Hard Lesson Learned in Sausalito
I had this job in San Francisco back in 1972. It was in a publicly funded law office, dealing only with civil cases (nothing to do with criminal sorts of cases) and it was manned by some of the best, most idealistic and powerful young attorneys in the whole country, probably in the whole world, at that time. One end of our little office building was on the main drag of San Francisco, Market Street, but the building was so situated that when you looked out of the windows on the back of the building, you were looking right over the southwest corner of the San Francisco Civic Center, not a bad view if you had to spend your time in the middle of this city. At least it had a decent view of the open sky and the few square blocks of green lawn that lay between the foot of the handsome City Hall and steps of the
huge, ancient Public Library, with it’s iconic Greek columns set into the building’s grande facade of arched windows illuminating an impressive, multi-story foyer at the library’s entrance (Today, this library building is the home the San Francisco Asian Art Museum).
Being the “died in the wool” country boy that I was, if I had to work in the big city, this was a fairly decent locale, considering the other sorry vantages that the high rise, urban “canyons” had to offer, simply a limited view of the opposite building’s windows. While I accepted this job in the heart of San Francisco, I made it an adamant point not to give in to all the demands of city living. I kept my hair as long and shaggy as it would grow (which was pretty long for my 22 years of age). While I still pretty new to swearing and vulgarity, I insisted on constantly using all of my newly acquired “hippy vernacular,” even in the most formal of meetings with my superiors. While the older, middle aged people I had to work with, scorned my obsessions outright and vehemently, the younger, 30 and 40 year old lawyers I worked with, heartily supported and protected my contrary “individualism.” For that, I was very lucky.
Even though I had to work in the core of this urban center of San Francisco, I refused to live in this disgustingly unnatural urban reality on their terms, with its sunless canyons between the coral-reef-like skyscraper buildings, so faceless and sterile. Within just a few weeks of my accepting this employment, one of the younger and more successful of the attorneys, offered me to share his house, up in Mill Valley, just a short and reasonable commute from Marin County, over the Golden Gate Bridge, to our San Francisco Civic Center headquarters. It didn’t take me long to learn to park my souped up VW near to Fisherman’s Wharf, and take the cable car over to the Civic Center, for just a quarter of a dollar. I loved the cable car ride, and should it rain, it was still a great, invigorating ride, a
nd so very cheap. Even though I was living in the metropolis I hated, life was good, and life was rich, and simple. I had it made. Or so I thought.
But still, I was a very naive and untested country boy. I had no idea what I had yet to learn.
While I comfortably and frugally moved into my new bedroom in the Mill Valley house, the house itself was still in the process of being restored and expanded by it’s new owner. I came to find out that my new landlord actually spent most of his time with his girlfriend, a well heeled and very savvy airline stewardess who occupied a swanky, new condominium across the Bay, over in Berkeley. Maybe, I encountered my landlord once or twice a month, which really wasn’t such a bad deal. I was pretty much left to my own. Not a bad deal at all.
But, as things proceeded on, I did become aware of an added level of complexity in this living arrangement. As I came to find out, the young lawyer house owner, had a rather unconventional general contractor taking care of all the renovations and repairs to this old Mill Valley landmark, on this hill above the Mount Tam Junction. You see, there was this fast talking, long haired hip guy, camping under the floor joists of my new home. He had wrinkles deep in his cheeks, and easily, he was at least fifteen or twenty years older than me. His eyes were usually pretty fuzzy, but he was always quick witted and, usually, very humorous. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this guy was usually always stoned out on weed (marijuana). I was never much of a dope smoker, so I never got real tight with this guy, but he was my landlord’s main man, when it came to the affairs of this new housing arrangement. If the landlord was over in the east bay with his girl friend, I’d give my rent to this dope smoker who lived under the house’s floor boards.
You see, there really was some sort of rational to this relationship between the dope smoker and my landlord. The dope smoker was slowly, but continually digging out the dirt below the floor joists of the main house. What he was doing, slowly, but surely, is he was secretly adding a whole new floor to the landlord’s house. You see, on this hillside in Mill Valley, there were no close neighbors, and the downward facing woods, had no view of the undersides of the old house. This dope smoker was a dope smoker, but he was also a very valid house builder, he did know what he was doing, just so long as he wasn’t too stoned. And he demanded very little recompense for his skill, he just needed enough to keep himself stoned, fat and sassy. And, guess what? My young landlord was getting a whole new floor to his house for almost nothing.
