FREE-FALL CHRONICLES by Peter Coyote
Free Frame of Reference
My first move out of the Haight was to the intersection of Pine Street and Divisadero,
a few miles from the chaos of Haight Street. My flat there was a rail-road flat, a series
of rooms strung on a long hallway in an old Victorian-era building. Karl Rosenberg and I
moved there after we were evicted from Mrs. Beltramo's for allowing the tiny kitchen to be
used as a galley for Digger meals; just before I left for my last tour with the Troupe. I
recently met a woman who was to figure prominently in my life, and she had must moved in
to share the flat with me.
Eileen Ewing was the firstborn of a wealthy Louisiana doctor who had wanted a son and
consequently nicknamed his daughter, Sam. She had, by her family's estimation, made a mess
of her life - had quit college to run off with the "wrong crowd" of artists,
freaks and hippies, and, from their point-of-view, been lost to the dark side. She was
extremely tall and willowy, proud of her stunning figure and possessing the kind of
Scandinavian coloring and chiseled features that cover fashion magazines. From the day
that she accompanied a girl-friend I was seeing, into the Mime Troupe office, exploring
her personal geography became a compelling concern. I knew nothing about her except that
we were attracted to one another. She couldn't spell consequences and I couldn't have
cared less about them.
Sam's personality contained the contradictions of great assurance and boldness
cohabiting with confusion and crippling self-doubt, like a massive bronze constructed
around a flawed armature. The day that she moved in, she borrowed eighty dollars "to
pay some bills", and had I been less blinded by lust, I might have observed that she
tended to leave trails behind her. Over the years, she has moved more precipitously and
often than anyone I have ever known, abandoning homes, property and plans in what appears
to be impulses of the moment, as if her psyche were only one step ahead of an angry,
vengeful, ghost. She was a willful, impulsive, passionate girl, who at times appeared to
be a prisoner of her own roiling sexuality. The sparks between us eventually produced an
adored daughter , much psychic turmoil and years of estrangement. She attached herself to
me with an ardor that was frightening and sometimes suffocating. My callowness in the
relationship was exacerbated by the libidinous opportunities of "free love" and
magnified by my being an actor. I couldn't have remained faithful to Sam if she had nailed
my dick to the bed, and my countless infidelities and her fulminations and imaginative
revenges produced predictable fissures in our relationship. Just how deeply those faults
had riven the bed-rock of her personality, I discovered, writing this book, twenty years
after the events in question had transpired. During our interview, she became berserk with
rage, spewing vitriolic accusations and fulminating about ancient memories like a person
possessed by a demon. I had the lucky intuition to sit silently and let them wash over me
like a caustic bath without trying to defend myself. When she was done, I apologized,
sincerely shocked at the extent of the pain and torment I had caused. I reminded her that
she had always been a special person to me; honored as the mother of our beloved daughter,
and that I had been a young and unconscious fool whose intentions had never been
malicious. Something passed away from her face in that instant, like the shadow of a cloud
racing over a hill. I saw lightness and youth return to her spirit in the moment. The
reversal was stunning, and chastening and made me sad to consider what a fearsome price
she had payed for something as evanescent as love. Since that time, however, we have
re-cemented our friendship again, and been easy in one another's company.
When I returned from the final tour and left the Troupe, the character of our apartment
changed markedly because Claude Hayward, his woman, Helene, and the Communication Company
arrived. Claude was the thin ferret- faced guy with an easy laugh and furtive manner who
affected the black hat and large black overcoat at the Glide Church event; working in some
capacity for Ramparts magazine. His wife, Helene, was 120 pounds of condensed,
olive-skinned hostility, topped by a an unmanaged thicket of black hair which made her
appear as if she had just participated in a classroom experiment in static electricity.
She disguised her abundant anger behind honeyed bonhomie and an engaging smile, but she
could have swindled a Gypsy, and when she visited, personal possessions disappeared as if
they were rubbed out by cinematic special effects.
An anarchist by temperament and also a skilled thief, Claude had come into the
possession of a Gestetner machine which cut mimeograph stencils electronically. Before the
advent of desk-top publishing, such machines allowed photographs and sophisticated
graphics to be copied onto mimeo stencils and reproduced cheaply with readily available
mimeograph machines. This technology (and these liberated machines) became the operational
technology of the Communication Company, the public information arm of the Diggers, as
well as a service offered to the larger community.
