie,’ was coined by [San Francisco columnist] Herb Caen. He actually made those terms up….
It was very transformative times. I can only speak for myself and for the people I was close to. We were transformed. Peter [Berg] and Judy [Goldhaft] said to me a couple months ago, we were having dinner, and they said something about, ‘the Diggers ruined us.’ And I knew exactly what they meant. They meant, it’s a slippery slope. Our lives and thinking were changed forever.
Look, I went on, because I had to raise my daughter, I went on and I got a job, working for a guy who was drilling gas wells in West Virginia. Now, I’m in the oil business, he’s paying me $3 an hour. I’m raising a child as a single parent. Well then, my life went on from there. But certain things don’t change. Your perceptions become transformed and altered. Things changed forever. You can’t go back. There’s no going back. The forms may change, if you know what I mean by ‘the forms.’ My form is very different from David [Simpson] and Jane [Lapiner]’s forms. But David is one of my closest friends in the world. And yet our forms are completely different. But the substrate of our thought processes are “Digger times”-inspired.
But it is this underlying perception of “how things are”—”paradigm” is the right word, that’s what it means—that was to a very large degree shaped by our experiences on the street. The way in which these things happened. I maintain that we became who we were not just because of the moment in time, although I think that’s always true, but because of drugs and our youth and because of our shared experiences. [When] you go to the San Francisco produce market to get food to give away, right, and you meet the working guys on the dock there, and you SEE what kind of good guys they really are, and then you see the kind of SURPLUS there is in America, and how cavalierly it’s treated…. This kind of thing. Then you also see the fact that the people that you’re trying to help, not just by giving them a meal, but also by transmitting this wisdom, and they just don’t get it. Or they don’t want to get it. This changes who you are. All these things lead you to a common experience with other people similarly situated and it become almost a cult. There are things known just to us [Diggers], by virtue of our shared experiences. ‘Cult’ is too strong a word, but you understand what I mean. You become a very, very tight, extended family. It becomes almost genetic. Our kids get it. Born that way. Go figure.
Emmett didn’t stay in the family. He had to deal with the post-Diggers fallout/comedown all on his own. He was obviously in pain. There’s an interview in the early ’70s where he says, ‘We showed them how to do it and they didn’t want it. So fuck them.’
This was painful. Cleaning up after a big event in the park, filling bags full of garbage because the people who came to the event didn’t bother to pick up their own cigarette shit? What is this? Don’t you guys get it?!? Hello? They didn’t get it. A lot of them didn’t get it. Many people did. But a lot didn’t. The appearance was, a lot didn’t get it. So I mean I shared Emmett’s feeling of angst and disappointment about these things. But it did help clarify, inform and ultimately substantiate our Diggerly instincts. But it hurt.
Emmett was a very complicated person. He was a strange guy. After Siena, I don’t remember Emmett being in a relationship with a woman per se. Not that I was aware of. Well, Paula I think. Emmett never lived with us. He always had his own place. Junkies are tricky people to love.
Everybody felt a certain amount of pathos about him because he kind of got away from us. Whether he got away because of something we did, or he got away because he’d lost faith in what was happening, or he got away because he got too deep into drugs, or whatever it was, we kinda lost him the way we lost Billy Fritsch. I personally felt badly. I missed having Fritsch around. It was exciting being around the Angels up until a point in time when it kind of turned on us. And that really was an event, a very specific event where the Angels had made a conscious decision that this was it. In Olema. Like love between a way young girl and an older guy: it has to end at some point. That was the end of the relationship.
That was sort of the terrible bookend to the beautiful beginning, to that Diggers-led march to the police station to free…
Chocolate George. Exactly. The Angels liked us. The Black Panthers liked us. Kathleen Cleaver once fed me lunch with somebody else because we were involved in the Black Man’s Free Store, which was being put together. Those people liked us. I enjoyed being around Black Panthers, to the degree that we were; much less so around them than we were around Angels. I liked being around the Angels, it was dangerous, exciting. Who am I? Middle-class Jewish kid from Great Neck, hanging around with these guys?!? Killers. Criminals. But they were wonderful. We loved them. Admired them. These guys, you know they would have machine guns and Nazi flags on their walls as art. [laughs] I have pictures of that stuff, I can show you pictures of the insides of Pete Knell’s apartment. I learned about respect, loyalty and bravery from them.
I had to be careful of what I photographed. Like I knew Emmett didn’t want to be photographed. He didn’t want it. So I didn’t take pictures of him. You had to ask first. Respect.
How do you square that with, as you put it, his quest for notoriety?