I was just a farm boy, this was all pretty new to me. I wasn’t real sure how to digest it all. What was cheating and what wasn’t cheating? What was illegal and not illegal? This was all way beyond me. I wasn’t sure how to relate to it, but I was never a stickler for laws and legal mumbo-jumbo.
Now, dig it, this was all back when hitch hiking was just very cool and legit. Indeed, I had my nasty, souped VW, that could beat most Porsches of the day, and yet, I’d park it under some trees just to hide it off Stinson Beach, and then stick out my thumb on the side of the road, just so I could meet new people. Hitch hiking in the 60s and early 70s was a great way to meet folks. Just ask Jack Kerouac, the guru of the road in those days.
Well, the deal was, the landlord’s contractor, the guy who lived under the floor joists, and me, used to walk down the two or three blocks from the lawyer’s house, to the main road on weekend nights and then we’d hitch hike the mile or two from our Mill Valley neighborhood, to the downtown of Sausalito, the super cool, jet setting hot spot north of San Francisco just after you got off the Golden Gate Bridge. This tiny, little town just had the most hip and high strung hangouts of the hip era; the Trident Restaurant, stood up on it’s piers 50 yards out in the Bay, the No Name Saloon and the town park protected by the concrete elephants. This is where you regularly met the likes of the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and Van Morrison. And of course, the infamous house boats that no one could ever account for. Sausalito of the 1960s and 1970s, was quite the place. Sausalito was quite a stunner to this young farmer guy, let me tell you, I was quite overwhelmed and so glamorously impressed.
So one weekend night, me and Mr. Under the Floor Joists contractor decided that it was a good night to hitch hike into Sausalito, and check out the cute chicks that may be floundering about in the small town’s many hot spots. Oh, yeah, by the way, it’s the first of the month. Rent was due. Well, lucky for me, I remembered the rent on this Friday night and I had this big wad of cash stuffed into one of my hip pockets. If I wasn’t going to bump into the lawyer/owner of the place, at least I could pay the rent to this stony but good natured “contractor” who took care of the lawyer/landlord’s business when the lawyer wasn’t around.
The contractor poked the rent I just paid into his Levis front pockets and we headed down the hill to “Tam Junction” to thumb a short ride into Sausalito. Tam Junction was a parting of the roads in Mill Valley, where you could choose a route to the coast by going up and over Mount Tamalpias or you might rather choose to go around the mount, via Muir Woods and into the village of Stinson Beach, with it’s calm and overly salty Bolinas Lagoon. The Junction was always a very tempting and seductive chance to forgo your real world commitments and just cut loose to head out from this Medusian, multi-headed access to the beautiful Marin Headlands when you should be so sorely worrying about getting across the red bridge and into your work-a-day world in the city of San Francisco. Everyday, when I approached the Junction, my eyes were always seeking the green to the north and west, and straying from the red bridge to the south. Sometimes I was so nearly seduced, but usually I did make it to my work, on time and in good stead, but still lingering over the wispy potential of the northern coast presented at the Tam Junction. Work might prevail, but the Tam Junction longing was never erased or extinguished. To this very day, I still suffer from it. The coastal Sirens and Medusas, so much akin to their Grecian ancestors, still weave their magic, and call to us redwood loving imps and urchins, to forgo our daily chores to explore their misty and coolly, deeply calm and quietly curious haunts. Such haunts, so private, so cool and so very secure and selfishly personal.
These are hidden places, where their coolness and dimness are tempered and turned into a glowing comfort fueled by one’s own, unique, warmth and internal glow, emanating from your curled up toes, and your interlaced fingers and your glowing, hopeful cheeks. Perhaps such a cool and musky womb is the place where we impish elves find ourselves reborn and reawakened, every now and then, renewed once more to the fine and natural world, so well balanced and calm.