The Diggers were constantly printing broadsides, free hand-outs of 'analysis',
exhortation and provocation; the condensed result of late night jaw-boning with Berg,
myself, Sweet William, Kent, Emmett and whoever ambled in to sit around the Cribari Wine
jug of an evening. Under Claude's direction, and later as The Free City News, under the
skilled hands of Freeman House and David Simpson, these machines produced such stunning
documents that the Gestetner company, from whom the machines had been stolen, subscribed
for the free hand-outs, because they were incredulous that their machines were being used
to "paint" and wanted to understand the process..
Digger papers had several modes. They might be as simple as a photograph of a human
spine with the words INVISIBLE GOVERNMENT bracketing the photo, or cryptic and terse;
mixtures of true insight, personal credos and blather that required a certain amount of
work to decipher.
Claude's "thing"was to offer his printing services to groups with which he
was in sympathy. One day two young black men entered our pad to discuss a printing
request. The older of the two, and the obvious leader, was a sturdy, handsome man with an
open, intelligent face, and a passion commanding his speech compelling attention. His
companion could not have been more than sixteen. They were Huey Newton, Commander in Chief
,and Bobby Hutton, a foot- soldier, in the newly formed Black Panther Party. They had
decided their organization needed a newspaper, and had come to see the Diggers. (Bobby's
died at the hands of the police not long after our meeting.)
We spoke at length that day, and results of that conversation were that the first (and
I think the second) issues of the Black Panther Party newspaper was printed by The
Communications Company, at our Pine Street house.
The relationship which developed between the Diggers and the Black Panther Party was
only tangentially political. The Diggers were not serving black causes out of loyalty to
an ideological analysis. The Haight-Ashbury district bordered the Fillmore, the black
ghetto of San Francisco, and black people mingled freely in the Haight Street
counter-culture. We lived in the same place, followed our respective visions and were
allied by territory and a common love of freedom.. Because those visions were congruent in
those degrees at least, and because we both faced common enemies, we forged an alliance.
The Diggers had created a series of "free stores" with bins of
take-what-you-like goods in our various club-houses. Peter Berg refined the idea with his
Trip Without A Ticket : a free-store designed to foster reflection on the nature of the
relationships to goods and one another implied by a store. A number of us agreed to help
him and located and rented a building at the corner of Cole and Carl streets, ( the
present site of a restaurant called The Ironwood Café). We painted it white, scavenged
counters, racks and hangers and began filling the space with the available detritus of an
industrial culture: clothes, jewelry, televisions, kitchen implements, old skis and
trunks, etc. The store's existence advertised its own premise: "stuff" is easy
to acquire, why trade time in thrall for it? The machinery that makes televisions could
make a tv for every man, woman, and child on the Planet. If one did not have a tv because
you did not have the money, it was the money which was scarce; the money which had been
transformed into a valve which could be closed to insure shortage. The store was to be the
remedy where generosity and inventiveness created a parallel system which bypassed that
Not only were the goods in the store free, but so were the roles. A customer might ask
to see the manager and be told that they were the manager. Some people froze and waffled,
unsure of how to respond. Some left, but some "got it", and accepted the
invitation to re-do the store according to their own plan, which was the point. One's life
was one's own, and if you could leap the hurdles of programmed expectations and
self-imposed limits, the future promised boundless possibilities. If one couldn't, one had
to understand it as either a natural limit, or one to be remedied. There was no one or
system to blame. The condition of freedom had been presented as an actual possibility.
There was no way to transmit this information as "a message" - the subtext of a
play or literary tract. Transmission through action, in a liberated commons is what made
the situation potent its implications radical.
One day, on my shift as "manager", I noticed an obviously poor black woman,
furtively stuffing clothing into a large paper bag. When I approached her she turned away
from the bag coolly, pretending that it wasn't hers. In a conventional store, her ruse
would have made sense because she knew she was stealing. Smiling pleasantly, I returned
the bag to her. "You can't steal here " I said.
She got indignant and said, "I wasn't stealing!"
"I know" I said amiably "But you thought you were stealing. You can't
steal here because it's a Free Store. Read the sign, everything is free! You can have the
whole fucking store if you feel like it. You can take over and tell me to get lost.