Whether he really was paranoid or whether it was true, he had this thing that we were all on FBI lists and so forth. We were a danger to the establishment. I’ll tell you a story. I was living in Aspen, Colorado, where David and Jane and everybody used to come and live with us—outside of Aspen, Colorado in a place called Conundrum Creek, WAY in left field, man. Fucking way deep left field. One day there’s a knock on the door. Out there nobody knocks on your door unless it’s a squirrel. It’s not a neighborhood. And there’s two guys outside, wearing suits. They introduce themselves and flash their IDs, we’re the FBI, would I mind looking at some photographs and tell them if I recognized anybody. I said certainly. I knew immediately who they were looking for. I go through the pictures, I go right past Anna’s photograph, keep on going. She had been a Weatherperson, and had been implicated in the bombing of some bank in San Francisco. And I went right past her picture and said, Nope, don’t recognize anybody! Well thank you very much, they said They were doing their job, they checked it off, now they were going to lunch. Bureaucrats, that’s who they really are. That’s the FBI—people think they’re cops? They’re really bureaucrats. But dangerous depending on where you stand. Emmett liked the idea of being an outlaw. It appealed to his sense of theater and to his ego. He was a conflicted guy.
This harassment and surveillance was constantly going on. There would be cars that would slide around in front of the houses we were living in, with two guys in the front, and a little antenna on the back. Who do you think they were?
There was all this paranoia about subversives in America and all this stuff. These were strange times. It was hard to live in those times, and believe in anything except ourselves because our culture obviously was a sham. Right? We had learned that from our own activities, and from drugs, and from other things. Our political systems, even the radical political systems that many people had espoused—the Marxists, the Trotskyites, all the other fancy guys who were out there—that was all proven to be mostly untenable nonsense.
It was a paranoid time. Y’know? Our heroes being killed. The Kennedy brothers: heroes, killed. Martin Luther King: hero, killed. All these guys. What the fuck is going on here? When they killed Martin Luther King, I then became sure that there was CLEARLY a conspiracy and to this day I think there was, to kill these people. I don’t doubt it for a fucking minute. I don’t doubt it for a minute and I think it was an inside conspiracy or ruling class struggle that did involve Hoover, and all of those stories that have come up again and again, I believe they’re true.
Anyway, be that as it may, our family was a mechanism that helped insulate you from the outside. And as the Digger thing progressed and then went on, this Free Family notion became permanent. I mean, my best friends today are still those same people that I ran with in my twenties.The same people. David and Jane, Freeman and Peter and the Bergs and Nina and Vinnie and Kent and our children. Our children all got raised together. I always say they were “snot bonded.” It’s actually morphed into a biological family of friends, a tribe. It’s wonderful and amazing.
The Diggers weren’t conventional activists, pleading their case in protests and such.
We weren’t talking, we were doing. The Do was the thing. Life acting, Berg called it. And it was. And it changed you. Practice. Like working on music or meditation.
And when it was talk, it was beautiful talk—because it’s poets and playwrights and theater actors talking.
Yeah. Well I’ll tell you that I certainly was not one of the real talented, verbose people. But you had people like Freeman: incredibly articulate. You have Peter Berg: incredibly brilliant. David Simpson and Kent Minault, Emmett, Lenore and Claude… all these people—articulate, charismatic, perceptive people. I think that talk/think was an influence on what happened. Unfortunately, we wanted to see a complete revolution, if you will, a transformation, and of course that may have just been our youthful naivete. Who knows what it was. But it was fantastic and beautiful and true and nothing was ever the same after those times.
They were wonderful, wonderful, magical times. It was incredible fun. It was incredibly empowering. I would submit to you, from my point of view again, I was really “born” during that time. I became the person to a large degree that I am now. I came out of a shell that I was in. I was raised in a very close-knit middle class American Jewish family in an affluent community. I had never been around a lot of the things… Billy Fritsch had been a longshoreman; what did I know about stuff like that?
How did your family back home understand what you were doing?
Had no clue. Had absolutely no clue. In fact by then I didn’t feel alienated from them but they weren’t really dealing with me anymore. I was supposed to have gone to medical school, blah blah blah. I’d dropped out and disappeared off the face of the earth. For me the realization of that alienation took place when I made a collect phone call home and my father refused the charges. That to me was the A-HA! moment. [laughs] Things have changed. You’ve arrived, you’re on your own now, son. Congratulations, you’ve grown up. That was a biggie. And a little scary at first. Change is scary, right.
How did you avoid the draft?
Not easily. I had a mild case of polio when I was a little boy and I’m deaf in my right ear as a result. I was called to an induction center in Denver, Colorado. I was in Aspen at that moment. They called me and I went to this awful place swarming with soon to be in body bags kids like me and I got a 1-Y deferral because of the deafness in my ear, which stood for one-year deferral, literally. And I was told that in May of the next year they were changing the rules because they needed the men and anybody who could hear in one ear would be inducted. The army guy said to me, “We’ll see you next year.” And I said to myself, You ain’t seeing me ever again, preparing to do whatever I had to do. I wasn’t going to Vietnam, that’s for sure. And, I never heard from them again. Don’t know why. Don’t care why. “Why” gets you the boobie prize; what so is what’s real.
Diggers did events but not protests, not demonstrations per se.