It is here that I yearn to be, balanced and calm, and not consumed in the hub-bub and confusion of the work-a-day world, concerned so much with money, manipulation and destiny. But sometimes, we are so overly consumed into that world, and its money and manipulation, that the lure of the places like Tam Junction are obscured and fogged over, sorely forgotten in this murky, money making, work-a-day mist.
And so it was, on this Friday evening in the early 1970s, standing at Tam Junction with our thumbs turned out, dumbly and numbly, requesting the short ride into Sausalito, with my rent so dutifully squished into my traveling partner’s front pocket.
As hitch hiking has been illegal for quite a few years now, perhaps you aren’t aware of the hitch hiking basics, like the number one thing is that, even if you have no measure of patience whatsoever, is that you have to be patient anyway. A hundred vehicles are going to go past you without even acknowledging your existence, but, every now and then, some old, beat up, Volkswagen or an ancient Detroit big three pickup truck from the previous several decades, will slow down and pull over. You open the shot gun door and ask where the driver is going, you wearing a big, salacious smile, hoping to get anywhere down the road. The driver invites you in or doesn’t. If he does, you jump in and start the traditional tirade of obsequious but “oh-so-necessary” compliments regarding the driver’s vehicle and his exemplary driving skills. These nice things you say to the driver is called “paying your dues.”
If the driver doesn’t invite you into his car, you slam the door shut, he pulls away and you work really hard to not flip him off, as there will be several more of him before you get any further down the road. You want to save the flip offs for the real, red necked assholes who veer over only to cuss you out for being a long haired hippy and scare the hell out of you.
Anyway, so on this particular Friday night, there is a whole passel of us hitch hikers standing along Tam Junction, individuals and little clusters of folks, all leisurely soliciting rides with up-turned thumbs. Everyone was pretty successful at getting their desired rides. An older, white station wagon pulled over to me and my partner. There was a bearded fellow driving and sitting next to him were two gorgeous blonds with perfect complexions, big smiles and very long, straight hair. Through the shotgun window, the driver asked what our destination was. We said Sausalito and he motioned for us to get in. As we opened the rear door, the driver told us he was headed for the Sausalito house boats. We looked to the two blondes and they just giggled as the driver told us he was dropping them off to explore the town. They spoke almost no English. The blondes were two young Swedish beauties staying with some friends of the driver in Tiburon.
The two of us in the back seat instantly attempted to make known to these sweet young things, all the groovy places they could check out along the main drag to the little town. Of course, these were the places where we were sure we’d be that night. They nodded and grinned, not understanding any of what we were saying to them. It takes only a very minutes to the negotiate the on ramp and off ramp on Highway 1 from Tam Junction to the muddy parking area leading to the main pier where the house boats were moored in Sausalito.
Before pulling into the half-filled muddy lot holding the cars of the house boat residents, the driver let us out on Bridgeway, we still talking fast and hard to the blondes to ensure some sort connection with them later in the evening through the shotgun window. Even at this northern extreme of Bridgeway, Sausalito’s main drag, the sidewalk was filled with strolling tourists. Still waving good bye to the moving station wagon, we started to stride down the street. Being the hormone rich and very horny 22 year old male human being-hippy that I was at that time, my eyes were intent on the disappearing white car, but my legs were in a hurry to keep up with my friend. Bam, not paying enough attention, I found myself plastered onto a big, old, very rustic phone pole right in the middle of the sidewalk. My head was ringing and my knees buckled and I really did see stars. All of the pedestrians on both sides of the street were pausing and looking at me. I felt the steam coming from under my collar, and my cheeks were burning red. I took a deep breath, straightened out my legs, looked at the ground beneath my feet and caught up with the landlord’s stony contractor.
Like in the old cartoons, a huge blast of steam shot out of my collar and I avoided all the eyes amused by my very public faux pas.
The pair of us walked the length of Sausalito’s Bridgeway Avenue, meandering into nearly every bar from the north end where we got dropped off by the white station wagon, past the Corps of Engineers warehouses containing the model of San Francisco Bay and down to the more tourista end of this main drag. At the south end of Bridgeway, the road narrows and shoots straight out at the foot of the cliff on one side and the bay waters lapping close to the pavement on the other. Then it turns hard around the cliff and bumps into Second Avenue where you find the famous Valhalla Restaurant, once owned and made famous by one time, San Francisco madame, Sally Stanford.