She looked at me long and hard, and I went to the rack and fingered a thick, warm,
sweater. "This?" I queried. She looked at it critically then shook her head,
"No, I don't like the color. What about that one?" We spent a good part of the
morning "shopping" together. About a week later, she returned with a tray of
donuts, "seconds" from a bakery somewhere. She strolled in casually, set them on
the counter for others to share, and went to browse the racks.
Many soldiers used the Free Store as a trampoline to bounce out of the military. The
Diggers felt that the war in Vietnam was a struggle to benefit a class of people that were
neither our allies nor our friends. Unlike many who opposed the war, we respected the boys
who went to serve and did not presume to judge their intentions or morality. We preferred
them alive and unscarred, however, and when we encountered soldiers had changed their
minds about military service, we did what we could to help.
Through the underground, we had acquired a number of draft cards blanks and the
requisite information for filling in the face of the card so that it would pass
inspection. One had to know the names of local board clerks ( A. S. Marshall for
California Board #95, I. Dali asst. for New York Board# 44); the identification numbers of
the draft boards, and what information went in which of the several boxes on the face of
the card: first box - state number; second box - local board number; third box - last two
digits of year of birth, and fourth box - number of registrants to date that year ( a
guess between 100 and 1250, taking into account date of registration.). We had inherited a
couple of liberated seals from draft offices in other States, and whispers were out on the
street, that if someone from the Armed Forces felt moved to register a personal protest
against the war by leaving the service, the Free Store was the place to come. On my watch,
at least ten or eleven fellows came in, in uniform, picked civilian clothes off the rack
and replaced them with their army-issue duds. After a few minutes of elliptical
conversations, Billy from Iowa might leave as Phil from Florida, and William from
Minneapolis as Robert from Georgia. They slipped into the maelstrom of Haight Street life
and disappeared into whatever future they imagined for themselves. What we did was very
definitely illegal, but from my perspective certainly not unethical. None of the boys we
helped lost their lives or limbs, and neither were any forced to murder or commit
atrocities and suffer the debilitating consequences.
The Free Store was only one instrumentality designed to focus on such issues. Others
were doing the same work in their own manner. One morning, Ron Thelin, founder of the
Psychedelic Shop, and Arthur Lisch, our Quaker mediator for the Glide Church event, set up
an impeccable breakfast table on the shoulder of the 101 Freeway during rush hour. Glazed
commuters on their way to work, were startled to see a table with four chairs, lovely
crystal and linen, orange juice, coffee, and a full breakfast at the side of the road. Ron
and Arthur sat there, calmly reading the papers, three feet from the flow of traffic. Two
available chairs and place settings beckoned as an invitation to anyone brave enough to
simply stop the car and reinvent their life.
Another afternoon Peter and Judy Berg organized a flat- bed truck with half-naked belly
dancers and conga drummers down the middle of Montgomery street, the City's main financial
artery. The women swayed invitingly, the music pulsed, jugs of wine and marijuana were
passed around and offered to open-mouthed bystanders. Explicit invitations were extended
for anyone who felt like "climbing on the band- wagon" and changing their lives.
Such instruments of change were not necessarily events. Sometimes they were
individuals. One day, as I was helping unload the free food in the Panhandle, a sunny
young woman with a radiant smile appeared at my side, waiting to receive a tray of food to
pass. Dressed in a yellow india-print cloth, with a round face framed by an unruly mop of
sandy hair, she radiated a captivating enthusiasm.
"Who's she?" I asked Emmett, whose response was simply a proprietary,
"Stay away from her." He had already taken her under his personal purview, or
was planning to, might want to, or might want me to think that he had. From that day on
she and I became intimate friends. Her name was Phyllis Wilner, and she was a first among
equals in the Diggers.
She had fled New York and the chaos of life with a clinically schizophrenic mother at
fourteen years old, opting for the safer unpredictability of life on the streets.
Positively fearless and eager for experience, Phyllis went anywhere, anytime, with anyone
who felt right and invariably milked the opportunity for its maximal potential of
knowledge and adventure.
Blessed with a wacky and sunny personality, the number of fortunate events which
occurred randomly to and around her, suggested that she was attended by a magical grace. I
remember her leaving the Treat Street house (a family house named after its location in
the City's Mission District) one morning, saying, "God I wish I had a bicycle."
