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

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Vicki Pollack, age 25, San Francisco, 1968.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Babcock: What is your background?

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

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High school senior Vicki Pollack, age 17, 1960.

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

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

Where did things start changing for you?

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

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

Whoa.

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

Incredible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Willard Street residents, 1968. Photo courtesy Vicki Pollack.

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

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

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

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

How about Lew Welch?

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

Was LSD a big deal for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was Emmett Grogan to you?

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

How about Billy Murcott?

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

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

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

Who were these people?

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

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

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

Did you go to Altamont?

I was at both Woodstock and at Altamont.

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

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

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

Why didn’t Pete go?

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

Bill Fritsch was there…

Yeah. And Lenore was there.

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

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

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

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

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

Did you guys talk about the Diggers much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDNOTE

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

FAST LEARNER: Siena Carlton-Firestone (aka Natural Suzanne) testifies on her San Francisco Diggers days

Siena Riffia aka
Siena circa 1968, photo courtesy Chuck Gould

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!

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Siena, in a still from the 1968 Diggers film Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

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.

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Emmett Grogan, in a still from the 1968 Diggers film Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

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.

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Emmett Grogan, sometime in the late ’60s or very early ’70s, source unknown.

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.

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Judy Goldhaft and Peter Berg in another still from the 1968 Diggers film Nowsreal, courtesy diggers.org

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.

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L-R: Unknown, the enigmatic Billy Murcott, unknown, Emmett Grogan. Sometime in the mid-’70s. Source unknown.

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.

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Flyer for January 12, 1967 poets benefit for the Diggers.

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!

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Hanging out at one of the Diggers’ free stores in the Haight. Photo courtesy Chuck Gould.

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.

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Siena, 1967. Photo courtesy Chuck Gould

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.

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Digger free food distribution. Photo courtesy Chuck Gould

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.

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Vinnie Rinaldi. Photo courtesy Chuck Gould

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…

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An anonymous Diggers broadside, probably written by Emmett Grogan.

“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…

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“Invisible Circus” event poster by Victor Moscoso

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“Invisible Circus” event poster via Communication Company.

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.

SanQuentin
Colors, people, acid: Diggers broadside publicizing the Feb. 15, 1968 event at San Quentin State Prison.

I went to another event with the Diggers and the Cleveland Wrecking Company at the prison for the criminally insane in Atascadero. The warden did let us in for that one. We set up tie-dyed tents, we brought in food, showed the Nowsreal film and danced with the prisoners to the live music.

ClevelandWreckCo
Digger Rose Lee Patron with the inmates at the Atascadero Hospital for the criminally insane. Onstage, the Cleveland Wrecking Company. The Wrecking Company’s bassist was Joe Moscoso, younger brother of Victor. Photo via Roaratorio

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Siena at Atascadero. Photo by Leonard Miller, as published in Ringolevio.

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.

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX A503

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.

Kirby Doyle?
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.

Lew Welch?
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.

treatstreetEdit
From left to right: Siena with her twins Taj Jr. and Gahmela, 
Carl (father of Julie’s baby Justin), Julie Boone, Justin, Phyllis Willner, Peter Coyote. “It was 1970, the year Justin and my twins were born. We’re sitting in front of Sweet Treat Street where the Elite Meet. Title courtesy of Nicole Wills.” Photo probably by Vicki Pollack.

ENDNOTES

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.NothingEverHappens

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.)

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone familiar with the ’60s Counter-culture knows the key role* the Diggers played in its birth and adolescence; the general outline of their influential group praxis; and may even be able to recall a name or three associated with them: actor Peter Coyote and the late Emmett Grogan are the usual ones that come up, as they’ve written books chronicling their participation in that era; Grogan’s Ringolevio is the most notorious. Although Phyllis Willner’s name and image exist in contemporaneous news accounts and later histories of the era (see especially The Summer of Love, by Gene Anthony), she is one of many essential Diggers whose story — and unique, fascinating perspective and insights — has never been told at length, or in any detail, in public.

With that in mind, it gives me a great deal of pleasure to share this conversation I had with Phyllis at her home in Arcata, California in 2010. There has been some editing for clarity, but for the most part this is how the conversation went over three hours; it has not been edited down for a general audience, and many incidents and personages are spoken of without context, or only in passing. My advice to the casual-but-curious reader is to simply let these unfamiliar/unexplained bits pass. Keep reading, you’ll like the next part.

This presentation has been prepared in extensive consultation with Phyllis. Any errors of transcript are mine, and notice of any corrections of fact would be greatly appreciated.

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

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

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

 * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

screen shot 2019-01-25 at 12.14.33 pm
Front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 18, 1966.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You were living in one of the group apartments…

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

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

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

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Phyllis. Photo courtesy Kent Minault.

The cooking: was it hard work?

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

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

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

Kent Minault was involved in that —

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

The “Excess Express.”

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

Did you feed people in the Park?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you know Kirby Doyle well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, that really happened.

So you did end up having your own adventures.

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

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

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

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

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

How important was LSD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell me about Lenore Kandel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill joined the Angels. Why?

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

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

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

You guys didn’t have jobs…

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

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

What do you remember about the Invisible Circus event?

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

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

Why do you think the Church agreed to do this?

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

Yes. He writes about it in his autobiography

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

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

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

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

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

And there was a gigantic youth bubble.

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

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

Did you know Richard Brautigan well?

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

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

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

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

Did you know Chester Anderson at all?

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

Apparently he was gay…

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

Gregory Corso: was he involved in Diggers stuff much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you remember about that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You fit the profile of a professional drug smuggler.

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

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

You got the worst deal of any Digger.

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

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

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

Were you at Altamont?

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s when I met Emmett.

He was there!?!

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

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

That’s what I remember about Altamont.

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

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

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

Emmett took it hard.

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

How well did you know the Grateful Dead guys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When and why did the Diggers end?

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

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

Did you feel an increased police presence in the Haight?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you remember about Freewheelin Frank Reynolds?

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

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

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

The other Angels. Chocolate George, Harry…

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

Gut: wasn’t he involved with Blue Cheer?

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

You kept up with Lenore.

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

I think she was 78.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was very different.