At the part of the road that ran so very straight, between the rocky cliff face and the Bay, there is a restaurant sitting out above the bay waters on a series of piers. It’s called the Trident. In those days, the Trident was a temple to the aspirations of rich and poor hippies all over the world. It was lush, decadent, luxuriant and so full of hip icons, living and inert: rock stars, intellectuals, drug dealers and hip entrepreneurs.
This Friday evening, the Trident was our final destination. By the time we reached this straight part of Bridgeway that provided access to the Trident, my compadre was pretty messed up from his marijuana smoking back at the house, combined with all the beer and shots he consumed as we made our way to our final destination. As we found ourselves at the foot of the cliff, these was a small crowd of tourists on the sidewalk in front of us. Of course, our curiosity drew us into this group.
At the center of the little crowd was a young, black teenager crouched down, chattering away like an angry myna bird. His hands were deftly and very quickly manipulating three red backed playing cards. There were a handful of dollar bills tossed down in front of the cards. The kid was jumping the cards around, moving only these three, bowed cards but dancing each of them from one position in three card row to another position. This was a variation on the ancient shell game. I’d seen it on TV before, but I never really ever saw it in person. Not like this; this kid was good, very good. He tumbled those cards around with all the confidence and artfulness of a pro. And his chatter was just as pro as his moves. He had the crowd chuckling and sniggering and tossing down their dollars as he entertained and charmed them as dusk slowly closed in around us. He certainly had me smiling and playing close attention to his moves. This kid was very good, and he was well appreciated.
All of a sudden, my drunk, contractor friend threw down a twenty dollar bill. Everyone else had been risking single dollar bills, nothing larger. The crowd went silent and they all turned to him, was he serious? The chatter stopped for a second, the kid turned his face up and took in the visage of this elderly hip person with crossed arms, telling everyone he had figured it out. I wondered if anyone else caught the slur in his speech and the dullness in his eyes. I am not much of a public figure and I rolled my back to him a little. I hadn’t counted on this. The chatter started up again, now with a little more verve and purpose.
The contractor watched the kid manipulate the cards with intensity and a frown. The kid stopped moving the cards around, stopped, and looked up once again. The contractor pointed to a card, the kid turned it over and the contractor won. All of a sudden I got it. Now I just wanted to leave and get on down the road. The contractor now beamed a huge, drunken smile, swaggering a bit. The small crowd applauded his success, and I realized the crowd had instantly gotten bigger. The black kid, who I now guessed had taken a bus over here from the City (San Francisco) just to deal with these rich Sausalito tourists who had bucks to burn. What was happening now, was different.
The kid did another shuffle of the three cards. Once again the contractor won. Now the contractor was just very, very animated, swooning with confidence. The crowd got bigger by the second. I kept backing out of the interior of the crowd, but not loosing sight of the action. The hook was set. Anyone there, with a half a brain, knew it. I might have been a naive farm boy, but I did have a fair sense of drama and I could easily see where this going.
Night was crawling over top of us. Several more hands of play occurred, the contractor winning more than 50 per cent of the bets. Finally, sure as hell, when the pot got big enough and kid quit playing. He went in for the kill. He made a tidy little sum and the crowd started to disperse, the tension was over.
And then it happened. Yelling out, the contractor invited everyone to come back and watch a really big win. The people stopped stock still, paying close attention to the obviously affected hippy. The kid spread out his three red cards once more, and waited, not chattering at all, now. We all turned round to see what was going on.
The contractor slid his open hand into his front pocket and pulled out a roll of bills wrapped in a rubber band and threw it down in front of the hustler. He had just bet my rent money, and surely, there was no way he could win. The hustler just grinned really big. The crowd pulled back in.
I turned away and walked back up the street, retracing my steps. I couldn’t watch this.
The lawyer who owned the house forgave me that month’s rent. Still, I looked for another place to live.
I never saw the contractor again.
I never liked doing sloppy business in the first place, and after this , I refused to do it.