When she returned that evening, wheeling a beautiful 10-speed through the door, she
recounted a wonderful story about being picked up hitch-hiking by a young man, (whose life
story and metaphysical beliefs she replayed in great detail), in the process of delivering
his bike to the Goodwill since he was moving out of town and could not take it with him.
Events like this occurred to Phyllis with such frequency that Diggers often channeled
wishes through her with confidence that her lucky magnetism might well materialize them.
She moved onto a mattress in the tiny back-porch of Pine Street for awhile, radiating
optimism and cheer through the house, until she moved on to another and then another
family house in nomadic fashion that never seemed to require roots. If a problem existed
somewhere in the community, such as Natural Suzanne delivering twins and having no husband
for instance, Phyllis simply moved in to care for the household until something else could
be arranged, even if that `something else' might be reckoned in years rather than months.
After many years of this peripatetic life, which included time spent with the Hell's
Angels; homesteading in the New Mexico wilderness, numerous cross-country jaunts back to
New York City, and then back to the Coast to Trinidad, California (where Freeman House was
organizing a free-fishing boat called The Bare Minimum); baking at the Free Bakery in
Oakland; gardening and looking after babies at Black-Bear Ranch in the Trinity-Siskyou
wilderness; Phyllis returned to school. She took her high-school equivalency test,
received her diploma, completed nursing school and found herself in a refugee camp in the
Himalayas aiding Tibetan refugees. She returned nearly a year later, covered with bangles
and presents for everyone, (mine were left in one of the cars she'd hitched home in). She
took a job at the Psych ward at San Francisco General, where she was often trusted with
the most intractable and hostile patients. Given her fluid sense of reality, and developed
sense of empathy, it was not surprising that she became a favorite with the patients.
Once she entered the room of a large man who had been terrorizing the floor, throwing
tantrums, destroying his room and constantly complaining about being cold. After Phyllis
made a small fire in his metal waste-basket and hunkered over it, warming her hands and
talking brightly to him, he joined her and they hunkered down together, to discuss things
over its almost invisible warmth. Having been acknowledged by someone, he was now amenable
to listen to her point of view and modified some of the more objectionable aspects of his
behavior. This was her technique with everyone.
She fell in love with and married John Chesbro, a droll, quiet man, whose mother is a
renowned biologist in Berkeley. John had a penchant for carpentry, and a demon eating the
back of his head that had once driven him to a suicide attempt and a stay in a psych ward.
Phyllis seemed able to placate it and they moved North to live near the hip- university
town of Arcata where they built a fairy-tale life in a lovely cottage in the Northwoods,
berrying, and harvesting wild clams and mussels. While John puttered about in his shop
remodeling their house, Phyllis made the family money as a physical therapist for Senior
citizens. She became a physical fitness fanatic, mountain biker, wind- surfer and ran a
local radio show.
Some years later, as their paths as a couple were diverging, John granted himself total
divorce from everything by committing suicide. Phyllis carried on the sad business of
sorting and disposing of the artifacts of their life together, and eventually found her
way to Lynn, a woman friend, an Olympic class athlete and professor at Humboldt State
College. Phyllis roomed with Lynn and entered college, where, after diagnostic testing she
discovered that she was seriously dyslexic and not stupid, as she had thought of herself
in grade school. Free life had inured her to hard work, and dyslexia was just another
obstacle to be overcome, so she worked twice as hard as anyone else and became an
honor-student and invited to join the faculty. Today, she is still "helping
out", serving on an emergency mobile crisis center, teaching, helping a sick friend,
and keeping herself healthy. She still burns like a sun and her example supports my anger
whenever I read pundits dismissing the 60's as nothing but lethargic, self- indulgent,
people responsible for all of today's societal problems.
There is, of course, a political agenda motivating such misinformation; a way of
divorcing the present from the demanding aspirations of the past, that the existence of
individuals like Phyllis condemn as the lie it is. Films like The Big Chill, which pretend
to speak for this generation, celebrate the angst of people who were basically
day-dreaming in the Sixties and have now "grown up" to the serious business of
growing wealthy and nostalgic. Such films suggest to the audience, that those are the only
choices. However, the insufferable pundits (mouthpieces for interests which fear
autonomous people and another radicalized generation) are wrong; confusing changes in
style as changes of intention. They gleefully read into short hair, shirts and ties, or
struggles with mortgages, baby-sitters and school payments, the evidence of defections
from personal principles. The people I admired then, and continue to, still work without
fanfare and fame- compromising when they have to, but forging ahead to honor their
original intentions, improvising appropriate techniques in the ever-changing environment.
