The Free-Fall Chronicles is a "loose" memoir of the '60's by Peter Coyote, actor and one of the earliest members of the Diggers. It is a "loose" memoir because every third or fourth chapter is about another member of the community. The book traces the experiences, the lessons and the costs of the pursuit of absolute freedom, and ponders the utility of limits. This chapter is about the Diggers' origins and one of their most famous games.
Peter has asked for feedback on these chapters.
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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. Consider the following:
[link to ComCo sheet]
At other times they were very clear and simple. Consider this response to a pronouncement by a local judge:
[link to digger sheet]
Also there was mode of sharing public vision and disseminating ideas for public colloquy as in the following example:
[link to digger sheet]
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 valve.
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 stalled traffic. [PHOTO]
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 chanted outside.
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 perceived consensus.
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 nature.
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 Digger women.
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.
[PHOTO OF JOAQUIN'S TRUCK]
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 Psychedelic Shop.