By 1967 or 8, I was realizing that all of these anti-war demonstrations were counterproductive because the media, and the government, would use those events to create a picture of what was going on that was not true. Sound bites. Selective editing of footage. That kind of thing. I also thought that what people were demanding were irrelevancies anyway. That a lot of it was the old stuff.
We were trying to empower people with their innate own power. Although we might not have articulated it precisely that way, but I mean, you go down the street on the back of a Hell’s Angel motorcycle, throwing dimes at people, handfuls of dimes in the air: this has an impact on people. It does, you know it does. You can get up and have a rally against money but probably everything you hear will be the wrong message. ‘Well, they’ve got too much money, we want some of their money.” This would be the message. Our message would be, We don’t want any of that shit at all. No one should have any money anyway! It’s the wrong medium of exchange. But free money? That had power. That said everything you needed to know about money in a corrupt society.
So our thing was a very different than what the mainstream lefty community was dealing with. It didn’t put us at odds with mostly everyone else. For instance. The Yippie thing that Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were doing was laughed at by the Diggers because it seemed to be so inappropriate and so silly and such a pandering to fame and the national press and so forth. And it was inherently inside the very system they were supposedly against. A contradiction. Now, there may have been some Digger ego involved—there’s always ego involved—I’ve been studying Buddhism for ten years and you just don’t get away from the ego… There may have been some ego involved. Them/Us. But we weren’t really trying to influence anybody, it wasn’t that way, although, yes, there may have been some people that were into that sort of thing. Ego.
Diggers burned money in public. That is so intense.
It was a thing. People were always burning their draft cards, burning five-dollar bills. Burning draft cards was powerful also because it was an absolute Fuck You to the authority. And this was done in public, with news cameras running, by people who could have cared less. This was ASTOUNDING to people who were not as far-out and changed as we were, as far gone as we were. To see someone having that level of audacity! The government issued you that card? How can you burn it? People would look at them like, You must be kidding.
We did lots of things like that. Playing movies on the walls of buildings in the Haight-Ashbury. Free stores. Unheard of! These were huge events. Transformative. I can tell you stories about Kent Minault and I going and stealing concrete to build a free bakery, and getting back to the Red House in Forest Knolls and discovering that in the dark we had stolen 50-pound bags of sand. Oh! Offloading the sand, and going back at dawn and stealing the concrete! Those stories we can tell you, they’re endless. But what was really going on there, you know? What was behind all this stuff? What was this “free” thing? What was this notion that everything was intrinsically free? That began to kind of have inherent problems as events progressed. When you live communally, you very quickly see those things. You get somebody who has a totally inappropriate notion with respect to ‘free’ and thinks that your kid and your wife and your truck or bed, well it’s all free. Well excuse me but that’s not exactly what we meant. And then you have these problems with people who don’t get it, or who get it imperfectly, that kind of thing. It created a subtle tension.
I now feel that the people most influenced by Diggers activities were ourselves and to a lesser degree the people that were around us. I mean, I know we influenced people who we didn’t know, but I don’t know who they were, where they went and what happened to them. It’s a pebbles thrown into a pond kinda effect.
Free food: there’s something incredibly powerful about feeding other people. Both the person feeding and the person being fed. The Giver, The Receiver and The Gift. There is this extraordinary union that takes place—especially when the food is free, and there’s no consideration being offered or asked for, or anything like that. It is simply a gratuitous feeding of one’s self, if you will, where it begins to really break down the distinction between self and other. Thou Art That. Hindu expression.
Even between family and non-family…
Right. All those distinctions start to fade away and THAT was really what we were looking for. I mean, it’s kind of a Buddhist concept: no self and other distinctions. No duality. If you wanna talk about duality, then self and other is an articulation of duality. And those things start to break down just by virtue of what you’re doing. You don’t necessarily know that it’s a Buddhist concept, or it’s called ‘duality’ or whatever it’s called, but suddenly you’re in this new world. The light is kind of pink, and the music… Something sweet happens. Its real freedom. It’s transformative, and as I find with seated meditation, sometimes you sit and meditate and nothing happens. But later, something happens, and you go, Oh I attribute that to this. This realization I’m having, or insight, I know is related to my sitting. Those kinds of things are similar to Diggerly Do’s.
I’m glad I did it. It was really the best of times. Period. The worst of times was all outside. And because, once again, it was the outside times that helped instigate, stimulate and formulate what happened. You can’t point to any one thing in my opinion and say, This is why it happened. It was all of these brilliant people. It was the influence of the artists and the poets that were so near and dear and who articulated what was going on. It was the evolution from beatniks to hippies to back-to-landers to environmentalists to who knows what happens next.
It was just us being part of the whole wave of the times, of history, of the new dialectic perhaps that leads us to the next present moment. And the next present moment. And, the next present moment after that. The Diggers were a vehicle. An ideal, if you will. No one knew where it would lead us but we were all-in and all aboard.