In my estimation, the alternative culture won the war, but initiated its changes on
such deep cultural levels, that it has not surfaced in the media or political dialogue
very often. There is virtually no place in the United States today where one cannot find
organic food, alternative medical therapies, environmental, consumer, legal reform, and
civil rights groups struggling for progressive change. The political oligarchy struggles
to continue their chow- down at the trough, sending confusing signals and explanations to
the populace at large, who, though fooled by the details, know enough to stay away from
the electoral process in droves. Meanwhile, they look to themselves and their communities
for solutions they have long since abandoned hope of from their leaders.
The Digger Family sent spores everywhere, as people realized how caring only for
themselves was too easy to be interesting. The liberating potential of "free"
was infectious, and more people accepted the challenge of playing their lives in that
manner. The country was awash in a new sensibility. Small pockets of people existed
everywhere who were intuitively connected to that sensibility and working to express it
more fully. We were one such group, and one of our self-appointed tasks was framing large
public celebrations for the Solstices and Equinoxes which could embrace disparate,
unrelated communities into the most generous, inclusive frame of reference possible.
The genius of these parties was the assumption of a Planetary frame of reference.
People often expressed wonderment at how thousands of disparate and often antithetical
groups - Hell's Angels, Black Panthers, Gay Collectives, merchants, runaways, soldiers on
leave, flower children, deserters and civilians - interacted so peacefully. Accepting the
Planet as the most inclusive frame of reference, subliminally united rather than divided
people; gave them equal standing with one another under the Sun.
I have some evidence for that assertion, because years later, some of the management of
the Grateful Dead came to us and wanted the Diggers to formulate and throw a party for
Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. They rejected our ideas and threw their own party at a
place called Altamont. The story of that debacle is recounted in the chapter entitled,
Sweet William's Story, and I'll leave it until its proper time.
In marked contrast to Altamont however, free events in Golden Gate Park had a luminous
air about them. It was lovely to wander about and witness imagination made manifest as
people turned their minds inside out. Jungians would have a field day categorizing
archetypes, as images from all human history materialized on the green swards of Golden
Gate Park: Aborigines, Tonto, Torquemada, Shiva Holy-Men, cowboy-bikers, transvestites,
flower-children, urban junkies, stock-brokers with cautiously liberated face-paint,
dentists on dope, real-estate brokers disguised as flower- children. Music and dance wove
them all into a brocade, and the sky was a common tent for activities ranging from the
sweet to the bizarre: face-painting and clowning for the children, or, Roy Ballard and the
Black Man's Free Store, basting a white mannequin tied to a spit over a charcoal pit.
Dionysus ruled, and in the ample arena created by common permission, people flowered
and faded, partied and wept, danced, ate, tripped, hated, feared, adored and otherwise
touched the real and common content of their lives. Improvisation in the theater of the
unknown forced people to the edges of imagination and self-definition. In this
exhilarating free fall, imagination seemed like an engine of perpetual transformation. It
was not a bad dream, and like all utopian visions was rooted in high and promising
expectations of what people might accomplish working in concert.
The counter-culture was burgeoning and the Diggers were pushing the edges of its
envelope, creating alliances and recombinations and transforming ourselves at the same
time, into the larger, more enduring Free Family. One of these alliances, between the
Diggers and the Hells Angels and occurred in an improbable way.
On the day of the "Death of Hippie" celebration, as the crowd was carrying
the coffin marked "Hippie-Son of Media" and the witness/participants were
blowing penny whistles, flashing car mirrors, and passing out posters with the word NOW
(which we had distributed as part of the event), Phyllis was standing on the back of
Hell's Angel Hairy Henry's motorcycle, cruising down the white line between rows of
Traffic was stalled because no one had been forewarned about the morning's
"event". The Tactical Squad was massed on a side street looking for something to
do. Haight Precinct Captain, Kiely, and the hated Officer Kerrens, a street cop with a
corrosive personal aversion to hippies, and a penchant for brutality, were infuriated
because there was no permit for this demonstration, and also no way to disperse the
four-thousand odd people partying on the public streets, chanting, "The streets
belong to the people." Instead, they arrested Hank for riding his bike with Phyllis
standing on the back.
Unfortunately, Hank was a very tough-guy who had just finished a nine year bid at San
Quentin for armed robbery. The reason he did all nine years of his sentence was that he
refused parole and he got no good time whatsoever. Hank had, what the authorities referred
to as an attitude problem, - his attitude was adversely affected by authority.
The cop asked to see his license, and told him they would return it at the station
house. Henry told them to keep it and started to leave. The police arrested him and as
they dragged him toward the paddy-wagon, brother Angel, Chocolate George, leapt into the
fray and pulled him out again. George was a big, easy-going guy who liked to hold court on
the street in front of Tracy's Donut shop, and was well known and liked. The cops swarmed
the two of them and forced them into the paddy wagon together. Their arrest sparked a
group endeavor to free them on bail and the whole motley assembly detoured to the station
house, forming a chanting parade led by Hell's Angel Freewheeling Frank, and poet Michael
McClure playing his autoharp, demanding release of the two prisoners, while the crowd
The cops were flabbergasted when the coffin from the Death of Hippie demonstration was
passed around and rapidly filled with the bail money for the two men. When it was handed
over to Pete Knell, President of the Frisco chapter of the Hell's Angels, it was his turn
to be stunned, both by the gesture of support itself and then the alacrity with which it
had been raised .
Revolution was a hot topic. Intellectuals of all colors, the disenfranchised,
visionaries and the discontent vied with one another to claim the definition and shape of
the future. Whatever their specific agenda, common to each group was the belief that a
radical overhaul of the society was a fundamental necessity. There was much interest in
guns, target practice, revolutionary theory et al, but such theory was always hampered by
of being part of the culture one was preparing to change. The Diggers never took most
protestations of armed revolution very seriously, knowing what a franchise the majority
culture had on violence owned; having paid attention to the carnage it generated in
pursuing its National agenda in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Chile, and the Dominican
Republic. Furthermore the prospect of an event in the distant future offered an excuse for
not taking responsibility for things in the immediate present. The comforting prospect of
the pending revolution which would cure all ills became a panacea. The Digger's interest
in weapons was for utilitarian self- protection on streets which were becoming wilder and
tougher as the days passed.
Many people did take armed revolution seriously, and Tricky Dick. Nixon's memoirs
reveal just how seriously he took such people. Had his multi-billion dollar intelligence
apparatus done a better job reviewing the capacities of those threatening overthrow of the
established regime, he might have relaxed a bit. Except for the Weatherman, which for all
intents and purposes was a fringe endeavor, and some black revolutionary factions like the
National Liberation Front which captured Patty Hearst, armed revolution was really not an
option for most people. Even the Black Panthers and Malcolm X who struck fear in the
hearts of the authorities, were primarily interested in defending the rights of their
people, and receiving a just share of the wealth, legal protections and services which
their labors had produced, not the total overthrow of all established institutions.
The Hell's Angels were fundamentally working-class guys who were not going for the
okey-doke of unsubstantiated ideas; any okey-doke, which included revolutionary okey-doke
as well. The Diggers had this in common with them too, because we were not waiting for
anything to begin living the way we chose. The Angels were a hard-core, blood brother-
hood who went to great lengths to test and correct one another's weaknesses as a way of
insuring group strength. They were instructive to us in the degree to which they took care
of one another.
There was only one thing to say to the Angels, ever, and that was the unvarnished
truth. They could smell dissembling and deception a mile away and devised ingenious tests
to ferret out weaknesses. One member for instance had a penchant for gambling that he
tried to disguise from his brothers. The boys arranged for him to be surreptitiously
introduced to a friendly gambler who eventually extended him credit. When the member was
snared by debt to the gambler, the pressure was applied. The guy couldn't come to his
brothers because he had sworn to them that he had stopped gambling. When the windows of
his car were blown out by a shotgun, fear forced him to come clean. He was shocked to
discover that his secret was no secret at all, and that the encounter had been engineered
to teach him a lesson, because his brothers needed to be certain of who was guarding their
flanks when trouble arrived..
I was afraid of the Angels ( you'd have to be dishonest or nuts not to be) but not so
frightened that I could not admire the way that social games evaporated and people became
respectful and mannerly when they arrived. There was a no-nonsense clarity to both their
world-view and their problem-solving. While they may not have been consonant with my own
philosophy and methods, it was instructive to test the efficacy of mine against theirs.
The Angels had indisputable power and raised the stakes on social confrontations and
conversations in an electrifying way. They were razor sharp, from spending so much time in
milieus and situations where mistakes can be fatal. Their social radar seemed to oscillate
at a higher frequency than other people's and their perceptions were amazingly keen. I
respected this and wanted to learn from it, so I subordinated my fear to my curiosity and
put in my time with them as long as I was allowed, which turned out to be, perhaps, longer
than I should have.
The Angels I came to know well, and I can speak only for individuals, not the
organization, were fearless, rowdy, uncompromising, dangerous, conservative, more or less
racist, and sometimes uncomfortably close to extreme right- wing elements in the police
force. The Angel's Oakland chapter had been prominent in early assaults on anti-war
demonstrators, castigating them for un-American behavior, however this was before they'd
met Ken Kesey and taken Acid with his company of freaks. The Angels were a political wild
card: the underbelly of America, combining in one organization the outlaw; America's
fascination with violence and direct action; rampant individualism, and nationalism. They
referred to the San Francisco Police as a "second rate motorcycle club" and the
police, while they may have been ideologically opposed to Angels, to some degree, often
measured their manhood against them.
Whatever they were, the Angels were definitely authentic, and this was the critical
denominator on which the Diggers founded a commonality with the club. The Angels respected
our dedication to free-ness and anonymity, (as far as they accept any outsider), but what
made the critical difference in cementing a relationship was when Emmett and I showed up
to pay last respects to Chocolate George.
I don't remember how Chocolate George died, but Emmett came to me one day and said,
"We're going to pay our respects." We drove up to the funeral home and the scene
there was definitely nervous-making. The place was bristling with choppers whose chrome
gleamed like knife-blades. Hard looking men, packing the front yard of the funeral home
like an armed perimeter were pacing, smoking, and communicating distractedly with one
another. The air was thick with sullen anger and the possibility of sudden violence.
The interior of the funeral home was jammed with more of the same. Many had obviously
been dropping "belligerence", their pet name for sodium seconal, (reds) a
powerful barbiturate. As outsiders, all eyes turned to us as we entered and the room got
deathly quiet. I could feel my bowels turn to water, but Emmett and I "held our
mud", remaining expressionless, doffed our hats, and walked over to the coffin. There
was George all right, only he wasn't laughing and shouting "hello" in his
booming voice. His skin appeared pale and translucent, incongruous against his colorful
leathers and patches, stuffed into a silk and flowered crate like an oversize bracelet
from a plush store. He was not moving and neither was anyone else. We stood over him for
awhile, resisting the impulse to be rushed by the aggressive silence, then saluted George
goodbye and left at a leisurely pace, hoping no one would hear our pulses pounding so hard
I'm sure our ears were flapping in time to it. As we left, the hum of conversation started
immediately and we suspected that our presence was at the center of it.
The Angels pay their debts, and shortly thereafter they threw a party in the Panhandle
of Golden Gate Park on New Year's Day. They asked us to arrange the details, but they
footed the whole tab, including the beer, and offered the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and
Big Brother and the Holding Company as a big "thank-you" to the community. It
was the first free rock-concert in any city park anywhere put on by the people for the
people and it was a grand day.
When we were not partying, a good deal of time was spent visiting and supporting one
another at family houses: Willard St., Carl St., The Red House, Black Bear Ranch, Olema,
Salmon River, the Bakery, Trinidad House, Garberville, Arcata, Willits - as these loci of
family were referred to by their location. North-South Highway 101 resembled the thread of
a beaded necklace as it connected us to family sites along its length.
At every location people were perpetually busy repairing old trucks and locating food
and goods to sustain themselves or make deliveries to needy family members in remote
locations. Large "runs" were required to gather necessary supplies for an
isolated commune like Black Bear, to enable thirty people to survive a hard winter. Such
runs consumed weeks of time, scrounging supplies, hustling money and goods, scouring
wrecking yards for parts to get our old trucks fit for the arduous journeys.
The vehicles of choice were 1949-54 Chevy's and GMC's. Not only were they plentiful,
and the parts relatively inter- changeable, but the six-cylinder Chevy 235 engine was a
model of reliability, which could be fixed in the dark, and tuned without sophisticated
tools. Concentrating our attentions on the same type of truck allowed us to build family
reservoirs of spare parts, amplifying the possibility of keeping the trucks on the road.
Trucks heading North would often meet trucks coming South, near Hopland, Healdsburg, or
Cloverdale, pull off the road and establish an impromptu picnic. Presents and gossip were
exchanged, supplies traded, vehicles repaired or parts swapped. Kids frolicked, music
played, and camp was made and broken at the road's edge, while the straight world streamed
by, intent on being somewhere before sometime, regarding our rowdy camps with curiosity,
as we became more and more at comfortable in the timeless.
One of the fundaments of our early economy was The Free Bank Book - a thick, hand
stitched, blue Chinese notebook filled with lined pages. The Free Bank Book recorded group
finances, and personal transactions. Always an imperfect system, and always flawed by the
comic vagaries of each of our imperfectly enlightened relationships to money, the Free
Bank lasted at least three years, and served as organizing principle for numerous debates
about group economics and personal character.
Obviously a Free Bank is an imaginative fiction, so one's relationship to it was
necessarily imaginative. Consequently it was a perfect mirror of personal ethics and
attitudes toward money. Some people were meticulous, and made meticulously honest entries
like "$49.50-flour, olive oil, kids shoes, canning jars, honey" (then $9.00 for
a sixty pound tin in Weed, California), or "$2.10-fan belt." Each entry would be
signed by the person who took the money from the group cookie jar.
The meager funds were allocated at group meetings where men and women struggled
individually and collectively to win financing for competing interests. Since everyone
knew everyone else's business, it was difficult to bullshit, and decisions were made by
Roles were generally divided along traditional male- female lines with the women
looking after the food, houses and children and the men looking after the trucks and
physical plant. The roles were generally chosen according to personal predilections
however, and there were women who worked on trucks, and men who preferred the kitchens.
Everyone helped with the children, but out of necessity it was the women who organized and
maintained the free food. Feelings about inequality and injustice, loafing, slacking,
cheating, and stealing, were vocalized on the spot, and no one braved the ridicule and
scorn of Digger women for too long without shaping up or shipping out.
The women's movement was beginning to coalesce, and women's consciousness was forcing
everyone to reconsider sexual patterns and stereotypes. Much of the women's movement as
reported in the media, seemed ( to this observer) overly concerned with winning a fair
share of the economic pie and being compensated for the shadow labor performed in keeping
houses and husbands together than in formulating new social arrangements and relationships
where women's skills and genius would be appreciated. We were so removed from the market
place that our concerns were different. We had chosen this life, and accepted its
consequent hardships more or less good-naturedly. There was so much work to do, and so
little money to accomplish it, that everyone was forced to work like dogs if they wanted
the rewards of a free life. It was this sense of being under equal duress that protected
our households from the internecine warfare ravaging suburban homes as more and more women
understood that their lot in life was a social convention and not a pre-ordained state of
There were roles, of course, but the difference between ours and those of the majority
culture was that our roles were not the product of coercion. On the contrary, a household
of thirty people might be receiving three ADC [Aid to Dependent Children]; never much for
two people, and a laughable amount for thirty. One can imagine the difficulty in talking
one of these mother out of money for something which was less than a rock-solid necessity
and by doing so one can create a clear picture of the economic power that resided with
Survival takes work everywhere, but it seemed more interesting than stable employment
to spend half a day in a junkyard dismantling an old truck for parts; replacing something
broken with something close to new, lovingly cleaned and repainted. The investiture of
time conferred value, and for this reason many of our trucks were perfectly running
specimens, whimsically painted and impeccably cared for.
Who but a free person had time to wire brush and lovingly retrofit and re-paint each
old part they used in the reassembly of their vehicles? Craftsmanship and impeccability of
work conferred social status that felt more appropriate than status which depended on
wealth or conferred power. It was made more meaningful because such labor could only be
paid for in sweat. We were happy to live with the society's garbage, because we had the
time to recycle and repair it.
Each of family site had its own genesis, stories, and moveable feast of characters. The
folly of trying to clarify the complexity of even a small part of our history is clear to
me every time I make the attempt. Each "house" took on something of its own
character and tone, attracting consonant people. Each house had its particular
predilections and modalities of work and play.. There were common denominators however, so
perhaps the best way to express the variety of communal life, is through a specific
example, The Red House, in Forest Knolls, owned by Ron and Jay Thelin, the founders of the